Twenty years ago, I planted 1,600 black walnut seedlings on a site a few miles outside of Barre, in central Vermont. Four years later, I planted another 700. A dairy farm had operated on the site for many years before the cows made way for a ginseng grower in the 1970s. When I acquired the property, I felt an historical pull to keep at least part of the land working. When I began building my home, the excavator operator’s enthusiastic reaction to the quality and depth of the soil firmed my resolve.
So, without any previous silvicultural experience, I decided to become a tree farmer. Veneer quality black walnut timber would be my crop. I wasn’t the first person to try to grow walnut in Vermont, but I couldn’t find evidence that it had been previously attempted on this large a scale. Our county forester helped me to obtain a $3,000 cost-share stipend from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and I was committed. I bought one-, two- and three-year-old bareroot seedlings from New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
The seedlings were planted 12 feet apart on a five-acre rectangle, each within five-foot-tall plastic tree shelters secured to wooden stakes. I applied glyphosate herbicide around the base of each tree annually for the first six growing seasons, as I had gleaned from my readings that fledgling black walnut plantations frequently fail without the elimination of competing vegetation.
Mortality was less than 15 percent over the first 10 years, occurred mainly over the winter, and was highest in the Pennsylvania-sourced cohort. Nonfatal winter dieback and late spring frost damage were common. Bud destruction caused by insects was ubiquitous and remains so, which makes corrective pruning to maintain timber form essential.
During the first few years, the plastic tree shelters regularly toppled over in strong winds. In dismay, I spent long hours replacing snapped stakes and setting things aright. Less tipsy were the shorter, four-foot shelters I used in subsequent plantings. Although the shelters eventually ended up in the landfill, they provided invaluable protection from deer and rodents and made herbicide applications quite straightforward.
The trees have grown vigorously and some are almost 50 feet tall. I still assiduously prune them in the late fall and over the winter. Two years ago, it became apparent that a major thinning was needed and I culled about 350 trees, which had no real commercial value beyond being really expensive firewood. Unhappily, yellow-bellied sapsuckers have also become involved in thinning the stand. Their tapping activities have maimed or killed dozens of trees, and they seem to have a knack for targeting trees based on their potential timber quality; they have eliminated some excellent trees and I’ve yet to find a way to thwart their activities.
My plantation has come a long way since Vermont Woodlands ran a short piece about it in the Autumn 1994 issue. The trees are now firmly established, timber form is generally good, and copious nuts are being produced. The local squirrels love me.
The key factors that have led to success, beyond hard work, include a good site (crucial), cold tolerant seedlings, early control of competing vegetation, and prevention of animal predation. It is likely that the moderating effect of climate change has favored the vitality of these trees. I consider myself, for better or worse, an agent of tree migration. However, any pride I take in this project is frequently tempered by the realization that it won’t be completed until the trees are mature…in about 50 years.
This series is underwritten by the Plum Creek Foundation, in keeping with the foundation’s focus on promoting environmental stewardship and place-based education in the communities it serves.