Section 08: Nature & the Environment

If you're interested in what tree planting is all about, or you've been offered a job as a planter, this forum will give you a great head start on learning the ropes.
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Section 08: Nature & the Environment

Post by Scooter » Fri Feb 13, 2015 4:39 pm

One of the best parts of tree planting is getting to spend time outdoors, enjoying the benefits of health and of some amazing scenery. You’ll become more aware of plants, flowers, animals, and birds. Of course, working outdoors is not always good. You’ll have to deal with weather and temperature extremes, insects, and other challenges. In this section, we’ll take a very quick look at some things you might see or experience on your blocks.

Upgraded video, released in 2017


We’ve covered weather already in the section about hazards and safety, so we won’t get into too much detail here. However, weather and temperature are definitely related to the environment. You’ve already heard the warnings about being prepared for weather extremes, and how to minimize the chances of hypothermia or heat stroke. We can’t reiterate this enough: make sure you’re always prepared. If you’re smart, you’ll always have good rain gear and extra dry clothing packed in a waterproof bag, and you’ll always have lots of water on hot days.

Also, it’s important to recognize that inhospitable weather is part of the job. We work in rain. We sometimes work in light snow, if the ground isn’t covered. We work in winds, unless there’s a danger of trees toppling onto planters. Probably at least a quarter of your work days will be spent in miserable weather. You can’t afford to sit down and sulk, and wait it out. You need to realize that you can make money in the rain, and you’re going to have to get used to working in it, even though it’s harder on morale.

Rain unfortunately also slows planting down for other reasons than just the fact that it can be depressing. Access issues can be a problem in heavy rains, as muddier roads become dangerous or impassible. Drivers need to slow down on wet roads. Trucks may get stuck if drivers try to push too far into blocks without a solid road foundation. Sometimes, it’s better to park the truck close to the block and walk the last few hundred meters. You don’t want to get the truck stuck in bad puddles at the entrance to the block because you were too lazy to walk the last few hundred meters, and then have some sort of emergency and not be able to evacuate to medical aid.

Most planters don’t pay a lot of attention to the weather, other than to try to guess if it’s going to rain. But the weather is an amazingly complex topic, far more complex than we’ll go into here. However, I’ll leave you with a few interesting facts:
- Low pressure systems usually result when warm air rises, lowering the atmospheric pressure on the rest of the air. Low pressure systems usually feature precipitation, unlike high pressure systems which are usually nice weather.
- Wind always circles counter-clockwise and inwards around a low pressure system in BC, when viewed from above. Wind around a high pressure system always blows clockwise and outward.
- If you’re standing with a steady wind at your back in BC, the low pressure system (and the area most likely to have rain) is therefore always on your left side.
- There are ten major categories of clouds, and many variations on these ten basic groups, but only three of the cloud groups commonly produce precipitation.
- Thunderstorms commonly occur because as the day progresses, the sun heats up the ground, causing air to rise and causing a low pressure system to form. That’s why in some places, thunderstorms tend to happen at roughly the same time every afternoon.
- Helicopters can fly better when the air pressure is more dense. Therefore, helicopters fly better at lower altitudes. Helicopters have a harder time when the temperature increases, because air rises and becomes less dense. And finally, air saturated with water is surprisingly less dense than unsaturated air (this relates to molecular weights), so it’s harder for a helicopter to create lift on a muggy day than on a dry day. In other words, four things that are challenges for helicopters all start with H: heavy loads, high altitudes, hot temperatures, and humid air.
- Between the start of your spring season and June 21st, sunrise happens about ten minutes earlier each week, and sunset happens about ten minutes later per week. So in the six weeks leading up to June 21st, the days grow two hours longer - an extra hour of daylight in the morning, and an extra hour in the evening. After June 21st, the days start growing shorter and the opposite is true.

Determining Direction from the Sun

If you don't have a map or compass or GPS to help you, and it's a reasonably sunny day, and you know the approximate time of day, you can quickly point out approximately where north, south, east, and west are. This may seem like magic, but it's not!

We all know that the sun always rises in the east. If you're in the northern hemisphere, which includes all of British Columbia, then the sun is always approximately due south at noon. There will be a slight error, especially closest to June 21st, which is related to seasonal precession and the tilting of the Earth’s axis. However, your estimate will be quite close, within about twenty degrees at worst. So let's assume that you're on a block, and you can see where the sun is. If you know that it's approximately noon, then you can point at the sun and say that that direction is due south. Knowing that, you can figure out north (behind you), east (to your left), and west (to your right).

Let's say that it's not noon. Let's assume that it's mid-morning. In the northern hemisphere, the sun always moves from left to right throughout the day. So if it's not noon yet, you can look a bit to the right of where the sun is right now to make a guess of where it'll be at noon. You can call that direction south.

If it's after lunch, then the sun will have already passed the mid-point of the sky. Look to the left of the sun, and make an estimate of where it was a few hours ago, at noon. You'll be able to point that direction out as due south.

