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Success in Oak Tree Plantings

by Leon E. Hank

Holt, Michigan

One of the principles of Quality Deer Management is that deer hunters should be good deer managers and stewards of our deer habitat. That means we should maintain and improve the habitat that is so critical to the whitetail deer.

If you are an avid hunter like me, you have probably read your share of sporting magazine articles where another hunter recommended that you plant a few oak trees. You probably read that planting oaks is one of the best things you can do to improve both wildlife habitat and your future hunting opportunities.

Oak trees have always been special to me. When my father first starting taking me deer hunting nearly thirty-five years ago, we grabbed our bows and headed for a huge mature oak forest where there were lots of acorns and, of course, lots of deer foraging for them. Since that first hunt and my first encounter with a whitetail, I have been fascinated with oaks.

Planting a few oaks sounds like a good idea and it sounds simple, but is it simple?

Well, it is simple to plant oak trees, but there are a few guidelines to follow that will dramatically improve your success in planting oaks. Take it from the voice of experience, you can have some false starts if you donít follow these basic guidelines.

Four years ago, I started planting oak trees on my property on Neebish Island near Sault Ste. Marie and in a second location near Raber, Michigan in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Both a DNR forester, Robert DeVillez of Newberry, Michigan, and a private wildlife habitat consultant, Greg Stoll of Manistique, Michigan, recommended that I plant a considerable number of oaks because my 300 acres had only four producing oak trees and no young oak trees growing anywhere.

In the last four years, I have planted about 5,000 trees, most of them red oaks, and I have learned a number of lessons about what one should and one should not do when planting oaks.

In my first planting year, I began reading everything I could about oaks and that spring, I ordered 100 white oak and 100 red oak seedlings (along with some other seedlings) from a Lansing area Soil Conservation District. All across Michigan, Soil Conservation Districts have a spring and fall tree sale and this is an economical and convenient way to buy seedlings.

My seedlings came with directions for planting and I tried to follow them as closely as possible, but like many first-timers, I took a few short-cuts, thinking they would not matter. Most important, however, I kept my seedlings out of the sun and I kept them damp, but not wet or soaked in water, until I could plant them.

My first mistake was that I had not determined whether the seedlings I bought would actually grow where I intended to plant them. In my zeal to improve habitat and improve my hunting opportunities, I had selected white oak seedlings. I had read in several outdoor magazines that deer prefer and even seek out white oaks because the acorns are sweeter than acorns from red oaks. I wanted some of those sweet acorns growing near my deer stand!

The problem is, the climate in the far northern Michigan is not suitable for white oaks and white oaks rarely grow north of northern central lower Michigan. My 100 white oaks didnít survive their first harsh winter in the Upper Peninsula.

After this bad experience, I picked up a copy of Norman F. Smithís book, Trees of Michigan and the Upper Great Lakes published by Thunder Bay Press in Lansing, Michigan. Smith describes all trees that will grow in Michigan and where in the state they are most likely to grow. I wish I had read Smithís book before I spent my time, energy and money planting those white oaks.

I also learned from Smithís book that the bur oak, a close cousin to the white oak would grow well in my area and it also has sweet acorns. The bur oak also grows well in wetter soil conditions. The following year, I planted several hundred bur oaks and they have done well.

Lesson number one is to make certain that the trees you intend to plant will indeed grow and thrive in your area. There are lots of good books for sale and at local libraries like Smithís book on trees. Every serious tree planter should own or read one of them.

My second mistake is that I just assumed trees would grow any where I wanted to plant them. I had some general recommendations from the forester and habitat consultant on where I should plant the trees, but I didnít really pay attention to why they selected certain areas for certain types of trees. More important, I didnít understand completely that they selected certain types of trees for certain areas because of the soil most prevalent in those areas.

I went about on my merry way planting trees in all kinds of soils. The problem is, most trees have certain soil conditions where they grow best. Now many of these trees grew a little bit in poor soil conditions, but the amount of difference in their one-year growth when I planted them in the best soil condition was just phenomenal.

For example, red oaks and red pines that I planted in sandy soil conditions where other hardwoods were growing did outstanding in these conditions. Some of the oaks grew almost four feet in one season (when protected by tree shelters). When I planted these seedlings in poor draining soil conditions like clay, they did not grow well and I had high mortality. On the other hand, the bur oaks did very well in the wetter conditions that the red oaks did not like.

Again, Smithís book offered some good lessons on what type of soils I should be looking for when planting certain types of trees. The following year, I more carefully chose where I would plant each variety of tree, carefully matching the soil condition to the tree variety. Lesson number two is donít assume you should plant a particular tree just anywhere, but instead, match the variety of the tree to the soil condition that it likes best. If you see other trees like those you are planting in the area, it is a good bet your seedlings will do well.

Lesson number three was similar to number two because it involves sunlight conditions and matching the variety of the tree to the amount of sun the tree requires to thrive.

