Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Driving unnecessary cost out of tree tubes

This blog is about the history, development and applications of tree tubes.  But it is also chronicles the evolution of the companies that are trying - as has happened with so many technologies - to drive down the cost of using tree tubes and make them accessible to the largest number of users.

In the previous post I discussed one company's obsession with keeping the final, delivered cost of tree tubes as low as possible to make them affordable for more tree planters.

Here is a great post from another company, Tree Protection Supply, which shares this philosophy, using creative, custom packaging and aggressive shopping of freight services to keep their prices on tree tubes  low.

So much of the price of the things we buy has nothing to do with the cost of raw materials and manufacturing, and everything to do with secondary costs such as transport, overhead, packaging, marketing - not to mention profit margin.

In the case of tree tubes many suppliers have extremely high secondary costs and profit margins.  It is therefore possible for companies that focus on keeping secondary costs to an absolute minimum to sell a BETTER PRODUCT at a LOWER PRICE than tree tube companies selling a product of lesser quality.

Hmmm ... Better product at a lower price.  That sounds to me like the way a technology goes from a niche product to widespread acceptance.  And tree tubes are definitely following that trajectory!

Inside Baseball on Tree Tubes

Here's an illuminating post on the history and behind-the-scenes business of tree tubes, and one company's efforts to get this amazing technology to market at the lowest possible price so as to be of the greatest benefit.

Click here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Two great video channels to learn about tree tubes

Tree tubes are a "seeing is believing" kind of product... which made it a little difficult back in the olden days to fully explain them to prospective customers via a printed catalog or over the phone.  I always used to catch myself gesturing to someone I was talking to on the phone in a pathetic attempt to explain how fast their trees would grow in tree tubes, only to realize that of course gestures are about as helpful in a phone conversation a they are over the radio... or when using smoke signals.

I used to love landowner field days, because they gave me an opportunity to demonstrate how tree tubes work in person to a small group of interested tree growers.  It was a whole lot better than talking on the phone, and the potluck lunches were always a highlight, but it still wasn't the most efficient way to get the tree tube message out there - driving hundreds of miles to talk to a group of 12 to 24 folks.

These days it's so easy to get that same message out to thousands of people, just for the cost of a few pixels, thanks to You Tube.

Here are two great You Tube Channels that focus on tree planting and the use of tree tubes:

Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries Seedling and Tree Tubes Channel

Tree Protection Supply Tree Tubes Channel

At both places you'll find a wealth of information from the most knowledgeable guys in the business!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tree Tube Myths: Does this look like a spindly stem to you?

One of the "knocks" against tree tubes over the years is that, while they unarguably accelerate height growth, they produce trees with thin spindly stems.  To this criticism I have two responses:

1) A six foot tree with a thin stem and a sturdy treeshelter in place to support it until the stem thickens up enough to support itself is a whole lot better than the alternative:  A seedling without a tube that is continually browse by deer to the point where it dies or is stunted at knee height for years.

2) Today's vented tree tubes and flexible PVC stakes have combine to make a myth out of the "spindly stem" critique of tree tubes.  Thin stems are a thing of the distant past.  Take a look:

(Click to enlarge)

This is the trunk of a hybrid oak from Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries planted in a 4ft Tubex Combitube Plus Tree Tube.  Here's the chronology:
* Planted as 18 inch seedling in March, 2011

* Photo taken on August 2, 2012 - less than two complete growing seasons later!

The tree is now well over 10ft tall.  But most exciting to me is the large caliper of the trunk immediately above the tree tube.  You can see that with today's vented tree tubes and flexible PVC stakes it's not just a matter of producing the same amount of biomass growth and just "stretching" it in height, as might have been the case with early tree tubes.  No, this tree is putting on a HUGE amount of total biomass (especially when you consider that stem diameter is the best "window" into what's going on with root growth below ground).
As with so many discussions of tree tubes it comes down to B.V. (Before Venting) and A.V. (After Venting). Before venting trees were definitely better off with tree tubes than without, but exhibited some "side effects" like thin stems.  After venting tree planters are realizing the full potential of tree tubes and seeing astounding growth, both in terms of height but - more importantly - in terms of stem diameter.

