Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Planting for long-term health- like the red oak on Payne

Red oak trees of this size, as seen in the picture on the left, are not the most common shade providers within St. Paul, Minnesota- at least not as the centerpiece of an urban landscape. The reason for this is that workers and machinery very often damage them during home construction, or there may be stem-girdling roots from initial planting, etc. However, trees of this size in “older” communities like St. Paul are more common in parks, open green spaces or within mini urban woods.

However, how did this tree grow to 38” DBH and tens and tens of feet tall in East St. Paul, while being located in a front yard with a house 15 feet away and a road 10 feet in the opposite direction?

My interest in the history of this specific red oak tree began when we had it removed from our front lawn this February :(. This giant of a tree was taken down for reasons of decay and danger (I’ll leave it at that) and took with it a majestic presence in our neighborhood. We distributed the wood to several people for firewood purposes, saved some for ourselves, had the tree company chip the twigs for us to use as mulch and left the stump so that our ‘chicken of the woods’ mushroom could still be harvested (anxiously awaiting to see if this tactic will work for getting more mushrooms in the future. Picture at left shows the beautiful mushroom from the crop of '09). Anyway, with the stump remaining I was able to look at the growth rings and counted ~125 years of growth. A red oak tree that was 125 years old we just had removed!?!? A tree that has been growing and gracing our avenue for 125 years is now pieced in firewood piles and naturally decomposing in our mulch beds. But one would think, a tree that old, has to have some stories and I wanted to discover some of those secrets.

Our neighbors so graciously shared with me their Abstract of Title that actually specifies the quadrant of land our house resides in. According to this abstract, John Wilson purchased 80 acres, the W ½ NE ¼ Sec 20 T29 R22 in 1850. If you’ve ever read an Abstract of Title you know the legal land verbiage that is used and can possibly understand how I had a hard time understanding what went on here. But I do know this: the 1/8th then became a 1/16th by 1869 and was further subdivided in 1886 by a Egbert G. Handy, which just so happens to be nearly the exact time of our red oak seed germination!

But back to the land- I wasn’t able to decipher if the current residential lots were established in 1886 so each current lot just sat empty until someone built on it, or if this particular lot was an extension of our neighbor’s house. Knowing that would help to clarify the origin of this particular tree. Either way, our house was built in 1955, which obviously means that the people who built this

house, did not plant this tree. When this house was built, the craftsmen intentionally identified this tree as worthy of its landscape value and let it continue to exist. Of course, by the time this house was built the tree was already at least 70 years old, which means it already did have a sizeable diameter so could have been easily appreciated and valued.

At the other end of the block is another 39” DBH white oak that is still standing and hasn’t been increment bored but we will assume it is from the same era ~1880’s. In the middle of these two trees is a house that was built in 1892: our neighbor’s house.

Okay, so some answers are solved and some of the stage has been set but really this tree’s early history will remain a mystery.

Now a question is this: did Egbert G. Handy have these trees planted from nursery stock, transplant naturally grown trees or are these seed germinated trees that sprouted and survived? Did Egbert have these trees planted because he knew that someday they’d be in plots of homesteads? That question does seem a little funny…I mean really, how many trees were planted that were nursery grown in the 1880’s? Well, we do know that at least elm species were planted from nursery grown stock in the early 20th century based on the historical research done by Chad Giblin for his book, “Pruning young elms.” But what about red and white oaks that were planted at least 20 years earlier?

Because this is only a blog post and not a research paper, I’m going to just admit that I can only speculate, make assumptions, and continue with my pastoral idealism to come to this conclusion: these trees began their lives when planted by a chubby little squirrel in the 1880’s. They grew up among several other siblings but for some reason, they were identified as notable trees that were valuable enough to leave and build houses and roads around.

It’s worth noting in this assumption of mine, that because these trees were more than likely planted by squirrels- without the root pruning, container encircling, stem buried root ball- the tree was able to e

stablish itself with a “normal” root system that then allowed its life to be extended and last until the ripe old age of 125 years. I do want to point out that if this tree was not so close to our house but in the forest, we can speculate that it would have continued to survive for probably another at least another 100 years.

Doing mini research for this article has been a lot of fun in that I’ve been able to imagine what this area looked like prior to its subdivision in 1886. But I can’t forget the main message and why I began this search- we removed a ~125 year old red oak!

I would like nothing more than to replace what I took down- a 125 year old tree. In order to do that I need to put into action the steps that are necessary to establish a tree that can live through its maturity without having the early demise that most urban planted trees have.

