Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I wonder how fast they would have grown in a good year?

Joe and I just made a visit to Ottertail Cty, MN that closed the book on another great year of collaboration with Babe Winkelman, host of Good Fishing and Outdoor Secrets and - just as importantly in Babe's mind - steward of a property he is working (man, is he working!) to enhance for wildlife and pass down to his children & grandchildren.

Working with Babe, his wife Kris and his staff has been one of the real highlights of Plantra's history.

Plantra Tree Tubes were recently featured on an episode of Outdoor Secrets. To view the video, Click Here.

We have actually undertaken 4 projects at Babe's ranch. Keep in mind that Ottertail Cty, MN - despite its 1100+ lakes (yes, that's more than 1000 lakes in a single county!) is generally dry & windy; it's right on the edge of where the hardwood forest meets the prairie, which means it's right on the line to the west of which annual evaporative potential exceeds rainfall - especially in recent years.

1) Planting 1500 new crabapple seedlings in 4 soft mast "overhead food plots." In May 2008 seedlings (bare root 1-0 planting stock, 6 to 12 inches tall at planting time) were machine planted by the local conservation district. Six foot wide woven weed barrier fabric was installed by machine over the seedlings. We then installed 5 foot Plantra O-style Vented Tree Tubes on all of the seedlings.

So now the trees have 2 growing seasons under their belt. Recently the staff of the local NRCS office toured the ranch. They took this photo (click to enlarge).

The gentleman in the photo is more than 6ft tall... which puts these 17 month old crabapples at 8-10 feet in height. And as you can see, that level of growth is consistent throughout the food plot.

Survival? As of last count fewer than 30 trees out of those 1500 have been replaced, a survival rate of 98% under tough, windy conditions.

2) Rejuvenating a failed hedgerow of Nanking cherry, American plum and assorted other fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees. Over the course of 6 years Babe has planted more than a mile of hedgerow to provide food, cover and edge effect/travel corridors for wildlife. I should say he planted, replanted, and replanted again. After 5 years Babe had nothing to show for his efforts - at least at first glance. He pointed to the hedgerows and all you could see was 2ft tall grass. A closer look revealed hundreds - thousands - of surviving seedlings that had been kept mowed in bonsai fashion to about ankle or shin height. Babe was stuck. You couldn't see where the seedlings were so you couldn't mow or spray around them. And without protection they would never grow past the browse line.

In late May, 2008 we selected a 3/8 mile section of the hedgerow to start with. 4 foot Plantra O-style Vented Tree Tubes were applied. We have a saying at Plantra: "As long as you have a root system, you have a tree." These trees had root systems that were 3, 4 and 5 years old, a huge amount of growth potential just waiting to be unleashed... and man was it unleashed!

The first plants started emerging from the 4ft tubes on June 25 - just 5 weeks later! Here's what the hedgerow looked like as of July 3, 2009 (click photo to enlarge). After a cool July but a somewhat warmer August, the trees are even bigger now.

It's obvious how the Plantra Tree Tubes protected the trees from deer browse, and how they shielded the plants from the drying effects of the wind to keep them actively growing when un-tubed trees would have stop growing and closed their stoma to conserve limited moisture.

Less obvious, but no less important, is how Plantra Tree Tubes enabled Babe to spray RoundUp in the tree rows to eliminate weed competition for light, water and nutrients. Tree Tubes make it easy to see the trees amidst the tall grass, and they protect the trees from herbicide spray. It's hard to say which factor - deer browse protection, moisture stress reduction, or reduced weed competition - contributed most to the amazing growth. In the end it doesn't matter which matters most, all that matters is that a planting project a dedicated landowner considered to be an expensive, frustrating failure is now a resounding success.

2) Rejuvenating a failed hedgerow planting, part 2. Based on the success of the 3/8 mile hedgerow section in 2008 we decided to rescue the remaining - much longer - portion of hedgerow in 2009, which two important changes.

First, we used 5 foot Plantra Tree Tubes instead of 4 foot tubes. In 2008 deer repeatedly browse trees as the emerged from the 4ft tubes. By applying Deer Guard Repellent to the emerging trees Babe was able to get the trees past the browse line. This a great solution for landowners who are limited by their initial planting budget to using shorter tree tubes than they would prefer (hey, a 3 or 4ft tubes a whole lot better than no tube!). Spraying emerging trees with Deer Guard will provide that last bit of protection to grow them past the browse line.

As effective as the 4ft tube/Deer Guard combination was in 2008, Babe wanted to avoid the added trips to the field to spray repellent in 2009, and chose to use 5ft tubes instead.

Second, we pruned all of the deer-browsed "bonsai" trees to a single stem before applying tree tubes. This adds time and labor at the beginning but it has two huge benefits: 1) All of the growth potential stored in those huge roots would be channeled into a single stem, resulting in faster height growth (getting the terminal shoot above the browse line more quickly), and 2) Produces trees with better form - fewer lateral branches and narrow branch crotch angles.

The results? In a word: Wow!
Joe took this photo (click to enlarge) on October 23. That's me standing next to a tree that was tubed on May 20, 2009 when it was no more than knee high. It is now very nearly 10 feet tall!

85% or more of the trees we tubed just this past May have emerged from 5ft tree tubes. What's the reason for the great results? Is it the fertile soil? Babe's soil could be charitably described as "gravelly loam." A less charitable description given by someone who has spent several days driving stakes into it is " rocks." So trust me, it's not the soil.

Is it the high rainfall? Ottertail County has been in a drought for several seasons. Was it the warm, sunny summer? I just came across this amazing fact on the East Ottertail SWCD web page:

Did You Know?

Perham had only one day 90 degrees or greater this summer.

Every night this summer had temps below 70 degrees.

I think that safely rules out unusually good growing conditions as the reason for the great growth. Again, it was a combination of browse protection, moisture stress reduction and the ability to do great weed control that unleashed the pent up growth potential in those root systems.

4) Planting white oak seedlings in forest openings to enhance hard mast production. Like many farms in the region, the hillier portions of the property were not cleared for farming, and the oaks (bur and red) that benefited from period prairie fires were allowed to grow. Over time, and in the absence (and active suppression of) fire, more shade tolerant species like basswood began to gain ascendancy in the woods. Basswood is a terrific tree, but it does not produce much mast for wildlife, and you generally don't want it to comprise a high percentage of your forest composition. So Babe worked with a local logger to harvest basswood trees from the woods. This has two benefits. First, the crowns of the basswood trees were competing with the crowns of the oaks for sunlight and growing space. Removal of the basswoods will give the existing oaks more room to grow, and they will dramatically increase acorn production in the coming years. Second, it created openings for planting new oaks - and Babe choose to plant white oak to provide a different (and sweeter) type of mast than his indigenous bur and red oaks provide - to get started.

Approximately 150 white oaks were planted, each in a 5 foot Plantra O-style Vented Tree Tube. While the results are not as exciting as the crabapples or the hedgerows (no stories of 10 feet of growth in one year), the results were terrific. On our recent visit to the ranch we replaced the few oak seedlings that didn't survive with direct seeded acorns which will germinate next spring. We'll easily see the first of the oaks emerge from their 5ft tree tubes next summer, and growth will be enhanced by further clearing of brush and overstory trees that are shading our seedlings.

All in all, another fantastic year at Babe Winkelman's ranch. And the best part is knowing that these are the kind of results our customers are seeing across the country.