As Lovely as a Tree
by Robert Alexander of Coral, MI
Melvin pushed his chair back from the dinner table. Outside, the warm spring sun dried the soil, while the wind blew in gusts against the side of the house. From the window, Melvin could see his whole farm spread out behind the house. Only the barn and the two trees in the yard blocked his view.
“Well, here come Grandpas!” the young farmer announced to his wife. He went to open the door for his grandmother while Grandpa tied up at the hitching rack.
“We can only stay a few minutes,” said Grandpa as he took a chair by the window. “We were just coming by and thought we would stop and see how you are getting along this spring. What have you been working at?”
“Oh, this forenoon I finished plowing that sandy knoll. Next I need to plow that small triangular piece by the creek. It’s such an odd-shaped piece of ground. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth farming it at all.” A sudden gust of wind sent a dust cloud swirling high into the sky above the plowed field.
“Look at that dust cloud,” noted Grandpa. “This farm could use some trees.”
“Yes, I guess it could,” said Melvin. “I always thought I would want a good woodlot on my farm. But here the farm I ended up buying has only those two trees there in the yard.”
“You could plant some.”
“Yes, I probably could,” chuckled Melvin. “But I was reading in the farm paper yesterday that we should be using all our resources for maximum profit, leaving no land unproductive or idle.”
“That’s true, but land with trees is not idle. How many acres have you got here?”
“Eighty acres, all open,” stated Melvin.
“Would you have bought the farm if it had seventy-five acres open and five acres in bush?”
“Yes, I sure would have. And I would probably enjoy my farm that way even more than I do already,” agreed Melvin. “But I couldn’t afford to plant trees. Don’t they cost quite a bit?”
“Trees don’t cost. They pay!” Grandpa said with a smile.
“Trees that are treated like a crop produce income like a crop. And you get so much enjoyment from them while they are growing. When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, there were windbreaks planted to slow the drying winds. It seems there was a man from Nebraska back in the 1800’s that promoted tree planting on the treeless plains. He’s the one who started Arbor Day, which is still observed in the United States each spring to encourage tree planting.”
“Many of the first pioneers planted groves and windbreaks on their farms. But when I was a boy, it had pretty well gone out of fashion. People farmed more row crops and neglected their windbreaks. By the 1930’s the stage was set for the Dust Bowl – bare open fields and a few dry years. Sometimes we couldn’t see the sun for days because of blowing dust. That’s when we moved back east.”
“What would you suggest then?” asked Melvin thoughtfully.
“Well, I’d start with those odd-shaped fields along the creek. That’s good land, so plant good trees there, such as black walnut. And maybe a couple of acres of pines on that sandy knoll in the back corner.” Grandpa’s eyes twinkled.
“You’re right, Grandpa. I guess by the time you are wise enough to encourage tree planting, you’re too old to enjoy the fruits of it. But maybe if I start now, we’ll be able to use them before too many years.”
WHAT TREES TO PLANT
The choice of what trees to plant, as well as how many and where, will depend on what your objectives and interests are. Broadly speaking, tree plantings may be divided into five categories: forests, orchards, windbreaks, wildlife habitat, and shade. While each type of planting may be different from the rest, there is often a great deal of overlap between them, so one planting may serve several purposes.
Forests – When trees are planted with production of wood in mind, we are speaking of a forest, woodlot or bush. Products might include sawlogs, poles, posts, pulpwood or firewood. Conifers, such as pines and spruces, are easier to grow than hardwoods. They can better tolerate sandy soil, wind, dry weather and neglect, and are usually fast-growing and pleasant to look at. However, if you want firewood, they are inferior to most hardwoods. Well-managed pine stands can reach sawtimber size in about fifty years on a good site. Thinnings at younger ages (20-30 years) will yield small sawlogs, utility poles, posts, and fuel or pulpwood.
The best hardwoods can grow nearly as fast, but will require better soils to do it. They are much higher in value, both as sawlogs and as fuelwood. Commonly-planted species include black walnut, sugar maple, red oak, white oak and yellow poplar (tulip). (We are talking about the upper Midwest and Lake States.) Hardwoods are much more difficult to grow than conifers, requiring protection from weed competition and animals for many years. Once established, however, a well-managed hardwood bush will seed itself for future generations, and will yield the highest returns year after year.
With any type of forest planting, there may be no monetary returns for twenty years or more, and not much return for forty or fifty years. Trees are a long-term investment!
