Trees for Tomorrow

I have alluded to silvopasture before, but I never really explained it. It is basically a fancy word describing the practice of raising trees in a pasture. It falls under the general heading of agroforestry, which is the combining of agriculture with forestry. Silvopasture differs from most forms of agroforestry because the “crop,” at least initially, are the animals. Most agroforestry systems are basically growing rows of trees with rectangular blocks for various field crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) or hay in between. I think agroforestry is really an improvement ecologically speaking over just an open field growing an annual crop. Trees provide many benefits to field crops. They act as a windbreak and help prevent erosion, which are the two primary benefits, but they also will provide their own valuable crop in time. If nut trees are grown, they provide nuts, but also hardwood trees can be grown for their saw/veneer logs or various pines can be grown for pulpwood, and many kinds of trees can be grown for fence posts.


I planted the trees every 7 feet. I happen to wear boots that are exactly one foot long, and so I was able to walk them off. This is a close planting, but with a 100 ft row spacing, it ends up being only 15% of the density of a typical forest.

I happen to think that pasture is a more ideal partner for trees, however, and for a few reasons. The primary reason is that trees are going to cast shade. Historically this is why trees have not been grown with field crops, which all suffer shade poorly. Interestingly, low growing C3 pasture plants, like Kentucky Bluegrass and Ryegrass and White clover hardly suffer a little shade at all (years of working on golf courses taught me this, the rough always grows better than the fairway). Time and time again studies have demonstrated that they grow just as well or better under light shade. And this stands to reason since C3 plants can hardly make use of all that sunlight because C02 fixation and moisture availability limits their photosynthesis. C4 plants (like corn, Sorghum, Sudangrass, Teffgrass, Johnshongrass) are not so nearly as limited, so they can make use of all that sunlight and grow like crazy. They do suffer shade. Another reason I think pasture is better is because it isn’t tilled. Most field crops involve some amount tillage, and that will damage the feeder roots of most trees. Another reason is that pasture usually has less machinery moving about in it. I do practice haymaking in my pastures, usually once a year, but this pales in comparison to a regular hayfield with 3-5 cuts or a field crop with its planting, sometimes multiple sprayings, and harvesting. Negotiating trees is simply a pain—anything to reduce so much the better. Any my final reason for preferring pasture is that I am convinced that all grazing animals need some shade. There are only two ways to provide shade: trees or something bought or built. Something bought or built costs me time and money. I think portable shade canopies that I see advertised are pretty silly. And no shade shelter provides a potential crop (it only depreciates/deteriorates), fertilizes the pasture with leaves, or provides anywhere near as effective as a windbreak.

When I bought my farm it was a cornfield for about a decade. Not a tree on it. Only the weeds that afflict cornfields. I didn’t know it at the time, but I did have a little Red Cedar struggling to survive which I featured in an earlier post. After 2 seasons I did get it into an emerging pasture. And now I have planted some 500+ trees on the five or so acres. I planted them in perfectly straight North-South rows (to optimize shading patterns). I planted them in an orderly manner so I can mow easily around them and keep them identified. I planted valuable trees. And I planted them in a way to accommodate a rotational grazing scheme. I may just live to see the fruits of this labor, as I am in my early thirties now, but I may not. Somebody will, I hope, as long as someone doesn’t plow it all up and plant corn again!

