Land is a finite and valuable commodity at Lewis & Clark Recreation Area. Increasing space demands for campers and outdoor activities require careful planning to meet the state park needs. Yet one area is set aside to give trees a strong start.

If park leadership is willing to dedicate an area to a tree nursery, is this an idea for consideration by landowners with their trees, shrubs or perennials?

“Dale’s tree nursery probably has the best soil in the park,” Shane Bertsch said about an acre of park land. The lot is located by the Highway 52 dump station east of the entrance to Lewis & Clark Recreation Area.

Bertsch is park supervisor at Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, and Dale Dawson is state park conservation foreman and developer of the park’s tree nursery. They discuss aspects of a tree nursery.

Tree Nursery Defined

A tree nursey is commonly a dedicated space where all key growth needs are met for the young trees to give them a healthy beginning. The nursery is weeded and monitored for pests and disease. Trees grow in a nursery and will later be transplanted where they grow to maturity.

“There is a good three feet of top soil in this location. The nursery has ten rows and about 400 spots for plants to grow. The eight-foot spacing gives just enough room to get the tree spade in,” Dawson said. “I have all the trees mulched and mowed between rows and there’s drip irrigation.” The tree nursery has a tall fence to keep the deer out of the area.

But why put trees in a nursery if the state park purchases trees from Big Sioux Nursery at Watertown or sometimes from Bailey Nurseries of St. Paul, Minnesota?

“The pines are bare root saplings about two feet tall when we get them and cost about 75 cents apiece. When I move the pine from the nursery into the park, having worked at a garden center before, that’s now about a $100 tree or more,” Dawson said. The small deciduous tree saplings cost about $3.00 or $4.00 a piece.

More on the Nursery Concept

Dawson maximizes his time available for tree care. The set-aside nursery space has full sun, fence protection, quality soil and a water source for plant care. He amends the soil in the nursery to improve it over time.  He monitors for pests and prunes trees as needed. He is realistic about when to transplant a tree from the nursery, according to the size of his equipment to move it to another location in the park. Trees are adapted to the local growing conditions and are in optimal condition when they are transplanted to grow to maturity.

“Advantage to me (at the park) is that I can maintain and care for trees in the nursery a lot easier, more effectively and efficiently than I can, out in the park. Trees are spread over a large area, so to water and prune them I have to cover a huge area. As young trees, they’d need to be individually fenced to protect them from mowers and deer, etc. There has to be a balance. We want trees in the park. They have a life span, so we need to keep the cycle going. I can care for a lot more trees this way,” Dawson said.

“It’s a great area to grow pines and spruce,” Bertsch said.

“The soil is a little better than in some areas of the park,” Dawson said. “To maintain the soil in the nursery, when I pull a tree out, I dump the plug in a pile. I get horse manure from the horse camp and put it in a pile. There’s also a pile of mulch. I mix the three piles together with a loader. My guys fill the holes with this mixture. Last fall we had 80 some holes to fill. Then I re-mulch all the rows.” The mulched rows are soft when you walk on them.

Why not pay more for each larger tree and put the tree in where it will grow and cut down on transplant shock of moving the tree?

“I try to transplant trees while they are still dormant in spring to minimize shock. When it’s dormant, it doesn’t make a difference to the plant to move from location A to B, short of cutting off too many roots in the move,” Dawson said. He has learned what is too big to move for the equipment he has to work with. A four-inch caliper tree is too big.

“Better a two or three-inch caliper tree for my tree spade and other mechanized equipment,” he said. “When you take care of a big park you have priorities for the more visible areas.” Trees are available as needed, locally adapted and ready to move.

Trees are selected for the tree nursery to add diversity and replace damaged trees around the park. These include several kinds of maples, new elm varieties, Kentucky coffee, Siberian larch as well as more Black Hills spruce, Colorado blue spruce and Ponderosa pine.

Monitoring for animal damage, insects or other pests is necessary if many of the same kind of trees are grouped in a nursery for care. In a state park with maturing trees, trees that need to be diversified, and trees that require maintenance for campsites, a practical tree nursery may make sense.

Share tips from your outdoor or indoor plant experience, give us a tour of your plant site, or tell us about other plant-related topics in our region and people who grow them. Contact Attn: Brenda Johnson or write P&D, 319 Walnut St, Yankton, SD 57078, Attn: Brenda Johnson. Also, see “Plant Exchange Blog” at or Facebook page online for plant topics.

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