When I began planting my oaks, I planted some in full sun and I planted some deep in hardwood forests where the forest canopy keep them from getting any sun. I also planted red pines, white pines and aspen seedlings in both sunlight and shady conditions.

Now my red oaks and white pines grew under both conditions, but guess what? Those that were in the sunlight much of the day grew dramatically faster than those in the shade. But more important, is that the red pine and aspen that were shaded died out within several months. Only those that got lots of sun survived.

I consulted a book by Mollie Beattie, Charles Thompson, and Lynn Levine called Working with Your Woodland: A Landownerís Guide published by the University Press of New England and learned more about the concept of dominant trees, suppressed trees and how much sun each variety of tree requires. In this book, I learned how red oaks and white pines can tolerate low sun conditions, but they would prefer more sun so they can become the dominant tree in the forest. If they donít get enough sun, they will still grow, but they will be suppressed and will have very poorly developed crowns as they grow to maturity. They wonít become the majestic oaks we had in mind when we planted them.

On the other hand, red pines and aspen (as an example) must have extensive sunlight and little competition in the surrounding area or they will die in a hurry. Now I knew why the perfectly healthy, very green-looking red pine seedlings I had planted in shaded conditions died so quickly, turning a burnt orange color in leas than a few months. Again, I was wishing I had read Working with Your Woodland before I planted that first batch of red oaks and red pines.

Lesson number three is to make sure you know how much sunlight your tree variety requires to thrive and then be certain to clear the surrounding area so that the seedling gets the right amount of light. Once I started taking the time to plant my seedlings where they received adequate sunlight throughout the spring, summer and fall months, my seedlings starting growing at rapid rates. Today, I wonít plant a seedling unless I take the time to cut away surrounding trees and vegetation so that the seedling gets the sun it needs and so that it has minimal competition from other plants and trees. After this initial planting, I also visit the tree once or two a year and carefully spray the chemical Roundup around the tree so that I kill all vegetation with three feet of the tree. This maintenance helps ensure that the seedling has a good opportunity to survive until it can fend for itself against the other vegetation in the area. Experts recommend that you should spray around the tree for three years to ensure it gets off to a good start.

Mistake number four was that I used a shovel to plant my first batch of seedlings - several hundred of them! I had heard about special tree planting tools, but I didnít know what they cost and I didnít know where to purchase them. I also didnít think they were necessary. Wow, was I wrong. It was hours of back breaking work to plant those seedlings with a shovel.

After this experience, an employee at the Clinton Soil Conservation District in St. Johns, Michigan showed me how to use a tree planting bar. She also explained how easy they are to use, how much labor they save and how some individuals use them to plant thousands of trees in a weekís time. She also explained that I could buy one at the annual spring and fall tree sales for about $20 or I could rent one by the day.

The use of the tree planting bar saves an unbelievable amount of work when planting lots of seedlings and it saves back pain by minimizing the number of times you have to bend over to plant the tree. The planting bar also easily cuts a perfect size hole in the ground about 8 inches deep for dropping in the seedling.

It took me almost a week to plant about 300 seedlings my first year with a shovel. Today, I can plant almost 3,000 seedlings in a week with one person using a tree planter. The tree planter is a fabulous tool that all tree planters should have.

When planting with a tree bar, it is important to be sure you get the tap root of the oak seedling going straight down into the hole. As the oak grows older, this tap root will grow more or less straight down into the soil, solidly anchoring the tree so it can withstand heavy wind storms that it may encounter in its next 300-400 years.

Dr. Douglas Lantagne of the University of Vermont (and formerly of Michigan State University) offers this advice on planting oak seedlings. If the seedlings have long tap roots when you pick them up from the nursery, cut the tap root so that it goes straight down in the hole. Resist the temptation to force the longer tap root into the hole or allowing the tap root to go into the hole in the shape of a "J". If you donít cut the tap root and force the root into the hole, the tree may grow fine for a number of years in its early life. When it becomes a large oak, however, just at the time it would be providing good acorn crops for deer, it may succumb to a wind storm and all your work will be for naught.

Lantagne also stresses that it is important to keep the seedlings out of the sunlight before you plant them and to keep the roots damp, but not wet or completely submersed in water. It seems logical to many first time tree planters that we should keep the roots of the plants wet, especially if we canít plant them for several days. In fact, thatís not a good thing and keeping the roots just a little moist is the best protection for them. Finally, it is also important to keep the roots from being exposed to the air. Most novice planters donít know it, but the seedling can die within minutes if its roots are exposed to the air, if the roots become too dried out or too wet, or if the seedling is exposed to too much direct sunlight.

These and other good oak planting tips are included in Douglas Lantagne and Donald Dickmanís publication, Planting Oaks for Timber and other Uses, published by Michigan State Universityís Department of Forestry.

