Tree Tubes For Protecting Tree Seedlings, A Love Hate Relationship.
Spring is no doubt one of my busiest times of the year but also is my favorite season. The cold winter days are behind and the trees and other vegetation are just beginning to wake up from their winter sleep to provide some green color to the otherwise dull landscape. Spring to me means the smell of freshly turned dirt getting prepared for planting food plots, watching the tom turkeys strut around the open meadows showing off their colors to their flock of hens. Hearing the distinct booming sound of the male prairie chicken on a distant sandhill as he courts for his mate and of course planting trees each spring for both livestock shelterbelts and for wildlife purposes.
Oak trees are found throughout Nebraska however most grow naturally only along major river drainages where I live. Having hunted deer along the Niobrara river in Keya Paha county for several years and observing how deer flock to the huge Burr oak trees that are commonly found along the Niobrara river, I knew just how powerful of a draw that acorns are to whitetail deer that I needed to get some oak trees started on my own ranch. I did my research and read reviews on various fast growig oaks and hybrid oaks and oak trees that would survive in sandy soil and finally settled on 2 varieties of hybrid Burr oak trees and ordered 25 to plant in the spring. Both oak tree varieties were suppose to be fast growing and advertised to be acorn producers in 3-5 years. I had my doubts on that as my sandy soil is not an overly welcome environment to most trees but I decided to give them a try.
The hype on using tree tubes to protect oak trees and other tree seedlings was the talk of the town so I hastily ordered enough tree protection tubes to protect my oak seedlings without digging too deep on reviews. Everything I had read up until that point gave a 2 thumbs up on the benefits of using a tree tube for fostering the perfect environment for growing trees fast and also protecting them from the elements and critters. A tree shelter tubes main job is to dim available sunlight except at the top which therefore stimulates the seedling to accelerate growth up towards the light. A 400% increase in tree growth in one year was one of the main advertising benefits that tree tube companies use to market by using tree tubes over newly planted seedlings, however does that rapid growth come with a negative effect?
Tree tubes come with other advantages besides greatly increasing the growth of seedling trees. Tubes help to prevent bucks from rubbing their antlers on the new seedlings. Tree damage from rubbing bucks can have a very negative effect on tree growth and more than likely results in tree death. Tree tubes also help to protect seedlings from those other smaller sized rodents that we typically forget to think about except after winter is over. Rabbits are a huge problem as they find the tender seedlings irresistible to chew on when the weather turns colder and snow buries most of their food. Meadow Voles or field mice are the silent killer and do their damage to tree seedlings under the cover of snow in the winter months. Vole damage is sometimes mistaken for that of rabbits as they will both girdle the trunks of young trees feeding on the tender bark. Voles are notorious for burrowing under deep snow and doing their damage to young trees without you ever knowing until spring when the snow melts and the damage can be seen to the tree trunks. Many of us including myself are guilty of not checking trees during the heart of winter when deep snow is present and hungry critters are feasting upon our hard work. Properly installed tree tubes are worth their weight in gold in helping to prevent those smaller critters that we often forget about in the winter from killing newly planted tree seedlings.
Tree shelter tubes are great tools to use however like anything they do have their disadvantages and I've learned that the hard way over the years. The highly advertised and marketed extremely fast growth that comes with using trees tubes can either help you or hurt you. It's very rewarding to see a seedling oak tree shooting out the top of a 5ft tree tube after only 1 year however the reverse effect is dealing with trees that cannot support all of that height due to small,spindly trunks. Many of my hybrid oak trees exhibited fast growth while in the tubes only to buckle or else grow crooked from too rapid of growth. A tree tube is a wasps best friend as these stinging insects love to take up residence inside. Wasp nests inside trees tubes are a huge problem for two reasons with the first one being that there is nothing comfortable about looking into the top of a tree tube and being eye to eye with 15 angry wasps ready to attack. The second reason is raccoons love to eat wasp larvae and will literally chew holes in tree tubes to get at the tasty wasp larvae.
Tree tubes come in several sizes with most ranging in 3,4, and 5 ft tree tubes sizes but no matter what anyone says, a 5ft tree tube is not tall enough to prevent deer browsing damage to the tops of your tree seedlings. Talking with customers all over the U.S. it's amazing to hear how deer react differently to the presence of tree tubes in their environment. In some cases deer pay zero attention to tree tubes and won't bother to browse on the tender sapling growth protruding out the top of a tree tube and in other cases such as mine, every single oak tree got an ugly haircut by a determined deer. I've personally witnessed deer standing on their hind legs browsing the tops out of my oak trees that were planted using 5ft tree protection tubes. In hopes to solve this deer browsing problem on my tubed trees, I started cutting 5ft tree tubes in half and zip tying them to the tops of 5ft tubes that were already in use to give me an overall tube height of approximately 6 1/2ft which was high enough to be out of reach of browsing deer. This method helped with the deer browsing problem but also contributed to even more tall, spindly trees that couldn't support their own weight. High winds from mother nature and the extra hassle of having to use a much longer tree tube stake also proved to make this method of using tree tube extensions unpractical.
Frustrated with the hassle and the ongoing maintenance with using only tree tubes for my tree seedling protection, I resorted back to the tried and true method of using wire mesh cages around my trees for protecting them from most critters. I still use a short section of tree tube around the base of the tree for rabbit and mice control however the tree tube height is now only 2 1/2 to 3ft tall. The shorter tree tube height also helps to elminate trees growing too fast to support their weight and from treebark eating critters such as voles and rabbits. Wire mesh tree cages can be made from a variety of materials but I've found that the stiffer wire found in the thicker gauge wire mesh seems to hold up the best and doesn't require a ton of staking to hold in place. Concrete reinforcing wire works well as does other rolls of heavy gauge galvanzied wire materials. Most typically mesh wire tree cages are formed in a 6-8ft diamter circle for best results. I know when a new seedling is first planted, this diameter of tree cage looks ways too big but after a few years of good growth, the lateral branches on the tree will begin to take off and will still remain protected from most deer browsing inside the larger size cage. Steel T-post stakes work well for securing tree cages but can get rather expensive when doing a large amount of trees. Number 4 and 5 rebar which is 1/2" or 5/8" sizes also works well for securing tree cages and can be cut into 5-6ft lengths and threaded through the wire squares works quite well for holding wire tree cages in place.
Tree tubes certainly have their advantages, however after many years of dealing with hormone charged rutting bucks destroying tubes, breaking tree tube stakes, and killing the tree I was trying to protect, wire cages are now my main source of tree protection. Tree cages are not as fast to install compared to tree tubes however once installed properly, tree cages require virtually zero other maintenance compared to using tubes alone.