Orchards – While we usually think of orchards in terms of apples, peaches and pears, they may include any group of trees planted for a specific, special use. Any type of orchard will yield the highest and usually the quickest returns of any tree crop. The greatest income (and also the highest inputs) are from fruit trees. Depending on the size, a fruit orchard can be a full-time occupation. Standard trees are spaced at 20-30 feet apart, while dwarf trees may be as tight as 6’ x 10’. Many of the newer dwarf orchards are being established to grow on wire trellises much like grapes, and must be managed very intensively. There are almost no orchards of standard-sized trees being established today, though they do still have their strong points in terms of hardiness and suitability for organic production. Fruit trees will cost between $10 and $20 each, depending on your source, but will yield a return in a few short years.
Nut orchards are another money-maker, but it takes time to get them into production. They can be hard to establish and require a great deal of care when small. In the southern states, pecan groves are often found planted around the farm buildings. Pecans are now considered hardy quite far north. Other nut-bearing trees for our northern areas include black walnut, butternut, Carpathian (English) walnuts, chestnuts and filberts. For a solid nut orchard, 40’ x 40’ spacings are often used. The strips between the trees can be planted into row crops or cut for hay until the trees become larger. The rows could be spaced wider if desired.
Using pecans for an example, they will begin to bear at 4-7 years of age and reach top production at about twenty years. Mature trees yield about 500 pounds of nuts per tree, which is 18,000 pounds per acre. Pecans sell at up to $2.00 per pound, but we will figure them at only $1.00 per pound. This would produce $18,000 per acre per year. Not bad by anybody’s reckoning. Other nut trees in more northern areas might not yield such a high return. Trees will cost $5-10 each as seedlings, with super-producing grafted varieties selling for about $20 each. Although the cost of establishment will be higher, we have found that survival is better if larger, older stock is used.
Sugar maples are also being grown in plantations for sap production. They can be laid out for easier sap gathering, and spaced for optimum growth and production. In addition, stock can be planted from superior sugar-yielding trees. Properly managed stands can come into production in twenty years.
In some areas, trees can be grown for their seeds. High-yielding varieties are selected for planting, and the seeds produced by these genetically-superior trees are sold to nursery and reforestation companies to be grown by them for transplanting stock. In the southern states, many pine seeds are obtained from specialized seed orchards.
Windbreaks – Windbreaks are of great value in some areas and on certain types of soils. Not only does a windbreak prevent the wind from blowing the soil away, it can also increase the productivity of crops grown downwind. A windbreak controls blowing for a distance of ten times its height. In other words, if the mature height of the trees in your windbreak is 50’, the windbreaks should be spaced 500’ apart across the fields. While we tend to think of windbreaks out on the wide open plains, the larger fields found in many areas today allow the wind a great deal of sweep, too. Areas with muck soils, and vegetable and fruit production areas, often have established windbreaks. They are also desirable around farmsteads. Not only do they make life more comfortable for the farm family, but livestock gain more and produce better when not subject to high winds. Improvement can also be seen in quality as well as quantity of crops.
Species used for windbreaks will vary from area to area. Deciduous trees such as Siberian elm, hybrid poplars and willows are used. Conifers such as cedar, spruce and pine are found. Most windbreaks are made up of several rows of trees of different species. A common arrangement is cedar-poplar-white spruce rows about 10’ – 15’ apart with 8’ spacings in the row. Planting a row of evergreens in conjunction with an overgrown fencerow would accomplish the same thing.
Wildlife Habitat – While any of the above types of plantings encourage wildlife, it is sometimes desirable to plant special areas specifically for that purpose. The keys to wildlife plantings are diversity and spacing. Birds and animals like the edges of stands, so you want to create as much edge as possible. Most wildlife plantings include berry- or fruit-producing shrubs such as dogwoods, honeysuckles, crab apples, hazelnuts and viburnums. These can be planted either alone or mixed with evergreen or deciduous trees. Swampy areas not suitable for other tree planting or crop production can be used for wildlife habitat.
Shade Trees – Most of us enjoy the shade of a tall tree on a hot day. Trees in the yard attain an individual value not attained by other trees. A single tree may add several thousand dollars in value to your property. For this reason, we often put in a more costly tree, and take better care of it, here than anywhere else on the farm. Shade trees are often exotic or imported species. Be sure to select one that is long-lived and not weak or dirty in habit. Shade trees cost $10 and up.
