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A Forest for the Trees

Returning Farmland to Forest

A Lifetime Investment

“Forest in the Making”
Bare Root White Pine & Cedar Transplants Purchased from Soil & Conservation

It was not part of the plan when my wife and I purchased our home, situated on one nine-acre post bank foreclosure subdivided parcel of an old north country farm lot. It was never anything I ever initially even remotely envisioned. It was something that took on a life of its own as we evolved together through time.

While forestry and forest management were never in any way part of my formal skill set as I grew up, I always loved trees. My father, Tom Monroe, was a Wanakena graduate and career NYSDEC man. He was a walking forestry encyclopedia. I inherited his extensive forestry library of textbooks, notes and manuals.

When I was growing up, Dad and I always spent a lot of time together in the woods, hunting, hiking, camping, canoeing and fishing. Whatever adventure we were on, he always took time to share his wealth of forestry knowledge with me. From basic tree identification to best forest management practices, through relationships between tree species and wildlife, down to important details such as what types of trees made the best campfire hotdog sticks, which trees would start a rainy-day campfire the quickest, and which offered the most BTUs as our basement wood furnace’s Saranac Lake winter firewood, Dad took great pride in ensuring that his son had a working knowledge of the trees and forests surrounding him.

I spent years listening to and learning from Dad’s vast array of NYSDEC forest management co-workers and friends. I listened to all of Dad’s ongoing “Forever Wild” State Land Master Plan development forest management debates. I even spent two summers of my own gaining hands on experience as a member of the DEC’s high peaks trail crew.

However, all that being said, as my wife and I purchased our old vacant farm lot situated home, there remained one basic tree task I had never accomplished. There was still one basic forestry skill I had never developed. One key piece of my tree puzzle was still missing. For all I had learned about trees and forests growing up with my father, there remained one thing I had never even once in my life ever done. To that point in my life, I had never planted a tree.

The lot our new home was built on what was basically one third of what had for nearly two centuries been a north country farm. One small piece of Great Lot IV of the original “Macomb’s Purchase”, it had been clearcut of native white pine and oak to support The War of 1812’s ship building efforts, after which, nearly devoid of trees, it was land leased to farmers.

By 1992, the last farmer had long since gone bankrupt, the banks had foreclosed, subdivided and sold off the individual 8-9 acre home lots, and homes had been built. My wife and I found ourselves owning one of them. There was another home on the lot to our left, as well as a small house on a postage stamp lot carve out of our lot that the farmer had sold in the ’70’s as a last-ditch effort to keep the bank’s wolves at bay.

The lot to our right remained vacant. My wife and I later purchased that lot as well, giving us roughly seventeen acres. How that all came to pass is a whole ‘nother story.

Be that as it may, what we had in 1992 was basically one nine-acre slice old farm lot. While our lot had more than its requisite share of discarded farm debris, rusted barbed wire and old stone fences, one thing our new lot lacked was trees.

By my count, at that time, in terms of mature trees, not counting thorn apple and emerging elms (which I knew would eventually succumb to Dutch-elm disease, but at that point we had in good number), on our lot we had a sum total of six. Six mature trees on our original nine-acre lot. There was one gorgeous elm tree out back, with that iconic umbrella like canopy. Beyond that, our tree inventory included one big oak halfway down our stone fenced left property line, one small stand of basswood and ironwood in our left corner (in my mind I count that as one), and three mature conifers, two white pine and one red, forming a loose line along our rear property border.

Predictably, the big elm tree died shortly after we moved in. That left five trees. Five mature trees gracing nine acres of vacant farm fields rapidly being overgrown in thorn apple and elm. I did not have any detailed plan for what I envisioned for our land, but I knew it was not that.

So, figuring I’d put my old farm lot to good use, as my first forestation endeavor, I decided to try my hand at growing Christmas trees. After consultation with Dad, sometime around 1995 I purchased 500 balsam seedlings from the DEC during their spring tree sale. My brother Ray drove over from Saranac Lake and helped me bootheel them in, much as Dad had said they did in DEC post fire re-forestation efforts.

Not having done any soil sample work, made any watering plans, or done any land prep work beyond some basic brush clearing, that initial effort was a complete failure. Whether it was due to soil composition, lack of water, poor planting technique, or wildlife browsing, not a single one of those initial 500 balsam seedlings survived the first season.