Think of it this way, using a computer analogy:  Unvented, small diameter tubes of the past = MS-DOS.  Today's vented, large diameter tubes combined with flexible PVC stakes = Windows XP.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tree Tube Poll - What is your tree planting objective?

This tree tube web site is polling visitors to learn what their primary tree planting objective is.

As of this writing the results are:
Wildlife Habitat - 40%
Food Crops - 19%
Ecological Restoration - 13%
Landscaping - 13%
Timber Production - 10%

I find these results fascinating, especially since I now have 23 years of tree tube experience to draw on and use as a basis of comparison.

In a very real sense the use of tree tubes is a measure of how much each group of growers cares about and is willing to invest in the success of their tree planting project.  I find it interesting - and a bit amusing - that folks using tree tubes to produce food for wildlife are more likely to seek out and purchase tree tubes than any other group!

I find it extremely encouraging that the number of folks using tree tubes to establish landscape trees is up to 13%.  Twenty three years ago that number would have been very close to zero.  I honestly think that the dramatic increase is due in part to a phenomenon that I have observed recently:  When people use tree tubes to establish seedling trees for wildlife or timber see how fast the trees grow, they no longer see the point of spending hundreds of dollars to plant trees in their yards.  Instead they plant seedlings - or even tree seeds - in their yard, protect them with tree tubes, and grow their landscape trees the inexpensive, fast, healthy and long-lived way.

Twenty-three years ago the percentage of tree tube customers whose primary interest was timber production - planting high value hardwoods such as black walnut and red oak - would have been closer to 90%.  The drastic reduction doesn't mean that the number of tree tubes used for hardwood regeneration has decreased; it hasn't.  It means two things:  1) The sales of tree tubes in the USA in many times what it was back then, and has expanded into many other areas of tree planting, and 2) It is much more common these days for trees to be planted with multiple goals in mind, and landowners are naturally more inclined to think of the goal(s) that have a chance of coming to fruition within their own lifetime (wildlife habitat, ecological restoration, etc.) as compared to the generation-spanning objective of timber production.

Tree Tubes for Planting Landscape Trees

Dr. Doug McCreary is the guru of oak regeneration in California.  Some years ago he spent his sabbatical in England, learning about English practices for growing, planting and protecting oaks.

One of his reports is here.

Bottom line:  We in the USA can learn an awful lot about successful and cost effective establishment of landscape and roadside trees.

Corollary:  Seedling trees in tree tubes 1) cost many times less, 2) survive at a higher rate, 3) grow faster and 4) live longer than what we currently do (planting large potted or B&B trees that cost hundreds of dollars, have deformed root systems, suffer years of transplant shock, grow slowly, and succumb to disease, insects and root strangulation).

Some key points from Dr. McCreary's report from the UK:

"When driving around the English countryside, one notices that treeshelters (tree tubes) are everywhere... Some estimates are that between three and five million treeshelters are sold annually in this country that is half the size of California."

"Even though the sight of treeshelter forests is not the most aesthetically pleasing - and I suspect some environmental groups might prefer to see them banned from the planet forever - they seem incredibly effective for reforestation in England (emphasis mine)."

We'll be looking at this issue of the aesthetics of tree tubes in a post later this week.  Not surprisingly I find a field with tree tubes in it for a few years to successfully establish trees that will live another 100 years much more aesthetically pleasing than a failed planting.

"While stuck in traffic, I tried to determine how many (tree) shelters in a roadside planting had surviving plants inside... a 'windshield assessment' indicated that over 90% of the trees were growing out of the tops of the tubes.  This is consistent with a large-scale survey here several years ago of over 4,000 (tree) shelters on 192 sites where 89% contained a living tree."

