Glutton for Punishment: Frost Seeding 650 lbs of Clover and Planting 466 Chestnut Trees by Hand

The last month has been taken up by me trying to accomplish the impossible. I’ve been preparing 42 acres of steep hillside that I ravaged with a bulldozer to become a productive chestnut & hazelnut orchard. The first step to doing this is to seed the disturbed soil. My original idea was to have a neighboring farmer come in with a large tractor and a discer and seeder to seed it with medium red clover. As spring progressed and my land got more and wetter, I realized there was no way that was going to happen, any heavy equipment was going to get hopelessly stuck in the clay mud. I still have 6-8 culverts I need to put in, and without them, most of my property is impassible by anything other than an electric bike (and marginally at that).

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Having a Sur-Ron electric dirtbike makes it a lot easier to get around my hill

This meant that I needed to seed the entire property by hand using nothing but an old yogurt container. Red clover is amazing because it’s one of the only things you can frost seed onto bare clay soil and it will actually thrive. I purchase 500lbs of red clover but in the end, it turned out that I needed about 650lbs to seed where the soil was bare. I seeded it pretty heavily and normally 20lbs/acre is the standard. Since only about 1/2 of the land was disturbed I calculate that I seeded about 20 acres with about 650lbs so it was about 32lbs per acre.

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The area by the shagbark hickory lives, there are hundreds of baby hickories growing at its feet

To start out I got my digital scale and weighed a small amount of seed. I figured out in grams exactly how much seed I needed to seed a 5×5 ft square. At 20lbs/acre it works out to about 120 grams. I carefully measured and spread 120 grams over a 5x5ft space and then did that a few times in a row. Once I felt comfortable with that seeding quantity I just filled up my yogurt bucket and went to town. I ended up filling a 5-gallon bucket about 1/2 way with seed and throwing the rest of the 50lb bag into a large backpack and then went out spreading seed. I would refill the 5-gallon bucket twice before I would have to head back to the barn and get another 50 lb bag. Doing it this way I could spread about 200lbs a day (4 trips up the hill) without getting overly fatigued.

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The new clover is just starting to peek out

Medium red clover is a great ground cover that lasts of about 3 years before it reseeds itself. It’s a nitrogen fixer, it can grow directly in clay soil and it’s great for controlling erosion and it plays well with others (especially wildflowers). Frost seeding is best done around mid-March when you will still get some freeze/thaw cycles. The seeds work their way into the cracks of the ground during those cycles and do a good job of growing even in bad soil. Most days I went out in the afternoon to plant, but the last day I went out early in the morning when the ground was still frozen and I found it much easier to seed when I didn’t have to drag my boots through the muck.

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This shows tubes and stakes laid out for pounding, staging is the name of the game

Planting the seeds was something of a pain in the ass as well as you really can’t just plant chestnut seeds in crappy rocky clay soil and expect for many of them to grow. I have a large area of compost I have been making for the last year that is about 1/2 cow manure and 1/2 4-year-old shrub willow mulch. I ended up having to haul the dirt up the hill to plant the seeds in. Each seed got 1 handful of compost below it and 2 handfuls above it. You have to make sure that the water can run out otherwise the seed will end up in a ‘bowl of water’ and just rot. I tried to plant most of the seeds on mounds, if I couldn’t find a mound I would just grab a chunk of sod and flip it over and plant the seed in that. It’s important to put the flag right where the seed is so that you know where to put the tube over before you mulch it.

The stakes and tree tubes also had to get hucked up the hill and laid out for planting. I ended up with a system where I would carry either 50 tree tubes at a time or 25 stakes tied together with 2 light duty tie down straps with cam locks (think kayak straps). 25 6-8′ stakes were about as many as I could comfortably carry without serious risk of personal injury. I cut the sharp end of the stakes on the table saw, but Sean of Edible acres told me it makes a lot more sense to do them on a chop saw. One of the stakes broke apart and attacked me leaving a pretty bad stabbing wound on my leg.

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Tools of the trade, this is all I used to stake and tube 466 trees, you must use a drill and a throwaway 2′ bit to find spots to stake without rocks

I went with the 6′ Tree pro miracle tubes which are between $4 – $5.50 a tube. I have no complaints about the tubes other than the shipping company was pretty awful and mangled my tubes (Central Transport Pro). Getting the tubes apart was a little tricky, I found that grabbing them by the zip ties and working them back and forth worked well. Occasionally I had to pinch in one side of the tube to get it to slide out the other side. They don’t sell 6′ tubes on Amazon but you can get the 5′ tubes here. You need to use the same length stakes as the length of the tubes (I had to use 6′ stakes). Many tree farmers opt for outdoor electrical conduit, but I didn’t want to buy thousands of pieces of PVC conduit so I opted for 1×1 inch ash stakes. I’m hoping they last for 3 years, but time will tell. The ash stakes have a lot more issues, but I feel a lot better about using wood rather than using steel or PVC. Bamboo will not work, so don’t waste your time.

I spent about 20 hours frost seeding, about 40 hours planting out 466 seeds (about 5 minutes a seed) and another 40 hours putting up the stakes and tubes (about 5 minutes a stake/tube). My son and my wife both helped me for a day which really helps make it more tolerable. I would set unreachable goals every morning then work as hard as I could and not reach them. Having never done anything like this before it was hard to estimate how long anything was going to take. When I do several thousand trees next year I will have a much better idea of what everything will take.

Now it’s time for the mulching. If you’re interested there will be a mulch hucking party at my place this Sat 4/20/2019 from 9AM till about 6 with a big meal around lunchtime. It will be a lot of fun and you will get a chance to see the future of sustainable perennial agroforestry.

Farm on.