Whitetail Hunting photo

When European settlers reached North America, the American chestnut was arguably the most important tree in the country. From the Adirondacks to southern Appalachia, chestnuts fed people, livestock, and wildlife. The tree produced lumber of both high quality and tremendous volume. Then, in 1904, a single tree arrived in New York City that carried a blight lethal to chestnuts. The disease tore through the eastern United States like a tsunami, and by the early 1950’s, the American chestnut was nearly extinct.

I hadn’t given chestnut trees much thought until I attended the ATA show in Columbus, Ohio, last January. There I met a cheerful man who introduced himself and placed a tree seedling in my hand. “If you like creating deer habitat, you need to plant some of these,” said Bob Wallace.

The trees are Dunstan chestnuts, a blight-free hybrid developed by Wallace’s grandfather. “The seedlings will start producing nuts in 3-5 years, and unlike oaks, they have a crop every fall,” Wallace said. “The best part is, they’re tannin-free, so deer just devour them.”

So about a month ago I ordered 10 seedlings from Realtree Nurseries (about $20 per seedling), potted them, and kept them watered until I decided where to plant them. I’ve been really impressed with their vigor and growth, and look forward to seeing how they’ll take to an old cattle pasture that needs some encouragement if it’s going to hold deer.

Obviously, I’m not going to know if these chestnuts will thrive, produce mast, and attract deer. But I’ve planted enough trees to know that there’s nothing more satisfying. If you’ve planted trees, you know exactly what I mean. And if not, order some trees (Realtree Nurseries is one source, but Google “Dunstan chestnut” and you’ll find others), grab a spade, and look for a spot that receives good sunlight.

Tree planting is, I’ve found, pretty darn simple. Dig a hole slightly bigger than the root system of your sapling, stick the sapling in the hole, and fill loose dirt around it. I like to give saplings a good long drink of water right at the planting, to reduce stress. And if the summer gets dry, return to soak the ground around your trees with more water. Then, it’s just a matter of waiting.

There’s an old saw that says “The best day to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best is today.” Well, I’ll have to settle for this weekend, which I suppose comes in third. Hopefully the deer and other critters will develop a fondness for chestnuts, but even if they don’t I’ll be happy if the trees thrive. I’ve always been a sucker for a comeback story.