Plant A Tree Today
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today!
We all want to improve hunting opportunities on land we control. Many of us put in food plots, plant nut and fruit trees and manage native vegetation in an effort to increase wildlife populations. Much has been written about food plots, concentrating on wheat, oats, clovers and other annual and perennial crops. So, in this article we are going to look at a more holistic approach that improves the land with more long-term strategies.
Although this approach works best for landowners, hunters who have long-term leases can also benefit from tree plantings centered on shorter-term goals that concentrate on fruits like pears, apples and muscadines that can start producing fruits in three to five years. Such improvements in land can increase benefits for lessees, such as better owner/lease relationships and maybe lower lease prices.
Hardwood and fruit trees will provide additional food for deer and other wildlife. There is also a strong sense of satisfaction planting a fruit tree and then nurturing it to produce fruit. It is delightful to pick a pear and eat it fresh off the tree.
I purchased a small tract of land in middle Georgia that fulfilled a lifelong dream to own hunting land. I love to hunt my land, but I think I enjoy working on the land just as much. I think I share that love of hunting land with many GON readers, and that explains all the land-for-sale ads in the magazine.
Not only is land a good investment, but it also allows us to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. We say we own the land, but we really are just passing through, and we only possess land for a short period of time. I am glad to be a member of the Georgia Certified Tree Farm Program and also the Georgia Stewardship Program.
“The thoughtful land stewardship you practice leaves a better world to those who will follow,” says Chris Howell, Forester and Steward Specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC).
Working with the GFC and with DNR biologists, I have gotten much beneficial information about land, timber and wildlife management, and I highly recommend these programs, but more on that later. Let’s first consider the types of trees and plants you might want to consider planting on your land.
For most landowners, Howell recommends planting a variety of hard- and soft-mast producing trees in wildlife openings or along maintained forest roads or trails. Make sure they will get plenty of sunlight. Avoid planting trees in deep woods or too close to edges where there is little sun, or they will grow tall, weak trunks. Planting trees in a sunny food plot and then planting annual crops around them is a good plan. I am fortunate to have a creek on my land where I’m able to pull water out with a gas-powered pump and irrigate my food plot, which helps a lot in the dry early fall season. You might want to consider the same approach, instead of waiting for the spotty rain showers.
Crabapple, wild plum, persimmon, white oak and swamp chestnut oak are ideal native options. Sawtooth oak and pear are two introduced species that are very popular for wildlife plantings, says Howell.
Taking a closer look at oak trees, the white oak and swamp chestnut oak are two of the top sellers from the GFC. These acorns have less tannic acid in them and are more palatable to the deer. Both northern and southern red oaks also do well in Georgia woods. The GFC is taking orders now, and since they often sell out of trees, get your order in soon. They are the best source of young 1-year-old trees that are grown in a large farm-style operation.
In addition to getting GFC trees, what you are really buying is time, a precious commodity when it takes oaks 25 years to start dropping acorns. The GFC trees are about 3 to 4 feet tall, which probably equates to 2 to 3 years growth in the wild, where growing conditions are not nearly as good as in the GFC nursery field where they are watered and fertilized. I planted some swamp chestnut acorns from the State Champion tree about 20 years ago, and I started getting a few acorns last year, which is about as good as it gets. If you order from GFC, be aware that tree prices get cheaper with a larger order. For example, buy 10 sawtooth oaks at 3.50 each, or buy 500 at .42 cents apiece.
If a variety is sold out, check back with them in February since some orders get canceled or returned. You can get on a waiting list for orders that are canceled by calling GFC Ranger Shawn Akins at 478.751.3520. You can also order trees through your local hardware store, through the Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin or through many online sources like www.tytyga.com or www.isons.com.
Last year, I bought 500 swamp chestnut oaks, planted about 250 on my land, sold a few and gave away some others to good friends. They come bare root but are dipped in gel to protect the roots and are bundled in thick paper. Upon pickup, which occurs from December to February, add a little water to the package and get them in the ground quickly. Dig a hole about the size of a five-gallon bucket and add soil conditioners if the soil is heavy clay or sandy. Do not add animal manure or fertilizer. If your soil is good quality, soil conditioners may not be required.
Deer love to eat the young tree leaves, so make sure to plant the tree in the center of a wire cage at least 5 feet tall and 18 inches in diameter across the center. Use welded wire that is 2 inches by 4 inches square, available at Lowes or Home Depot. If you use cattle fencing with large square openings, make your cage much larger or deer will simply stick their heads into the wire and eat your plant. If you don’t use the wire cages, deer will nibble the tops out and you’ll lose a year’s growth and get a misshaped tree. Sometimes the damage is severe and the tree will die because of deer damage, so protective cages are highly recommended.
Don’t overlook the possibility of growing your own trees, which I have done for many years. Last year I picked up hundreds of swamp chestnut acorns and immediately planted them in a large spot in my garden at home. I also planted some in 2-gallon plastic pots. White oak acorns do not require chill hours to germinate, but red oaks do require chill hours, so you need to store them outside in a moist location and plant them in early spring. Plant your acorns about 1-inch deep, about 6 inches apart, in long rolls, and do not add fertilizer.