Figuring out approximate directions is pretty easy if you can see the sun and if you know approximately what time of day it is, and you'll usually be within ten or twenty degrees of being correct once you practice a bit.


You’ll quickly learn that there are hundreds of types of grass, brush, and other vegetation that you’ll encounter. Most vegetation is fairly benign, and you won’t need to be able to identify very many types of plants, but a few are good to know. After a few years of experience, you’ll come to understand the seasonal progression, from relatively brown and barren blocks in early May, to thick green blocks covered in grass and other vegetation in July.

Grasses are usually annoying to planters. Grass roots are fairly strong, so if you’re planting in areas with thick grass, the sod is going to be a problem if you need to screef down through the root mat. If this is the case, consider using your shovel to screef, instead of your boot. If you turn the shovel sideways as you’re screefing, you might be able to slice up the sod and remove it with less effort.

Devil’s Club is a thorny plant that you won’t want to run into. This plant is found more commonly near the end of the season, and it usually grows in moist, shaded areas on blocks, where it can root in black organics. The stalks are very easy to identify from a distance, as they’re one to two centimeters thick, and can occasionally grow to be as tall as a planter. When they’re still alive, they’ll have huge broad green leaves, but even after the plant dies, the dry stalk retains its thorns for a while. You’ll mostly run into devil’s club in gullies and along block edges. Luckily, it’s so visible that it’s usually fairly easy to avoid.

Stingy Nettles are a lot worse than Devil’s Club. The thorns on stingy nettles are very small and soft, almost like hair. However, they release a chemical when you brush up against them, and this chemical causes a really intense itch in most people, which can last for a day or two. You might not even notice immediately when you brush up against nettles, but within a few minutes, you’ll start getting itchy wherever your bare skin came into contact with the plant. As hard as it is, try not to scratch or rub the itch, because that drives the chemicals deeper into your skin and makes the reaction worse. Not everyone is affected by stingy nettles, but most people are, and being wet or sweaty often seems to make the reaction worse. If you take anti-histamines, that might help reduce your urge to scratch. There’s no real antidote or cure, except to wait a few hours or days for the itching to go away. Unfortunately, stingy nettles are very hard to see. They’re usually less than waist height, and look like very thin bare stalks, and several other types of vegetation look very similar. You won’t run into them frequently in the spring, but they start to become more common in July in some areas. Stingy nettles usually grow on black organics or soft, rich mineral soil.

You’ll see a lot of types of moss, especially any time that the ground becomes more moist or shaded. If you ignore taxonomic classification and go with slang terms, there are two broad groups of moss in BC: feather moss, and sphagnum. Feather mosses are types of boreal forest moss that usually have features that look like small tree branches or feathers. Sphagnum mosses are types of peat mosses, and often have star-like patterns. The difference is that feather moss can survive in fairly dry conditions, whereas sphagnum needs constant moisture to survive. Foresters will often allow you to plant trees in sphagnum moss, knowing that the ground will retain moisture even in dry months. You’ll usually be allowed to plant the plug right into the moss rather than having to screef it away. Feather moss, however, usually isn’t an acceptable planting medium, and you sometimes have to remove it and get down to dirt or organics below.

As the spring turns into July, you may start seeing several types of berries. You might see small strawberries hidden on the ground. Don’t eat berries unless you’re sure of what they are, since several types of berries are mildly toxic, and can cause stomach aches or even vomiting. In late July, you may start running into raspberries on a lot of blocks. Raspberries are quite safe to eat, although they’re a bit thorny to work through. In mid-August, you may start seeing a lot of blueberries low to the ground, and Saskatoons (juneberries) on taller plants. Both of these are safe to eat. You may also occasionally see blackberries, huckleberries, and salmonberries. Pay attention to your surroundings, because bears are often attracted to areas with large amounts of berries.

Fireweed is a common plant, which appears in July. It grows quite quickly, covering blocks with stems that are three to four feet high, covered in pinkish or purplish flowers. The only real drawback to fireweed, aside from it getting to be fairly thick at times, is that later in the summer the flowers die and turn to a cottony dander which floats around in the wind and gets into your eyes, nose, and mouth.

There are several benign types of plants that don’t really affect planters, but which you’ll see and learn to recognize, such as cow parsnip, licorice ferns, fiddleheads, and wild ginger. You can google each of them to learn more.

You’ll also eventually learn to recognize a number of different types of common flowers, such as: dandelions, wild roses, daisies, black-eyed susans, arnica, thimbleberry, trillium, camas, larkspur, buttercup, clover, violets, yarrow, skunk cabbage, tiger lily, and devil’s paintbrush.

Salal is a plant that most first-year planters won’t encounter, but which is important to coastal planters. Salal has thick, waxy leaves, and cedar is about the only conifer that thrives in salal patches. You’ve probably seen salal leaves before, because they’re commonly used around the world in floral arrangements. Salal berries are quite edible, although you probably won’t see them until the fall.

