Novice Teaches the Tree Tube “Expert” a thing or two…

In a series of recent emails I have been working with a novice tree planter in Pennsylvania who will be planted several acres of hardwoods this coming spring.  I have given advice on species selection, site preparation, spacing and maintenance/after care.

Working with this gentleman has been extremely refreshing and rewarding, for a couple of reasons.  First, when you’re in the business of selling tree tubes, you almost never get to talk to landowners before they plant their trees.  I usually get calls and emails from landowners after they have planted their trees and they have been decimated by deer, drought or competing vegetation.  It’s great to be able to work with someone from the inception of their project, and to incorporate tree tubes into the process from the beginning.  Why does it matter?  Well, when you know you’re using tree tubes from the beginning, you can do things like plant fewer trees per acre (since you know an extremely high percentage of them will survive), and channel more of your resources into the success of those trees, rather than playing a numbers game of planting more trees and hoping a certain percentage of them thrive.  When using tree tubes you can also plant trees in curving rows – or even randomly – since you know you’ll be able to find and spray around your trees.

Second, an email from this landowner pointed out the inherent stupidity in some of the advice I have been giving without thinking for years.

In the early days of tree tubes (e.g. the late eighties and early nineties) all we ever heard from foresters was how expensive they are.  As we have discussed in this space many times, that argument is unfair because foresters were comparing the cost of planting with tree tubes (e.g. success) with the cost of planting without them, which generally resulted in failure.  Cheap, economical failure… but failure nonetheless.  When compared to the of what you’d have to do to be successful in establishing hardwood seedlings without tree tubes, trees tubes are clearly a bargain.

But after all those years of justifying the cost of tree tubes my knee jerk reaction is to be a bit defensive.  I emailed this customer something to the effect of: “Landowners often plant 300 to 400 trees per acre, then use tree tubes on a certain percentage of them – perhaps 100 or 150 trees per acre – to ensure a certain base line level of survival.”

It makes sense on a certain level; your planting plan from the county SWCD or DNR forester will likely call for planting that number of stems per acre, and chances are your cost sharing program and personal finances won’t allow you to tree tube them all.

So I was a bit taken aback when the customer emailed back saying, in essence, “Why would I waste time planting a bunch of trees that are just going to die?  Why wouldn’t I tube every tree I plant?”

Good point!  Why do we spend so much time, energy (both the elbow grease kind and the fossil fuel kind) growing and planting millions of trees that are just going to die, while taking steps to ensure a minimum number of trees per acre survive?  Viewed in this way, my recommendation must have seemed completely nuts to this gentleman.

Planting a higher number of trees per acre is never a good solution.  It never puts the odds in your favor.  If deer eat 200 trees per acre they are every bit as likely to eat 400 trees per acre.  If the deer herd is large enough (and there are very few places in the USA where it’s not) they will eat every last hardwood seedling you plant… or at least enough to prevent your planting from becoming a success.

So now our plan – I say “our” plan even though it is really “his” plan (those of you who know me also know I invest a lot of myself in your tree planting success, far beyond simply selling plastic tubes, and that the enjoyment of my job comes from growing trees vicariously through my customers) – is to plant fewer trees per acre and use tree tubes on every one.

It’s rewarding and a lot of fun to know that at least one hardwood project in Pennsylvania will be successful from the start, without the lost years, frustration and cost of replanting… and it has been even better to gain a new perspective on the importance of tree tubes from a guy who has never even used them before!

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