Saturday, February 20, 2010

Big Fat Post #1

 We are suffering from information dysfunction here at Badgersett; some of it due to human nature, some of it quite possibly due to my past training (making my statements less comprehensible to normal people.)

  That's a huge part of the intended function of this blog; to start straightening information out.

  We've had two very tough questions posted already, and I'm going to tackle one here.  First of all, the initial discussion:
Anonymous said... Hi,

I've planted Badgersett and others' hazels for years. I've found that the Badgersett hazels produce nice nuts, but generally don't thrive as well.  I've also found that despite my best efforts the deer keep the hazels severely pruned. My question: About eight years ago I purchased chestnuts from you. They all struggled for a year or two and then died. I've heard since that at least three feet of matting is needed around chestnuts if they are going be become established. Is this true? Thanks.

Tom in Dubuque Co.


  Ok, bit by bit:  "I've planted Badgersett and others' hazels for years. I've found that the Badgersett hazels produce nice nuts, but generally don't thrive as well. "

  Glad to know you like the nuts ok.  Now, about "thrive".
  Something everybody needs to keep in mind is the history of hazelnuts in the Upper Midwest.  If you can, find a copy of "Growing Nuts in the North: A Personal Story of the Author's Experience of 33 Years with Nut Culture in Minnesota and Wisconsin by Carl Weschcke".   To my astonishment, when I googled, it's not hard to come by.

  Flatly; if you are thinking about growing nuts seriously in the Upper Midwest; read this book first.  For one thing, the foundation stock for our Badgersett hazels came from the survivors of Carl Weschcke's plantings.  We've updated their genetics considerably, but if you just look at the plants side by side, it's hard to tell the difference.

  Weschcke's experience with hazels was not good, actually.  Something missing in his book is the "and then what happened!?" part.  Something DID happen.  He decided to go into business, and make and sell hazel butter.  He wound up buying hazels from Oregon to meet his obligations, and the project went broke.  He really lost hope for hazels in this region; not reflected in the book.  (How do I know?  Extensive/intensive personal communication with many of his friends from the Northern Nut Growers Association, of which I am a Past President.)

  A huge factor in that failure was a big epidemic of "Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB)" that moved into his hybrids and reached epidemic proportions shortly after he wrote the book.  Experts from Oregon came and looked at them, and told him there was really no hope- they were all going to be seriously susceptible to the disease. 

  They were wrong.  And this may be the place to point out that I have a track record of saying "the academics are wrong" about a forest disease- and being proven correct.  I was the founding president of TACF.  At the time, chestnut blight was "known", after 50 years of extensive research, to have no solution; but a mere 25 years later, we are planting out the first trees which may bring the species back; and the science behind it is recognized as entirely sound.

  Ok, hang in there Tom!  :-)  I know this may sound off the track; but it's really not.  Just to keep you reading, and your appetite whetted: this is a photo of plain Badgersett hazels, 18 months old.

  When I decided to try to carry on Weschcke's 35 years of work, around 1982, the state of knowledge about growing Corylus for nut production in the Upper Midwest was this:

  European hazel will not grow reliably here.  A) It's not cold hardy enough for test winters, and B) it's lethally susceptible to EFB.

  American hazel will not make a useful crop.  A) All of them eventually are attacked by EFB and knocked back, and B) crops are small and erratic, with small nuts (i.e. "wild")

  That's what "everybody knew", and they had decades of experience to back it all up.  All of those statements, however, turn out to be only partly true; which leaves a lot of room for finding individual plants that do perform.

  Without getting into ALL the details of the initial generation of Badgersett hazels, you can see that the barriers were formidable.  My training in evolution, though, had led me to be quite aware of the fact that populations of everything on Earth periodically must, and do, go through "bottlenecks" - some change in their living situation which means 90% of existing organisms now are inadequate; hence only 10% will survive to pass through the bottleneck, and launch the renewed population on the other side.

  What was needed for hazels was a strict and harsh bottleneck, artificially imposed in this case.  That's what I set out to do; not cold hardy?  die.  Not resistant to disease?  die.  

  Those, actually, were the ONLY two criteria for passing through Generation 1 here.  For scientific reasons; if you do the math on finding individuals in a random population that meet 1 test, and the number that will meet 2; and the number that will meet 3- it turns out 3 is far too high a goal to set.  

  I would strongly recommend that you read this paper, from 1988, which outlines our goals.  One bit: 
The major long range goal is to pursue the domestication and development of woody perennial plants for agricultural purposes. It is not our intention to be satisfied just with finding new cultivars better than those currently available, for purposes of commercial production of luxury crops such as pecans and walnuts. We wish to begin to realize the potential of such species to become producers of staples. In order for that to happen, however, we feel that a basic change in philosophy is necessary, moving away from the searching of natural forests for interesting trees, and turning to intensive breeding with the specific intent of altering wild trees, which basically have no reason to produce large, regular crops for human use, into genuinely domesticated plants.
  That's really very different from "gosh, I'd like to find some hazel bushes that would make good nuts."  It's a commitment to creating an entire crop system- which is a very complex undertaking.

