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All it's cracked up to be? There might not be a universally perfect whitetail food. But in much of eastern North America, blight-resistant chestnuts come pretty close.

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.

Long before I started offering my services as a whitetail land consultant, I was planting trees for a living on wildlife habitat and conservation projects. In fact, I still own and operate a business as a tree-planting contractor, planting hundreds of thousands of trees annually on these projects. Just last year my employees and I planted more than 280,000 trees on projects in seven states. My livelihood demands that I understand what it takes to make a planting project successful. Thus, even before this landowner actually showed me the dead trees, I was pretty certain I knew the problem, just by the type of terrain we were navigating to get to the planting site.

It would have been easy for this landowner to conclude that chestnut trees just don't do well in his area. But in my travels, I've found that often a plant species gets a bad rap it doesn't deserve among those trying to make habitat improvements.

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 exacdy 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.

This experience caused me to approach the current chestnut mania with both eyes wide open. In fact, I made it a point to become educated to a certain degree before ever planting my first chestnut tree. My "chestnut education" has been ongoing and continues to this day.

Let's start by looking at the different chestnut varieties. For all intents and purposes, there are American chestnuts and Chinese chestnuts, as well as hybrids of the two. Native American chestnuts are affected by a blight that eventually kills them. Details regarding this blight can be found on the Internet, so in the interest of space, suffice it to say anyone planting chestnuts should be planting Chinese chestnuts or a hybrid cross between , American and Chinese varieties.

While I've obtained a lot of information regarding chestnuts from Internet research, one individual has been instrumental in answering my questions and helping me become better educated about growing these trees. Ohio's Dr. Greg Miller has been involved full-time with these trees since 1984, though his own "chestnut education" started way before that. Dr. Hill graduated from Ohio State University in 1978 with a degree in horticulture and in 1983 from Iowa State University with a Ph.D. in forestry (tree breeding and genetics). His Ohio farm includes 50 acres of chestnut plantings from all over the world, some of which were planted by his late father, Jay Miller, as early as 1957.

Among his lengthy and noteworthy credentials, Dr. Miller served as President and as a board member of the Northern Nut Growers Association, is a longtime member of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), serving on its board and Science Oversight Committee, and has served as president of the Ohio Chapter of TACF. He's also a member of the Chestnut Growers of America and hosted their summer meeting in 2009 at his farm. Suffice it to say, he knows chestnuts!

What, in this expert's view, are the key differences between native American chestnuts, Chinese chestnuts and American x Chinese hybrids?

"American chestnuts are susceptible to chestnut blight and phytophthora (root rot)," he says. "In the eastern USA, American chestnuts will sooner or later succumb to one or both of these diseases. However, in the case of blight, American chestnuts will often get to bearing age (5-10 years old) and bear a few crops of nuts before dying.

"Chinese chestnuts, on the other hand, are resistant to chestnut blight and somewhat resistant to phytophthora. They will grow and bear crops for 50 years or more unless they are in a forested environment, in which case they will probably get shaded out by native forest trees. The maximum height of Chinese chestnuts is 50-60 feet, which is not tall enough to compete with 80- to 100-foot-tall eastern hardwoods.

"Hybrids are quite variable and have the potential to combine good traits of two or more species," the researcher continues. "We'll see."

Now that we've determined American chestnuts aren't an option for wildlife plantings because of their susceptibility to blight, we're left with either pure Chinese or American x Chinese varieties. As these crossbred varieties are very similar to pure Chinese strains, here's my question for Dr. Miller: If you're going to plant a grove of chestnut trees for wildlife, which variety or hybrid-cross would you plant --and why?

"For deer, I would plant pure Chinese," Dr. Miller says, "because they are the most robust, and deer like the larger nuts Chinese trees produce."

Of course, before ever buying the chestnut trees of your choosing--or any other trees, for that matter--you should be aware of their required growing conditions.

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.

"Chestnuts are really picky about the sites where they will grow," the researcher continues. "They need a welldrained, 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)."

In my own work with chestnuts, I've found the trees respond very well to fertilizer and care. The extra attention given them, in the form of eliminating competing weeds and fertilizing, pays off more than the same effort put into many other species. But as with any other trees you plant, I strongly recommend applying no fertilizer for the first two years after planting. Just keep newly planted trees watered and free of competing weeds, so that they can get their roots firmly established. Once that has happened, an annual shot of generic granular fertilizer (such as 12-12-12) in late winter will get them growing to their full potential.

With proper care, most chestnut trees will begin producing nuts in 4-7 years. I have actually had a handful of 2-yearold 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.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The author is an experienced trophy whitetail hunter from Illinois. He operates Higgins Outdoors Inc., a multi-faceted land management and tree nursery company. He can be reached through his website: higginsoutdoors.com. NAW

BY DON HIGGINS
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Author:Higgins, Don
Publication:North American Whitetail
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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