While it is universally true that cattle and horses do not belong in a woodlot, they will also appreciate some shade on a hot day. A few trees scattered in the pasture, or a small grove for loafing, is a welcome addition to any livestock operation. Trees will need protection from the animals until they get quite large. Horses can destroy even large trees in a very short time, mostly out of boredom. It is a good idea to keep trees on the side of a fence where livestock don’t go. If they must be planted where animals graze, they can be protected by small enclosures around each tree.
Once you have decided what your objectives in tree planting are, and what species you wish to plant, you will need to get the site ready. Site preparation reduces weed competition and creates a favorable environment for the new trees. In most farm situations, you will want to plow, disc and harrow just like for other crops. If you are planting an orchard, the whole field will be worked. In a nut orchard or windbreak, you only need to work up the strips where the trees will be. Later weed control will be with harrow, riding cultivator, walking cultivator and hoe. With a strong emphasis on the hoe.
Many commercial operations use large transplanters drawn by tractors or crawlers. A large plow opens a deep furrow, and the seedlings are planted in the bottom of it. While this method is fast, it leaves ugly scars on the land which will still be very apparent after fifty years or more. In addition, these furrows make great homes for mice and rodents during the winter, even providing a supply of tree bark for their food! However, if large acreages are being planted, this may be the only practical way, especially with conifers. While this method has its disadvantages, it does control weeds which are your biggest enemy. In most areas, it is possible to hire this work done.
Seedlings are sometimes planted by hand without soil preparation. In this case, a shovel or mattock is used to scarify a patch of sod about a foot square, and the tree is planted in the middle of it. This may be the only method you can use on wet soils, steep hillsides, or in small forest openings. Large-scale plantings are often made with no site preparation and no scarification of the soil, to keep labor costs down. Tree losses will be higher, so density must be increased accordingly.
The time to plant trees is during the dormant season, when there are no leaves on the seedlings. Late fall plantings are often used, but are prone to frost heaving on heavier soils, as well as drying out during the winter when the seedling cannot obtain water. Early spring is the best time. Begin as soon as the frost is out, but not when the soil is excessively wet. (This is especially true on clay soils for the same reason we never work clay when it is wet.) If possible, avoid planting on warm, windy days, as they will dry the seedlings out.
For stocking a forest-type planting, conifers are spaced at 6’ x 6’ (1210 per acre) to 8’ x 8’ (680 per acre). Hardwoods are spaced at 10’ x 10’ minimum (435 per acre). Nut orchards at 40’ x 40’ would be about 35 trees per acre.
Planting stock is sold as either seedlings or transplants. A typical description includes two numbers separated with a hyphen. The first number indicates the number of years the tree grew as a seedling. The second number is how many years as a transplant. A 1-0 tree is a one-year-old seedling. A 2-1 tree spent two years in a seedling bed, and was then transplanted for one year, making it a three-year-old tree. Transplants are bigger, hardier, stronger – and between three and five times as expensive.
Prices for seedlings will vary widely, depending on what you want. As shown earlier, a nut tree may cost you $20, but you only need 35 trees per acre, and they are over three feet tall. A typical red pine seedling (2” – 5” tall) 2-0 might cost .70¢ in lots of 100, and only .30¢ each in lots of 1000. A red pine transplant (9” – 12” tall) 2-1 would cost about $2 each in lots of 100, and 50¢ each in lots of 1000. Hardwood seedlings are about twice as expensive as pine, in each size class, and are often unavailable as transplants. There is usually a complete range of sizes and prices to choose from, depending on your needs.
PLANTING YOUR TREES
Small seedlings will usually arrive in airtight bags which contain wet moss to keep the plants moist. Follow the directions on the bag. Taller hardwood seedlings will probably stick out of the bag at the top and will have to be handled accordingly. It is best to plant your trees immediately after arrival if possible. If not planted right away, they must be stored in a cool, shady place. If the bags are left in the sun, the plants will overheat and survivability will decrease. If planting will be delayed more than a week, it is best to remove the trees from the bag and “heel them in” by placing the roots in a shallow trench full of dirt and keeping them moist.
When it comes to a high-value tree, the old adage is, “Plant a $5 tree in a $10 hole.” The better the hole, the better the tree will do. The best way is to dig a hole with a shovel or post-hole digger. Be sure it is large enough that the roots are not crowded or curled, but are spread out in a natural position. If the soil is heavy or hard, you may want to mix it with some topsoil, sand or humus to give it better texture. (The top layer of soil from a forest is excellent to mix in, because it contains a balance of nutrients, acids and fungi that trees are already thriving on!)
