This fall, like last year, has been a great year for acorns across Georgia. From live oaks on the coast to white oaks and chestnut oaks in the mountains, this year’s mast crop has been heavy and widespread. Though the jury is still out on whether a good mast crop helps or hinders a hunter’s success, in the long run all game animals and wildlife benefit. That’s why the habitat on your land is more valuable for wildlife when it includes a diversity of mast and fruit tree species.
January is the time to plant tree seedlings of all varieties to achieve that diversity, while the seedlings are dormant and will survive transplanting. For the most part, tree planting is a long-term management technique, and for that reason is not as appealing to some landowners as food plots, feeders and methods that supply quicker, more tangible kickbacks. However, if the land you manage lacks more than one or two species of mast trees, or if you’re planning habitat to reclaim open fields or clearcuts, tree planting is a winning technique when combined with short-term techniques, and the sooner you plant the sooner you’ll see results. With some species, results come quickly if the trees are cared for, so even leased-land managers can benefit from tree planting.
Before you buy trees or grab a shovel, think about one thing: diversity. Diversity should be your goal in all of the habitat manipulation that you conduct, because diversity is a key component in good habitat. You may only be interested in one or a handful of game species, like deer, but even the best deer habitat is based on diversity: thick cover for bedding, edge areas and small openings for browse, mast and fruit trees for fall and winter food sources-a mix of tree and shrub species at different ages and stages of forest development. Ample food sources are not much use to deer or any wildlife if there is no cover in the area.
The Rule of Three: Consider diversity in deciding where and how to plant your trees, but consider it also in deciding what species of tree to plant.
"Some trees are not big producers year to year, and some are," said Kim Coder, an Extension Forester with the UGA Cooperative Extension Service. "Some trees will have a good year while others don’t. Having a diversity of things out there assures that there is going to be some kind of food out there at any one time."
Use the rule of three when picking the trees you want to plant. Decide what wildlife you have in mind, then pick at least three different species that are of use to those animals and plant all three. If your land already has established trees of a particular species, choose a couple more to fill out the diversity. Down the road, when your trees are producing, if the white oaks have a bad year, chances are that the red oaks or water oaks or other species you planted will be producing. Mast of some kind will be available year to year, and the wildlife populations on your land will be provided for.
Tree Species: Obviously, when considering deer, native oaks are a good bet. From white oaks to swamp chestnut oaks, choose species that are suited to your part of the state and suited to your plans. Extension wildlife specialist Jeff Jackson also mentioned Chinese chestnut, honey locust and chinkapin trees as good choices for deer. For fruit trees, there are native crabapples, persimmons, pears, wild plums and apples, though apples are less successful in the southern half of the state. The fruit of dogwood trees is also eaten by deer, as well as turkeys and quail.
One oak tree in particular that has grown in popularity recently is the sawtooth oak, a non-native species from Asia. The sawtooth oak has several advantages: it grows quickly, begins producing mast at five to eight years of age, and produces prodigious amounts of large acorns. The drawback is that the species is a non-native, and if you’re concerned with aesthetics it may not be for you. There is also a gobbler sawtooth-the same tree but in a variety that produces smaller acorns in a heavier yield.
If you’re managing for turkeys, any native oak will do. DNR biologist Reggie Thackston said turkeys are known to swallow even the larger acorns, so acorn size is not a limiting factor. They also feed on the fragments left by squirrels. Blackgum, a species that some might think is of lesser worth, produces a fruit which turkeys eat readily. Black locust, pecan, and soft mast trees like crabapples, persimmons, plums, dogwoods and hawthorns are also good. For wood ducks, any oak with a small acorn that drops its acorns in water is a good food source, but water, nuttall, cherry bark, and laurel oaks are tolerant of moist soils and will grow well in swamps.
Quail, of course, are a different animal altogether when it comes to habitat management. Intensive quail management includes mainly pine trees, not only for the pine mast that quail feed on, but for the fact that pine forest is more easily burned, and fire is a necessary tool in managing quail habitat. However, if you have quail on your land and want to provide for them on a small scale along with other species, quail will eat water oaks and smaller acorns, and they will feed on the fragments of larger oak acorns. Plum trees, according to Reggie Thackston, are a good choice not only because quail eat the fruit but because clumps of plum bushes provide good screening cover: they are thick above but open underneath, providing shelter, cool shade in the summer, and bugging grounds as well. The many varieties of lespedeza shrubs are also a good planting for quail, and we will take a closer look at them next month.
In the final analysis, if you aren’t sure what trees to plant on your land, contact your county agent. The agent will know, or can find out, what species are best for your soil type, region and the wildlife you have in mind.
Planting: Whether you purchase your seedlings or produce them yourself, know where you are going to plant them ahead of time. Generally, pick open areas or spots along the edge between forest and an opening to plant your seedlings. The more direct sunlight your seedlings get, the faster they will mature and the quicker they will produce. Till or hoe the areas where you will be placing a seedling. As soon as your seedlings are delivered if you purchase them, plant them-don’t leave them in the bag long, because they lose viability quickly. Dig a hole big enough to accommodate the roots, but do not add peat moss, fertilizer or anything other than the soil that came from the hole to fill it in.
