However did trees/bushes grow before we came along?
December 5, 2017 2:06 PM   Subscribe

For real, whenever I look up "plant tree" or anything like that, it's a long, tedious process. I don't have time for all that. I mean, can't I just cast a bunch of seeds and hope for the best? Isn't that what trees do naturally?

I have two and a half acres of land that are just kind of sitting around doing nothing because my health has pretty much taken a nose dive in the past couple of years. But my health isn't the issue. What's important here is that the big plans I had when we moved onto our property aren't gonna happen. So, new plan. Plant trees and bushes -- like, a lot of them. Why? because I hate lawns, and I'm tired of looking at the blackberries that are overtaking our yard (again). I want diversity and maybe some fruit and nuts or something. I dunno. I like the idea of living in a wooded area rather than this open field that's not actually accomplishing anything. Also, we live right next to a highway and it would be nice to have trees between us and it.

When we first moved here, there were some fruit tree seedlings stuck in the ground in a little group, about eight I think. We moved them to a different area and they're -- slowly -- taking hold. I want to plant some bushes or something to help them grow and to keep the blackberries at bay. I can barely recognize a rose when I see it, so don't ask me what kind of trees they are. If I remember the faded tags that were on them, they're apple and pear trees, and a scraggly mulberry bush. I'm pretty sure that purple bush is a mulberry bush...

Anyway, that only takes care of the quarter acre in front of the house. I'm fairly sure that we're not supposed to plant anything over the well.. But there's still the entire acre behind the house that's just kinda... sitting there, covered in tall grass with brambles on the edge. I can clearly see our neighbor from my house (and they can clearly see us, and yes, it's that neighbor). Our neighbor (the husband) did come and plant some evergreen seedlings along the property line last spring. If they took hold, they're growing very slowly because I can't see them over the grass.

Here's the thing. I just don't have the energy or physical strength to dig even a small hole, let alone a big one to plant a tree. We paid someone to move the aforementioned fruit seedlings because neither Mr. Patheral nor I are up for the task. But I'm not paying someone to plant a whole acre of trees. When I "plant" flowers I freecast a bag of wildflower seeds (native to the PNW of course) and let them grow. The results are pretty spectacular. My questions is: Why can't I do the same for trees? I'm having trouble even finding viable tree seeds. I'm not looking to landscape the place. I just want a bunch of trees in the back acre. But whenever I google "plant trees (or bushes)" it's all about germinating and whatnot. However did trees survive before we were around to germinate their seeds?
posted by patheral to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why can't I do the same for trees?

I'll respond to this part directly, and leave the useful suggestions to others. A single mature tree will drop thousands of seeds every year for decades. The majority will get eaten or just not find the right conditions to germinate. The few that do become tiny tree seedlings will still mostly get eaten. Many may be also be crowded out by other plants (even other tree seedlings) If, over the lifespan of the tree, just two or three seedlings grow to maturity, then that's a win for the tree and its species. Are you willing to spread wheelbarrow-loads of seeds over your land every year for decades for the chance that you'll have a few more trees in half a century? That's basically why we grow tree seedlings in nurseries until they're a decent-sized sapling, then plant them in an open spot where they have room to develop, and then continue to look after them.
posted by pipeski at 2:17 PM on December 5, 2017 [20 favorites]

Squirrels can and do bury/plant acorns all over the place, which really do germinate to oak trees, unless you mow over them.

If there are trees nearby, you may be getting some seeds coming from there. If not, maybe consider “pioneer species”. But trees take a long time to go from seed to big tree; this is the root of the cliche about planting a tree that you won’t live to see grow. If you are in a hurry you really will need to start by planting smaller trees.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:20 PM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Squirrels, for sure. Plant a few productive nut trees and wait 30 years :) Also, don't mow, and you might want to host a cat colony to keep the rats down (although they might attack the squirrels too, so ... YMMV).
posted by amtho at 2:24 PM on December 5, 2017

The short version is that an empty lawn is actually a very stressful place for a tree seedling to grow. The soil is often not terribly deep, the sun is hot, the wind is cruel, and there is competition from plants that do better in that kind of environment (i.e. tall grass and blackberries, in your case).

A typical rural/suburban yard or field, abandoned completely, will eventually turn into some sort of forest, but it's somewhere in the neighborhood of a 20-50 year process and it involves a lot of crabgrass and low bushes living and dying. Those plants create an environment that is more hospitable to tree seedlings etc., they build up the soil, they create shelter for all kinds of other stuff. This process is called succession.

So, on the plus side, that tall grass and those brambles behind the house are paving the way for natural born trees in the future. But I'm not sure how much you can speed it up - trees take a long time to grow from seeds or even from seedlings.

