BEAR LAKE PROJECT — Manistee County, Michigan March 1, 2020
Like many of you, I have been planting trees and shrubs for a very long time. For me this has almost always been in the context of a production nursery, with all the benefits of irrigation and professional care. In my capacity as a wholesale nurseryman, I am often asked to describe the best plan and techniques for planting our seedlings on sites that are quite different than in a nursery. Though I feel reasonably qualified to address these questions, I decided to try my own prescription at an 80 acre parcel we own near Bear Lake—about 150 miles north of our hometown, Holland.
We bought the property in May of 2017. The first order of business was to restore the house, which had been derelict for about 40 years. We started with evicting the squatters--raccoons and red squirrels--and then proceeded to do a complete renovation...to use it as a base of operations for our work on the property. This was pretty much complete at the end of August of the same year. (At this time, we have yet to do anything to improve the wooden barn, but that is on the agenda for the coming year.)
Our overall objective is to use the property for rest and recreation--the latter being to improve the quality of deer hunting. There are about 25 acres of primarily Sugar Maple, which was thinned about 8 years ago and is about a 40 year average age. Mixed woods (not high quality lumber) cover another 25 acres.
The road (north) side of the property (about 15 acres) was cleared about 80 years ago and produced mint, corn and hay in its day. Over the last 40 years, the productive ground grew back into native annual and perennial grasses as well as bromes, native forbs and an invasive broadleaf--knapweed. There were also some volunteer apple trees that the deer had kept browsed down to 30" and less. Autumn Olive was largely confined to the tree lines and openings in the forest. I noted that whatever birds fed on Autumn Olive berries, they certainly preferred to roost in native Black Cherries. Lots of Autumn Olive present under them--or I should say, were. Our reason for the control of Autumn Olive is that it is very invasive and should be eradicated because it offsets native plants that provide better food and habitat for native insects, birds and mammals. Our practice is to cut the shrubs down an inch or two above ground level and then "paint" (we use a paint brush for this--hence the name) the stump with undiluted “RoundUp” (Glyphosate), which has proven to be a nearly 100% effective treatment.
We did a lot of this in the fall of 2017, summer/fall of 2018 and the problem is largely under control now. We began replanting some of the open areas and glades with native shrubs such as (100) American Plum and (500) American Hazelnut. The Hazelnuts have a dual purpose in feeding the wildlife and giving us a seed source for our seedling production in the nursery. For kicks I planted out 25 Persimmon but they all died at least down to the ground after the first winter.
The first seedlings planted were covered with a 60" plastic vented tube and staked with a 3/8" fiberglass stake. Planted on 8 foot centers, these were really too close for us to maintain well with our 5000 series John Deere.
Spring of 2019 we planted out (500) Dolgo Crabapple (not native, but not invasive) to produce a food plot for the deer and second, to give us a seed collection site for our own production in the nursery. These were planted on 10 foot centers and covered with a 54" non-ventilated plastic tube, supported by a 3/4" oak stake with a point. We had these made for us locally. I planted alfalfa in the Crabapple area the fall before, to draw the deer in while the crabs were establishing. In my haste I didn't take a season to prep the site and the vetch and perennial grass returned with a vengeance the summer after the crabs were planted. I lost almost all the alfalfa. We kept the weeds largely in check by mowing and weed-whacking, but that was a battle. In spite of this, some of the Crabs were growing out of the tube by the end of the first season, planted out as 18” tree seedlings.
In March of 2019, I had an epiphany of sorts and decided to plant 12 acres into hardwoods for the production of high quality timber and hopefully in time, some veneer logs. When we finished our spring shipping, we could finally leave the nursery and get to the property to begin prepping the field for planting. It took quite a few trips over the field, but I finally got the sod broken down enough that we could plant the soil. After three trips and 5 days of planting spread over 17 days, we finished before May 25th…which was later than I’d suggest to anyone else!! We did it old school, pulled a string across the field and dug each hole with the spade. We planted 2000 Black Walnut, 2500 Black Cherry and 500 Tulip Poplar on 10 foot centers. The Walnuts went into the better ground, which was a bit lower and heavier. The average size of the Walnut seedlings was 24-30". The Black Cherry went on the somewhat higher ground and that was a bit lighter, some was quite sandy. These were some nice 1-0 seedlings, 3-4' tall. They germinated too sparsely in our beds for normal production size/quality, but they were great for this application. The last area to be planted was the Tulip Poplar. I wasn't going to use this species but a customer told me that they use a lot of them in their specialty wood products, so I thought I'd give it a try. I know that if they can handle the northern exposures, they'll be very fast and I'll be able to appreciate a fast growing tree in retirement! One concern that gave me pause was that the natural range (from what I know) stops about 100 miles south of this property. I thought I'd give it a try anyway as the seed was gathered from the northern most part of the range of the species. So far, so good—we’ll see how they made it through their first winter in May of 2020.