  Ok!  Finally!  Here's why your Badgersett hazels don't "thrive" as well as others!  :-)

  In the desire to create a working crop system, I inadvertently added a 3rd criterion to the 2 I was thinking about, EFB resistance and cold hardiness; that was "survival, in adversity".

  Real farmers don't have a lot of time to baby their plants.  Planting huge fields of corn works because it's done with great precision, in a very small window of opportunity.  Done exactly right, it works.

  Farmer's record with growing trees is typically not good; they'll plant 100 black walnuts, with good intentions to "get back in there and control the weeds and deer...  when I can..."  which means the deer and weed control mostly do not happen.

  Plants coming out of University research stations have an even worse record than farmers.  The "three year grant cycle" means your work won't get funding if you don't have results in 3 years- which means they use every tool at their disposal to speed up the plants' growth in the University test plantings.  Which means- when they give those to the farmer- it's a dead loss.

  I'm not making this up.  It's well known and admitted that the entire first generation of "hybrid poplars!", supposed to be "wonder" plants, the result of advanced scientific techniques; were simply not VIABLE in the real world.  They would die.

  I didn't want to do that.  So we put all our initial 2 generations of plantings through 3-5 years of intentional, total, neglect.  2 years of good weed control and some fertilizer for establishment; then oo weed control; no fertilizer; for years.  If they weren't there 3-5 years later- good.  Plenty survived.

  What we now know, however, is that in selecting plants that survive stress, we inadvertently selected for plants that will shift growing programs- and shift into survival mode, if they are, or have been stressed.  And transplanting is stressful, no getting around it.  

  IF THE STRESS IS HIGH ENOUGH, BADGERSETT HAZELS WILL "SHUT DOWN"- often until next year.  What that means is, instead of risking resources on making new leaves and shoots, the plants will put virtually all their time and energy into making roots.

  In many cases, on poor soils, they may wind up making roots- for years.

  Which can be very discouraging.  But- if you planted your tomatoes on broken bricks, would you expect a good tomato crop?  

  At this point, 35 years in from my own beginning, my opinion is that Badgersett hybrid hazels will often take 10-15 years to build a "mature" root system.  The root system is immense- basically a hemisphere at least 3 meters in diameter full of roots.  It takes a lot of NPK to build it.

Folks have, now, grown our hazels this rapidly in the field.  This is Norm Erickson, looking at some of his 2.5 year old hazels (with Nancy.)  As you can see- he's doing extensive cultivation (which is a kind of fertilization you know- it makes resources available) and multiple fertilizations.  Plus, his hazels at this point have their deep roots well into the local aquifer.  The water table is about 4-5 feet down, and that water is jam packed full of agricultural nitrogen; all you can eat.

  So.  If your Badgersett hazel plants are struggling for any resource- water, NPK, sunlight - when they are very young, they may grow very slowly.  If you treat them like an agricultural crop- weeding, water, and food- they can and do grow just as fast as anyone else's.

  One other thing- Tom, do you have active EFB growing in your hazels there in Des Moines?  I would guess likely not, or just a little.

  EFB is a very specialized fungus; it must have hazelnut to grow in.  Consequently, in many places, it could now be considered an endangered organism.  It can be very rare.  

  I have many many stories to tell of people "back east" who had some European hazels growing "for 40 years!"  in their backyards- only to have them suddenly collapse and die, completely.

  That is the eventual fate of almost all hazels- if they have not been through 10 years of REAL WORLD screening for resistance to EFB.  And, so far as I know, we're the only ones who do that.  We don't sell seedlings from plants less than 10 years old.


  OK!!  I'm gonna stop.  You're probably as tired out as I am.  More soon.

  The intention, here, is to get all these replies linked up in a really functional FAQ- so folks can browse through the answers at their own speed.  Hang in there.  Didn't get all Tom's points addressed; but we will.


ps, for reasons not clear to me, my control of fonts and text sizes here sucks- I'll work on fixing that and getting all this readable.


  1. Wow! Ok, I've got to do more fertilizing. Thanks for the pics!

  2. You've got to get more growing info published.

  3. Yes, we do! I'm finally about to get our first full set of short course DVDs out the door here, after which we'll make them available for purchase.

    Part of the problem is that the directions can be pretty different depending on what your goals are– like a backyard garden gets different treatment from a 50-acre field, directions for best management in small intensive or recreational plantings are often not going to make sense for people most interested in an economic bottom line.

    We've continued to have some wrenches thrown in the works, but we are also continuing to make some real progress in operations and communications. Working on it!

  4. "You've got to get more growing info published."

    We'd love to. Mostly- can't. All work here is done with sweat; not grants, and we have no university supplying backup services.

    We have two events where we try to answer all growing questions for the serious people; the Short Course, and the Annual Field Day. There is no substitute for seeing with your own eyes. Field Day this year is August 20 - it would be worth your while to try to come.