April 06, 2018
Interested in growing chestnuts – and other nut and fruit trees – for hard and soft mast production that provides nutritional and attractional value for white-tailed deer?
Well, you should be.
"It is the easiest and most effective way to draw deer and keep them on your property for a long period of time," said Robert "Bob" Dunstan Wallace, grandson of Dr. Robert T. Dunstan, the late renowned plant breeder who helped bring back the American chestnut tree from the brink of extinction.
"If you've got land, you need fruit and nut trees to attract deer," added Wallace, the owner of Chestnut Hills Nursery and Orchards. "It's the most effective way I know of to get them and keep them there."
Of all the trees that the nursery – now run by Wallace and his son Iain – grows and sells, the chestnut is perhaps the most important since the native species was virtually wiped out by an accidentally introduced fungus driven blight in the early 1900s, a natural disaster of sorts that the late Dr. Dunstan played a key role in resolving.
"The basic story is that my granddad grew up in North Carolina and he watched the demise of the chestnut forest in the Appalachian Mountains," said Wallace, who was educated at the University of Florida.
"The blight that was accidentally introduced from China wiped out about 30 million acres of trees over about a 40-year period of time. It caused phenomenal devastation – imagine if all of our oak trees of today died."
When a friend of Dunstan's found a surviving chestnut tree in the American Midwest, the plant breeder went to work.
"My grandfather took some cuttings from that tree and grafted it onto some Chinese chestnuts," said Wallace. "The Chinese chestnut was resistant to the blight, but they were not good nutters."
But when the first-generation hybrids grew to maturity, Dunstan could backcross them with the parent trees, eventually producing a second generation of hybrids that were good nutters as well as having good resistance to the blight. The result was a burgeoning grove of hybrid chestnut trees – the Dunstan Chestnut tree – the only such trees to ever receive U.S. plant patents.
From that point forward, the family nursery business in Alachua, Fla., not to mention the comeback of the chestnut, was basically secure. And that's something that whitetail deer managers take notice of more and more each year.
"The chestnut is incredibly sweet and contains almost no tannin like acorns do, which is why deer absolutely love them," said Wallace. "Plus, chestnuts bear nuts in three to five years, unlike 10-plus years for some oak species. That's a huge advantage for a landowner, especially since chestnuts bear every single year, not in a one or two-year cycle like oaks do."
Wallace said that the Dunstan Chestnut hybrid trees are highly adaptable, able to grow and produce nuts from September through November in a variety of places that range from as far north as the coast of Maine westward to upper Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan and on southward through the entire eastern forest.
In other words, deer country, land where whitetails can really use the nutritional value and energy that the sweet chestnuts provide.
"Big bucks – they are the ones that need that energy in the rut, something that the chestnut is especially good at providing," said Wallace. "And they really, really like them. Dr. James Kroll did a test by putting out chestnuts from our orchard next to local acorns on his East Texas ranch one fall and they ate the chestnuts 100:1 over the acorns."
Plus, chestnuts become a food source that deer grow to rely on year after year.
"They have value as a perennial food plot," said Wallace, noting that young trees need water and some sort of protection from browsing deer during the first couple of years. "You plant the trees, do it once, and then you don't have to keep going back to do it again and again."
How much of a budget does a landowner need? Not as much as you might think.
"Our three-gallon, two-year old trees are $30 at Walmart," said Wallace, whose Chestnut Hills Outdoors company sells upwards of 100,000 trees each year to the wildlife market through retail and online sales. "For chestnuts, a few hundred dollars for trees, growing tubes and cages, etc. can get you started.
"The most important thing is access to water – you can't just plant them and leave them that first year or two," he added. "If your area gets good summer rains, that's good, but if you live in a place where drought conditions can develop — like Texas — you'll need to figure a way to get water to the trees or you could lose your investment."
Wallace says there's a big difference in the planting of deer orchard trees versus the time and expense of more traditional food plots that require tractors, tilling equipment, lime, fertilizer, seed, and the ability to go out there on your property and plant every single year.
"It can be a good investment to plant trees," said Wallace. "And you get a good return on your investment, especially since after the first couple of years, they pretty much take care of themselves."
How many chestnut trees does a landowner need?
"That depends on the amount of land that you have and the lay of that land," said Wallace. "We've found that planting chestnuts around the perimeter of other food plots works well, as does planting them in other (stand-alone) places where you want to establish an orchard.
"If you've got just five to 10-acres, you can plant them fairly close together. If you've got a bigger piece of land, you can plant them at different sites around your farm. Pollination wise, you probably need at least two to five, and on up to 10 chestnuts in an area, for good pollination to occur."
If chestnuts are one important piece to what Dr. James C. Kroll describes as "Deer Landscaping" on a piece of property – or vertical food plots as I like to call the process – other nut and fruit trees play a valuable role too.
"If you plant a combination of other types of nuts and fruits, that's good," said Wallace. "That can include soft mast like the Dr. Deer Pear trees, the Deer Candy Persimmon collection of trees, crab apples and apples, mulberries, blueberries, blackberries, Muscadine grapes, etc."
It can also include a variety of oak trees – including the sawtooth oak – that can help provide whitetails with a variety of natural food sources that start producing in June and go all the way through Thanksgiving and on up towards Christmas.
Wallace said that such plantings – which can also include such things as a peach tree – provide plenty of nutritional value.
"Sugars in such mast are carbohydrates, and that's something they (deer) need even when they are eating green browse," he said. "Sugars are in high demand for deer, as everyone who plants fruit trees in a home orchard can attest to when they develop a (so-called) deer problem. Unless they are deer hunters, of course, when it's not a problem."
Such plantings are desirable from a nutritional standpoint – having natural food sources like fruit and nuts available for six months or more – as well as from an attractant standpoint.
"Deer on your property know where the food is," said Wallace. "When they discover it, they'll keep coming back to it. Does will teach their fawns and those younger deer will keep coming to the orchards and eventually, the deer in your area — including big bucks – will keep coming back and back."
That can help attract and keep deer on your property even as one food source plays out and another one begins to produce.
"You may only have a small piece of land, but if you plant a variety of nutritional things on it, your property will be a magnet to the deer in your area," said Wallace. "You really don't have to have a large farm or plantation to make a difference."
If you're interested in such "Deer Landscaping" on your deer hunting ground, Wallace said it's not hard to do since his company sells trees at a variety of Walmart, Rural King, and co-op dealer locations across the country, as well as direct online sells that are shipped by UPS.
"Depending on the size of the tree ordered, about all you'll normally need is a post-hole digger or shovel," said Wallace. "Other than that, it's not really hard to plant them at all. You'll need to water them in good at the planting, mudding them in to eliminate air pockets so that they'll grow into the soil around them. We've got videos on our website, it's really not that difficult to do."
Wallace ads that right now during the spring months is a great time to plant, but fall plantings can also be good since the trees don't need as much water as they go dormant over the winter months.
"As long as the ground isn't frozen, the roots will grow (over the winter), and when the leaves come out next spring, the trees will already be established and rooted in," said Wallace.
The bottom line in all of this is that by planting chestnut trees and other mast, you'll provide nutrition for your deer herd, as well as attracting them and keeping them on your property throughout the fall hunting seasons.
And who knows? You might even find out that you like planting these "vertical food plots," or deer orchards.
"My son Iain is the fourth-generation of our family to be involved in this," laughed Wallace. "I guess I caught the disease from my grandfather and it's continued on until now. Once you start with these fruit and nut trees for deer, and get your fingers in the dirt, it's kind of hard to get them out."