Place the seedlings in the hole, keeping it at about the same depth it was at originally. Replace the dirt, being careful to pack it firmly around the roots. Air spaces touching the roots will kill them. Lastly, firm the soil around the tree with your foot. In the case of shade or orchard trees (in other words: high-value), it is a good idea to water each tree as it is planted.
If many acres need to be planted by hand, a tool called a dibble or planting bar is used. While it doesn’t do as good a job as a shovel, it is a whole lot faster. Used mostly on pines and other conifers, it’s ideal for your .30¢ seedlings. An expert planter can plant 1000 trees a day with this tool on rugged terrain. But don’t try it on your first day! A dibble can be bought ($25) or can be made by anyone who can weld. Here is the procedure for planting with a dibble:
CARE OF YOUR TREES
During at least the first summer, and probably longer, the growing trees will benefit from weeding. If the trees are planted in rows, run up the rows with a cultivator the same as you would for corn, but keep the shovels wide apart. If your plantation is “checked,” as in an orchard, you can cultivate in several directions, which only leaves a small area around each tree for manual weeding. It is, of course, most important to weed the area right around the trees, which can be done by shallow hoeing taking care not to damage the roots. The weeded distance required around each tree will vary depending on such factors as weed vigor and soil type. Naturally, higher-value trees, such as fruit or nut trees and windbreaks, deserve the most attention.
Many foresters control weeds by using certain specific herbicides, but the same results can be achieved with mechanical cultivation. We have also tried planting trees using black plastic mulch, such as is used by vegetable growers. Wood chip, straw or newspaper mulches have also been used with success, though it is a good idea to rake these back from the tree in the fall to discourage mice from taking up a homestead inches from the tender bark of your young trees. Whether you use cultivation or mulches, keep in mind that failure to control grasses, weeds and woody shrubs may result in complete failure of your plantation.
Speaking of mice, the young trees will also need protection from rodents. Mice will work down low under the cover of weeds and mulch, girdling the tree. If you don’t think there are many rabbits on your farm, try planting some trees. You’ll be surprised how much damage they can do in a few nights, especially in winter. They are crazy about any fruit trees, and most hardwoods. We have not found them to be a problem in some of the walnuts and filberts, nor on conifers, but I wouldn’t want to guarantee it. Woodchucks will also destroy trees, perhaps to maintain a clear field of vision around their dens.
Your primary tool for rodent control is plastic tree guards. They are available from any nursery supply house, and are worth their weight in gold. They are mostly used on orchard trees because the tree must be at least a couple of feet tall to use a guard. They are left on the tree until it grows too large in diameter, usually a few years. Bait stations are also used to control rodents. These are specially designed poison stations which allow access by mice, but not larger animals. They are placed throughout the plantation, and are quite effective.
Larger animals such as deer can also be a problem in some areas. In orchards, they can be kept out with electric fences. In larger plantings of seedling trees, deer will often nip the top off of nearly every hardwood. It is sometimes necessary to protect trees with wire mesh cages until they get larger. It goes without saying that cattle and horses (and goats even more so!) do not belong where young trees are trying to grow.
During the first year, it may be necessary to provide young trees with water during dry weather. It is better to water deeply and less often, than to tease the plants with shallow drinks which cause their roots to remain close to the surface. I recall hearing the story of a salesman who came around selling some special fertilizer for trees. Although it looked like common food coloring, it was supposed to be very powerful – and guaranteed to work. The directions were simple: mix a few drops of the fertilizer in a gallon of water and give it to each tree daily. Trees really grew on the program, though it may have had more to do with the gallons than the drops!
Most foresters and nurserymen do not fertilize seedlings or transplants the first year because of their poorly-developed root systems. But for the next several years a light application of fertilizer (perhaps 1?4 pound of 12-12-12) placed not closer than 6” to each seedling will help them get a good start. Fruit and nut trees are fertilized each year when they are in production. In our area, fresh or slightly composted manure is often heaped up around fruit trees, grape vines and berry bushes, with amazing results. Although most books will not recommend this practice because of the possibility of burning the plant, it certainly seems to work in our neighborhood. A word of caution though – we killed a number of nut trees with the same compost that fruit trees thrive on!
In case you are wondering, Melvin just finished his tree planting project. After getting some red pine and spruce from the Soil Conservation District spring sale, he had his nephews help plant them on that two-acre sandy knoll at the back of the farm. He put in another two acres of prime hardwoods and some wildlife cover on the irregular curves and corners along the creek. Now his fields are nice and square. And, oh yes, he put in an acre of nut trees between the house and the line fence. He thought it would make a great retirement project!