What to plant? That is an enormous question, and a whole book could be written about it, so I will give you an idea of how I went about deciding what to plant. I spent nearly a year deliberating, reading about anything I could. In the end, I came around to a pretty simple way to decide. First, you want to plant something worthwhile. Don’t go planting ornamental trees or just any old trees. Plant something that makes a nut, or good wood, or fruit, or something worthwhile. Plant something scarce. The world has nowhere near enough fruit or nut trees or good hardwood lumber or syrup. Second, you want to plant something you can get cheaply. This probably means you will plant something a state nursery (which is subsidized) produces. Any commercial nursery will be far more expensive per tree. Mortality rates for tree plantations run in the 50% range. In the experimental planting I did last year, I achieved 90% one year survival, which is unusual and outstanding. But losing 50% of 50 cent to one dollar seedlings from the state nursery is something you can afford, while you cannot afford to loose 50% of your $5-30 commercial nursery trees. Third, you want to plant something appropriate for your situation. This will take into consideration your climate, your soil texture and fertility, your soil hydrology patterns, and your intended use for the plantation (will you do silvopasture, a woodlot, field-crop/tree scheme, or are you trying to re-create a native forest—a CRP plantation). Since I plan on operating as a silvopasture, I gave considerable weight to trees that play well with grass. Since I have high water tables in the spring, I planted trees that can cope. Since I have high pH heavy clay soil, I planted trees that can cope with that, at least reasonably well.

I planted oaks around the pasture’s perimeter. The two I used were Swamp White Oak and Bur Oak. Both are tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, wet soil, make large acorns that can be fed to pigs, make valuable wood, and cast a moderate shade. Their roots are relatively shallow and may “rob” nutrients from the pasture. Since I planted them on the perimeter, they may reach over into my neighbor’s cornfield and rob some nutrients there, too, I suppose, but they will probably also get sprayed with herbicide and cut with tillage implements. I call it fair. Inside the pasture in rows that define pasture blocks or paddocks I planted Black Walnuts, Hybrid Butternuts, Pecans, and American Persimmons. My thinking is that inside the pasture the Oaks will provide some protection from herbicide overspray and wind. The interior trees all cast light to moderate shade and have deep taproots that don’t rob nutrients from the pasture as badly. They also leaf out late and drop early, leaving more sunlight for the pasture in the spring and fall when it needs it. This also means that these trees can survive high water tables in the spring, since they are not evapotranspriring when the tables are at their highest. They also make valuable produce. Black Walnuts make delicious nuts, though not so many and they are hard to get at, but the wood is the most valuable wood grown on this continent, and a choice wood for gunstocks. American Butternut is a close cousin to the Walnut, making a larger and more easily opened nut, but with a softer lighter colored wood that is not as valuable. Butternuts are a good sugar tree, second only to Sugar Maples. Sadly a disease (Butternut Canker) introduced from Europe or Asia has all but wiped out the American Butternut. However, hybrids of an American Butternut and a Japanese Walnut are resistant and retain the good traits of the American Butternut and demonstrate some hybrid vigor. Pecans, a relative of the Walnuts and Butternuts, but more closely related to Hickories, shares their deep taproot, light shade, and seasonally high water table tolerance, but makes a superior nut. Mine were the offspring of commercial nut producing Northern (from Illinois) Pecans, so I expect them to have both the cold tolerance and good nut bearing traits of their parents. The Persimmon—the odd one in the bunch. J. Russell Smith was enthusiastic about persimmons, and I admire the tree. Many times having become bored hunting in November and not being particularly excited about whatever lunch I packed, I snacked on persimmons, which grow wild in the woods of Southern Indiana. Usually they are found in little groves, and it is surprising how some rather small specimens produce prodigious quantities of their very mild and unique tasting, but sweet and seedy fruits. One small tree could make more than I’d care to eat. I like persimmon (a properly ripe persimmon, not fiercely astringent unripe ones) and it makes a fine pie and complements pecans marvelously. I hope someday to eat all the pecan-persimmon pie I could want, and I could afford it no other way than to grow them. Persimmon does cast a pretty light shade, has a deep taproot, and the wood is valuable (for making golf clubs of all things!). It seems to be as good as a pasture tree as any, there is no question of toxicity to livestock (Cherries, Black Locusts) and has no thorns (Honey Locusts, Osage Orange). In fact, all livestock, especially pigs, are reputed to like persimmons, and I know Whitetail deer do.