"Clearly the success rate seems far higher than for roadside plantings along California highways.  The fact that England has much more summer rainfall probably contributes greatly to excellent seedling growth and survival, but I suspect that (tree) shelters here are more carefully and properly installed and maintained... Whatever the English do, it works, and we have much to learn from their many years of experience with these devices (tree tubes) that, so far, seem particularly useful for regenerating oaks in California as well (emphasis mine)."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Extending 4ft Tree Tubes

Expanding on our recent theme of choosing the best tree tube height, here's a great post from Tree Protection Supply on their new Tree Tube Extender product.

4ft tubes provide enough deer browse protection 75% of the time.
5ft tubes provide enough deer browse protection 90% of the time.

A perfectly legitimate strategy is to start with 4ft tree tubes and then, if deer start browsing trees as they emerge from the tubes, use a 2ft tree tube extender to get another 2ft of protection - not to mention another year of very accelerated growth.

Chances are the deer will only browse certain species as they emerge from the tubes, or will only browse in certain places (such as next to the field where they bed down, along a creek, etc.) so you might only need tube extenders for a small percentage of your 4ft tree tubes.

PVC tree tube stakes make this easy, because you can just snap a 2ft extension to the the top of the 4ft stake, and you're good to go.

It's so cool to see so many tree tube companies getting on board with the vented tree tube plus PVC stake combination - and more importantly to see so many landowners reaping the benefits!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tree Tubes for Deer Protection: Choosing the right height

One of the most frequently asked question by new users of tree tubes is:  Should I use 4ft or 5ft tall tree tubes for deer browse protection?
Tree tube suppliers have traditionally explained how to choose the correct tree tube height is by suggesting that tree planters use 4ft tree tubes to protect from "moderate" deer browse, and 5ft tree tubes to protect from "heavy" or "severe" deer browse.  (Presumably that means that newly-introduced 6ft tree tubes should be used for "super mega wicked bad" deer browse!)

This "moderate, heavy, extra heavy" deer browse approach to choosing the right tree tube height is based on the ridiculous assumption that the landowner can actually know - in advance - how bad the deer browse level is going to be a year or two down the road when the trees emerge from their tree tubes.  That is asking the impossible.  

So I gave myself the task of coming up with a more rational way to explain to new - and old - tree tube users how to decide which height of tree tube will work best for them.  Here is what I came up with:

​Basis:  All tree tubes provide some level of deer browse protection.

4ft tree tubes provide enough deer protection for successful establishment 75% of the time.

5ft tree tubes provide enough
deer protection for successful establishment 90% of the time.

6ft tree tubes provide enough
deer protection for successful establishment 100% of the time.

​Decision Tree:  ​There are three equally legitimate strategies for using tree tubes to grow trees past the deer browse line:

1) You can save money (or protect more trees within you budget) by using 4ft tubes.  There is a 25% chance that the deer will browse emerging trees heavily enough that you will have to either treat them with a deer repellent or add a 2ft "tube extender" to get your trees past the browse line.

Note:  Some tree tube suppliers state that 4ft tree tubes do not protect against deer.  That is patently absurd, since 75% of the time 4ft tubes provide enough deer protection, and the rest of the time a treatment of deer repellent or the use of  a tree tube extender get the tree past the browse line.  To say that 4ft tree tubes do not protect from deer is like saying LeBron James never makes a free throw since he misses once in a while.

2) Spend a little more up front on 5ft tubes.  That added 1ft of browse protection is an insurance policy,  leaving only a 10% chance that you will need to provide additional protection for your trees after they emerge from the tubes.

3) Go with 6ft tubes and remove all doubt.  

I believe that this decision tree provides a more logical framework for decision making.  As a tree planter you can protect more trees with 4ft tree tubes within your current budget, but you might need to go back and provide more protection in the future, or you can protect fewer trees with 5ft or even 6ft tree tubes and reduce the possibility that the trees will need supplemental protection down the road.

