Shortly after the holidays each year, catalogs from area nurseries begin to arrive by mail. I am easily distracted, and Technicolor pictures of new and exotic tree varieties can quickly spiral my plans out of control.
Each year I remind myself to step back, take a deep breath and focus on the fundamentals.
Experience has taught me that it is better to plant a few high quality trees, and plant them well, than it is to plant dozens of bargain trees poorly. Native trees and tried and true varieties are the best choice.
The author’s top favorite species
5 Eastern White Pine
Now found across North America, the white pine is native from western Minnesota, north to mid Ontario, and east to Newfoundland. White pine can be found as far south as Alabama at higher altitudes.
They fall within USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 8.
With needles two to five inches long, this familiar pine can grow to more than 150 feet tall and spread to 40 feet at maturity. This native pine can be used as a windbreak while it provides nesting cover for birds and thermal cover for deer and other wildlife.
Produced in slender, 6-inch cones, white pine seeds are consumed by a wide variety of wildlife from squirrels to crossbills. Deer will frequently browse their soft needles.
White pines prefer moist, well drained, sandy acidic soils. Full sun to partial shade will produce the fastest growth up to 24 inches per year once established.
For a lasting windbreak in open country, white pine can be employed as a fast growing nurse tree, allowing slower growing trees like spruces to become established.
White pines can be planted from ball stock, but high success rates and convenience make bare-root seedlings a superior choice.
4 Quaking Aspen
Each fall upland bird hunters chase the golden leaves of the quaking aspen in search of ruffed grouse and woodcock. The aspen’s “trembling” leaves provided its Latin name, and their applause can be heard across North America.
Quaking aspen ranges from the mountains of Mexico, north to the edge of the taiga, and from coast to coast, Alaska to Nova Scotia. Quaking aspen grows in moist, acidic sandy soils, loamy soils and well drained clay soils from USDA hardiness zones 1-7. Aspen saplings need abundant sunlight- they simply will not survive in shade. Fast growing in ideal conditions, quaking aspen can add 24 or more inches of growth in a year.
Host to a multitude of birds and butterflies, aspen is heavily used by deer who browse their buds, eat their leaves, and rub their bark while resting in their cover. Aspen leaves feed rabbits and snowshoe hare while ruffed grouse depend on their buds for winter food. You are hard pressed to find a better cover for woodcock.
Quaking aspens can be planted from bareroot seedlings or rootstock in full sun.
Make sure the seedlings are those of Populus tremuloides not an ornamental variety or “hybrid popple” which is nearly valueless for wildlife.
3 Black Hills Spruce
(Picea glauca densata)
Since there is a native spruce suitable for nearly every soil and situation across the Great Lakes, it is tough to pick just one. That said, the Black Hills spruce is. Suitable for moist to dry, sandy or gravelly soils, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8, once established the Black Hills spruce can add 12 inches in height per year in full sun.
The dense branches and evergreen needles of the Black Hills spruce provide ideal thermal cover for wildlife, delivering protection from the hot summer sun, cold rain, damaging winds, and snows of winter. Spruces also produce the longest lasting screening. When carefully planted, the Black Hills spruce will protect travel routes or break up a landscape into compartments for decades to come.
Bare root Black Hills spruces can be found up to 3 feet tall, and more mature trees can be planted from ball stock.
2 Swamp White Oak
This is a hearty tree of the river bottoms and flood plains. Swamp whites tolerate flooding very well, though they will not grow where flooding is permanent.
They grow best in moist, well-drained acidic soils in USDA hardiness zones 4-8. Among the fastest growing oaks, established swamp whites can add up to 20 inches per year and produce acorns in 20 years or less. Swamp white oaks can grow to 60 feet tall and 60 feet wide.
The acorns of the swamp white are about an inch long with a scaly cap covering the top third. These acorns are low in tannins and renowned to be the sweetest. The scaly cap provides little protection when these prize acorns hit the forest floor and wildlife from bears and whitetails to grouse, and wood ducks have little trouble gobbling them down.
Swamp white acorns begin their development with a root called a radicle. This radicle eventually will form a deep taproot, critical to the success of a fully grown tree. Because of this pattern of growth, swamp white oaks are probably best planted from bare root seedlings or saplings. The process of cultivating more mature stock, or ball stock, may interfere with the growth of that critical taproot.
Apples are native to central Asia, and while this runs counter to a “natives only” objective, please hear me out. Apples are a favorite of deer and bears as well as a long list of other wildlife and birds.
Perhaps the earliest tree cultivated by humans, apples can be a challenge to grow in the wilds of the back 40. Apples are a fascinating tree with an undeniable appeal.
There are thousands of varieties from which to choose.
To the wildlife manager, a few properties will help quickly narrow your choices:
• Grafted – In contrast to seedlings, grafted apple trees produce the most consistent bloom and fruit results.
• Cold Heartiness – Your choice needs to tolerate winter in your hardiness zone and should be grafted to suitable rootstock.
• Disease Resistance – Your tree should withstand the diseases, pests, and rigors of the back forty.
• Bloom Time – In order to produce fruit, apples require cross-pollination from a different variety. This variety must also bloom at the same time. This can be a second tree, or a second variety, grafted to a single shared root stock.
• Size – Standard apple trees can grow to 25 feet tall and hold up to wildlife better than dwarf or semi-dwarf.
Apple trees like fertile, moist, well-drained soils. Choose bare root or ball stock trees from a local nursery. Fence apple trees to protect them from browsing deer and climbing bears. Protect their trunks from rodents, and prune branches to withstand browsing and improve yields. Apple trees are work, but they’ll reward you with fruit and inspiration.