There are several reasons urban trees don’t live to their natural age. But again, because this is not an arboriculture paper, I’m just going to focus on planting and planting for long term health, which includes a healthy root system. There are certain things you can do to get your tree growing with a “normal” and “proper” root system that does not include girdling, twisting or distorted roots. Alternatively, you can do it the easy way, do not plant a containerized or balled and burlapped tree uprooted from the nursery. Instead mimic nature or squirrels: plant a bareroot whip or seed- plants that don’t have 90% of their root system removed during the transplanting process from a nursery. You can make the process of transplant shock non-existent by planting a seed and almost non-existent by planting bareroot.

Is planting a seed or bareroot whip for long-term health advisable? In St. Paul, rabbits are a huge problem and would nip the emerging leaves and stem every year. Is there a way that damage can be prevented? One way trees can get off to a healthy start by being planted bareroot or seeded is by protecting them with treeshelters (tree tubes). Tree tubes offer the benefit of acting as a mini-greenhouse while protecting the buds and stem from rabbits until the trees are large enough to be beyond the rabbit browse line, even if we do get a lot of snow!

Using tree tubes is the best way I’m going to get established a tree- bareroot or seeded- that has a functional root system that will carry the tree into maturity for a long life. This planting strategy and planting materials is the most guaranteed effort for accomplishing my goal of replacing the 125 year old red oak I so shamefully had removed.

I'll find these tree shelters at plantra.com

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Treeshelters & Winter Die Back: That Was Then, This Is Now

This 1997 research study appears prominently in web searches for treeshelters. The conclusions reached by Doug Lantagne and Raymond Miller at that time and on that study site were that solid wall treeshelters did not increase height growth and were not successful in helping to regenerate red oak. Naturally, we are often asked about this study and others like it.

Our answer often surprises the questioner: They were right. And then we elaborate: They were right then, but they wouldn't be right today due to the dramatic changes and improvements in treeshelter (tree tube) design.

The Lantagne/Miller paper was the result of six years of testing, meaning that the seedlings were planted and treeshelters were applied either in 1990 or 1991. Keep in mind that the first treeshelters were imported to the USA from the UK only in 1988, and were commercially available only in 1989. These were early days.

The researchers - and everyone using treeshelters back then - were using a product that,
1) Clearly had fantastic potential to solve several problems limiting the success of hardwood regeneration, especially deer browse, weed control (by shielding seedlings from herbicide spray, not to mention clearly marking seedling location amidst the brush), and moisture/drought stress
2) In retrospect were perfectly suited to the moderate, maritime climate of the United Kingdom, but were ill suited in several important respects for the climatic extremes of North America. The moderate climate of the UK was very forgiving on treeshelter design characteristics that our more extreme climate later exposed as design flaws.

The two most important design changes during that period of time have been: Recognizing the importance of tube diameter in promoting thicker stems and balanced root/shoot ratio, and the revolutionary introduction of ventilation. Both topics are covered in more detail here and here.

In the early days of treeshelter use in the USA reports of initial growth acceleration followed by a period of slow growth that allowed un-tubed trees to catch up were common. Why was this? Ironically, it was not until treeshelters were adapted on a large scale for use in commercial vineyards (and were re-dubbed "grow tubes") that we had to controlled & uniform growing conditions necessary to learn the answer: Diameter. In small diameter tubes (and those early treeshelters came in nested groups where the diameter of the inside tubes was too small) the leaves shade each other and the stem to a much larger degree. This in turn triggers a "shade avoidance" growth response in the tree - it shoots upward for light, but invests little growth energy in thickening its stem or developing roots. Upon emergence from the tube and exposure to full sun and wind, the tree then slows or even halts height growth while it reallocates growth energy into stem thickness and root growth... thus allowing un-tubed trees to catch up (provided they hadn't been eaten by deer!).

Plantra Tree Tubes have a much larger diameter - 3.9 inches - than the average diameter of those early treeshelters. The result: Much more balanced growth while inside the tube, so there's no need for the "rebalancing" period upon emerging from the tubes. Growth builds on growth, and there's no chance for un-tubed trees to catch up.

The Michigan State researchers mention winter die back as the main reason un-tubed trees caught up to or surpassed those in solid wall treeshelters, and they were right. This was a real problem throughout the 1990's with solid wall treeshelters. After a summer of rapid growth hardwood seedlings in those early solid wall treeshelters would simply keep right on growing deep into the autumn; they did not get the moisture (drying) and temperature signals they need to initiate dormancy. They were the forestry equivalent of hothouse orchids. Consequently when the first killing frosts of autumn came these trees often suffered significant die back from the tip down. It was better than getting eaten by deer, and eventually the trees would re-sprout and emerge from the tubes early enough in the growing season to properly harden off for winter, but it was far from ideal.