 Both are perfectly legitimate strategies for successful tree establishment in the face of increasing deer pressure - and both make a lot more sense than expecting land owners to predict if their trees will face "moderate" or "heavy" deer browse in the future.  All deer browse seems "heavy" to the tree that gets munched!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tree Tubes for healthy, low-cost & long lived landscape trees

 imageThe whole reason I started promoting tree tubes back in 1989 as a newly-minted Urban Forester (University of Minnesota) was because I saw them as a way to successfully plant in urban landscapes tree species that are not sold as large potted or B&B trees by the commercial nursery industry, but instead are available only as seedlings.  I was concerned primarily with oaks, which are not widely sold in the nursery trade due to the ridiculous misconception that they are slow growing, but also with other native species that are drastically under planted.

My thinking was:

1) Many tree species are only available as seedlings (especially deeply tap-rooted species that don't lend themselves to current nursery production practices)

2) Plant a seedling unprotected in the landscape and it will get eaten or run over with a lawn mower

3) Tree tubes + seedling trees = a low-cost, highly effective way to plant seedling trees in the landscape

Twenty-three years later my conviction that this is the best way to plant landscape trees is even stronger.  That's because I have learned,

1) Most potted or B&B trees sold in the commercial landscape industry have deformed, mangled and/or maimed root systems that impede growth, cause long term health problems, and dramatically shorten the lifespan of landscape trees.

2) The smaller the tree you plant, the less root disruption/deformation there is, the faster it will growth, the healthier it will be, and the longer it will live.

Landscape tree tube naysayers have often made the argument that tree tubes in the landscape, and especially when used for street trees, would likely become targets of vandalism.  To which I say:

1) In the increasing number of cases where tree tubes have been used to establish street, park and landscape trees the amount of vandalism has been nil.

2) Trees do get vandalized.  Would you rather have a vandal wreck a $300 B&B tree or a $10 tree tube and seedling combo?

I am getting more and more emails and phone calls from folks thinking along the exact same lines.  According to one online poll of tree tube buyers 13% of them are using the tree tubes to plant landscape trees.  Back when I started that number was a lot closer to zero. 

I received this email from a customer last week:

Within the last few weeks, the Emerald Ash Borer made its way into Massachusetts.  In central Massachusetts, the USDA has been trying to eliminate a threat from the Asian Long Horned Beetle.  I think because of pests like these there will be increasing emphasis on ways we can increase biodiversity in the forest.  The tree shelters seem like they should greatly improve results...  In these difficult economic times, the town does not have the funds to remove all the dead trees, never mind plant new ones.  I wondered if planting seedlings and using tree shelters might be an economical way to get something new planted in the springtime.

To which I say:  Amen!
 And here is an awesome post with a first hand case study of using tree tubes to plant landscape trees - and it involves planting my favorite tree, bur oak - a FAST GROWING, rugged, gorgeous trees that is laughably under planted in the landscape.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Tree Tube Innovations, Part 2: PVC Stakes

I find it interesting that the 2 major innovations in Tree Tube design and performance in the last 20 years have both originated with customers, and not the companies that make and sell tree tubes.

I also find it embarrassing, since I am one of the few guys who has been selling tree tubes from the very beginning.

The first major innovation was ventilated the tubes.  I covered venting in detail in a recent post.  I consider the advent of vented tree tubes to be so important that in my mind I divide tree tube history into two distinct eras:  Before Venting (BV) and After Venting (AV).

The second and more recent innovation is the use of PVC Tree Tube Stakes.  Trust me, as someone who has sold tree tubes for 23 years, the stakes needed to support the tubes have been the biggest headache and source of frustration.

Tree tube suppliers didn't come up with the idea of venting the tubes because they were working under a false assumption: That the reason tree tubes accelerated growth was because they functioned as an almost hermetically sealed growth chamber.  It took customers drilling holes in their tubes and reporting their great results to make us realize that tree tubes accelerated tree growth despite being hermetically sealed environments, and that they accelerated growth even more - and without the negative "side effects" common to unvented grow tubes - when holes were punched in them allowing a freer exchange of carbon dioxide.

