Tuesday, May 18, 2010

21 Years And Counting

21 years ago a good friend and forestry school classmate, Sandy McCartney, introduced me to the concept of "treeshelters" (better known these days as tree tubes) - translucent plastic tubes used for protecting seedling trees from deer & rabbit browse, drying winds, mowers and herbicide spray.

Wow. 21 years. Amazingly enough, given my inherent lack of business accumen, I immediately realized that tree tubes would someday revolutionize the way we plant trees. My immediate thought was for the "urban forest" (or, more accurately, "suburban forest") in which I grew up and watch the rapid march of housing development wipe out the native oaks to be replaced with a uniform landscape of seedless green ash, spirea & potentilla shrubs, and hundreds of tons of crushed limestone rock on plastic landscape fabric.

Oaks are difficult to transplant as large, specimen trees. And since they are widely viewed as "slow growing" they are not widely available as large potted or B&B trees in the nursery industry, at least they weren't back then.

But oaks are easy to transplant as seedlings (or, better yet, as acorns!) and they grow a whole lot faster than people think when given what they need to thrive. Already this spring I have planted bur oak acorns gathered last autumn from beneath a pair of massive, spreading giants on the campus of Carleton College here in Northfield (can we pass a law that says every American must plant an oak from an acorn every spring?).

I wrote an article for an early edition of my newsletter Lasting Woodlands about a British-made product called Tubex. 21 years later it's still the best tree tube on the market. One article determined the way I would make my livelihood for the next two decades (and counting).

We are planting trees into a very different world from the world in which their giant parents got started. Exponentially higher numbers of whitetail deer hungrily eat them before they can get established, hundreds of invasive grasses, weeds and shrubs growing unchecked by natural competitive relationships to take the lion's share of light, water and nutrients.

Take a walk through the woods. Chances are you'll see mature oaks. You'll see new seedlings. But you won't see a lot of trees in between. This is thanks to the whitetail deer - a gorgeous animal, but an animal currently out of balance with its habitat.

Trees need help. Well designed plastic tree tubes shield from deer browse, reduce moisture stress to enhance both survival rates and growth, and make it easier to control the competing vegetation that would otherwise overwhelm them.

21 years. And still it is right of spring to dream up the next generation of tree tubes, test them against the elements, and see if I can't find a way to get the oaks we need so desparately off to an even faster, healthier start.

Stay tuned.

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