The introduction of the vented treeshelter has solved this. Ventilation has several benefits - increased stem thickness, increased rate of CO2 exchange for optimal growth - but the most immediate and dramatic was the virtual elimination of winter die back of hardwood seedlings in treeshelters. Ventilation equalizes temperatures in & out of the tubes. And while the seedling still enjoys the moisture-stress reducing benefits of wind protection, vented tubes don't create the hothouse climate that leaves seedlings exposed to frost damage.

Since we introduced our Plantra Vented Tree Tubes we have not received a single phone call or email regarding winter die back. It is simply a thing of the past.

Researchers like Lantagne and Miller perform an extremely important role, testing new ideas and casting a spotlight on their shortcomings. This was a very important piece of research, one report among many that caused and encourage those of us who have been involved with treeshelters since the beginning to question long-held assumptions about treeshelter design and performance and try new ideas like ventilation that were once considered to be heresy among treeshelter makers.

The result: A Plantra Tree Tube design that is ideally suited to both hot and cold temperature extremes of North America... with more advancements on the way.

Lantagne and Miller were right about tree tubes at that time, but that was then and this is now!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trucks are Tree Tubes Too!

"Perhaps one in a billion seeds becomes a mature tree." Dr. Edward F. Gilman

So what does that have to do with an ugly boxelder tree growing through the rotted out floor of a Dodge pickup truck? Glad you asked.
The first sentence in Dr. Edward Gilman's brilliant article Roots of change for the better has the "billion to one-shot" claim for a seed. He goes on to list many of the hurdles a tree seed faces trying to get established. We seel product to overcome those problems at www.plantra.com. With this post I want to talk about where that billionth seed must grow to become a tree.

Seeds are tasty and need protection from herbivores. Seedlings are delicate and also need shelter from drying winds and intense sunlight. Some of the problems a seedling faces include rodents, rabbits, deer, wind, and drought. A tree seedling needs enough sunlight for photosynthesis but it cannot compete out in the open for water and sun with grasses and weeds.
Where can a poor defenseless seed find a place in nature to germinate that provides all that protection to overcome the billion to one odds? This magical or miracle location must be free of seed eating animals, protected from rabbits and deer, partially shaded against the drying sun, and not have competing weeds. Now we know why trees play the odds and produce so many seeds.

My two favorite examples are rock crevices and the brushy tops of fallen trees. Hard to imagine those two environments have anything in common, but both have the potential under ideal weather conditions to protect and nurture a seed.

A seed in a rock crevice is partially shaded and has all the moisture in the crevice for itself. What about rodents? Well, voles and mice will not leave the cover of weeds. Why? Because rodents fear death from above brought by raptors. While there might be some weeds in the rock crevice, a thin line of grass does not provide attractive cover for rodents. So hard as it is to believe, a crack in a rock can be a great place for a tree to start life. Took the picture below last spring in Colorado outside of Estes Park. And yes that tree is growing straight out of a rock - as were many others in the area.

Why is a fallen tree top a great place for a seedling? Remember we are talking billion to one shot odds, so it is OK to line up the coincidences.

Many seeds need contact with mineral soil or bare dirt to germinate. What better way to scrape away some leaf duff on the forest floor than branches crashing to the ground? Big animals such as deer cannot penetrate the dense mass of compressed branches protecting our new seedling.

Voles are likely to seek the raptor free shelter of a fallen tree, so how do our fortunate seed and seedling survive? Good shelter is hard to find and our lucky brush pile is also home to a family of snakes, or skunks if you prefer. We don't have to kill all the rodents to grow a tree. We just have to give them a good reason to go elsewhere. Snakes are a great reason for mice to go elsewhere and snakes don't eat trees.

What about weeds? A forest floor has inches of natural mulch to block weeds. Our tree seed is in a small spot where the mulch was scraped away. It will take a while for the small forbs to get through the duff (mulch) and catch up to the larger tree seedling.

Underneath the truck bed it is weed free, protected from drying sun and wind. The seed germinates and the radicle grows directly into mineral soil. The truck bed provides cover for a carnivore that keeps the rodents away. There is a small gap in the rotting floor boards. The light seeking apical meristem pours all the available energy into growing through that gap and into the sunlight. It still has to get past the deer. Our fortunate seedling is protected by the structure of the pickup bed.

While keeping four hooves on the ground the deer mouth can only reach so far in and our box elder is just out of reach. Now if box elder was something the deer really wanted or the deer was starving the it could jump right up in the pickup bed. Fortunately box elder is mostly unwanted by man and deer - so it thrives.

Below is a copy of our Stages Of Seedling Establishment available on our website at the link. It is amazing to me how a crack in a rock, an abandoned Dodge pickup truck, a brush pile and a tree tube all provide the nurturing micro-environment a seed needs to overcome the nearly insurmountable odds to become an established tree.