Tree Tube Tip: Sort your seedlings & tree tube the best

Here’s a common scenario faced by many of my customers:  You receive 1000 seedlings from the nursery but, as much as you’d like to use tree tubes on all of them, budget limitations mean you can only tube 250 of them.

No problem.  That is a very sound management strategy.  Those 250 tree tubes will ensure a baseline level of success – a survival percentage that means you won’t have to go back and do this all over again.

Those 250 tree tubes mean you will successfully establish a certain number of a certain species of trees – in certain locations.

The question is:  Which 250 trees do you protect?  The best way to answer that question is first on the species level, and second on the individual level… and the answer there might surprise you.

Chances are you are planting a mixture of species.  Some, like green or white ash, don’t seem to get browsed heavily by deer, and even if they do they grow so quickly that deer browse is not fatal (of course with Emerald Ash Borer we’re not planting too much ash these days – even though we probably should, but that’s another topic for another day).  So the first step in putting your limited number of tree tubes to use is to use them sparingly on species that don’t need the help (tulip/yellow poplar is another example) as much – and concentrate their use on species that a) get browsed more heavily by deer, b) don’t grow quite as fast, and c) hold the promise of becoming the highest value trees, whether “value” is being defined as high quality timber/veneer, high quality wildlife habitat, ecological restoration, riparian zone protection, etc.

My own personal bias is tree tubes to be used first and foremost on oaks.

Now comes the surprising part.  Say you have allocated 50 tubes for use on white oak, and you are planting 150 white oaks.  How do you decide which white oak seedlings should be protected by tree tubes?  Here’s how I do it:

1) I sort all of my white oak seedlings by quality.  And by quality I mean: quality of roots.  The more “first order lateral” roots – roots branching off of the tap root with a diameter at least as large as a paperclip – the better the seedling.

2) I use my tree tubes on the BEST seedlings.  This seems counter-intuitive.  It would seem to make sense to use tree tubes on the weakest seedlings, so help them survive and catch up to the others.  But this is not the way to get the most out of your tree tubes.

Those high quality seedlings with the well-branched root systems stand the best chance of becoming your high value trees.  Remember, the purpose of the tree tubes is the ensure the survival of a certain number of certain species of trees in certain locations.  The best way to do this is to use your tree tubes first and foremost on your best seedlings.

In that light it really doesn’t make sense to protect the weakest seedlings – those that are unlikely to become your crop trees even with the protection of a tree tube – while leaving the seedlings that have the best chance of becoming your crop trees exposed to deer browse, drought, weeds and other dangers.

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