Similarly, tree tube makers didn't develop the idea of using PVC tree tube stakes because of another false assumption, namely the assumption that tree tubes and stakes are two separate product lines rather than two components of the same product system.

I guess another false assumption is that when we think of "stake" we naturally think of wood.

A third false assumption (gosh we tree tube peddlers sure have made a lot of them!) was the idea of tree tubes as a "plant and walk away" system for tree establishment (which in terms of feasibility is right up there with cold fusion and perpetual motion machines) - the idea being that the tree tube would photodegrade and the stake would biodegrade over time.

This "hat trick" of false assumptions meant that white oak and other decay resistant hardwood lumber became the workhorse tree tube stakes for two decades.  More recently white oak has largely been replaced by bamboo as a cost-saving alternative.

It's safe to say once again that tree tubes succeeded despite the use of wood, bamboo or any of the other materials used as tree tube stakes.  The basic problem with wood and bamboo stakes - especially bamboo - is that they break, split and degrade too soon.  There's any old joke about ranchers being full time fence repairmen who keep livestock as a hobby.  Well, with wood and bamboo stakes tree tube users were essentially stake replacers with a tree planting hobby.  That's how much time was spent in replacing broken and rotten stakes.  (A customer told me just this morning that he has never made a trip to check on his trees without having to replace old wood or bamboo tree tube stakes.)

But the problem with wood and bamboo stakes goes far beyond breakage and biodegradation.  The deeper problem is that they don't complement the tree tubes.  They don't contribute to the performance of the tree tubes.

One side effect of growing trees in tree tubes - even vented tree tubes - is that the trees tend to have thin stems relative to their heights.  Tree tubes channel growth upward, and the trees are isolated from the environmental feedback - especially the swaying and shaking effects of the wind - that trigger growth responses that allocate more growth resources into thickening and tapering the trunks and developing bigger root systems. 

About 5 years ago I started hearing about customers using 1/2" pvc conduit as tree tube stakes.  I am embarrassed to say that - as I was with grower reports of the benefits of venting the tree tubes - I was skeptical.

The solution was in the hardware store the whole time!
1/2" pvc conduit makes the best tree tube stake, swaying
in the wind but never breaking.

And once again, I was wrong.  Way wrong.

We already know that we have to go back at some point - 3, 5 or 7 years down the road - and remove the tree tubes from the successfully established trees.  Therefore we know that we can retrieve (and then reuse) a non-biodegradable stake at that point... so biodegradability is not a critical factor for a tree tube stake.  

It's also easy to understand - as my customer did this morning - that PVC tree tube stakes won't break, and will save dozens of extra trips to the field to replace broken or rotten stakes.

However, the most important thing about PVC tree tubes stakes is:  They make tree tubes perform even better (rather than being a necessary evil tree tubes - and their users - must put up with and overcome).

They make tree tubes better by providing the environmental feedback - swaying and shaking in the wind - the seedlings in tree tubes don't get with rigid stakes.  Again it is that swaying motion that triggers hormonal responses which in turn "tell" the tree to channel more growth energy into stem thickness and taper as well as root develop (so-called secondary growth responses).

Take a look at the photo above.  This photo was taken late in the second growing season of a hybrid oak grown in a vented tree tube supported by a PVC stake.  This kind of caliper growth was unheard of with rigid wood or bamboo stakes.

This kind of caliper growth means that now when trees emerge from tree tubes they don't - as they had to in the past with rigid stakes - slow their height growth while reallocating growth energy to stem caliper and taper.  Now they get to the top of the tube... and keep right on going!

So once again, to my customers:  You were right, I was wrong.  Tree tubes & stakes are not two separate products.  They are component parts of the same product, and need to work together symbiotically to achieve the best results. 

PVC tree tube stakes solve all of the problems of wood stakes, completely negate one side effect of tree tube use.  Best of all, they do so for less than the delivered cost of bamboo stakes, and WAY less than the delivered cost of white oak stakes (and, by the way, much MUCH less than fiberglass stakes).