Filling the gaps


We choose Eastern Redcedar for our wildlife habitat plantings, partly because it is a hardy species of tree but mostly because it is free: saplings sprout prolifically across our fallow hayfields.

Some of these failed transplants are third, fourth or even fifth attempts because I am sure that eventually one will take hold and grow to full maturity. As the Roman scholar Persius assured us, “Vincit qui patitur.” (He conquers who endures.)  Maybe a sixth transplant attempt will succeed.

Filling the gaps

Come spring, the gaps appear. Each year we plant a scattering of trees and shrubs that we hope will grow and expand into thickets of wildlife habitat, and each spring we discover that a goodly number did not survive the hardships of a North Country winter. The plantings have gaps that need some attention.

In most of the gaps stand scraggly gray skeletons of dead cedar saplings with a scattering of dry needles at the base of their stems. I do a “body count” as I walk through the shelterbelts that border our hayfields and the 15-acre woodland that covers the face of the steep bluff on the west side of our farm. Twenty-five or thirty casualties this winter, more than have succumbed some years but far fewer than the disastrous drought years of 1987-88.

I mark the gaps in the wildlife plantings with wire flags, those three-inch squares of orange plastic attached to the top of two-foot lengths of steel wire. A healthy fifty-yard stretch of shelter belt may be marred by only two or three flags, but some struggling plantings take on a crime scene appearance with the location of each piece of 9mm brass carefully marked so that investigators can determine where shooters with semi-automatic handguns stood as they executed their victims. Some of the tree deaths were clearly caused by the deprivations of field mice or deer, but many are of indeterminate causes.

The only trees we have planted the past five years have been Eastern Redcedars (Juniperis virginiana). We have chosen redcedar partly because we have found it is a hardy and disease-resistant species that has the best chance of withstanding the assaults of the North Country’s harsh climate, but mostly because cedar saplings are free for the taking, growing prolifically in roadside ditches, along fence lines, and in our hayfield that has lain fallow three years. Over the past twenty years we have also observed that Eastern Redcedar can often survive exposure to the drifting clouds of agricultural chemicals sprayed recklessly by farm cooperative applicators across wind-swept fields of corn and soybean plants that have been genetically engineered to tolerate these poisons.

Fortunately, our closest neighbor to the south has changed his operation to organic farming, and the neighbors to the north have, like us, decided that their hillside hayfield is best left to brome, bluegrass, and forbs that need no chemical applications and do just fine with occasional spot-mowing for thistle. This protection from ag chemical herbicides does not mean that our tree plantings are bullet proof. A couple dozen saplings die each winter, some after one or two years of seemingly healthy growth, so each spring I go forth when the grass is greening to dig up volunteer cedars from the hayfields and transplant them into the gaps

There is surely some botanical reason why one cedar sapling planted along the south side of the shelter belt will proposer and an identical sapling planted fifteen feet away will wither and die over a period of a few months, but I have not been able to discover it. The soil, rainfall, companion plants, and all other environmental factors are the same, and as the first snowfall buries them for the winter the two appear to be equally healthy. But come the first warm days of spring one sapling will be waving green and supple in the breeze while the other stands stunted and bare with brittle stem and desiccated branches. Some of these failed transplants are third, fourth or even fifth attempts because I am sure that eventually one will take hold and grow to full maturity. Prickly ash, wild raspberry, buckthorn, and gooseberry thrive in these places; why not Eastern Redcedar. As the Roman scholar Persius assured us, “Vincit qui patitur.” (He conquers who endures.)  Maybe a sixth transplant attempt will succeed.

Equally mysterious is third-year mortality rate. Cedars transplanted after a healthy start will do well in their new location for two years, then struggle through the summer of their third year and die during the late fall or winter. I attribute their demise to star-crossed fate, bad karma – the same cruel forces of nature that spell an untimely demise death for the six- or seven-year-old trees that are beaten to death by the antlers of testosterone-charged whitetail bucks doing mock combat during the rut months of October and November. Such are the vicissitudes of life.

This week I cruised the hayfields in four-wheel-drive, digging up the first seven of the 30 cedar saplings we will need to fill the gaps of spring. I transplanted them into the first two sections of the shelterbelt, and last night’s two-inch rain should have given them an excellent start in their new sites. Over the next couple weeks I hope to complete the job; about a half dozen per day is my limit in my senior years. That’s okay. As I enter my second childhood it’s good to have an excuse to play in the mud.


More stories about life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to Filling the gaps

  1. Patti Johnson says:

    Also, the white tail deer don’t seem to enjoy nibbling on red cedar as much as they do on the spruce we’ve planted in the past!

  2. Jessie says:

    Transplanting any kind of plants in the spring is one of my favorite jobs. My husband calls it “shuffling” and is unimpressed with my plan to relocate the raspberries. But I’m always sure all my shuffling will improve things (except when I accidentally kill things) but I think you are probably right. Really I just want to play in the mud.

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