From that initial 100% failure, I determined that before I invested any further time, effort or money in tree planting, I needed to focus my attention on doing some basic land management. My land consists primarily of dense poorly drained clay. In the summer it’s rock hard. In the spring it’s a snow melt rain enhanced tree drowning quagmire.

Before I planted any more trees, I set about putting my trail crew skill set to work. I focused on drainage enhancement, creating a network of access trails, hand digging a series of drainages and small ponds, tapping into an intermittent stream that crosses the back of my property.

As one might imagine, that process consumed several years. While I was at it, I noticed that I had a re-forestation ally. Squirrels! Primarily red squirrels, but also some greys. While I was busy digging ponds and cutting trails, they were busy burying hickory nuts and acorns. I appreciated their help. Every time I spotted an oak or hickory seedling sprouting up, I immediately cleared around it and, to protect it from deer and rabbit browse, caged it.

That effort paid dividends. All along my stone fence border hedgerows, I now have a healthy population of maturing oaks. While they are slower growing and I am still awaiting my first crop of nuts, I also have nine healthy hickory saplings that vary in height from 4-12 feet.

Inspired by the squirrels and having an interest in bio-diversifying my fall nut types, while I was cutting trails and digging ponds, one fall I locally harvested a big bucket of walnuts. Before I planted them, Dad recommended I consult one of his longtime DEC Forester friends. So, I did. He gave me detailed instructions on everything I needed to know about successfully planting and growing walnuts. Except for one key detail the forester left out.

As I husked that big bucket of walnuts on my back step with my Buck knife, I discovered that walnut husks indelibly stain human skin! As a result, I walked around for the next few months with nicely stained walnut brown hands.

As far as I’m concerned, in the long run it was a small price to pay, because out of that bucket of black walnuts, I now have twenty-seven healthy walnut saplings growing on my land. While none have yet produced any nuts, they are all now between 3 and 8 feet tall.

“Going Nuts!”
Grampa introducing Ari Rae to the wonders of Walnut Trees

As long as I was at it, while I was planting walnuts, I figured I might as well go all the way and plant my own home-grown version of Monroe Waldorf salad. I am a firm believer in creating perennial wildlife food plots. So, as part of my re-forestation plan, I experimented with planting a variety of apples.

Apples are tricky. Everybody likes apples.

To date, all told, all varieties, I have probably planted well over 200 apple trees. My wife likes to sometimes joke “You know Dear, I don’t think apple trees are supposed to be annuals.” My apple tree planting efforts have struggled. If drought, bugs or rabbits doesn’t kill them, winter’s sub-zero temperatures do.

Still, stubborn perseverance is one of my strong suits. I have somehow managed to keep 21 crab apple and 23 apple trees, all caged, alive. One saving grace that gives me a smile, my granddaughter Ari Rae Marra absolutely loves apples!

During my “nutty phase”, in an effort to add additional biodiversity and nut food varieties, I also experimented with hybrid chestnut trees and hazelnuts. My chestnut tree efforts have thus far proven underwhelming, with only 5 of 20 3-foot trees I planted and caged five years ago still surviving, though they are all still only three feet tall and have shown absolutely no above the ground growth.

The four hazelnut bushes have all survived and appear healthy, but to date have shown me nothing that indicates they have any near-term intentions of producing anything remotely resembling a hazelnut.

With regards to tree planting, my mom always told me “First they sleep. Then they creep. Then they leap.” So, I watch my nut trees patiently, hope Mom is right, and pray that someday they’ll wake up and show real measurable growth.

Once my network of drainages, ponds and trails was established, by 2017 I was able to once again set myself to reforestation efforts. This time, after having had no luck with NYSDEC’s balsam seedlings, I decided to try Soil & Conservation’s blue spruce, white spruce, and red pine seedlings. I chose them after consultation with Soil & Conservation’s staff forester. Over the years he has proven to be a great resource and consultant, sharing his knowledge, insight and experience, all free of charge!

The county’s soil & conservation forester made his initial tree recommendations based on them being a less popular wildlife browse focus. My son RJ and I planted fifty of each.

Deer didn’t browse them, but the damned rabbits still did. I did not repeat the red pine planting. I did plant spruce again in 2018. Seven years post planting, with 9 red pine and 59 blue/white spruce I have an overall survival rate for these species of about 40%, but they sure are slow growing!