After planting, we protected each of the plants with the 54" tube, the same as mentioned before with the crabapples. We didn’t know how much the deer herd was going to nibble our planting, so we took the path of caution and applied the tubes. The tube is comprised of two pieces. There is a stiff transparent plastic inner core which needs to be rolled up and then that is inserted into a lighter plastic sleeve. As the hard material unfurls, it supports the lighter outer cover, which is UV resistant. Our tubes cost $1.90 each--which is the cheapest I could find on the market. The 60” stake cost $0.75 each, custom sawn at a local mill. We used two zipties to secure the tree tube to the stake. The zipties were stapled to the stake to keep them at the applied height. After the stakes and tubes were installed, we brought in 150 cubic yards of rough shredded bark (purchased at $11.00 per yard delivered) for the 5500 plants. (about $0.35 each in material) That computes to one yard per +/- 32 trees. Since we were not going to be on site to care for the planting, we thought it best to buy some insurance, so to speak, and mulching each plant was the best way we were aware of. This covered about 18" in diameter around the tree 4" deep.
We have a three point hitch working platform (7' x 10') that we used to move the mulch through the field. We could load about 3-4 yards per trip. One driver and two men with pitchforks made quick work of the project. The observed benefits of the mulch are: 1.) better moisture retention in the root zone, 2.) cooler soil temperatures in the root zone resulting in better growth and 3.) the suppression of weeds immediately next to the trees reducing competition for resources. I would say that it was money well spent and may consider doing it again this spring.
Not including labor, I figured we have about $4.00 into each planted tree.--seedling cost, tube, stake, zipties and mulch.
After finishing the planting operation, we saw a developing weed problem and began to light disc the field in both directions. We did this several times till early July.
We realized that there would be weeks if not longer, when we might have drought so I bought a 400 gallon tank and had a welder rig up a three point fork system to put it on. We built a distribution (PVC pipe) system that went out the back of the tank and then out so we could water two trees at the same time while the operator stayed on the tractor. (It’s very important that trees be planted square to make this work!) We applied a flexible rubber pipe for the last 12", which helped us to move past plants that were planted not precisely...to keep from knocking over the tubes. We calibrated the application rate to 1 gallon applied in 45 seconds. When finished, the driver would move 10' ahead to the next plant. We watered the plants 3 times over the summer. The plants stayed in a good growth mode through the season and never seemed to go into stress.
I was overseas visiting my in-laws and ministry partners for 3 weeks in July. On coming back to the planting, I found that the weeds and trees were doing very well. The lambsquarter weeds were 5 feet tall in spots and the perennial grass was running wild. I bought an 84" 3 point rototiller and began to beat it back...and did that several times over a three week period. At the same time, I had the guys spraying RoundUp around the bark. I should note that a nice dividend of the tree tubes was that you don't need to shield the trees when spraying--they were well protected from the chemical by them!
In late August, I was conferring with our agronomist about what to re-plant into the area between rows and he suggested a low growing grass mix that they use in blueberries--a "center" mix. I planted half the field in that and half the field in alfalfa. They both came up well. I'm not sure how much trouble we'll have with perennial grass going forward but I expect that between mowing and spot spraying, we'll get on top of it. The knapweed scares me a bit more as I would like to have the native broadleaves (forbs) come back--so I can't just go in with 2,4D everywhere. Knapweed is biennial from what I've read, so that one's going to take some special effort to stay ahead of.
By the end of the summer, our largest Cherries were 8' tall, largest Walnuts 5' and largest Tulip Poplar were 5'.
I fertilized the project with a 19-19-19 fertilizer in September...will probably do that annually for a number of years.
Going forward, I anticipate pruning the lower limbs off the trees to produce a clear log. I’m not sure, but thinking that this will start in year four of the planting. I have a man-lift in the nursery and hope we can eventually have "clear" wood up to 25'. I'm a novice here, but the plan is to take off a little side branching each year or two so the plant still can grow vigorously—cut off too much, too soon and I expect a weakened plant will result.
One question I haven't resolved yet is how quickly we should remove the tree tubes. I've heard some people say that after 2-3 years, you should remove them and another highly respected opinion is let the trees nearly fill the tubes (about 4" diameter) and then remove them.
Now back to the deer food plots: For annual/perennial food plots, we disced up about 4 acres of (mostly) fallow ground in the extreme back of the property, and tried to beat the grasses into submission—summer of 2017 and 1018. I sprayed Round Up a couple times but the control of perennial grass in this area is still an issue. Spring of 2018, I planted 3 acres into corn, using a Roundup Ready mix--corn grew great but the deer never went after it. All fall and winter, the deer would walk through it but it never caught on. The spring of 2019 I disced it in once or twice before a blown hydraulic valve and worn clutch put the tractor out of commission. That turned out for the better though as the deer thought it was the greatest thing ever once it was disced down. Why? I have no idea. I talked to another hunter who ran an experiment with part of the field in RoundUp Ready (gene modified) corn and part with traditional corn. He said the deer on that property would only eat the non-modified corn. I'm not 100% sure of this...don't want to draw too many conclusions, but it is worth noting. In September of 2019, I planted out a mix of soybeans, radishes and beets. This brought the deer in but not like it was a gold mine. Always something to learn.
That brings us to the end of this chapter. I will update as I can but I expect we’ll be busy on the project most of the time. I hope you found this information both interesting and helpful. I’ve enjoyed this experience of tending God’s garden…of which we are all a steward, not owners—doesn’t matter whose name is on the deed. Write me with any questions or observations and I’ll do my best to my respond.