The Tree Nursery in Your Yard
Puddock Hill Journal #34: Weaponizing our volunteers.
I find it charming the way gardeners use the word “volunteer” to mean a plant that germinates on its own, especially one that we do not consider invasive.
A volunteer plant may be wanted exactly where it grows or it may be a benign weed, which is to say, an otherwise acceptable plant that happens to be growing in the wrong place.
At Puddock Hill this summer I noticed more than a few friendly native saplings coming up in our garden beds and poking their heads above grasses in the meadows. I decided to let most of them be and transplant them, once dormant, to locations where I’d prefer them to grow.
This plan had a couple points of unimpeachable logic behind it. First, we have spent a good deal of money purchasing trees, some of which did not survive, and volunteer trees would cost nothing. Second, while the place where these trees germinated would not exactly be where I’d soon locate them, at least they wanted to grow on the property, where soils are fairly consistent.
I waited for early winter to transplant the saplings. By that time, they’re dormant, so they can stand a bit more abuse. Also, the soil remains moist all winter. They would wake up in spring well hydrated.
Earlier this week, my part-time property manager, Larry, his friend Bobby, and I set out to do the transplanting. Before the leaves fell, I had marked all trees with ribbons and labeled them. The muster of volunteers:
4 Eastern black walnuts (Juglans nigra)
2 American sweetgums (Liquidambar)
2 Northern red oaks (Quercus rubra)
2 Black cherries (Prunus serotina)
2 Tuliptrees (Liriodendron)
2 Mulberries (Moreae spp.)
1 Bald cypress (Taxodium)
1 Hickory (Carya spp.)
While we were digging the trees, I discovered another little red oak growing in the field, holding its leaves late, as the species will do, which enabled me to identify it. So in total we had seventeen trees to transplant.
We started with the hickory. A pair of these sprung up this summer on the dry upslope of the wet meadow. I decided one could stay where it was. The one we tried to dig, however, turned out to have already put down a taproot so thick and deep in rocky soil that we had to abandon the effort. It’s amazing what a happy tree can accomplish in a year, but unfortunately we’ll have to cut this one down. We will leave the other to grow in place.
We had better luck with the other trees, although we damaged some roots, so it will be interesting to see how they perform in spring.
The four walnuts we placed in the most open spot we could find in the walnut woods in the corner of the property north of the barn. We have many walnut trees at Puddock Hill, most likely all volunteers, some growing in inconvenient places such as along the driveway, where they make a mess and their fallen fruit can clog drains. But in the walnut woods (which also has a few evergreens) they are welcome. Because of past deer pressure and more recent mowing of invasives, there are no young trees among the forty or so that grow there, so these four saplings will make a start at creating a healthier woods with successional trees.
Here’s a picture of the guys planting a walnut:
We relocated the oaks and cherries to a semi-open area east of the stream where we had removed heavy invasive brush and vines five years ago. A selection of older trees grows there, but I’d like it to be woodier, partly to suppress weeds and partly to help slow and absorb storm runoff that occasionally rushes down from neighboring properties.
Down along the stream below the big pond dam we planted our lone bald cypress sapling. Inside the deer fence last fall we had planted a significant number of Atlantic white cedars, sycamores, and bald cypresses (30 or so trees in all). The cedars were an experiment, but the other two species already thrive on the property. Now we planted the new sapling between a sycamore and a pair of well-established 100-foot-tall bald cypresses.
The tuliptrees, sweetgums, and mulberries went outside the deer fence, the mulberries on either side of the tenant house gate and the others in the east woods or along the road. Like other trees we’ve planted in these areas, these will be caged to limit deer damage. Once they grow above the browse line (if they survive) we will remove the cages and only protect the trunks from rubbing.
As gardeners—even as backyard stewards—we spend so much time either encouraging or fighting nature. The rewards that nature returns to us are many but often hard to quantify, but in this case I know exactly what nature gave us: sixteen native trees (seventeen minus the hickory) that will help us help nature.
This time of year, the big pond looks bare but tidy, except for the wood duck box that has fallen into desuetude. I took this picture last week:
Net proceeds of paid subscriptions to Backyard Stewardship this year go to the Xerxes Society, but time is running out!