Early in the article I talked about taking a few shortcuts the first year of my plantings. With these shortcuts, I violated many of the planting tips of Lantagne and Dickman. As a result, I ended up planting a number of oak seedlings that were dead before I ever planted them, but I didnít even know it. I wasted hundreds of hours of hard work that I could have made more productive if I had followed Lantagne and Dickmanís guidelines.

Lesson number four is buy a good tree planting bar and take special care of your seedlings until you can properly plant them in the ground. If you take too many shortcuts, you will probably regret it later.

The fifth and final mistake I made in my early tree plantings was that I did not protect my oaks from excessive deer browsing. Both DNR Forester Bob DeVillez and habitat consultant Greg Stoll had recommended that I install "tree shelters" to protect my seedlings from deer browsing.

Unfortunately, I did not heed their advice and those first-year oak seedlings that survived my other mistakes were ravaged by hungry deer in the fall and winter. Because the deer found virtually all these seedlings, I didnít get any decent growth in my seedlings the first year.

I should have known that I needed to protect the seedlings from deer browse. In Planting Oaks for Timber and other Uses, Lantagne and Dickman include a photo of a 14 year old oak planting that is still a small shrub. The seedling was never allowed to grow into a mature oak tree because the deer ate its flavorful new growth each year so that the seedling never did grow beyond a small shrub.

My own experience was nearly identical. My father, Louis Hank of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and I planted several red oak seedlings in almost perfect soil and sunlight conditions about 15 years ago on a nice ridge that overlooked a winter deer yard. We saved the last seedling and planted it in less than ideal soil and sunlight conditions near my grandfatherís home. After 15 years, the oaks near the deer yard are still nothing but small shrubs with the new yearís growth thoroughly eaten each year by deer from the adjoining deer yard. The lone tree in my grandfatherís yard is almost 20 feet tall and already sprouting a few acorns each year.

Lesson number five is simple: shelter your trees from extensive deer browsing.

There are a number of commercial tree shelters on the market that are widely used to protect seedlings from deer browsing damage. Four shelters that I have used are produced by these manufacturers:

ManufacturerManufacturer
Treeessential Company
2731 Waters Drive
Mendota Heights, MN
800-248-8239
www.treessentials.com
Tree Sentry, Inc.
P.O. Box 607
55120Perrysburg, OH 43552
419-872-6950
Tree Pro
3180 W. 250 N.
West Lafayette, IN 47906
800-875-807
www.treepro.com
McKnew Enterprises
P.O. Box 2128
Elk Grove, CA 97758
(888) 47-BLUEX www.growtube.com/shelters.html

The tree shelter is a plastic tube from two to five feet tall that is placed over the seedling once it is planted. The shelter is also anchored in place by a wooden or metal stake. Most shelters are secured to their stakes with a plastic tie-on. Before anchoring the shelters, most manufacturers recommend working them into the soil about one to two inches or covering them with additional soil so that the bottom of the shelter is air tight. For additional information on tree shelters, including constructing your own Click here.

Once inside the shelter, the seedling grows like it is in a small green house because the sun penetrates through the sides of the shelter creating a warm, moist environment and the bottom is sealed so the moisture is concentrated and can not easily escape. The seedling is also protected from the wind. These intense, ideal conditions cause the plant to grow much faster than it would otherwise.

Most important, the tasty, nutrient-rich branches of the nursery-grown seedling are protected from the mouths of hungry deer and rabbits. As a result, the tree grows rapidly for the first few years of its life. After a few years, the tree is tall enough so that browsing deer canít keep it from growing. Tree planters should use a four or five foot tree shelter to protect the seedlings from deer browsing.

"Planting oaks without tree shelters in a high-deer density area is like putting out candy for kids," one forester told me. "They will eat everyone of them, and quickly. If you are going to plant oaks, take the time and spend the money to shelter the trees."

I have used the four types of tree shelters for some large scale oak plantings and each of the shelters seem to do the job well. Each shelter has its own advantages and disadvantages. They range in cost from about $1.00 each to almost $3.00 each and some are less labor-intensive to install than others. Some also last longer than others. All of the manufacturers will send you a free sample if you contact them.

Tree planters should be aware of one major drawback from using most tree shelters: the concept of die-back. Die-back occurs when the seedling is growing inside a tree shelter and the growing conditions are so good, that the seedling still thinks it is summer long after summer is over. The seedling does not shut down and go dormant like it should before the fall and winter season. As a result, it might not be prepared for the harsh winter conditions and it can partially die and be forced to grow back the following year. I have come to accept that some of my seedlings in shelters will suffer from this setback.. Even so, this drawback is worth it.

Most tree shelter manufacturers do not directly talk to their customers about the possibility of die-back. If you ask their representatives about it, most will give advice on strategies to minimize die-back..

Planting oak trees is one of the best things you can do to improve your woodlot and to improve the wildlife habitat where you hunt. I am convinced that following these five simple, but important lessons will improve your chances for success with planting oaks.