There are some kinds of trees that grow fast and put out a lot of seeds/seedlings - we have a box elder tree in our yard that always looks half-dead but I pull up many hundreds of box elder seedlings every spring. I even found one growing in the dirt floor of our cellar. I'm not sure whether I'd recommend box elders to anyone (they are messy AF), and I don't know whether they're appropriate for the PNW, but maybe someone will have a more specific suggestion for you.
posted by mskyle at 2:40 PM on December 5, 2017 [16 favorites]

Obviously trees manage just fine on their own, but if you want better and faster results you will need to intervene a little more than "hoping for the best"

Bamboo is also an option. There are varieties that are not invasive/destructive (aka clumping bamboo) and will produce a screening effect fairly quickly compared to trees.
posted by O9scar at 2:43 PM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

So, you keep talking about preventing blackberries from taking over your yard, but you're in the PNW and that means you're dealing with an invasive species that invades local forests. Trees can't save you from blackberries, unless you have a very shaded canopy, and if you do have a shaded canopy it's going to prevent the propagation of seedlings but not existing plants. From this info regarding controlling blackberries:
HBB readily invades riparian areas, forest edges, oak woodlands, meadows, roadsides, clear-cuts and any other relatively open area, including all open forest types. Once it becomes well established, HBB out competes low stature native vegetation and can prevent establishment of shade intolerant trees (such as Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and Oregon white oak), leading to the formation of apparently permanent HBB thickets with little other vegetation present.
Any solution you find is going to need to outcompete the HBB while it gets established, and it still might not completely end the battle; I know my friend up in Everett with a wooded lot still has to do blackberry management.
posted by foxfirefey at 2:44 PM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

However did trees/bushes grow before we came along? Short, snarky answer: slowly.

Moving established trees and bushes, and even planting "new" plants from a nursery, will take a while to establish themselves. And even then, some types are notoriously picky about being moved.

Looking at the natural cycle, if you have a relatively open plot of land, you're starting at the beginning of ecological succession. Grasses and other annual plants are the first to come in, and fastest to take hold. Then some bushes might get established, which will help claim some space from the grasses and help trees establish themselves. At least, that's the super abbreviated summary of how plant communities change over time.

Annuals, like many grasses, burst to life by necessity, so they'll be super visible, while bushes and trees generally play the long game, growing a bit each year. Some perennials grow faster, but they're the exception, not the rule. If you want to kick-start natural succession via low-effort planting, look for a local nursery that has local seeds, and talk to them about your plot and your ability to plant and maintain the land.

Bamboo is also an option. There are varieties that are not invasive/destructive (aka clumping bamboo) and will produce a screening effect fairly quickly compared to trees.

WARNING: Avoid Bamboo Like the Plague (HGTV)
Looking for the perfect privacy screen for shielding your back yard from nosy neighbors? For many, the quick -- and I do mean quick -- solution is bamboo.

Big mistake.

Bamboo, which technically is a giant grass, is one of the world’s most invasive plants. Once established, it is literally next to impossible to control. The sprouts that shoot up from the ground each spring can grow 12 inches a day! The underground roots of common running “fishpole” bamboo, which can easily reach 15 feet tall, can travel as far as 20 feet or more from the original clump. lists some supposedly non-invasive species of bamboo, but I'd suggest talking to folks at a local nursery about what you want to do and what your property is currently like.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:47 PM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think that you'd have to broadcast thousands of seeds just to get a few viable trees. It would probably be more effective to get some small seedlings in 4-inch pots and hire someone to spend a couple of hours planting them with a hand trowel. Stark Brothers has an "orchard in a box" option.

If you have any local native plant sales, I find that they often have tiny seedlings in the 4" pots as well. I have a couple of 6-foot-tall pawpaw trees that started out as tiny seedlings just a few years ago. You could talk to the vendors at the native plant sales about buying seeds, too.

If you do want to try broadcasting seeds, maples and redbuds seems to germinate quite easily. Oaks and walnuts often get eaten by the critters.
posted by Ostara at 2:53 PM on December 5, 2017

I just don't have the energy or physical strength to dig even a small hole, let alone a big one to plant a tree.

Trees are pretty accepting of shitty treatment if you time it right. September to November or in April/March.

Have you ever asked: what are teenagers for?

The answer is: Well, you know, producing adults eventually. But in the meantime they're cheap physical labor and all you have to do is show them a picture of a properly planted tree .

They really only need the picture. You can go around and stick chopsticks in the ground where you want them to plant things, and they should make sure the soil is soaked when they put it in.

That's pretty much it.

There are wonderful sources for various trees (not seeds!); if you're in the northeast or zone 5b feel free to ping me. Your local extension service is almost certainly to be a good source of advice and sources.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:58 PM on December 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Just saw you are in the PNW--there are incredibly good suppliers up there.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:00 PM on December 5, 2017

When I was a kid, we saved maple whirligigs from a tree near out house, planted them in pots, and once we had a real shoot with leaves, my dad dug a hole (with a trowel like planting a flower, 3-4" slot in the ground) and stuck the seedlings in. Then he continued to carefully mow around them and 2 years later they were taller than I was (i.e. 4-5ft). We moved away and the first time I drove past as an adult and realized those big maple trees were mine, it was pretty amazing. Now, as a homeowner, I know that maple seedlings from the tree on the other side of the block will plant themselves in my yard with enthusiasm, such that I pull up about 200 of them every spring. I also know that both trees I'm talking about (currently and in childhood) were silver maples, widely regarded as "junk trees" in part because you'll get hundreds of shoots from a mature tree whether you want them or not.

