March 16, 2016
The landowner was adamant about showing me what remained of the chestnut trees he'd planted only a year before. He'd planted them at the suggestion of a highly respected whitetail consultant, following the consultant's instructions to the letter. Now here we stood, looking at nothing more than dead sticks protruding from the ground. This time I was the one who was being paid to offer advice as a consultant, and the client was putting me on the hot seat.
I didn't break a sweat, as I was well prepared to not only diagnose the problem but do so with absolute confidence. The planting site was within a lowland floodplain, the worst possible spot for growing chestnut trees. They simply won't survive "wet feet." No wonder the trees this landowner had invested time, money and effort into establishing had perished. What really set this landowners blood to boiling, however, was the fact that he had paid for the advice that led him to plant there.
"Chestnuts are really picky about the sites where they will grow," says Dr. Jay Miller, former President of Northern Nut Growers Association. "They need a well-drained, acidic soil. They will not survive on heavy, clay soil or on wet sites. Nor will they survive on soils with pH above 7 (neutral)."
Fortunately, chestnuts will grow over a wide climatic range, from USDA Zone 4 to Zone 8. They do best in places with hot summers. But not every area within these planting zones will work.
"It's difficult to find chestnuts that tolerate winter temps much colder than -20 F.," Dr. Miller notes. "They need adequate moisture during the growing season to produce large crops but are also drought tolerant. Chestnut trees are also sensitive to late-spring frosts, which can greatly reduce the crop.
When chestnut trees first hit the scene as the new rage with whitetail managers, I was as intrigued as anyone else. But my interest was tempered by experience. I recall when, 20-some years ago, the sawtooth oak was the latest thing with managers. This Asian oak was said to produce acorns in just five years, much sooner than any native oaks.
To top it off, sawtooth acorns were said to be preferred by whitetails over acorns from other species. I jumped on the bandwagon and planted several sawtooth oaks on my property, as well as on land owned by clients. The results weren't what was advertised.
While I still include sawtooth oaks on projects I design, as well as on my own property, I now know exactly what to expect from them. The sawtooths I first planted are now producing acorns, but it took a lot longer than five years. In fact, I routinely get acorns from some native oak species at a younger age than from sawtooth oaks. And while deer and other wildlife readily consume sawtooth acorns, I wouldn't say that they prefer them over the mast of other oaks.
With proper care, most chestnut trees will begin producing nuts in 4-7 years. I have actually had a handful of 2-year-old trees put on a nut or two while still growing in pots inside the greenhouse. Unlike the early-bearing traits of the sawtooth oak, which often were exaggerated a couple of decades back, the chestnut absolutely will bear mast at a young age.
All of this leads us to the most important question of all, and one you're most looking for the answer to: Are chestnuts as attractive to whitetails and other wildlife as some claim — or are they just the latest fad to be kicked out of the whitetail hype machine?
Personally, I think they're the real deal. I've been planting them on my own property for the last few years and have plans to plant even more.
I base this opinion on my firsthand knowledge gained from working to propagate chestnut trees from seed. An experience early on in this endeavor convinced me of the chestnut's attractiveness to wildlife. In one of our greenhouses I'd planted 500 chestnut seeds in starter pots, along with a few thousand acorns from various oaks.
Within a week, squirrels had made their way into my greenhouse and carried off every last one of those chestnuts while hardly bothering the thousands of various oak acorns surrounding them!
Now, think about that for just a bit. Even though the chestnuts were planted, the squirrels were still able to detect which pots contained them and which didn't. I'd never had to deal with an issue like this, despite many years of tree propagation.
In subsequent years of growing chestnuts, I've found this initial problem wasn't an isolated incident. Every year I'm still constantly doing battle with squirrels, mice, ground squirrels, chipmunks, etc., as they almost seem to be able to smell planted chestnuts from miles away. Even after the chestnuts have sprouted into small tree seedlings, varmints will continue to dig down to get the remaining nut attached to the roots. It really is unbelievable.
While I don't yet have a substantial chestnut crop dropping on my property, the trees are in place to make this happen very soon. When it does, I'm confident whitetails will be coming to eat them as if on a string.
Being in the business of advising others on whitetail land management issues, it's imperative that I become educated and experienced as quickly as possible on issues such as the best tree and shrub species. When I advise a client to plant chestnut trees in a certain location on a piece of property, I now do so with the confidence the trees will survive if properly cared for. And I'm confident that once they start bearing, deer will be there to eat them.