Tree planting tips from landowner Lowell Palecek

From our Spring/Summer 2020 newsletter article Tree Story by Lowell Palecek.

Tree sources

  • South St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD)

The SWCD offers many kinds of trees and shrubs in small quantities for bargain prices. My problem is that a small quantity is 25 of one kind of tree. I can’t plant and fence that many trees all at once. If you can, go for it. They had another option that I chose – a 20 tree variety pack, 5 each of white pine, red pine, white spruce, and white cedar. Spruce trees don’t have to be protected from the deer. I thought the red pines didn’t either. (I was wrong.) I planted one 20-tree set in 2016, and another in 2017.

  • The mother tree

In about 1987, I planted three white pine trees from milk cartons in my suburban St. Paul yard. In 2013 the Rice Creek Watershed District created a raingarden on my corner. One white pine was sacrificed to the project. The pine needle blanket under the remaining nearest tree was disturbed and thinned in the process.

This provided an opportunity for seedlings to sprout. I found 60 seedlings in the spring of 2016, just as I began planting trees up north. I transplanted 24 seedlings from the mother tree in 2016 with lesser numbers in the following years. I planted them in twos and threes because I expected a low survival rate. Most of them have lived. In a few years I’m going to have to move some of them again to give them their individual spots.

  • Protect in place or rescue

During our property tour with the 2015 Lost Forest class, someone noticed a small white pine growing among the rocks by Lake Superior (pictured, left). The deer hadn’t gotten to it yet. We have a protective fence around it now. We have found three white pines growing along the Gitchie Gami trail. One is well off the trail under the telephone line. As we put a fence around it, my grandson declared, “Off the menu.” (It’s not under the power line, which is across the highway. I assume that the telephone land-line is defunct, since they’re not clearing trees that have blown over onto it.)

We moved two trees. One (pictured, right above) was in the area that gets mowed between the trail and the highway. The other was only a foot off the trail by a 20-foot-high rock wall.

  • Giveaways

We got free trees from three sources – 3 white pines from Castle Danger Brewery in 2018, 7 white cedars from a classmate in our 2018 Master Naturalist class, (thank you, Michelle), and 5 white pines from the Boulder Lake SNA in 2019.

Planting the trees

Spacing

I have planted white pines 25 feet or more apart. That seems like a large spacing when they’re small. However, my two 33-year-old trees in the suburbs are 50 feet apart and they are almost touching hands. If I had another one half-way between, I would have a wall of white pine. I assume that in a tighter space on a more challenging landscape the trees I am planting won’t spread out quite so wide, but even so, you need to give them room to grow.

I have planted red pine trees about 20 feet apart.

I have planted white cedar trees in groups with only about 6 feet between individuals. I did that because that’s how nature grows them in the woods.

Digging a hole

You may have seen how-to videos in which a young, fit male walks along a field with a long-handled tool. He pushes its long flat blade into the ground, moves it forward and back to make a crevice, drops in the seedling, pushes the dirt back together, and moves to the next location. The whole procedure takes less than a minute per tree.

That works in Winona County. My brother has planted 2000 or more trees in a season on his farm near Pickwick. It may work in your location.

It doesn’t work on my rocky hillside by Lake Superior. The “soil” is full of rocks and roots. I sometimes have to abandon a hole because I get blocked by a rock too big to dig out. When all goes well it takes me 20 to 30 minutes to make a barely-adequate hole.

Here’s my process that I have developed and refined over the last 5 years.

  1. Poke around with a shovel until I find a place where I can push it 2 inches into the ground.
  2. Set aside the shovel. Get down on my knees for the rest of the procedure.
  3. Use a pry-bar roofing tool to pull out small amounts of dirt, and extract rocks. Use the pruner to cut roots.
  4. Use a trowel to scoop out the last bit of loose dirt at the bottom of the hole.

In the end, I have a hole that’s about a foot deep. That’s all I get.

Caring for roots

The SWCD seedlings have wonderful root systems, typically two feet long or more. You cannot put a two-foot root in a one-foot hole. If you create a ‘J’ shape, the roots won’t grow downwards, and the tree will die.

I did what I had to do. I cut off half the length of the root with a scissors. That still left me most of the actual mass of the root. The trees have made it, so far. That is, all except the spruce trees. Out of 10 spruces planted in 2016 and 2017, only one remains alive in 2020, and it’s smaller than it was when I planted it. I think it’s finally turned around and started growing.

Conclusion: My method works for cedars and white and red pine trees. It fails for spruce trees. I can’t blame the environment, because spruce trees grow themselves here. Which means it’s ok that I can’t grow them. They don’t need my help.

The transplants were simpler. The baby trees from home had roots shorter than my holes were deep. The two white pines by the bike trail had very shallow roots because of the base of dense gravel a few inches below the surface of the ground. Likewise, the cedars from our friend were growing in the edge of her driveway and didn’t have deep roots.

Transport before planting

The SWCD trees were bare-root trees a foot or two tall. An entire set of 20 trees came in a plastic bag smaller than a kitchen garbage bag. They were moist inside the bag, but still it’s not an ideal environment. Recipients were advised to get our trees in the ground fast, which I did. I planted them within 2 days of receiving them.

It’s important to not let a tree’s root-ends dry out. They’ll die and so will the tree. You have to be especially careful with a bare-root tree.

I brought the baby trees from home as bare root trees. I even rinsed off the roots to avoid bringing earthworms to the North Shore. Did you know that all earthworms in Minnesota are invasive? There are no native earthworms here. It turned out I’m about a century too late on my site. Remember I said this shoreline was settled by fishermen? I found worms already here when I dug my holes. At least I didn’t introduce any new species.

I transported the tiny trees in a bucket of wet peat moss.

Tait Lake is about an hour and a half from our property by car. We used a plastic garbage bag to transport the cedar trees with bare roots from our friend’s driveway.

I didn’t have to expose the bare roots of the two trees that I moved from the bike trail, so I could just carry them on my shovel. I dug the holes before digging up the trees to minimize the time they were out of the ground.

Fences

You need to protect white pine and white cedar trees from deer browse. I learned the hard way that in my location I need to protect red pines, too. I lost three of my first set of 5 red pines in 2016.

An enclosure is a simple ring of fencing, anchored to the ground by a couple of pieces of rebar. Fencing comes in 50 foot rolls. You can make 4 or 5 enclosures per roll.

The North Shore Forest Collaborative has an annual program that subsidizes rolls of fencing through a grant from the Weeks Foundation. See http://northshoreforest.org for more information.

 

Here are some things I’ve learned about fences from experience.

  • You don’t have to get the rebar very far into the ground. I’ve seen tools you can use to drive the rod two or three feet deep. In that technique, two people drive in the rods first and then lift the fencing over them. I stand up the fence first, however it fits in the immediate surroundings. Then I thread the rebar through the top and bottom squares of the fence and push it 6 to 12 inches into the ground by hand. This is enough, which it has to be because that’s as far as it goes. This leaves more rod above ground to support the fence. I’ve had deer crash into my enclosures. I’ve had trees fall on them, sometimes obliterating the fence. Always, the fence has protected the tree or trees within.
  • If I make 4 enclosures per roll, I can get inside the enclosure to weed around my trees. At 5 enclosures per roll I can’t. I’m 5-foot-11, 190 pounds and not very limber. If you’re younger, lighter, and more agile, 5 fences per roll may work for you.
  • Pay attention to where the opening will be so that you can get inside to weed.
  • When you cut off your section of fencing, cut near the far edge of the squares where you are cutting. That way you will have 2-inch lengths of wire that you can use to latch your enclosures shut.
  • Only latch your opening closed in 3 places – at the top, halfway up, and at the bottom. Remember that you will have to unlatch the doors to get inside for weeding and other maintenance.
  • Deer aren’t the only enemy. I’ve had rabbits or hares nip off the growth points of some of my trees. I’m beginning to deploy rabbit fencing around the bases of my enclosures.

Maintenance

I see a lot of failed tree plantings out there – rusty circles of fencing in the woods with nothing special inside them. It’s a waste of time and effort to plant a tree and then let it die.

On the other hand, I’m not going to be around to see these trees grow large. I have to focus on what I can do while they’re small.

Watering – not

I don’t have a well and long hose. I’m a senior citizen. My plantings are from 50 to 100 feet above the lake and from 300 to 1000 feet away from it. That’s as the crow flies. I’m not a crow.

Each tree got 2 gallons of water on the day I planted it, because that’s how much I could carry.

I have a rain-maker gift, though. Every spring it has rained a lot in the weeks right after I have planted my trees.

Weeding

I hate to call it weeding when I am pulling out plants that grow naturally in the woods. But my dad’s definition of a weed was anything that’s growing where it’s not wanted.

There are three reasons to weed around the trees.

  • To eliminate the competition for water and nutrients.
  • To allow sunlight to get to the trees. Annual plants grow fast and can easily cover up the trees, especially the smaller ones. Red pines do not tolerate shade.
  • To reduce the risk that the white pines will get the blister rust. Removing the other vegetation in the enclosure lets air flow over the ground and keep the surface drier. This makes a less friendly environment for the fungus that causes the rust.

Warning:  Don’t plant more trees than you can take care of. It takes me about 4 hours, twice a year, to weed my 50+ enclosures.

Pruning

This doesn’t apply to my trees yet. The following is what I’ve read and been told.

First, don’t over-prune. The experts say to preserve the foliage of the top two-thirds of the tree.

Corollary: Don’t take your fences off until your trees are 20 feet tall, because the deer will prune off the bottom 7 feet.

Second, do prune the white pines when they get tall enough. Blister rust usually starts within 8 or 10 feet of the ground. My tallest white pine tree is 4 feet tall. In a couple of years I will start taking the bottom branches off my white pines.

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