Labrador tea is an annoying flower, because it has very tough roots that are hard to plant into.

There are dozens of types of mushrooms that you might find on the blocks. Many are edible, such as black morels, but there are a few types that will make you moderately or severely sick. If you’re interested in mushrooms, it’s a good idea to buy a guide book, just because there are so many unique varieties.

Poison oak and poison ivy are less recognizable. Luckily, they’re also not common on planting blocks. You might very occasionally see them along the edges of blocks, in shaded areas. If you brush up against them, the chemical toxins on these plants can give you some very bad rashes. Luckily, it’s quite rare for planters to come into contact with either of these plants.

Giant hogweed is another plant to avoid, because it is completely covered in a sap that is fairly toxic and causes significant rashes, blisters, or other longer-term problems. WorkSafe BC has even issued alerts about giant hogweed. However, giant hogweed can be easily confused with cow parsnip, which doesn’t have toxic sap.

Don’t eat plants unless you’re absolutely positive about their identification. Several common plants in BC are quite poisonous, such as false hellebore.


Many of the larger animals were covered in the section about hazards and safety, so we’ll try not to repeat anything.

You may see both grizzly bears and black bears on your blocks. Black bears are far more common. Each type of bear has some specific identifying characteristics, such as the shape of their face, or the shape of their back. However, you shouldn’t use their size or the color of their fur as a reliable means to differentiate between the species. Grizzlies and black bears sometimes react different to the presence of humans. It’s important for planters to watch a Bear Aware video to get a better understanding of the differences between these two species.

Ungulates is a term that is used to encompass most of Canada’s larger four-legged animals. Some of these animals may look cute, but they can be dangerous if they become aggressive, especially in the presence of young animals or during rutting season. Almost everyone knows what a moose looks like. There are generally two types of deer in Canada: mule deer, and white-tails. The mule deer has almost no obvious tail, and usually hops when it runs. The black-tail deer is a subspecies of mule deer. The white-tail deer, on the other hand, has a more conventional four-legged way of running, and when they are nervous, their white tail stands up like a warning flag. Elk are very large animals that are close to the size of a moose, and are most frequently seen near Jasper, or in a few other locations throughout BC. Caribou look similar to elk, but they’re usually only about half the size, or slightly larger than a mature deer. Caribou, like elk, are not seen as frequently as moose or deer. Finally, you may run into feral horses in many parts of BC.

There are three main types of wild cats in BC. Cougars, also known as mountain lions, are the largest. The largest cougars can weigh 200 pounds or more, and could potentially be fairly dangerous. However, they’re also very reclusive, and most planters will never see a cougar in their career. Bobcats and lynx are much more common, and they’re also much smaller and haven’t been noted as being dangerous to planters. These two cats are also easy to confuse. Bobcats look fairly similar to a large house cat, and have striped bands on their tails. Lynx have crazy-looking faces, with big tufts of fur that you don’t see on household cats, and they don’t have stripes on their tails. The bobcat is more commonly found in southeastern BC, whereas the lynx is common in most parts of the province except for coastal areas.

There are very few smaller animals that could theoretically pose a danger to planters. You might get sprayed by a skunk, or get poked by quills if you run into a porcupine, but we rarely see either of these animals, and I’ve never heard of a planter being harmed by either. Wolverines are another exceptionally fierce animal, but few planters will ever see a wolverine, and I’ve certainly never heard of a planter being attacked by one.

Of course, there are also many benign small animals. You’ll probably see many rabbits, hares, mice, moles, voles, squirrels, rats, gophers, beavers, and other small animals during your career. None of them should be immediately dangerous to planters, although several of these animals can carry various diseases, and mice are especially dirty little animals.


A lot of birds nest on the ground in the blocks that you’ll be planting, so don’t be surprised to frequently discover small nests with eggs. Looking above you, you’ll often see various types of larger predatory birds, including bald eagles, golden eagles, goshawks, falcons, and a dozen different types of hawks. Sometimes, you’ll even see owls.

Probably the only birds that planters need to be wary of are crows and ravens. This is because these birds can be mischievous and troublesome, and will tear apart garbage boxes and steal lunches from caches. These birds are incredibly intelligent. I’ve seen them open zippers and undo clasps that planters even have problems unfastening, and they’ll often open up day-bags to pull out food. It’s sometimes a bit tricky to distinguish between the two species. Ravens are usually larger. If you see them flying overhead, ravens have four “fingers” of feather at the tip of each wing, whereas crows have five fingers. However, the most obvious difference is their voice. American crows make a higher-pitched sharp “caw” sound, whereas ravens have a deeper, hoarse croak. Finally, crows have a fairly smooth fan-shaped tail, while ravens have more of pointed V-shaped tail.

Here's an audio version of this section of the tutorial series:


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