Grants helping Irons Oaks maintain its oak population

  The sturdy oak will get
  special attention thanks
  to two grants awarded
  to the Homewood-
  Flossmoor Park District.

  (Provided photo)
The grove of stately oak trees at Irons Oaks will get special attention thanks to two grants awarded to the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District.
At Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center, the stately oaks are between 100 and 200 years old. They are used as anchors for the park district’s high ropes course, and they add much to the environment in the wooded southwest corner of Vollmer Road and Western Avenue.
But like all living plants, the trees need tender loving care, and the acres at the learning center need replenishment, explained H-F Park District’s Cheryl Vargo, director of the center.  In addition to grant money, Irons Oaks also needs volunteers willing to pitch in and clear areas to plant and help oaks thrive.
“We are in a section called remnant oaks. They were always here,” Vargo said. The area was never developed for housing. It stretches from Olympia Fields Country Club through Irons Oaks. A second area starts at Flossmoor Country Club and out through the Thorn Creek preserves.
But Irons Oaks staff has come to recognize that the next generation of the oak is missing.
Com Ed and Openlands awarded Irons Oaks a $10,000 grant as part of the Green Region Program that will allow the park district to plant a new crop of oaks. The grant funds require a pollinator project, and Vargo said the oak forest is a perfect example of a pollinator area because “oak trees are one of the biggest supporters of pollinator insects. When oaks flower, they support hundreds of species.”
“We know we’re not planting these oak trees for our generation,” Vargo said. “We’re planting them for the next generation.”
The big stately oaks will die off. The trees have a natural aging process, but they also are being affected by climate changes, Vargo explained, and the rain patterns have changed from gentle rains to flooding conditions that stress a tree “and make it prone to disease and weakened roots.”
In spring 2019, Vargo will use the ComEd and Openlands grant to purchase predominately white, red and bur oak trees and hire a contractor to do the plantings. The predominate tree at Irons Oaks is the bur oak, with lots of white, red, pin and overcup oaks scattered throughout.    
The second grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation was awarded to the Irons Oaks Foundation to restore woodlands. If the Irons Oaks group can raise $7,000 by October 2019, the grant has a 3-to-1 match, so the grant could be worth $21,000. If it surpasses the $7,000 mark, the extra funding stays in the oak planting project fund.
The grant has three action steps: 1) Prescribed burn for invasive species, 2) volunteer recruitment and training, 3) Planting young oak trees.
And, if the park district can get volunteers to give 400 hours, the grant includes another $4,000.  Vargo said groups and individuals are welcome to volunteer.
Volunteers can join a stewardship team that will help prepare the ground this fall for planting in the spring. Vargo said honeysuckle and bucktorn, two invasive species of plants, need to be cleaned out.
Once areas are cleared, volunteers will be planting new growth oaks smaller in size than the ones the park district will purchase in spring 2019.  Irons Oaks volunteers will use protective collars around the young oaks to keep them safe from the deer population, and they will help maintain a scheduled watering program.
The Irons Oaks Foundation is selling mum plants for $10 as part of its fundraising efforts. Pre-orders can be placed by mid-September. For additional information, check the H-F park district website at

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