The 2013 Growing Season

The winter of 2012-2013 was much more typical than the year before.  Temperatures were cold, most of January and February were below freezing but seldom below zero.

My seed gathering in the fall of 2012 went well. In addition to the more common Oaks I added Pin Oak which I found growing in the yard of our Conservation office.  I also added Chinkapin seed from the Michigan champion tree in Ann Arbor.  I had been watching it for several years and this year it produced a healthy crop of acorns.  I planted four trays of 18 pots each with White Oak seeds and one of Chinkapin seeds and put them in the cold room.  I put the rest of the seeds in flat open trays and piled half in the closet and half in the ground.  All of the seeds this year were collected locally.

Real mouse proofing

I went with my wife, Helen, to her Fiber Arts Guild Christmas Party and had an interesting conversation with the husband of our hostess.  He said that mice could squeeze through the ½ inch hardware cloth that I had been using and that I would have to use ¼ inch to really keep them out.  This explained the occasional attacks on my seed in spite of its being covered.  I was thinking that they had found a way under or reached through but apparently ½ inch slowed them down without stopping them.

By this time I had already put my seed into trays with ½ inch hardware cloth bottoms and stacked them in a hole in the ground and piled them in a temperature controlled room.  I had kept them from harm for the previous two years.  This year, however, was different.  When I opened the temperature controlled closet in March it was a scene of chaos.  Acorns were scattered everywhere.  Many of them were all or partly eaten.  Others were mixed with each other in a way that made it difficult to determine which seed would grow which species of tree.  The seeds in trays of pots were a total loss.  The pile of flat trays were somewhat more protected.  The tray on top of the pile was the most damaged.  The trays beneath were also damaged by the mice continuing through the ½ inch holes in the hardware cloth.  I sorted things out and salvaged quite a bit – and I had the other half of the seeds in the ground – with ½ inch hardware cloth over the top the same as last year and the year before.

When I dug up the seeds in the ground the mice had gotten to them, too. They had dug under the hardware cloth on top of the ground and gone through each layer into the next below.  They especially went after my Chinkapin seeds near the bottom of the pile.  Apparently those are a real delicacy.  These trays were not so mixed, just depleted so I added them to the others in the greenhouse and waited to see what would sprout.

Spring surprises: The results of this year’s planting

The 2013 tree of the year is the Red Oak.  We planted 50 in Rootmaker bags and almost 200 in pots.  The champion is the Chinkapin.  Even though most of the seeds were heavily damaged, eighteen of them grew into little trees.  I also planted White, Bur, Pin, and Black Oaks and Shagbark and Shellbark Hickories.

This spring the results of last fall’s planting were mixed.  We planted 75 Bur Oaks in the ground and 100 in pots and had almost 100% survival.  We planted 50 White Oaks in the ground and almost 100 in pots. The ones in the ground did very well while only half of the ones in pots made it.  We planted 70 Walnuts and Butternuts in the ground and a few in pots and the only survivors were 4 Butternuts and 2 struggling Walnuts.  A variety of smaller quantities of other trees were planted in the ground and in pots.  Those in the ground did well while the ones in pots all failed.

Wood chips made all the difference – sometimes

We learned another of those hard lessons.  The potted trees that survived were the ones that were set out and surrounded with wood chips before winter.  The ones set out in early winter and surrounded with wood chips gave mixed results.  The ones that didn’t get chips until spring or not at all, didn’t survive.

Hard though that lesson was, at least it was clear.  Chips before winters brings success, no chips before winter means no success.

The problem with the Walnuts planted in the ground is more puzzling.  Almost all of the Walnuts and Butternuts planted in the ground did not survive the winter, 99% of the oaks and Hickories planted in the same place and in the same Rootmaker bags were just fine. Walnuts are large relative to the 4 inch pots that we start all of our trees in.  Because they are large the trees grow rapidly when they first sprout and probably find the small pots confining. This may mean that they are weaker as they approach their first winter.   This fall I have planted a test batch of walnuts deep in larger pots and another test batch in shallow soil in the same larger pots.  Next Spring I plan to do the same thing with seeds that have spent the winter in seed trays and then sprouted.  The rest of the seeds I will plant in 4 inch pots as a control.

