For quick return on an investment, if food plots are the drive-thru cheeseburger of the deer management world, tree seedlings are the prime rib. You can get your “cheeseburger” relatively quick and put it to work for your deer herd soon, but you may have to kill some time with a salad and an appetizer waiting on your “prime rib” to be prepared. The payoff makes the wait worthwhile, and when you look into tree planting, you might be surprised how quickly the payoff can arrive with some species.
By planting mast-producing trees on your land, you can custom-design the layout of future hunting opportunities and engineer several layers of food-source diversity that will supplement annual food plots and other habitat-management programs you already have in place.
My dad started planting tree seedlings for wildlife on our family’s land in Georgia more than 20 years ago, and each winter it’s still a tradition — we gather at the farm for a work weekend spent with post-hole diggers, augers, and bags of tree seedlings of many varieties. Over the years, we have learned lessons through success and failure with our tree plantings. Here are some of the most important lessons.
1. Tree planting is not necessarily a long-term investment. Some species of trees will start producing fruit in less than 10 years, sometimes much sooner. A sawtooth oak planted in the right conditions might surprise you with a bumper crop of acorns in five to seven years. Crabapples and other soft mast species also grow rapidly and begin producing fruit sooner than more slow-growing trees like white oaks.
2. Location! This is almost a subparagraph of No. 1. If you plant trees in the right location and take care of them, they will grow faster and therefore produce fruit sooner. For a tree, good location means sunlight. I can’t emphasize that enough. In the early years of our tree-planting, we would often seek out existing stand sites in the woods that were good places to hunt deer and plant our trees there, envisioning that site becoming even better as our trees matured. I’m not sure how many seedlings we put to death in this way before we got a clue, but we learned fast. Oaks may grab hold and survive in deep, shaded forests, but your grandchildren will be adults before those oaks get any height, much less produce mast. Fruit-tree seedlings just die.
Seek planting sites in full sun or at least on edges where the tree will get sunlight more than half the day. Trees in full sun will amaze you with their growth. We have trees of the same species planted the same winter, one with day-long sunlight, one with less sunlight, and to look at them now you would never guess they are the same age.
Another lesson we have learned regarding site selection: try to think in decades. A road edge through a clearcut seems like a big, open, sunny spot today, but in 10 years or less the pines planted in the clearcut will overtake and shade any trees you plant along that road. Also, be careful about planting on the edge of powerline or natural-gas easements — one day your seedling will have a big, beautiful crown on it, and then the power company will come by and saw half of it off because it was encroaching on their lines. Try to foresee these factors in choosing a planting site.
Open food plots are not the great place you might think they are for tree planting. If you can combine a food plot and a tree orchard, you’ve got a great site that will offer a diversity of food sources one day, but you must give the trees some room. Tree roots grow outward from the trunk just below the surface of the soil. If you run a set of disc harrows under your tree, you are cutting roots, which will stress if not kill the tree. A tree orchard in the center or on the edge of a food plot is fine, as long as you don’t plan on tilling the ground inside the drip line of the crown of those trees (the “drip line” is the farthest point you can stand from the trunk and still be standing under limbs and leaves).
3. Plant a diversity of species. In the 1980s the sawtooth oak became a hit with tree planters as an ornamental and wildlife food. This non-native import grows rapidly for an oak and produces prodigious crops of big acorns in only a few years. The white-oak-sized acorns are highly desired by deer and other wildlife. On our land, we had sawtooths jumping up quickly and producing acorns in as little as five years, but we learned something else about them — the trees dump their crops of acorns over a short time period, a week to two weeks, and they do it in mid to late September. In Georgia, we barely have an opportunity to bowhunt around sawtooths before the acorns are completely gone.
Luckily, we planted many different species of trees: crabapples, persimmons, pears, red oaks, white oaks, sawtooths, swamp chestnut oaks, live oaks, nuttall oaks, overcup oaks, and others. If we had planted nothing but sawtooths, the fastest-growing, most prodigious species we could plant, the benefit to our deer would last for one or two weeks each year. By planting a diversity of species, something will be falling from a tree somewhere almost every week in the fall. Also, if one species has a bad year because of unsuitable weather, insects, or disease, it is likely that another species will have a better if not banner year, buffering the impact on wildlife.
(Note: Readers in the northern United States should check with a local forester before buying sawtooth oaks, as they are subject to winter kill in colder climates).
One more note on species selection — remember that native persimmons, a deer favorite, produce male and female trees, and only the female produces fruit. Plant them in groups and plant enough trees to ensure both pollination and good numbers of fruit-producing female trees. There are improved varieties available from commercial suppliers that avoid this problem.
4. Planting techniques. The time to plant tree seedlings is winter when seedlings are dormant and are more likely to survive transplanting. That means you need to order your seedlings soon if this is something you want to try. The seedlings will arrive in a bag, and the roots will usually be coated in a gel to help preserve moisture. Plant them as soon as possible, and keep them damp and cool until you do. When planting, dig your holes deep enough to accommodate the length of the roots — don’t dig deeper and then backfill. This could result in settling of the loosened soil to the point that the seedling is left standing in a bowl that will hold water, and in a wet spring this will kill many seedlings. Also, don’t bury the roots too deep — set the seedling at the same depth it appeared to be growing in the nursery. Roots need to be close to the surface where more oxygen is available in the soil. They can literally suffocate if buried too deep.
Some seedlings, especially those grown in buckets, may have a long or coiled main root. In these cases, prune the main root, leaving about 12 inches of length, then plant.
