On Monday, my silviculture class went to the Southern California Edison Tree Farm in Auberry, California. The place was empty for the day by the time we arrived, save for one employee, Gywnn, who became our kind tour guide of the facility.
Our first stop was the potting shed. The soil comes to the tree farm from the lumber mill in Terra Bella, CA. The newly shipped soil (or soil recycled from other potted trees onsite) is put into bail buster (outside the potting shed) to be mixed and have fertilizer added in. The soil is spit out onto a conveyer belt which then goes into the potting to be added to the pots. The pots are then moved by fork lifts to have seed or seedlings added to them.
Next we went to the 1-year nursery. It was inside a greenhouse made out of a 30% shade cloth (as apposed to what I was used to seeing – glass walls/ceiling), which, as we were told, holds up rather well to snow. Here, trees start in a Styrofoam box that has several cylindrical holes in rows that soil is put into with the seeds. Some interesting factoids (well – I found them interesting) of how the seed process takes place:
- Typically, seeds are added in with a seeder but some species are planted by hand (example – oaks are hand planted because acorns have to be seeded sideways in order to grow properly).
- Often, 2 seeds are planted in each cylindrical hole in case one does not germinate.
- Small pieces of gravel are added on top of the soil to help the sprout shed its seed.
- Seeds are often stratified (put into cold storage) before planting in order to mimic nature (the winter freeze) so they will germinate well in spring.
- When seeds are removed from stratification for planting, they are then scarified (i.e. part of the seed casing is removed to allow moisture in and thereby promote germination).
- Seeds grow in the Styrofoam boxes for about 10 months before being transplanted into larger pots (the ones we saw at the soil shed).
While we were there we saw the watering machine. Essentially, it is a moveable, horizontal bar that has evenly placed, fine-spray shower heads that emit a delicate mist over the seedlings. They get watered twice a day. The machine was pretty ingenious actually: evenly waters the entire span of Styrofoam boxes (which lay stacked side-by-side on long tables) and even knows by some sort of sensor when it is no longer over plants, which causes it to stop spraying or change direction.
As a personal aside – I felt some sort of maternal affection towards the tiny sprouts. A friend of mine and I joked of camping out in that green house to keep watch on the growth of the sprouts…taking watch in shifts. We were hard pressed to leave the little budding trees behind. And we almost weren’t joking about the camping out thing…
But I digress.
During the remainder of our tour we saw the areas where trees were moved as they continued to grow larger. The next stage was on tables that had a 90% shade ceiling, but no walls. After that, the trees are lined up on the ground with full sun exposure.
The way orders work at this tree farm, is that a company (such as Southern California Edison) or city (like Los Angeles) ship seed (in big, burlap bags) to this facility and ask them to grow the trees for them. Throughout the farm we saw white potting tags that indicated where the trees would eventually be shipped to. When the trees are ready, a truck then ships the trees in pots to the customer…as much as 270 trees per truck load. Apparently, Southern California orders many ornamental trees to be planted in cities…so perhaps I’ve seen many trees from this farm over the years before I moved up here.
The farm grows 50-55 species of trees (including giant sequoias – which weren’t quite so “giant” as of yet) on the property, with a staff of only 7. It was such a peaceful place, and Gywnn clearly loved her job and was a contagious joyful presence. It seemed to me it must be rather fulfilling work to see living things come into their first stages of life, especially things that would eventually become towering presences that will provide aesthetic, recreational, and environmental value to landscapes and the public. In a way, working at a tree farm is a means of being an anonymous life enricher. I, for one, felt enriched from the small taste of such a life.