Selling trees

Last fall I had a conversation with one of our local conservation people about selling my potted trees in their annual spring tree sale.  They sell a very large quantity of small inexpensive bare root trees to people in our county.  He was interested in having a smaller quantity of more valuable trees as part of the sale.  His estimate was that he would need about 200 trees available to be able to put them in the catalog and not having a lot of orders that he couldn’t fill.  I had about 20 Shingle Oaks in pots that were ready for market. He included them as an unadvertised special and sold 6.  I am hoping that the 100 Bur Oaks that I planted last fall and the 175 or so Red Oaks that I am planting this fall will qualify for inclusion in the catalog in two or three years when they are ready.

Delivering trees

Last summer was my first experience with a company that used truck mounted tree spades to move large trees.  In the spring we used Advanced Tree Moving exclusively.  In the fall we developed relationships with two other companies.  One had slightly different equipment and was located north of Detroit where I have a fair amount of business.  The other was local and available for small local jobs.  This spring the local tree mover, who is also a one man operation, got a job with the Highway Department and stopped moving trees.  The owner of the other company was killed in an accident with his tree moving equipment.

I was back to one tree-moving company.  They do a good job but it is useful to have some variety.  This fall two local landscapers moved my trees for various customers.  This gives me back some of the flexibility with the addition that they may actually sell some trees for me.

Tornado trees

Last spring when the tornado went through the subdivision a mile away from us we did quite a bit of business with the people who had damage to their yards but little or no damage to their houses.

This spring the people who had damage to their homes and had to move out while repairs were being done finally got around to working on their yards.

Spring and summer

This spring when I was starting trees in the greenhouse while it was still cold outside things were a little cramped.  This summer I bought an extension that will effectively double the size of the greenhouse.  The plan was to assemble it this summer but now it looks like we will put it up early next spring.

This summer was very good for growing things.  We had ample rain, a mix of hot and cool days and plenty of sun.  We had a couple of late frosts and freezes but not at the critical time for the fruit trees.  One last freeze on May 13 nipped the early growth on the oak trees especially the ones in warm spots.  It also killed the flowers on a few nut trees.  The oaks recovered and some went on to have spectacular growth this summer.  This fall when I gathered tree seeds I found enough trees that had escaped the freeze by flowering a little earlier or a little later.

Fall activities

Seed gathering this fall provided me with the largest variety of oak seed all from Washtenaw County in the short history of Dexter Tree Farm. The champion Chinkapin in Ann Arbor produced for a second year in a row.  It wasn’t as heavy as last year, but a sufficient crop to give me a second chance with ¼ inch hardware between the seeds and the mice.

Another friend who has a Shingle Oak in his yard had a substantial crop for the first time in the three years I have been watching it.  The one area that I have been watching with a group of Swamp White Oaks decided to join the party and produce.  These nuts fell gradually and late, but I kept stopping by whenever I was in the neighborhood and eventually had a good supply.  Another friend who lives on Easy Street (really, a street named Easy) turned out to have a really large Butternut that carpeted her whole back yard with Butternuts.

The Pin Oaks at the Conservation Department office repeated with a smaller but sufficient quantity.  Red, White, Black and Bur oaks all were easy to find as usual.  Walnuts are all over my yard.  I gathered Shellbark Hickory that I found while looking for other nuts but didn’t look for the other Hickories.  I have several slow growing specimens from earlier years and so far no one is asking for them.  One of my Chestnut trees produced Chestnuts for the first time this fall.

These seeds are all packed into seed trays with ¼ hardware cloth bottoms stacked on top of each other with another piece of fastened to the top of the top tray.  Other seeds are planted in pots and the pots are in the cold closet.  I have places a couple of cedar boards in the closet which should repel mice and intend to add some dryer sheets which are reputed to have the same effect.

Looking ahead

The next task is to transplant several hundred trees into 5 gallon pots and pack them in wood chips.  Then there is always pruning to do in the winter when the leaves are out of the way and there is not much else to do.  And finally I hope to get started on the greenhouse addition so that we are not too late getting plants started in the spring.

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