Dig the hole for your seedling as wide as you please. The more the soil is loosened outward from the seedling, the easier it will be for the root system to expand.
Once you’ve set the seedling, refill the hole with the native dirt you removed, and pack it firmly. It can’t hurt to water the seedling to settle the soil if you have a convenient way to transport the water, but we have found it is not necessary. Finally, you can lightly mulch around the tree to deter weedy competition, or you can buy plastic tree mats to put around your seedling for the same purpose. Tree mats will add to your cost but will also last a while and save you time later when it comes to controlling competition.
5. Tree Shelters. One additional investment you should make that will be well worth your money is a tree shelter or tube for each of your seedlings. You can usually buy these wherever you purchase seedlings. They are translucent plastic tubes that you stake in the ground over your seedling. When we first started planting trees, tree tubes weren’t widely available. We sometimes lost seedlings to rabbits, which gnawed the bark at ground level and girdled the trees. This problem we solved by wrapping the bottom 12 inches of the trunk in aluminum foil, but the foil didn’t stop bucks from rubbing and killing other trees. We lost a lot of crabapples this way. Tree tubes solved our rabbit-girdling and buck-rubbing problems. They also act as a miniature greenhouse, conserving warmth and moisture and enhancing the growth potential of the seedlings inside. In fact, it is amazing to watch many seedlings, sometimes even slow-growing oaks, pop out of the top of the four to five-foot tubes in only one growing season. When you buy tree tubes, they come complete with a mesh “sock” to slide over the top that you should not forget to use. They say these prevent birds from nesting in the tubes, but we have also noticed that red wasps love to nest in the tops of uncovered tubes. You won’t have any fun inspecting your seedlings if you look down the tube and get an eyeful of angry wasps.
6. Maintenance. When you inspect your trees for progress each year, take along a sling blade, garden shears and an extendable limb saw. Clear around your trees, and cut back any neighboring trees that are encroaching. The less desirable species, like pines and sweetgums, grow much faster than the species you are trying to cultivate, and if you don’t stay ahead of them they will crowd and stunt the growth of your wildlife tree. Use the sling blade to cut down ground-level vegetation beneath your tree, particularly vines, and if the weeds are really tough, use a non-soil-active, contact herbicide like the glyphosate-based products. Spray on a calm day so the wind does not carry herbicide to your tree. As for pruning your wildlife tree, it’s usually not necessary. You want your tree to quickly develop a large, healthy crown for the purpose of maximizing fruit production, and the more limbs the better. Experts I have talked to said to prune only if a seedling has a deformity or forked trunk — remove stems or limbs so that you are left with the stem that is most likely to produce a strong, full crown. If you’re growing apple trees, there are some very specialized pruning techniques that apple growers use to manage their orchards for greater fruit production. Check with your cooperative extension agent for publications on these techniques.
If you’re planting a lot of seedlings over multiple years, keep their locations marked on a map of your property so that you won’t overlook any in making your rounds for maintenance. This can be particularly important when you are conducting a prescribed burn. Before burning an area, we visit all of our trees in that location and rake and clear the ground well out from the trunks to prevent fire from getting to them.
7. Fertilizing. Another lesson that we learned the hard way was that seedlings and young trees need little to no fertilizer. We scorched and killed a good many new-planted seedlings with too much fertilizer. Some forestry experts I have talked to have recommended no fertilizer at all for the first couple of years after planting, and those who do recommend it will tell you to be sparing — no more than one cup of a complete fertilizer (10-10-10) sprinkled around a seedling once or twice a year. You can gradually increase the amount as the seedling grows. We don’t fertilize new seedlings at all, and we lightly fertilize older trees each winter. Sprinkling fertilizer on the ground under a tree does as much for weedy competition as for the tree, so we use a dibble bar or shovel to open holes about six to 12 inches deep in a circuit around the tree, just under the drip line. Then we drop small handfuls of fertilizer into these holes and cover them up. This method puts the fertilizer at the “fingertips” of the tree, the outer edges of the root system under the drip line.
With mature trees, use a fertilizer that is lower in nitrogen, like a 1-2-3 analysis (5-10-15, for example). Nitrogen aids leaf and stem growth, but your goal with a mature tree is to encourage fruit production. A general guideline for the amount is about two to three pounds of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter at breast height (DBH).
Don’t put out fertilizer once the spring green-up has begun — if the tree has begun to flower, the sudden burst of nutrients could make it abort the flowers, ending your chances of a fruit or acorn crop for this year. Apply fertilizer when the tree is dormant in the winter or in the late summer.
8. Acorn collecting. There may still be some of this year’s acorn crop on the ground for you to collect and germinate for your own tree seedlings. Just as we want the best genetics in our whitetails, select acorns from your best trees, those that produce the biggest, most abundant fruit on the most reliable schedule. Cull your collection to the viable fruit by dropping the acorns into a bucketful of water. Acorns that float are no good. A float test works for all the oaks except overcups. This is a floodplain species, and their acorns are designed to float to aid dispersal.
After the float test, plant your acorns in seedling cups or trays and put them outdoors for the winter. As they outgrow their containers, transfer them to individual buckets or move them to their permanent locations while they are dormant in winter.
For further assistance, look up your state forestry commission or cooperative extension agency. You can order tree seedlings from a local supplier or from Greenwood Nurseries through the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). The QDMA also sells a line of tree-planting products, including TreePro tree tubes, stakes, weed mats, and tree fertilizer. Call (800) 209-3337.