To prevent squirrels and chipmunks from digging them up, put a layer of weed barrier and pine straw over them, and weigh down the edges with 2×4 lumber to keep out the critters. If you fail to do this, you may lose your total crop. Once the acorns germinate, keep them weeded and watered for best growth. I use a little 10-10-10 fertilizer once the plants are about a foot tall, and occasionally water with Miracle-Gro. You can expect about 3 feet of growth the first year. Biting insects will eat the young growth, so I use a spray of liquid Sevin to keep bugs away. Now let’s consider other good tree choices for your land.
The sawtooth oak is an early producer of acorns and can start bearing around its sixth year if properly watered and fertilized. The regular sawtooth makes a large nut, while the gobbler sawtooth makes a smaller acorn, preferred by turkeys, so take your pick. My father, Grady Rufus Trussell, planted the current Georgia State Champion on our family land in Houston County in 1965, and it drops about 500 to 1,000 pounds of acorns per year. The owner of that tree is now Michael Wensjoe in Bonaire.
In recent years blight-resistant chestnut has increased in popularity because it is a fast-growing tree and produces a larger nut. The Dunstan chestnut, named for developer Dr. Robert Dunstan, is a cross-pollinated tree of American and Chinese chestnut varieties that is blight resistant. These trees are usually available at Walmart in the springtime for around $35, and if any are left over later in the year, you might pick them up cheaper by talking to the manager. You can also order them at www.chestnuthilltreefarm.com. I have about 20 of these trees that are doing well and started producing a few nuts at 3 years old.
Pears and apples are great food for deer and are not difficult to grow if you pick the right varieties, says Reggie Thackston (www.thackstonwildlife.com) and Kent Kammermeyer (Facebook: Kent Kammermeyer). These retired Georgia DNR game biologists co-authored the book “Deer and Turkey Management Beyond Food Plots.”
The normal apple varieties you find at Walmart and other stores like Red Delicious should be avoided unless you don’t mind weekly pesticide sprayings, says Thackston. If you want stronger, more self-reliant varieties, try Arkansas Black, Yates, Jonafree and Wolf River. Use semi-dwarf trees for deer and make sure they don’t require cross pollination. Arkansas Black is not self-pollinating and needs a cross pollinator apple tree planted close by, while Yates is great self-pollinator tree to try. Even these trees need to be monitored for pests like army worms that can strip a tree in a few days. Crabapples are good deer food and semi-hardy in food plots. Try Craven, Whitney, Hughes, Dolgo and Hyslop varieties, and avoid trees that only flower with no fruit.
As a young hunter, I enjoyed picking wild muscadines off the vines and eating them. Many years later I still eat them in the wild but now have lots of them planted on the edges of my food plots. Plant them on grape arbors and string your wires about 6 feet off the ground to prevent spring deer browsing. My favorite variety is the Bronze Scuppernong muscadine, as it can be very sweet and juicy. However, it does need a cross pollinator like Cowart, which is a self-pollinating black variety. Both Ison and Tyty nurseries have many varieties to consider.
Pears are another great food source for your deer and often drop fruits during the bow season. Kieffer and Bartlett are old good standby varieties, and I’ve had very good luck with Moonglow and Orient pear varieties for more than 30 years, and they are delicious eating, too! Plant trees the same depth as they grew in the pots and make a small shallow depression over the roots to hold water, so it doesn’t run off before perking into the ground. Keep all competing grass and weeds 3 feet away from the tree to promote good growth.
Persimmons are a great food source for deer, but it takes 10-plus years for a store-bought tree to start producing fruit. Grafted female trees that are sure to produce fruit are your best bet. Persimmon trees are usually all male or all female, but some have both flowers. I have watched some mature persimmon trees for years that never produce a persimmon. If you buy wild persimmon trees, make sure to plant several for good cross pollination. Japanese or oriental-type persimmons should be avoided, as fruits don’t normally drop from limbs, and they are prone to freezing damage in wintertime.
Other plants to consider in your food-plot area are chinkapin, blueberries, pawpaws, blackberries and plums. Wild plums are sold by the GFC, and you can plant seeds or dig up young plants from the wild. They are a short-term but valuable food source.
This article is about food for wildlife, but don’t forget to consider adding pine trees to some locations to add money to the pocket book. You can get trees from the GFC or Meeks Farm and Nursery, operated by George and Steve Meeks near Swainsboro. They offer Super Deep Plug container pines that are genetically strong, very dependable and fast growing. See their full line of trees and native grasses at www.meeksfarms-nurserys.com or call 877.809.1737
A Forest Stewardship management plan can be provided to landowners interested in managing their forestland for multiple-use purposes such as timber, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, aesthetics and soil and water conservation. This is a detailed and comprehensive management plan, says Chris Howell, written by natural resource professionals with backgrounds in forestry, wildlife biology, soil science and recreation management. Landowners with an interest in multiple-use management begin by completing an official application which details interests and objectives. The resource professional responsible for constructing the plan will evaluate the property and develop a management program to help reach objectives while improving the management of all resources. Also check out the Georgia Tree Farm Program at www.treefarmsystem.org. It’s a great resource for landowners, and some programs have financial incentives.
Do you have a champion tree on your land? Another excellent GFC program is the Champion Tree Program, administered by GFC Ranger Ryan Phillips. It is a great way to recognize the biggest and best trees in Georgia, so check out the GFC website under forest management. For more about species selection, planting and Georgia’s sustainable forests, visit www.gatrees.org.
Remember, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today!
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