So in short, I can confirm that maples are easy, but be careful what you wish for, and maybe harvest your whirligigs from a decent tree not a silver maple.

I also see trees coming up from squirrel-planted hickory nuts, so you could definitely try that, or even oak. You'll have best results if you can actually poke a half-dozen or so seeds into the ground for each seedling tree you want.
posted by aimedwander at 3:07 PM on December 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

So in short, I can confirm that maples are easy, but be careful what you wish for, and maybe harvest your whirligigs from a decent tree not a silver maple.

That reminds me... we had hundreds of big leaf maple sprouting all over the place this spring, but the elk ate most of them. I'd forgotten about that. Of course the only ones that grew (and boy did they grow) directly interfered with structure, so we had to cut them down.

I guess seedlings are the way to go. There aren't many teenagers around here, but I understand I can hire the local high-school football team for odd jobs.
posted by patheral at 3:28 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

What's going to keep the elk from eating your seedlings? You may have to fence off an area to get trees to grow.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 3:34 PM on December 5, 2017

I am in Western Oregon. If you think blackberries are bad on 2 acres imagine owning 140 acres. Remember those blackberries are not native to the PNW. That is why they are taking over, most of the blackberries are from the Himalayas. Leave it to humans to screw everything up. I have lived here 30 years and watched as a clean beautiful forest floor of ferns and moss turn into a mass of blackberries up to 2 foot tall, even six feet tall in the sunny areas. Even the wildlife hate the blackberry thorns. I have to either spray with herbicide or constantly mow to keep blackberries at bay.

If you are in PNW, try planting some natives like Douglas Fir, Cedars, big leaf maple. They grow very fast and if fertilized a couple of years you'll be wanting to cut them back in some places. Blackberries do not grow well in shade. Now the big leaf maples are starting to shade out the blackberries.

Learn how you can easily plant fir, cedar and maple seedlings with only a single shovel push and pry an opening. Your local extension agent or state forestry will help you learn the easy and fast way to plant them.
posted by nogero at 4:00 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, as a side note, I don't think I've seen any squirrels since I've moved here. Not a one. Rabbits: yep, voles: all over the place, mice: you betcha, but no squirrels. I'm sure the other critters are doing a good job of stashing seeds in the ground.
posted by patheral at 4:46 PM on December 5, 2017

Mowing and maintaining a wide open space is time-consuming. Maneuvering around trees and their dropped limbs and debris even more so. Be careful what you wish for.
A break of trees between you and the highway or you and the neighbor -- good. A mass of cedars that in dry conditions can turn into a fire hazard -- not good.

Maples are fast growing and have beautiful autumn colors, but the roots travel close to the surface. Do not plant near structures.
Fruit and nut trees are smaller and have benefits, if you harvest them. Otherwise, you will have a yard full of discarded shells to pick up each fall (I have pecans).
Here in Oklahoma some shrubs are used as large ornamentals. Crepe myrtle and Rose of Sharon have a long blooming cycle and some varieties can grow over ten feet tall. Check with your local nursery about shrubs that adapt well to your area.
For strong visual impact pick one specimen and plant a lot of it. You might start with planting three or four the first year to see how they survive, then go all out. Look for winter interest (bark, tree outline) as well as spring budding and fall foliage.

I agree with Llama -- see if you can recruit a neighbor's teenager to set in some trees.
Dig a big hole, remove packaging from roots (or cut off the bottom and slit the sides of a peat moss pot), hold in place while filling in dirt, water thoroughly to get rid of air pockets. Make sure the dirt level seen in the bucket or bag does not sink lower than the final fill.
Add some bark chips or peat moss around the planting to discourage weeds and capture water during the early growth period.
Ask your local nursery about fertilizers and additives for spring or fall planting. Some like to stake out or use garden ties to keep the trunk in line.
posted by TrishaU at 2:54 AM on December 6, 2017

I'm from western Oregon and my folks got their little forest (don't remember the acreage) by asking a local to plant some Christmas trees. The local got to harvest some of the trees and left the rest, which became our forest. Of course thinning and clearing of brush is still necessary after that every so often.
Anyway, any trees grown as any kind of crop up there, Xmas or otherwise? Hazelnuts or apples or xmas trees or something? You might be able to work something out with a local farmer.
posted by sacchan at 3:30 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

« Older Cool annual reports & social media integration   |   Can I find Mallory Ortberg/The Toast's version of... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.