By Andrew Campbell
When it comes to farming there are two things that most farms have in common. They grow food; and when they plant a seed they harvest a crop that year. Not for Ben. Ben & his family are tree farmers. They and others are behind all the beautiful maples, evergreens and shrubs that you see at your local landscaping store, or freshly planted after the construction of a new road or subdivision. But growing trees isn’t an easy job. It takes years or care to get that perfect looking tree or well-shaped shrub. That’s because the crew is constantly staking trees, replanting them to make more space and pruning branches to make sure it’s as tall and sturdy as possible before heading out the door. So come and see just what goes into the incredible business of tree farming.
Ben, what kind of trees do you grow?
We grow all kinds of trees, shade trees and plants for landscaping purposes. We also grow shrubs and evergreens. We do not grow fruit trees, fruit bushes or annuals, but we do caliper shade trees, evergreens and container shrubs.
It looks like there is a lot of work involved. Let’s start on the shade tree side. What are some of the things you do to look after a shade tree?
The trees are typically planted from bare root in April or May. Once they are planted out, they’re established in the field. Usually that first year we will put a support stake into them. We are trying to develop a central leader in the tree then once they’re established, we go in and start pruning them. We’re trying to prune some branch structure into the tree and we’re trying to think of the tree when it gets to be larger. What is that tree going to look like? We’re trying to get good spacing between the branches we’re taking out any cross branching, that sort of thing, but also a central leader, so that the tree can grow up straight and not get poor branch crosses.
You are thinking of the tree long term. Is that one of the main reasons you prune?
We are pruning because sometimes that growth can be long and it can be weak, so it can make the tree floppy. We are trying to develop branch structure so that in the end, once it’s planted as a street or yard tree, it’s going to have a good structure. That tree will live for a long time and grow to be a strong, healthy tree.
It sounds like the goal is to make hundreds of absolutely perfect trees. You talked about planting. Is it a case of planting a seed in the ground and hoping for the best? How are you planting?
No, there are a couple of stages prior to the point at which we plant them out in the field. Some of them are grown from seed. A lot of them are budded, which is a form of grafting. Another specialized grower that would plant and grow a seedling for one or two years. That seedling would be harvested and then we would plant it out again on rows which is what we call lining them out. They would be put on much closer rows. They would be planted in April or May. Come July and August, the tree would be budded. That’s a form of grafting where you would take a bud from one of these branches and it would be grafted into the stem right at the very base of the tree. With the graft that particular seeding is allowed to grow then for the course of the summer, where that bud will knit together with the tree or with the seedling.
The following spring, everything will be cut off above that graft point. This allows that one bud to whip up really fast. It would be trained against a support stake and we would call that a one year whip. That one particular bud, all that energy from that established root system is going to go to one bud and it’s going to fire right up. It’ll be trained to just go up as straight as possible to try and get a straight tree out of it. The second year, all along the nodes, they will start to grow and they’ll be pruned back, but the head will be left. That’s what we call a two year branch tree. We typically would plant out either a two year or a one inch branch tree.
At that point, that tree would be dug up bare root. We would purchase that tree at this point in its growth and we would line them out in a field. From there we would be able to sell them within three years, but it’s more typically four or five years before we can start to harvest again.
When you’re harvesting trees do you put a shovel in the ground and dig it up or how does that work?
For the majority of trees we use a tree spade which is a machine that uses pressure to push the spades into the ground. The tree will be lifted out, put into a wire basket with a burlap liner and then tied and secured in a ball.Typically trees are dug in the spring when they are still dormant before they’ll get leaves on them. Some trees only like to be dug in the spring. Some of them can be dug through the summer, but majority not. Some of them can be dug in the fall as well. So it all depends on the variety of the tree.
It really is a huge job. It’s not just, put a root in and hope for the best and eight years later, dig it up when you feel like. There’s a lot of details.
A lot of work goes into making a good quality tree.
We are in the evergreen portion of the nursery where you’ve got thousands of trees. They’re quite pretty, I’m assuming they don’t grow this way. Just nice and pretty perfect?
For the most part, this particular variety does but it is trained somewhat. We will try to keep it to a single leader. The side branch, they might be sheared at certain points, but for the most part, this particular variety does grow like this.
How old would these trees be in here?
These are probably about eight years old from the time that it started.
You have an eight year crop, right here? So then, eight years ago, how did you get started?
They would have been started as a hardwood cutting then taken and rooted in a greenhouse in the winter time. Once it was rooted, it would be planted out on what we call a liner bed, where plants are lined out in a field. They grow there for a couple of years, after which they are dug up again, bare root, and then planted out. We would plant them out again on single rows, but a little closer spacing to conserve some room. They would be grown there for, in our particular operation, for another two to four years. We would root prune them, as if we were going to dig them, we would put the spades down in them. That would be done in August, then after about a month time they’ve made some nice, fine roots again. They would be transplanted either that fall or the following spring out into wider rows.
Then are these getting close to ready to be sold?
These are for our particular market. We typically sell them at the four foot range, but fives and sixes are more popular for us. They’re often sold at smaller sizes, but for us, that’s our market.
Well then speaking of the market, what is your market? Where do your trees end up?
Primarily about 80% of our market is to residential and commercial landscapers. We sell from Windsor to Ottawa, and into the Greater Toronto Area here. We do sell a little bit into Quebec and some into the United States as well, but the majority of it is in Southern Ontario.
Isn’t that amazing. Hopefully people realize that the trees they buy didn’t just come out of the woods and that there was years of work that went into it.
Years of training and looking after them and cultivating them. It takes a long time.
Well, thanks for the tour today, Ben.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer Andrew Campbells full video here: