Trees, seeds and nuts.

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(Modified. Originally Published in Forestry Today, May/June 1997)

As an undergraduate arts student, I took a mandatory science course. I chose geology because my arts colleagues said the other stuff (biology, chemistry) was all too tough. “Think about it,” they said. “Just how many different types of rocks could there be anyway?”

Well as I was soon to discover there are many kinds of rocks. I learned later, from a friendly bird watcher that there are also many types of birds. You can tell an amateur geologist on the beach because she is walking with her eyes firmly fixed on the beach boulders. And bird watchers, like amateur and professional foresters, have their heads aimed at the clouds. (I should mention the dangers inherent in these preoccupations: of geologists being swept out to sea, of foresters dropping into unseen holes). Once one develops an awareness of nature’s diversity, one is forever changed. I was to find that out when I discovered trees.

Several years ago I acquired 15 acres of forest land in Nova Scotia near my cottage. My intention was to leave it in a natural state, but I would open walking trails for my neighbours.  It was an immediate hit with people who had before seen only the lake, but now realized there was an inviting forest that beckoned to them.

Protecting the naturalness of the site as much as I could, I used only local soil and gravel when fill was needed. I built my bridges and handrails of branches and small trees. I would not even use a chain saw for clearing winter deadfall, eschewing all mechanical devices. There were no fertilizers or pesticides to be found though the June blackfly invasions almost demanded that I shower in OFF. I resisted suggestions about planting flowers or anything that did not originate in the forest itself.

Over the next two years I honed my woodland understanding by reading everything from texts on silviculture to Zen garden literature. My wife and I visited parks and shrines in several countries.  These experiences brought revelations. I learned that I owned a “mature growth forest” and that I should be seriously looking at something called “shelterwood” if my intention was to build a woodland garden. And in this exercise, I needed to take “the long view” helping my forest to re-generate itself by thinning, and opening up the canopy. I was to find soon enough though that self-regeneration might well take more time than I had left to live. And from my travels I had come to appreciate that exotics were not necessarily inappropriate. The key was sensitivity, and careful selection. But I was not yet ready to vary from the spruces, pines, tamaracks and firs that filled this property.

I came to appreciate that garden management demanded finding, and managing, a balance between “non intervention” and “sensitive intervention.” The formula one chose needed to be one that opened one’s lands for a fuller enjoyment, while ensuring the survival and good health of the living plants themselves. With these goals in mind I felt comfortable, for instance, inserting polished and natural stone for walks and seating.

But I also soon discovered I could not survive by hand labour alone. I bought a chain saw and started, slowly but surely, to help my forest regain vitality. Though there was no shortage of information on thinning, the problems of insects, forest fire prevention, watercourse management and stone wall building I could find precious little about woodland gardening.

While my forest was waking up to new sun exposures, I went out gathering pine and spruce cones. I test-planted several. None produced offspring. Hmmm. I tried again. Nothing. I went back to my information sources and checked “cones and seeds.” I saw that if one finds opened cones, or cones on the ground, their seeds have long since dispersed. Oh.

OK. No problem. I’ll just go and gather some unopened cones. Wow, are they ever high in the tree. I crafted a reaching assist that allowed me to get up to four metres or so. I gathered many pounds of cones of various types in my city, while business travels to the Prairies and British Columbia allowed me to supplement my harvest by visiting area parks. It became evident during these excursions that I had come to believe that my new garden should contain species from all across Canada; and where possible, from other countries as well. The Central Experimental Farm’s Arboretum was proof positive that trees from all over the world could grow in an utterly different zone. If it worked in Ottawa, it must surely work in Nova Scotia. Or so I thought.

My cross-Canada cones were stored in my garage until Saturday shucking days were available. What a time I had prying those cones open! For hours on end I cut, sliced and chopped cones. It mattered not to me whether they were black, brown or green. After all, what difference could that make? As my pails of sorted seeds multiplied and my little mountain of discarded cones grew, friends and neighbours thought I had gone completely batty. I struggled on.

To this point I was focused on coniferous seed. My span of knowledge did not expand into other areas beyond that. Then, a chance reference on the Web site of the Ontario Professional Foresters Association referred me to the “annual (Eastern Ontario) nut growers field trip.” Wow. I rushed to sign up, wondering if they would allow a participant who was greener than the forest ever would be. I need not have worried. I was warmly welcomed and showered with publications and application forms. To my great surprise and satisfaction my wife and I gained a place on the bus.

Turned out to be a marvelous day. Saw not only neat groves and parks, but also my first “plantation,” something I thought existed only in the US South. I made like a squirrel and gathered nuts from all sorts of trees, marveling that Ontario seemed to be full of nut trees. (How had I not known about this?) We met a very memorable group of people, some of whom could identify particular nut trees as we sped by at 80 km an hour. I had my first sandwich with nuts in it (at a delightful lunch in Cornwall). Many questions were answered and knowledge gained – about for example, “negotiating access” so that gathering could be done legally, and diplomatically.

An offshoot from this voyage was my discovery of forestry organizations and associations and their vast depositories of research data.  I learned there are “plantations” all over Canada and that many thousands of experiments had been done with various local and “exotic” trees, using varying (but rigorously recorded) sources, methods, fertilizers and pesticides. Hmmm. So clearly, I was not the first to think of introducing “exotic species” to a new area.

It was reassuring to discover that I was not completely off the wall for trying to grow trees from seed. I heard about “stratification” but discarded that subject as it was way too complex (tree seed needs to mature in a simulated natural environment). My mind numbed with data about multipots, the importance of sunlight, soils and drainage, and (groan) the fact that seed quality varies and often has poor survival rates in spite of the best of preparation, practices and weather.

Over twelve months I was able to gather eighty separate collections: many maple varieties, iron wood, Norway and other spruces, ash, chestnut and yellow buckeye.  I also gathered magnolia seed and aesculus neglecta nuts, and crab apples. Finally, planting day. On a November 11 weekend, in a freezing drizzle, I planted and scattered my two cases of seed and nuts. All plantings were dutifully staked with a brilliant identification system. All I had to do now was wait. I expected sprouts up to what, chest height or so by the spring.

I was completely unprepared for my discoveries the next summer. Not one softwood or hardwood had germinated. And absolutely every nut planting site had a small hole at it instead of a tree. Squirrels had – without one miss – eaten the entire lot.

I chalked this experience up to proving (for all who wanted to know) what does not work in building a woodland garden. With that learning, I threw myself into a program that was much less ambitious but also almost guaranteed for success. It involves locally gathered and purchased seedlings. The woodland garden grows – for an older and smarter gardener.


[David G. Jones is a woodland gardener who divides his time between Ottawa, Canada (where he works) and Nova Scotia (where he practices wood lore).

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