Spreading mulch over the area around the seedling is a good idea, because for the first couple of years your job will be to prevent weeds, grasses, vines or any other competition from springing up around your seedlings. Check back on the seedlings at least twice a year and clear around them to make sure they have their opening all to themselves.
Tree shelters are an option to consider when planting seedlings, and tubes are a popular type of shelter. These translucent plastic tubes give the seedlings a humid, warm environment in which to get started, and growth is accelerated. Also, tree shelters prevent rabbits from girdling the young trees. On my family’s land in Wayne County, crabapple seedlings were occasionally being rubbed and killed by bucks, but tree shelters solved the problem. Tree shelters were also used on several white oak seedlings that we germinated, and the seedlings, which were only tall enough to fill up half of their tubes when we planted them, grew completely out the top of the tubes in their first season.
Perhaps the only disadvantage to tree shelters is that they cost around three to five dollars apiece, which can be expensive if you are planting a large number of trees. The local nursery most likely carries tree tubes or can tell you where to find them.
Pruning: For wildlife trees, the best rule is to not prune unless necessary. The more green tissue you leave on the seedlings, the faster the tree can grow a large crown, which leads to more fruiting. According to Kim Coder, you should prune only if the seedling develops a fork. A forked tree will not achieve a full crown as fast as a single-stemmed seedling, so cut off one of the forks while the tree is young. The other fork will take over from there.
Fertilizing: The truth is, when it comes to fertilizing mast and fruit trees for wildlife, you can do almost as much good simply by planting them in plenty of sunlight and keeping down the competition around the seedlings. Fertilizer can help if it is applied in the right amount, and the right kind of fertilizer is used, but it is very easy to do more harm than good when fertilizing wildlife trees.
To begin with, don’t fertilize seedlings until they are at least a year old, said Kim Coder. Then, sprinkle a small amount of chicken manure or agricultural fertilizer on the ground around the seedling, from one-foot from the trunk out to two to three feet. Apply fertilizer once the spring green-up has begun, and reapply it two or three more times throughout the year, but remember that you are also fertilizing a seedling’s potential competition, which means more work keeping down the vines and shrubs. For older trees, sprinkle fertilizer on the drip-line, or the ground below the outer edge of the crown. For very old, established trees, a soil test is a good idea to find out just what is missing, but if you don’t get a test it is a good idea to use a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen. Nitrogen will do more for the leafy growth of an older tree than for the fruit it produces.
Growing Seedlings: It is possible for you to collect acorns or seeds from established trees and germinate your own seedlings, although January is a little late to collect most acorns. Most acorns that are still left on the ground are probably not viable, but the mast of the red oak family is more acidic and likely to still be collectable. With any acorns, however, you can conduct a float test. Simply put the acorns you have collected in a bucket and fill it with water. If they float, throw them away. Weevils or beetles have entered the acorn, producing gases that cause them to float.
After the float test, you can plant the acorns in one of two ways. The easiest is to take a walking stick with a sharp point, a bag of acorns, and go for a stroll around the edges and openings on your land. Poke a hole in the earth, drop in an acorn, cover it up, and move on. This is a low-maintenance method with lower success, but if you plant enough acorns and do this every year, a number of seedlings will survive as a result.
The other method is to establish a fenced garden plot in your yard, bury the acorns 1/2 to 3/4-inches deep and cover them with mulch. After the first year, use a trowel or pruning spade to shear off the roots five to six inches from the stem. This will keep the root ball of the seedling compact and lead to greater survival after transplanting. When the seedlings are two to three years old, dig them up and transplant them during the winter.
You can also plant acorns in seeding trays or cups, and the seedlings will have to be transplanted to buckets after their first year. This eliminates the need to prune the roots.
If you are going to produce your own seedlings, keep in mind that two soft-mast species, the persimmon and the American holly, according to Kim Coder, have a male and female tree. With these species it is best to go to a nursery to ensure you plant mostly female trees, which produce the fruit. American holly trees are a good all-around choice for small game, turkeys, and especially song birds.
To find tree seedlings, tree shelters or further advice, try the local nursery, or call Spandle Nurseries in Claxton, which offers a wide variety of seedlings specifically for wildlife. Spandle can be reached at 1-800-553-5771. The Georgia Forestry Commission also sells many varieties of oak seedlings, not to mention pine trees. Call 1-800-GA-TREES or stop by the nearest Forestry Commission office.
Editor’s Note: Based on reader input we have received, and also on the growing numbers of hunters who are attempting to manage their lands to enhance the habitat for wildlife, we will be running "Wildlife in Mind" as a monthly column during 1997. The column will be devoted to land management practices that are beneficial to wildlife. The column will offer the best how-to information we can gather about specific techniques you should be implementing during that particular month, from winter disking to summer food plots; from ideas for quail and other game birds to deer.