How to ... liberate an oak tree to expedite its growth

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: February 6, 2014 - 12:37 PM

To liberate an oak tree or other favored species, simply remove surrounding vegetation, providing the tree with room to grow.

Photo: Bill Marchel • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “November is, for many reasons, the month of the axe. It is warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort. The leaves are off the hardwoods, so that one can see just how the branches intertwine, and what growth occurred last summer. Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.”

Leopold wrote those words more than 60 years ago. Times have changed. For one thing, the chain saw has since replaced the ax, and November is now reserved for hunting.

I hereby declare February the month of the chain saw.

In the coming weeks I’ll head into the woods, chain saw in hand. My plan will be to liberate a few red oak trees, a wintertime task I’ve practiced for more than a decade on the 70 acres of land I manage for wildlife.

To liberate a red oak, one must simply eliminate the surrounding vegetation. The act provides the oak with more of the essentials: sunlight, water, nutrients and room to grow.

My acreage consists primarily of alder, willow and aspen lowlands. Here and there, though, a red oak will have somehow taken root and, with determination, blossomed into a small tree. Over time, the competing vegetation, especially the aspens, almost always wins the race for the sun. Without my help, the oaks usually lose.

So I interfere.

Leopold also wrote this: “I find it disconcerting to analyze, ex post facto, the reason behind my own axe-in-hand decisions. Where a white pine and a birch are crowding each other, I have a bias; I always cut the birch in favor of the pine.”

Unlike Leopold, I have a bias for red oak. I have this prejudice because oaks produce acorns. I enjoy watching, hunting and photographing the various birds and mammals that are attracted to the abundant mast. Deer, black bears, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys sift through the October leaves in their pursuit of acorns. Squirrels spend November days storing the nuts for the long winter ahead. So do blue jays. Wood ducks love acorns, too, and they will often leave their watery habitat to scrounge beneath my oaks.

I use nothing more than a chain saw and a brush cutter to clear surrounding vegetation, especially plants interfering with the morning sun. It’s best to give the oaks an enormous amount of space, cutting back the competition at least as far as the tree is tall.

Within a year of liberation, the regrowth of the removed trees is well underway. Those new stems provide food for deer and cover for various other critters. Songbirds, especially various warblers, thrive in the new growth and often nest among the fresh stems. And the oak will have enjoyed a head start, rising above the regrowth.

As I wander my woodland, I’m amazed at how quickly the released oaks grow. Some that held broomstick-size trunks just a few years ago are now strong and tall with spreading crowns, their trunks as thick as my calf. If I pass those oaks on a windy October day, I can hear the acorns drop.

Then I know my woodland world is right.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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