Okay, so I sound like a megalomaniac. But I’m not bragging. The bit of knowledge I’m referring to is something very few people need to know which is why you probably don’t. But just in case you ever happen to start a new woodlot from scratch, the following experience might come in handy.
I’m approaching the age when dodging rams and birthing lambs is more than I can manage, but I want to keep grazing sheep so that I can continue to learn more about pasture farming. So I didn’t breed the ewes this year but will keep them just to mow the grass. That means I have more pasture than I need, so I am turning one of the eight rotated plots back to forest.
I could just fence out the sheep from that plot and let nature take its course. First weeds and brush would take over, then eventually native trees would come back in to claim their natural domain. But if I actually plant tree seeds and seedlings and keep the weeds at bay, I can get a woodlot well-started in about half the time it would take at nature’s pace.
So I have started planting our native hardwood trees on this one pasture plot: white oak, red oak, black walnut, wild cherry, white ash and sugar maple. I’m sure I’ll try some other varieties as well. I thought it would be a simple task because I have lots of seedlings growing in the established woodlot near our house, and plenty of black walnuts and acorns to plant as seeds. But alas nothing is simple in nature.
My first setback: the squirrels stole almost every nut and acorn of the hundred or so that I planted last fall. Okay. Nature 100, Gene 0. I’ll try again this fall. It looks like we are going to get a bumper crop of white oak acorns so maybe the squirrels can gorge on what they find in the established woodlot and leave my planted seeds alone.
The first unusual thing I’ve learned in this regard (unusual to me) is that it is much better to plant white oak acorns in the fall shortly after they fall because they almost immediately put down a root even though the acorn is lying on top of the ground and shows no sign of sprouting. If you wait until spring, the white oak acorn is already solidly rooted and more difficult to transplant. Honestly now, admit it. You didn’t know that either.
This spring, I have been transplanting maple, wild cherry and white ash seedlings. Squirrels won’t eat them, heh heh heh. So what happened? The transplants, all 50 of them, were doing fine. Then one morning, all the leaves on the white ash seedlings, every single one of them, were shriveled and black, just like tomatoes look after getting frosted. And yes, that is exactly what happened. My would-be new woodlot is on low land next to the creek, where frost will surely occur if frost is in the area. Up on the higher land, in the established woodlot, the ash seedlings were unaffected. The sugar maples next to the frosted white ash were burnt but wild cherry seedlings unscathed.
Seems hard to believe, but here’s the scoop. If you plant white ash seedlings on low land in April in this climate, they just might get frizzled by frost. Wait until after the last frost date in your area to transplant them. I wonder, evolutionarily speaking, if this is why white ash trees are one of the slowest to leaf out in spring. Some of the seedlings did start to leaf out again from secondary buds, but a second frost laid them low along with the maples. Score: nature 40, Gene 10.
The moral of the story is this: others may laugh at you for trying new or unusual ideas, but that is the way you gain new and unusual information. Not very many people are going to fly a kite in a thunderstorm, but Ben Franklin learned a shocking truth by doing so.