Written by Jeremiah Auer, Forest Regeneration Specialist
Spring has arrived, and, in the small southwestern Wisconsin community of Boscobel, the Wilson State Nursery has sprung into action. As soon as the frost leaves, it is the task of these dedicated employees to shake off the cold, start up the tractors and prepare to harvest 2.4 million tree and shrub seedlings for their journey from these fields to pine forests in Brule, wind breaks in Montello, wildlife plots in Merrill, erodible hill sides in Pepin and everywhere in-between. Wisconsin nursery seedlings provide future forest products, wildlife food and habitat, erosion protection and erosion control throughout the state.
Roger Bohringer, assistant manager of the Wilson State Nursery, says that it was a slow start for nursery staff this year due to weather.
“We just started lifting in our shrub and young hardwood fields during the first week of April because the snowless fields in December allowed the cold temperatures to penetrate the soil and create frost at least 2-3 feet deep amongst the seedlings. The insulating blanket of snowfall in early January kept most of the really cold temperatures from pushing that frost much deeper,” Bohringer said. “It is common for the soils to thaw in mid-to-late March in this part of Wisconsin. However, Mother Nature decided to hold out a little longer in 2019.”
Since its humble beginnings at a make-shift nursery outside of Trout Lake in 1911, the state has had seven nurseries producing tree and shrub seedlings. In addition, several smaller, transplant nurseries were created in the 1950’s to meet demand for larger stock. At its highest capacity, Wisconsin DNR nurseries were producing and shipping more than 40 million seedlings a year to forest landowners and property managers throughout Wisconsin, with an overall total production of more than 1.6 billion seedlings since the inception of the state nurseries. In addition, there’s a contingent of private nurseries dotting the landscape that also produce many seedlings.
“We are still learning about the best way to raise a seedling from seed,” said Joe VandeHey, reforestation program team leader stationed in Boscobel. “We have learned a lot, but when you are working with native seeds, collected form a large swath of the Wisconsin countryside, you never know 100% how the crop will turn out. There are always some unforeseen challenges that we must overcome.”
Back in the fields, the tractors are getting warmed up for the start to the morning. Nursery technician Doug Guernsey is checking his equipment, greasing the tree lifter and cleaning the soil from the knife and tines that will slide underneath the beds of seedlings and slowly, gingerly lift them from the soil and shake the loose soil from their tender roots. This part of the operation is critical. To have a quality product for landowners and managers to plant, they must be taken care of well.
“I try to imagine how I would want to receive these seedlings if I were paying for them to plant on my property in Richland County,” Guernsey says. “We really want folks to be successful in their planting efforts.”
After the seedlings are lifted and set into a series of field crates, they are driven to the sorting shed where several local and contract laborers sort, grade and package the seedlings for distribution. Individual orders are then packaged and stored in the nursery coolers to keep the seedlings fresh and cold.
“We want the seedlings to think they are still in the cool earth and dormant,” according to distribution coordinator Jackie Knoble. “If the seedlings stay cool and damp in our coolers, they will be fresh and ready for planting when the landowner gets them home.”
Seedlings are shipped out across the state in reefer trucks, truck beds and car trunks. Landowners who have spent a cold winter dreaming about ways to improve their property will then be able to create a new forest. Establishing trees and shrubs serves as a connection to the land. It can instill a similar land ethic that Aldo Leopold talked about many years ago, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
“It can be a challenge, but it’s always a good feeling to see the snow melt and the watch the seedlings we have been tending for 1, 2 or 3 years be sent off to their final destination on someone’s property,” said Bohringer. “Hopefully, the landowners will have as much fun planting them and watching them grow as we had raising them.”
The Wisconsin DNR’s reforestation program is currently sold out of most species, but as we work through our inventories, it is always possible for some species to have stronger inventories than what we anticipate. Contact Carey Skerven at the Griffith Nursery office at (715) 424-3700 or go to https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/TreePlanting/ for more information.