Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Mississippi Mechanic of High Performance Oaks

About ten years ago (or was it more than that?) Alanis Morissette had a top-selling CD which included the smash hit song “Isn’t It Ironic?”  Ironically, none of the events described by Ms. Morissette (rain on your wedding day, a free ride when you already paid, etc.) were, in fact, ironic.  Unfortunate, yes.  Ironic, no.

It is, however, ironic that many of my heroes, or at least people whose attributes I greatly admire, are titans in an activity in which I have zero interest and couldn’t be paid to actually watch:  motor sports.

I have written before in Oak Watch about Don “Big Daddy” Garlits.  I have immediate admiration for a guy who can refer to himself – and get others to refer to him – as Big Daddy with a straight face.  Beyond that, Big Daddy was a drag racing pioneer.  It was he who changed the design of top fuel dragsters so that the driver no longer straddled the engine but instead sat directly in front of it.  Garlits had this epiphany after an exploding engine nearly removed his legs; apparently he decided he would rather have the engine explode behind his head.  This design innovation was based on the theory that while it is possible (and maybe even preferable) to reach 250mph in a quarter mile without a brain, it is physically impossible to do so without feet.

Garlits was the first to break the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260, and 270 miles per hour barriers.  If we assume that the pre-Garlits best was 169mph, that means that over the course of his career Garlits increased the top speed over a quarter mile by an astonishing 60%.

Another motorhead hero of mine is Burt Munro, the kiwi motorcyclist depicted in the movie World’s Fastest Indian.  Munro took a 1920 Indian motorcycle – a bike with an original top speed of 55mph – and modified it continuously for 40 years.  During the 1960’s he set world speed records for engines under 1000cc’s at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and once topped 200mph in an unofficial run.  He cast many of the parts – minor pieces like pistons, barrels, fly wheels – himself using makeshift molds and tools.

In taking his Indian from a top speed of 55 to 200mph Munro improved its performance by a jaw-dropping 264%.

What I love about both of these guys is their painstaking attention to detail, and their single-minded determination to push the absolute limits of performance.  To never, ever be satisfied.

What does this have to do with oak trees?  Everything.  Absolutely everything.

We need oaks to once again feed the world, to once again become the Staff of Life they were for thousands upon thousands of years, before we declared war on the soil, and before we sold our collective soul for the false food security of grain crops.  In order for oaks to feed the world, we must first convince the world that oaks are fast growing trees capable of astounding productivity, and we must also use the genetic diversity/elasticity of the genus Quercus combined with modern growing practices, to make them even faster and more productive.

The oaks that surround us are the 1920 Indian motorcycles.  They just need the arboreal equivalents of Don Garlits and Burt Munro to bring out their potential, to take them to the Bonneville Salt Flats of tree growth and show the world what they can do.

Luckily I know of one such man.

Let me ask you this:  Say you plant an 18 inch tall oak seedling.  How much would you expect it to grow the first year… One foot?  Eighteen inches?  Take a look at this:

 (Click to enlarge)

This is a hybrid overcup x white oak (Q. lyrata x Q. alba).  It was planted in March of 2011 as an 18 inch seedling.  This photograph was taken on September 1, 2011 – six months later - at which point the tree was 8 feet 1 inch tall.  That's 97 inches tall. 

For those of you keeping score at home that’s 79 inches of growth in one growing season – in the first growing season.  From a reasonable expectation of 18 inches of first year growth that’s a 340% improvement.  You couldn’t pay me to watch a car race.  But I’d pay money to sit (or should it be “set?”) in a Mississippi field and watch this tree grow.  More exciting, and a much lower chance of being struck by flaming debris.

How do you make a race car go faster?  You remove the things that limit its speed – feed it more fuel and more air.  How do you make an oak tree grow faster (which is to say, how do you make an oak tree reach its inherent growth potential)?  You remove the things that limit its growth.

You identify naturally occurring hybrids, especially in the white oak group.  (That’s not as hard as it sounds; in fact I defy you to find an individual tree in the white oak group – or any oak – that isn’t, to some degree, a “hybrid.”  But more than that you need to be able to identify individual mama trees with the potential for fast growth, and have a good sense of where papa pollen is coming from.)

You sow the acorn in root pruning pots to give it a killer root system.  You plant with an actual shovel, not using the planting bar/stomp method, so the roots can fan out.  You fertilize to overcome any deficiencies in our (usually) worn out soils.  You prune laterals as they develop, to channel all that growth energy skyward.  You aggressively control weeds, recreating the role that fire played in creating the momentary competitive advantage from which the mature oaks we see day benefited in their infancy.

And you use the best tree tubes, to keep all your painstaking work from simply providing deer browse, to reduce wind and moisture stress, and to provide protection from weed control operations.  Under the heading of shameless self promotion (but self promotion in the furtherance of a noble cause!) the best tree tubes are for sale here.

The Burt Munro of oaks is alive and well, and living in Mississippi.  His name is Dudley Phelps.  And you can buy his hybrid oaks –and my tree tubes – here.  Yes, Mossy Oak.  Which means – as I have said so often before – that there are a whole lot of acorn-fed deer out there eating better and healthier than all of us.

At least now I can have a hero with dirt on his hands instead of motor oil.

This just in:  Lest you think that rapid height growth of the overcup x white oak shown above comes only at the expense of diameter/caliper growth, take a look at this:

 (Click to enlarge)

The base of a Totten hybrid oak (overcup x swamp chestnut), planted about April 1, 2011.  Then again this tree is just a paltry 7 feet tall (having grown "just" 66 inches in its first growing season).  The gray stake in the background is a 1" diameter pvc conduit pipe.

Anyone still think oak are slow growing?  I didn’t think so.  And trust me, there will come a day when 79 inches of growth for an oak seedling in the first growing season will be disappointing.

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