In 2019, not satisfied with either survival or growth rates, I decided to change gears. Despite them being more expensive, I not only switched to white pine, but from 6–12 inch 1 year-old seedlings to 18-24 inch 3-year-old bare root transplants. Upon the forester’s recommendation, I caged every white pine I planted. To date my white pine survival rate has been over 90% (55/60).

That year, always seeking to add to my forest diversity, I also tried planting eastern white cedar. I caged them too. My white cedar survival rate was a bit lower than white pine, with an 84% (34 of 40) to date survival rate. Due to deer browse concerns, I have left the white cedars caged. I also caged 3 red cedars that sprouted up along my trails all on their own.

Eastern White Cedar

I also made another successful move in the spruce area. I transitioned from blue & white spruce to Norways. I began planting 3-year-old 16-inch bare root Norway spruce transplants. I’ve had great luck thus far growing Norway spruce, with a to date survival rate of nearly 100%. Another advantage of Norway spruce has been that I have thus far experienced very limited deer/rabbit browse, thus eliminating the time and expense of individually caging them. They also seem to grow faster than their blue/white spruce cousins.

White pine has by far given me the fastest growth rate. I just had to remove cages from trees I planted just three years ago, as the wire cages were inhibiting lateral limb growth.

White Pine
3 years post-transplant

Through it all, over the course of the last 30 plus years, I have developed a number of techniques and learned a few things. Properly drained land is important. Hand digging a small pond pays really big dividends. Not only can the dug soil dug be mounded for planting, but once the pond is dug, without the expense of hoses, irrigation or pumps, now there’s an on-site tree watering source for the price of a bucket!

One important lesson I learned the hard way is that every bucket has to have a bucket rock. Otherwise, after the first good windstorm, when I go out to water my trees, I’m likely to find myself bucketless.

Another lesson I’ve learned through the years is that late fall/early winter, when the leaves are all down but there is no snow, is the best time to map out and prepare the next spring’s tree planting. The ground is saturated, making it easy to dig and consult with the water on the best pond digging spots and where water wishes to flow. Clearing brush is also far easier when it’s leafless, sap free, and thus lighter.

I have found that it is worth the additional expense and investment to plant 3-year-old bare root transplants as opposed to 1 year old seedlings, and for most tree varieties, at least for the first several years, to wire cage most everything.

With those lessons in mind, I took full advantage of this year’s mild, snow free December. My current tree planting project is fully prepared for spring planting. I’ve hand dug two ponds and cleared two white pine deer bedding areas. I even added two drainage flow bridges.

I tied the lower bedding area into 3 white pines I planted 3 years ago. I piled all of the brush for each bedding area into two separate but nearby brush piles, creating a wind break as well as serving as additional bird and small critter habitat.

“Wildlife Housing Area”

The two bedding areas will be tied together by a seventy-five-yard-long Norway spruce travel corridor. Once my tree order arrives in mid-April, I will plant 40 Norway Spruce bare root seedlings in two alternating rows, one along each side of the trail.

“Wildlife Highway”
Currently Under Construction

I’ve ordered 30 white pine and 50 Norway Spruce bare root transplants from Soil & Conservation. For folks thinking of doing so, plan ahead! Most orders are due by early February. It’s first come first served, and in-stock inventories, especially of popular species like white pine, balsam and other conifers go fast!

All in all, to date on our Monroe homestead’s 17-acre old farm lot, I’ve successfully planted and nurtured 55 white pine, 9 red pine, 34 white cedar (along with 3 self-sprouted reds), 50 Norway Spruce, and 27 balsams. (Yes! I did finally manage to find a “well fertilized” spot up near the old barn that Christmas trees seems to like!)

These are accompanied by 27 up and coming black walnut trees, 21 crab apples, 23 apple trees, as well as an ever-growing inventory of squirrel planted oak. That’s 323 trees in the ground already, not counting the 70 additional white pine and Norway spruce I have planned for this year’s spring planting!

If everything goes anywhere near according to my hopes, dreams and plans, one day I will wake up to realize my bare root tree seedlings have grown into a forest.

Whenever that moment finally happens, one thing is for certain. This tree growing journey has and will continue to be one that our family shares. Planting forests for the trees is a lifetime investment. A legacy I can leave on our land to be appreciated and enjoyed by my children and grandchildren.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: