The True “Cost” of Tree Tubes

I have been reviewing several old articles about treeshelters (tree tubes).  These were mostly written by foresters testing and considering tree tubes for use in hardwood timber regeneration.  One common theme runs through these early articles:  Tree tubes are viewed as “expensive.”

Really?  To consider the true costs of using tree tubes to see if they truly are “expensive” we first need to answer the question: Compared to what?

Yes, tree tubes are expensive compared to simply buying seedlings, planting them, and making an attempt at weed control.  Yes, tree tubes are expensive compared to “traditional” methods of hardwood plantings. 

Another way of saying either of the above: Tree tubes are expensive as compared to failure.  To the extent that traditional hardwood planting method ever worked (which is seriously in question), they sure don’t work in the year 2010. Not with record deer populations, hundreds of invasive weed competitors, and more severe limitations on the use of fire as a management tool.

The very fact that researchers in the 1990s were trying treeshelters at all was a tacit admission on their part that what they had done before simply wasn’t working, and that they needed new tools and techniques in order to achieve success.

It’s unfair to say, in essence, tree tubes are expensive as compared to planting a bunch of seedlings that more than likely won’t survive.  The better, more fair question is: What is the true cost of successful hardwood establishment without tree tubes? (in terms of money, labor and lost years of growth), and then compare the cost of using tree tubes with that figure. 

So what would be the true cost of successful hardwood or wildlife habitat planting without tree tubes?  At this point I could be sarcastic and say, “We don’t know, because it’s been 30 years since anyone has seen it done.”  But the question deserves a more in-depth reply than that.  Successful hardwood planting without tree tubes would require:

1. Deer browse protection, some combination of (in decreasing order of effectiveness) - 8′ fencing around the entire perimeter of the planting, individual home-made wire cages or other shelters around the trees, repeated treatments with deer repellent

2. A Herculean effort to provide weed control – starting with first locating the planted seedlings amidst the weeds and brush, then individually protecting them from herbicide spray and/or trying not to accidentally mow or brush hog them

3. Providing additional protection from rabbit and other rodent damage

4. Repeated replanting to replace seedlings inevitably lost to drought and moisture stress before their roots could get established

Looked at this way you can quickly see how the true cost of successful hardwood planting is A LOT higher than simply the cost of seedlings + planting.  And, you can quickly see how investing in tree tubes up front actually dramatically REDUCES the cost of successful planting.  No deer fence, or cages, or repellent.  Fast, easy and effective weed control.  Built-in protection from rabbits and rodents. Reduced moisture stress for extremely high survival rates, eliminating the need for replantings and the lost years of growth that come as a result.

Interestingly, in more recent articles about tree tubes you don’t see the “cost issue” raised nearly as often.  I think that’s due to the fact that foresters have finally come to terms with the fact that “plant and forget” is not a viable strategy for hardwood establishment, and that when compared to the true cost of successful hardwood planting tree tubes provide significant savings in terms of both money (which can be replaced) and time (which can never be replaced or recovered).

Now, that still doesn’t mean you should pay more than you have to for the best tree tubes on the market!

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