From Our Archives – December 2007
GENE LOGSDON (1931 – 2016)
The Contrary Farmer
I spent an hour in late November planting two acres of bottom land to trees. If that sounds like a prodigious task to accomplish in such a short time, not to worry. All I had to do was walk back and forth across the plot, dropping black walnuts on the ground in rows about 25 feet apart. I dropped one about every two feet— too thick really but to take into account the possibility that some won’t germinate and that squirrels might eat a few. I had gathered the nuts, still in their husks, from under a mature tree along our creek. When finished, I drove my tractor’s tires over the walnuts to squish them into the soft ground a little so that they would have good contact with the soil. That was all the planting necessary. Next spring, the walnuts will swell and crack open and a root sprout will burrow into the soil so quickly you can almost see it in motion. I admire people who are busting their guts and their backs transplanting thousands of little seedling trees to renew woodland, backyard plantings or urban forests, but it is so much easier to just plant the seeds, and invariably they will surpass the transplants in growth.
In nature, all seeds, including weed seeds, grass seed, etc. fall on the surface of the earth in winter and sprout when weather conditions are right. In the grove of trees our house sits, thousands of maple seedlings that have fallen on the forest floor come up every spring without any help from anybody. Along our creek, black walnut and ash seedlings sprout and grow like weeds from a few old mother trees, also without any help. All oaks, hickories and just about any tree will do the same in their proper climate. Squirrels do bury acorns and nuts, but trees don’t need squirrels to increase and multiply.
In a natural situation, where seed-producing trees are present, seedlings grow thick enough that they will self-prune and prune each other into a stand of nice, clear trunks. Without human labor, they shade out smaller seedlings, their own and each other’s lower limbs and eventually competing weeds and bushes. All that pruning advice that forestry handbooks wax so earnestly about will only gain you about three years, hardly worth the labor for trees that need 50 years to grow to marketable maturity.
But I will probably do a little pruning of side branches on the two acres of walnuts I just planted because in this case, I want to continue to graze the plot while the trees grow. That means the trees will not be thick enough, at least between the rows, for self-pruning. I will snip off lower laterals starting when the trees are about four feet tall but I won’t work at it very hard because I know that by the time the trees are 20 years old, it is hard to tell the ones human-pruned from the ones nature-pruned. I will also probably have to do some thinning over time, if too many trees came up from my lazy man’s planting method. Thinnings make fence posts or firewood.
I chose black walnut (Juglans nigra) for this planting because first of all it is native here. Also it is a good tree where animals will be grazing. The leaves taste bitter enough that our sheep won’t browse them too much, partly because they can satisfy any craving by nibbling the scores of other black walnut seedlings that constantly come up along the creek under the established walnuts. (What they do nibble, according to herbals, helps control internal parasites.) Thirdly, walnut leaves make only a light shade and so let plenty of sunshine through for the pasture grass. Fourthly, a natural chemical exuded by the roots acts as a herbicide against many plants— you don’t want to have a black walnut tree near where you grow tomatoes, for example. The chemical does not faze bluegrass however— in fact the grass seems to grow better in walnut shade than out in the open.
But most of all, black walnut is valuable wood for furniture. In 50 years, barring windstorm, fire, ice storm, or disease, about 100 trees can grow to maturity on an acre of good soil. As veneer, at today’s prices, they could sell for at least $1000 each. (You will get better growth in a mixed planting of several species rather than all walnuts, but in this case, the sheep would browse the other seedlings too much.) And as the trees grow, they give off pure oxygen— a typical 40 foot shade tree gives off 60 cu. ft. of oxygen every day, say scientists. After about the tenth year, the trees produce delectable nuts for humans and wild animals. (You just must taste my wife’s black walnut jam cake. See recipe below.)
Of course, there is also the emotional value that you will gain from a grove of trees, another part of the yearly profit you make while waiting for the trees to mature. My tree groves are my sanctuaries away from the chaos of the human world, cool in summer, comfortably protected from cold winter winds, full of singing birds, wild flowers and wild animals. My winter exercise is cutting up firewood. An acre of mature woodland produces a cord of wood every year without depleting, and in fact enhancing, the growth of marketable timber. I find in my tree sanctuaries what no king or CEO (today’s version of a king) can buy for any amount of money: tranquility. And if I watch closely, among my walnut trees, I just might spy a Regal moth, often called Royal Walnut moth, with its breath-taking, bright orange-red wingspan of nearly six inches. No insect, even in the tropics, can outdo this moth’s splendor.
Carol Logsdon’s recipe for black walnut jam cake
1 cup shortening
2 cups white sugar
4 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, sifted together
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
1 cup of coffee
½ cup of wine, your preference
1 and ½ cup of wild blackberry jam (tame blackberry seeds too big)
1 cup of chopped raisins
1 cup of black walnut meats, coarsely chopped
Cream shortening and sugar. Beat egg yolks and add to creamed mixture. Then add flour and liquid, alternately. Add jam, nuts and raisins. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry, add last. Makes a triple layer cake in 3 nine inch, wax paper lined pans. Bake at 350 degrees, about 25 to 30 minutes or until cake is done.