Now, about planting, the how-to. Advice abounds on how to plant seedlings; I think mostly because there is no easy and effective way to do it. There are easy ways. I’ve tried the method of using a trenching shovel to cut a slit in the earth and put the seedling in and then press the slit closed with your boot. It’s certainly fast and low effort, but most trees treated this way died in my experimental planting last year. The dogwoods, however, all lived. For some shallow and broad rooted trees like Elderberries, using a pointed shovel works: two scoops from the left and the right and then carefully backfilling. But most trees, and all the taprooted ones it seems, need a much deeper hole. Despite all the back, shoulder and elbow breaking work, I really think a clamshell type manual post-hole digger is best. And no, a power auger type one will not work well. They spread the soil out in a doughnut shaped pile around the hole and mix the topsoil with the subsoil, and you seem to loose too much of the soil in the sod. This makes backfilling poorer. And planting is almost as much work (though easier) as digging the hole.


As you can see, I use taut rope to keep my rows straight. A 100′ tape measure is very good for keeping rows spaced. And try to make neat piles like this, so when you backfill the seedling, the subsoil goes back where it was and the topsoil goes back where it was. I invert any sod so that it does and doesn’t compete with the seedling.

I feel sort of silly expressing this, but there is a technique of using a post hold digger well. You want to aim it carefully, let the weight of the digger do the work (you almost throw it at the hole and never push down with them), and alternate the bite direction with every other bite or so (top-bottom, then left-right). If you are using them correctly, and you get a little grit on your hands, the wooden handles will be polished as smooth as glass. A good post-hole digger has hardened steel blades that are bolted or riveted to the hinge. As you use it, the edge will be worn down, but it shouldn’t be necessary to sharpen it, as if it was made correctly it will self-sharpen like Beaver teeth do. Old diggers are this way. I understand new ones aren’t. In any case, after you’ve dug about 500 tree holes this way, you will understand that work is a verb, not a noun. I think two or three diggers for every planter is optimal as far as timing goes, but if it’s a couple, at least the planter can talk to the digger and make it a bit more pleasant. If you are digging fast enough, you will have a hard time speaking.

In general, timing of key importance with planting trees on a large scale. You must plant when the trees are dormant. And you should plant at a time of year when you can be reasonably assured of steady rainfall for at least 8 weeks, as there is no way you are going to be able to water 500 trees. It’s almost impossible to dig this many holes in frozen ground. It’s also very difficult to dig holes in ground that is too wet since the soil sticks to the teeth of the digger. There is little you can do besides pray and pay attention. For the last two years I have been fortunate. There was a week in late March (starting the 23rd in 2016 and 21st in 2017) that was pretty much ideal where I live. It rained heavily on March 20th this year, and that is when I picked up the trees. Starting the next day the soil was still too wet and stuck badly, but I pressed ahead. March 22, 23, and 24s were almost perfect and I got them all in. March 25th rained during the night and there is rain forecast all week. Temps were all above freezing to about 65 degrees, which is actually too warm, you get sweaty and the roots can dry out in even a slight breeze this warm.

When planting it is very nice to use a wheelbarrow or a small garden wagon that you can pull along with a bucket of pond or rain water, shovels, a bunch of soaking wet towels or peat moss to keep the roots moist (I am assuming the planting of bareroot seedlings). Keep the roots as cool, moist, and dark as possible. Since we have toddlers, we brought some blankets and used the wagon like a mobile nappy crib. Keeping up energy and stamina on jobs like these is important. Personally I am not so bothered by bad weather or work as I am by noise, which is why I wouldn’t use an engine-powered auger or a tractor even if they worked well. I realize that because of this most American farmers will never take tree planting seriously, since it seems that if a machine or power cannot be used, it isn’t worthwhile to them, but I can think of hardly anything more worthwhile than planting good trees.

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3 Responses to Trees for Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: Mohawking the pasture | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  2. Pingback: Shade | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  3. Pingback: Fencing solutions | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

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