Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why do we need tree tubes?

Why do we need tree tubes in order to successfully establish seedling trees?  After all, trees managed to grow before tree tubes existed.  Why do we need tree tubes now?

There are two answers to that question.

The first is that a tree planting project is different than a naturally regenerated forest.  A naturally regenerated forest is the result of hundreds of years, billions of seeds, and a huge amount of random chance.  The odds that any one tree seed will someday become a mature tree are minute.  The accumulation of huge spans of time and huge numbers of seeds ultimately result in a forest... sometimes.  Nature has plenty of failed attempts at forest regeneration (we call these failures "prairies"). 

It takes an enormous amount of work - not to mention money - to plant trees in order to create a new forest.  And since the tree planting can't sow billions of tree seeds and doesn't have hundreds of years to wait, something has to be done to take the element of random chance out of the equation.  There are lots of ways to do this, to tip the scales of chance more in favor of success - planting species most likely to thrive in local growing conditions, properly planting high quality stock, and aggressively suppressing vegetative competition.

But the single most powerful tool to turn the odds in favor of the tree planter over random chance, if the tree tube (or treeshelter as it is known in the UK and among hardwood silviculturists in the USA).

The second reason we need tree tubes today is illustrated beautifully in this chronology given on this web page of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

1900 - market and subsistence hunting virtually eliminate deer in Oklahoma

1917 - statewide deer population estimated at 500 

1944 - 379 deer harvested by hunters

2005 - 101,111 deer harvested, 40% of them does (which means wildlife managers are trying very hard to reduce the size of the herd)

This numbers are nearly the same in every state east of the Rockies.  Deer nearly wiped out by 1900, followed by reduced or banned hunting for a period of time, combined with heroic conservation efforts to restore whitetail deer, combined with changes in the landscape (creation of a patchwork with exponentially more forest edge, the preferred habitat of deer) and reduced predator populations, leading to huge deer harvests that still can't keep pace with the rate of reproduction.

Many of the natural forests we have can very likely trace their origins to that 1900 time period when deer numbers were at an all time low.

We are now trying to plant trees when the deer population is at an all time high.

There are now places in the USA where natural hardwood regeneration is seriously threatened, where there are very few young hardwood trees.  The deer simply eat them faster than they can grow.

So random chance is not an option any more.

There are other ways to protect trees from deer browse, but none as cost effective as tree tubes.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Never a bad time to apply Tree Tubes

One common misconception about Tree Tubes is that they can only be applied to newly planted seedlings, right at the time of planting.

Fact is, there's never a bad time to apply tree tubes, as this excellent You Tube video from Tree Protection Supply demonstrates.

There are so many small trees out there - both planted in previous seasons and naturally regenerated "volunteers" - that could benefit greatly from tree tubes.

Rule of thumb:  As long as you have a living root system and a tree tube you can grow a great tree.

Those oak or black walnut or crab apple seedlings you planted three years ago that the deer have kept browsed to ankle height?  Prune them to a single stem and put a tree tube on them.

Those "volunteer" oaks you find when hunting, after bush hogging or just when out for a walk?  Carry some flagging tape with you to mark them, and then go back out with pruning shears and tree tubes in hand.

In both cases you have a big, strong root system that just needs the protection of a tree tube in order to express itself.  Landowners often can't believe how fast these trees grow in the year after tubing them.

Rejuvenating struggling seedlings is one of the most rewarding uses of tree tubes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Using tree tubes to establish native California oaks from acorns

We have been talking about various applications and uses of tree tubes.  One broad area where tree tubes have proven their mettle is in ecological restoration, more specifically the re-establishment of critical native species into environments that are no longer "native."  A great example of this is the use of tree tubes for California native oaks.

Tree tubes are being used coast to coast to help re-establish native trees whose numbers have dwindled due to disease (particularly in the case of the might American chestnut in the east) or to a combination of grazing, fire suppression, competition from exotic grasses & weeds, deer browse, rodent damage, and disease (in the case of California's native oaks).

As you can tell from that laundry list of threats, successful establishment of California oaks is not easy in 2012.  The mature oaks that line the golden hills of California got their start in a completely different world, before livestock grazing, before the spread of European annual grasses that have largely replaced less competitive native perennial grasses and forbes, and when fire - both lightening caused and as part of the vegetation management strategies of California's indigenous people - helped suppress competition giving oaks time and space to grow large enough to shade out competition.

Tree tubes to the rescue!  It is a truism that a) the more important it is that a particular tree get successfully established*, and b) the greater the threats to that tree's survival, c) the more more it makes sense to use tree tubes.

* Then again, in the same way that police officers should never draw their gun unless they intend to use it, people should never plant trees unless they intend for them to survive and thrive. 

All of this makes tree tubes the perfect tool for helping restore and re-establish California's beautiful native oaks.  And one of the best ways to plant California oaks is be direct seeding acorns and protecting them with tree tubes.

Blue oak acorns ready for planting
(Click to enlarge)

Planting acorns, chestnuts, black walnuts, and hickory nuts directly in the soil and protecting them with tree tubes is a practice that is really catching on.

In this case this blue oak (Quercus douglasii) acorns are being planted on former ranch land that is being converted to an oak preserve in the Sierra foothills near Springville, CA.

The acorns were gathered from local blue oak trees, to ensure that they are well suited to the climate and soil.  They were then soaked in a pail of water for 24 hours, and any "floaters" were discarded (floating after that period of time is a sure sign that weevils or other insects have burrowed into the acorn and have eaten all of the nutmeat that is needed to produce a new seedling).

Then two acorns are being planted in each planting hole, about 1 inch deep and loosely covered with soil.  Each set of 2 acorns is then being protected with 6 foot Tree Tubes for protection from deer, but more importantly from the cattle that will be grazing on this property for the next few years as part of a lease agreement.

The tree tubes will:

Protect the acorns and seedlings from rodents (except burrowing ground squirrels; other measures are being taken to protect from them)

Protect the seedlings from getting browsed or trampled by cattle (steel t-posts are being used for stakes, with a second, shorter stake being used on the opposite side to prevent cattle from rubbing against the tube and pivoting it around the stake.

Shield the seedlings from deer browse.

Greatly reduce moisture stress in an area that goes months without rain and where temp's often top 105 degrees.

Facilitate effective weed control, so annual grasses do not take the limited soil nutrients and moisture these oaks will need.
Tree tubes are proving to be an absolute must for the successful establishment of native California oaks.  Are tree tubes "natural?"  No, but then neither is the environment into which we are planting those native oaks - too many cattle, too much grass seed, and too little fire.