A Century of Seedlings

10/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

Saratoga Tree Nursery Keeps Native Species Rooted on NY Land

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — David Lee works year round to turn out good agricultural products, the same as any other farm manager.

The main difference is that most of his planting is done now in the fall.

Lee oversees the 101-year-old Saratoga Tree Nursery, the last state-run facility of its kind, that provides more than 1 million seedlings per year to landowners across New York state from Long Island to the Niagara frontier. Another 200,000 go to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for projects on state-owned land such as campgrounds.

“We mainly deal with native plants not available from the private nursery industry,” Lee said. “Stores might have red maples, for example, but quite often they’re special hybrids, not the original New York state genotypes.”

From hardwoods — oak, maple, birch — to conifers such as spruce and hemlock, seeds are planted now because unlike vegetable crops, it takes several months for them to become active once they’re in the ground.

“Tree species need more time to break their dormancy,” Lee said. “They have a longer stratification period. About 70 percent of our seeds are planted in the fall, the rest in spring.”

At this time of year the nursery is also focused on seed collection. Staff harvest fruit, nuts and cones at productive tree stands throughout the state and the facility also pays groups and individuals for seeds they bring in. Prices run the gamut, from $3 per bushel for black walnuts to $120 for hemlock. People should contact the nursery first to find out what’s needed and the cut-off dates.

Once seed is extracted from cones and fruit it’s checked for moisture content and held in storage until needed.

Lee pointed out that the nursery only sells small stock, 6 to 14 inches tall, so as not to compete against commercial growers that generally sell more mature trees.

“With our stock, it might take six to 10 years before you have a 6-foot tall tree,” he said.

Previously, seedlings were sold in bundles of 100 or more. However, these days there are fewer large landowners, so seedlings may be purchased in groups of 25.

“Also, instead of buying 100 of a single species, more people are getting a variety, 25 of several different trees and shrubs,” Lee said.

At one time, the nursery provided seedlings for vast parcels of unproductive farmland that was converted to forest, primarily in New York’s Southern Tier.

Many farmers still plant trees and shrubs as buffers around their fields to prevent agricultural runoff. The plants absorb materials that might otherwise flow into nearby streams.

Other popular uses for seedlings are erosion control, to create wildlife habitat and food for birds and small animals.

“The nursery is a really important asset for landowners in New York state,” said Peter Gregory, of the New York Forest Owners Association.

The facility has also provided thousands of willow and poplar stock for a DEC “Trees for Tribs” program to restore stream banks washed away by last year’s tropical storms, primarily in Schoharie County and the Champlain region.

Groups such as Trout Unlimited rely heavily on the nursery. Chuck Godfrey, the western New York chapter’s stream projects chairman, said that nearly 15,000 seedlings have been planted in the past 13 years, primarily in Wyoming and Erie counties.

“Our experience has been that we get nearly 100 percent survival rates every single year, including this year when we had such an incredibly hot and dry summer locally,” he said. “I was at one site just last week where we planted over 500 trees this past spring, and every tree tube I looked down was alive and well. Planting on the same stream last year has resulted in growth of anywhere from 2 to 4 feet in the bare root seedlings, and growth of 4 to 10 feet in the potted trees that were planted. This project was featured in Trout magazine, the quarterly national publication of Trout Unlimited.”

The nursery has 90 acres of land, of which 40 are under production at any given time.

“Growing bare root stock is a very tough job,” Lee said. “We lost about 40 percent of our crop this year to drought and the lack of snow last winter really hurt. Snow protects the seeds and young stock from the cold. A lot of trees were frozen off, the same as fruit orchards.

“Sometimes it seems like we have one catastrophe after the other,” he said. “A private firm couldn’t absorb these losses and would probably go out of business. Being a state facility allows us to get over those humps.”

However, all state agencies are continually scrutinized in these tough economic times and the nursery is no different. Over the long run, abundant years when Mother Nature cooperates make up for lean times such as this year’s challenging weather conditions.

Seedlings are priced “at cost,” just enough to cover the expense of producing them. If there was no nursery, the cost of doing projects would go up for both private landowners and the state, meaning fewer projects would probably take place.

The nursery has six full-time, permanent employees. Each spring, several dozen seasonal workers are brought in to harvest seedlings and prepare them for shipment.

“People start placing orders during the first part of January,” Lee said. “We take orders though mid-May.”

Then each fall the whole process starts over — preparing new seedbeds, mulching and collecting seeds that will one day join one of the state’s greatest assets, its vast forests and woodlands.

For information, visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7127.html.

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