Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of nursery worker © Robert Queen

Tree pulling at the Hayward Nursery for delivery to landowners.
© Robert Queen

June 2011

Growing up

The state nursery system turns 100 years old.

Jeremiah Auer

Since 1911, the state nursery system has provided a consistent supply of high quality seedlings of desirable forest species, at an economical price, to encourage reforestation in Wisconsin. This is a lofty goal. It takes nursery workers, foresters and landowners, all working together, to meet this goal in the limited time available each spring.

"Okay, let's go!" calls Kenny Anderson to the Griffith State Nursery tree lifting crew. It's 7:45 a.m. on a cool, damp April morning in Wisconsin Rapids and the longtime leader is anxious to get the crew to the field. The tractor snorts and chugs down the gravel road into the heart of the nursery.

Chris Biedenbender, another nursery technician, already started the AGCO RT100 and began dragging the seedling lifter under neatly managed rows of white pine seedlings. The seedlings' tiny roots are delicate; it takes an experienced operator to carefully negotiate the row and tenderly lift the trees from the soil, setting them gently on the surface. Other crew members then shake the seedlings by hand to remove excess soil and pack them into large bins for transport to the sorting shed.

These seedlings have been growing in the nursery beds for up to three years, but their lives began a number of years earlier in another corner of the state.

All in the family

In early September 2007 the Kalkofen family of Crandon was busy. Steve, Amy, Austin and Ryan started scouting pine trees near their home, looking for maturing cones. They knew the state nursery program needed conifer cones and the family wanted to earn a little extra money and to spend more time together outside that fall.

The white pine boughs had not hung this heavy with the weight of bunches of purplish-green, pine-scented "bananas" for many years. The cones carry tiny, winged seeds, hidden safely beneath a woody scale, the capsule of life for the white pine that begins a new generation.

The family raked the forest floor, stripped branches and searched for squirrel caches (One cache provided almost 2 ½ bushels of cones!). And the family's search left some angry red squirrels, indeed. The Kalkofens hauled the cones to the Rhinelander Ranger Station where forest technician Phil Puestow purchased cones on behalf of the state nurseries. A bushel of closed cones garnered $20 that year.

The station was just one of a handful of collection sites scattered around the Northwoods and all were very active this fall. The family's efforts, along with many others spread out across Wisconsin, combined to generate over 3,000 bushels of white pine cones, equivalent to almost 3,000 pounds of seed!

This statewide bounty was shipped to the Hayward nursery and spread over the floor of a large shed to dry. In the winter the cones were loaded into a seed extractor: a giant, antique conveyor belt/oven that slowly warmed, turned and shook the cones until they opened and released small auburn seeds. These seeds, along with the seeds and fruits of many other conifers, hardwoods and shrubs were then cleaned, sorted and stored in a refrigerated facility until called on to grow into the future seedlings of the Wisconsin landscape.

Back to work on seedlings

This is how the seedlings being lifted from the Griffith beds began life. Griffith Nursery manager, Jim Storandt, picked up some seed in late summer 2007 and brought it back to the nursery. This seed was planted into finely tilled soil. For the next three years, the nursery staff weeded, fertilized, irrigated, cultivated, protected and pruned the pine, along with a few million other seedlings of various conifer, hardwood and shrub species. The painstaking time, energy and resources were worth it. The tree seedlings are lush, green, healthy and strong.

Photo of planting crew © Robert Queen
Modern planting methods at the Griffith State Nursery in Wisconsin Rapids.
© Robert Queen

It is now mid-afternoon. Seedlings have been coming into the Griffith Nursery packing shed from the field all morning. Tractor drivers continually deliver bins of seedlings and return to the fields for more. Other nursery staff moisten the seedlings and move the bins into coolers, protecting the delicate roots from sun and heat.

The nursery stock is then sorted by hardy souls positioned along a grading belt. Workers steadily sort through the seedlings, and remove undersized, damaged or diseased seedlings. Only the best will do for Wisconsin landowners! On a good day, these folks can sort 75,000 to 85,000 seedlings, which are then counted and packed into waxed boxes and stored in a large cooler. Here they will wait until landowners stop by the nursery and receive fresh, vibrant seedlings to plant on their property to provide future forest products, wildlife habitat, erosion control and aesthetic beauty.

The nursery crew has done a good job. Sore muscles and tanned necks are the prices they've paid to pull almost 200,000 trees out of the nursery soil today.

A species for every use

Early on, when growing trees was still a unique idea, Norway spruce, red pine, white pine, European larch, Scotch pine and black locust dominated the distribution. Shrubs and hardwoods became important as landowner interest turned to wildlife habitat. A focus on producing endemic trees led to the current interest in native Wisconsin species.

Conifers have always been the most sought after seedlings by both private and public landowners. Red pine, white pine, jack pine and white spruce are the most popular choices for windbreaks, pulp, fiber and lumber. Tamarack, hemlock, black spruce and white cedar have never been largely important for wood products, other than for posts, poles, shingles or some pulp, but they have grown more important as interest turns to recovering former wetland forest sites. Conifers also provide feeding, nesting and winter cover for invertebrates, songbirds, and small and large mammals.

Hardwoods make up a smaller portion of tree orders. The reasons to plant them vary from landowner to landowner. Bigtooth and quaking aspen, and cottonwood are fast growing trees that provide wildlife browse, and pulp and paper fiber. Yellow and white birch, black cherry, red oak, sugar maple and walnut have beautiful grains that can be used for veneer, flooring, finish work and gun stocks. The white, bur and swamp white oaks, hickory, hackberry and basswood provide lumber for finish work and flooring, but they also supply railroad ties, tool handles and furniture.

Another use, becoming more important, is fuel wood. All wood can be burned, but some species, especially oaks, hard maple, hickory and cherry provide higher BTU's than most. Many of these hardwoods also provide wildlife cover and food. Acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and cherries fill many bellies. And some of the more overlooked, but important aspects of hardwoods, are the aesthetic qualities they provide. It is a special experience to walk through a hardwood forest in mid-autumn when the canopy is in brilliant color.

Shrubs have long provided landowners with another planting option. American plum, hazelnut and Juneberry provide wildlife food. Red-osier and silky dogwoods produce browse for deer and rabbits. Hawthorn, highbush cranberry, ninebark, prairie crab and common winterberry supply some mast, but also nesting and feeding cover for small mammals and songbirds.

All species grown by the state nurseries are important and fill a niche. It is up to landowners to determine their property goals and how to best reach those goals through tree planting.

Jeremiah Auer is an assistant manager of the Griffith State Nursery.

Celebrate the nursery centennial

The Wisconsin state nurseries will celebrate their centennial with events throughout the year. Displays will be scattered throughout DNR offices and other public places, explaining the nursery system and its many changes from 1911 to the present.

In addition, all fourth grade students in Wisconsin were eligible to receive a free seedling to celebrate Arbor Day. Normally this is a conifer, red or white pine; however, to celebrate the state tree, sugar maple, and its contributions to the state, students received sugar maple seedlings.

The nurseries also will distribute free sugar maple seedlings to attendees at certain statewide and regional events. The nurseries are available for tours by school groups, organizations and landowners. An open house will be held at each nursery on September 24.

Check State Nursery Program for updates. Join the nurseries this year in celebrating our first centennial and looking ahead to the next 100 years.