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How to Avoid Winter Kill in Deer Management Tree Plantings!

Most of us know the disappointment and frustration felt when a food plot fails for whatever reason. If it happens to be a spring-planted plot we always have the option of re-planting in late summer or early fall to recover the plot in time for hunting season. On the other hand, if a fall-planted plot fails we are left facing hunting season without a plot to help hold deer on our property and the deer are left to face winter with one less food source to carry them through til spring. Either way, with a failure of a spring-planted or fall-planted plot the whitetail land manager, certainly faces a feeling of disappointment.

 Now multiply that feeling of disappointment about 100 times and you will understand how it feels to have a tree planting fail after investing several years of labor and several dollars into it. That is exactly how I felt this past spring when I was making the rounds on my property planting my spring food plots. On the edge of one of my plots “was” a row of persimmon trees that were approaching 6-inches in diameter and 20-25 feet tall. I had planted the trees about 10 -12 years earlier and they were just about to the point of producing fruit. Then the brutal winter of 2013-2014 hit. Only two of the dozen or so trees showed any life and they were seriously damaged from the bitterly cold weather we had experienced.

  As one aspect of my multi-faceted business, I work as a conservation tree planting contractor. As such I have planted literally millions of trees and shrubs on a variety of conservation projects including CRP, WRP, CREP, and WHIP. In 2013 alone we planted 280,000 trees on projects in seven states. These trees included everything from bare-root seedlings to big burlapped trees. This experience has taught me a great deal about tree plantings with plenty of those lessons being learned “the hard way”. Many of these conservation contracts specify that the trees used on the project must be grown from seeds obtained within 200 miles of the planting site. The whole purpose of this specification is to help prevent future tree losses due to winter kill.

 The persimmon trees that I lost last winter originated from Tennessee. They did great for a decade but when we had the worst winter in 36 years hit where I live in central Illinois, it proved too much for those particular trees. Not only had I wasted my time and money planting and caring for those trees, but I wasted a decade that I will never get back. I will be re-planting those trees this fall with stock from a northern seed source but that project will always be 10 years behind where it should have been. Incidentally, I also have two other plantings of persimmon trees on my property from other seed sources. One of those plantings is from a southern Missouri seed source that showed some freeze damage on the ends of a lot of branches but no death loss like the Tennessee trees had. The other planting is from a northern Illinois seed source and those trees showed absolutely no damage at all. This just highlights the importance of knowing the seed source for any trees or shrubs you plant. Looking back I should have known better than to plant the trees from Tennessee on my central Illinois property. At the time I was not able to find trees from a more northern seed source and the price was right so I took a chance. It cost me. I would have been a lot better off waiting until I found the right trees, even if it took a couple of years to do so. Instead, I am starting over, ten years later.

 Besides working as a conservation tree planting contractor I also own a tree nursery where we grow larger trees that are dug and burlapped to be used in a variety of different applications, including conservation projects. Thus, I understand the tree and nursery business better than most whitetail land managers. Over the years I have bought trees from more nurseries than I can remember. Here is some advice to keep you from making some of the same mistakes that I have. A majority of the nursery stock sold in the United States is grown in the southern states. The milder winters of the southern region offer some real benefits. The longer growing season in the south means that a tree can achieve more growth in a season if it is grown in a southern nursery compared to a northern one. Also the issue of over-wintering nursery stock is a labor-intensive nightmare for northern nurserymen that their southern counterparts do not have to address. Thus nursery stock grown in the south achieves market size sooner and with less labor. This “cheaper” nursery stock then gets trucked up to northern nurseries for resale, often at lower prices than it can be grown in the north.

The real issue here is really not where nursery stock is grown but where the seed that produces the stock originates. Most southern nurseries simply use local seed sources. If the northern seed is used in a southern nursery, the resulting trees will maintain their northern genetic traits and do just fine if shipped back to the north. At one point in my career, I was collecting tons of local seeds such as acorns and walnuts and shipping them to a southern nursery to be contracted grown for me. In one growing season, I would get seedlings that would take two years to achieve if grown in a northern nursery. What all this means to you, the whitetail land manager is that you need to be mindful of the seed source when purchasing trees. A reputable nursery should be able to identify the seed source of its stock. Beware of those that can’t. I often inquire about the seed source of trees I purchase but nurseries are always looking to make a sale and some are willing to tell you whatever it is you want to hear. When I inquire about the seed source I am always very vague with my request. I will simply say something like, “I am bidding on a project and need to know the seed source for your bur oaks” rather than “I need some bur oaks from a Mid-Illinois seed source, do you have any?” In other words, when asking about seed sources, don’t tip off the nursery to the answer you are hoping to hear, or many times you will get the answer you are looking for whether it is true or not.

 If you live north of the Mason-Dixon Line, you need to be very mindful of the seed source of trees you plant on your property. It could be that you take a chance and your trees do fine but the alternative is not good. Sooner or later that extremely brutal winter is going to happen and when it does your trees will be tested. The last thing you want to happen is to discover that the trees you planted many years ago are not suitable for your region. Losing a decade of time you have invested in a project is bad enough when you are in your 30s but when you have hit 50 it is a whole ‘nother story!