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