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 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.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Can a deer repellent protect acorns from rodents? Plantra wants to know.

What might a chew hole in a big blue trashcan teach us about protecting acorns from squirrels?

The trashcan supplied by BFI lives behind our home and sits under the spreading limbs of a massive - by Minnesota standards anyway - bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) that predates statehood. In a good acorn year, I have counted 14 Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in that tree happily snipping branches to make it easy to gather the acorns. We have a huge population of gray squirrels.

These squirrels behave as though the trashcan is just a big nut or a big acorn. The squirrels immediately begin gnawing on the edges until they get at the garbage. (Anyone for a flavorful city squirrel stew?) As always happens, by last spring the big blue trashcan was Swiss cheese. The trash haulers replaced it and the process began anew.

Last May when the new can arrived I decided to see if Deer Guard Repellent could break the cycle. The gnawing had already begun and was confined to corners and edges. I painted the holes that were started and then all around edge of the deck lid. The manufacturer says one application lasts 4 months. Well... we held the squirrels off for 6 months with Deer Guard. If you want to try it I recommend the quart size in a spray bottle.

The advantage of Deer Guard over all the other repellents is that it lasts when the others wash off in the rain.

This experience got me thinking when last week we received an email about protecting direct seeded acorns from rodents. That is a tough one. Our standard recommendation, based on years of experience, is to tell the grower to do a better job on weed control. That's right - weed control repels rodents. Clean cultivation - bare soil - keeps small rodents away because they are afraid of death from above. Hawks and owls easily pick off exposed rodents, so they stay in the safety of tall grass.

Weed control doesn't help if the planting site is remote, not maintained or there is snow cover. We need another answer. While I cannot guarantee it, I think a product such as Deer Guard might protect acorns and nuts for direct seeding. Since all seeds are living - breathing organisms you do not want to paint or dip the acorns in Deer Guard. A fine mist applied sparingly should do the trick.

We need to have a few people try this under various conditions. If you have some acorns, nuts or chestnuts to test treated and untreated, I would be happy to supply a free quart of Deer Repellent. Write this week to joelais and tell me how you propose to do the test. If I like what I read and we have not done what you want to do, a free quart of Deer Guard will be sent immediately.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Historic Kewanee Maclura Saved (without a Tree Tube)

Ten days ago I received the following emergency email Guy Sternberg sent to his closest 1,000 friends. Guy was responding to this message from Jim Ream.


. . . I have some bad news. The city of Kewanee will take down the big hedge tree on Tuesday. Safety hazard they say.


Guy wrote:

How many of you copied here can jump on this, contact Kewanee, and help persuade them to step back and think it over a little more? Before Tuesday!!! I'm sure Jim Ream can give us the phone numbers, etc. -- contact him at . A photo of the tree with a detail inset of the plaque is attached.

Jim, please send the name, e-mail, and phone number of the person(s) we should contact. If you hit "reply to all" everyone here will have it. The historic Potter Farm Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera) was one of Professor Turner's original trees from the 1840s and should be given due process before being destroyed. We need to get on this NOW if we are to have any hope of changing the outcome by Tuesday.

Thanks everyone --

Guy S.

Guy Sternberg
Starhill Forest Arboretum
12000 Boy Scout Trail
Petersburg, IL 62675 (USA)

We had two days to save the tree.

Here is Guy with the Kewanee Maclura. The problem having Guy in a picture with a tree is he makes the tree look small. (He is a "mid" 6 footer)

My wife Mitz & I spent part of a wonderful day last summer at Guy's arboretum known as Starhill Forest. Guy was instrumental in the pioneering the use of tree tubes to establish oak trees around Lincoln's Tomb. In my experience the only sure way to grow a monumental tree is to start with a very young plant and grow it where you want it. Small seedling trees easily develop root systems with well spaced radial structures that can nourish and support a tree into old age.

When we left the arboretum we were shown more historic and champion trees in a few hours than I usually see in a year.

Short story shorter. Guy and his band prevailed and saved the tree - at least for the moment. Now comes the hard part. It was trimmed to reduce the strain, but needs some permanent support. That takes money. On Monday Guy wrote the following:

Subject: Gentlemen, start your checkbooks!

We now have an official bank account established for the Kewanee Osage-orange! Mayor Bruce Tossell joined forces with the Chamber of Commerce and the local bank to set this up. The account is restricted to expenditures for the historic tree, and all withdrawals must be cosigned by at least two of the three people representing the Chamber, the City, and the Bank.

Please inform all of your friends/listeners/readers who would like to help with this project that checks should be made payable to KEWANEE OSAGE-ORANGE FUND and sent as soon as possible to:

Peoples National Bank of Kewanee, attn: Terri Russell

207 North Tremont Street

Kewanee, Illinois 61443

Plantra is sending $100. Please feel free to contribute.

The images above were taken by Jason Knowles.