Red oak tree

Growing Strong

TVA and the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture have planted an orchard of red oaks in East Tennessee that is showing continued promise.

October 8, 2019—The 700 northern red oak saplings planted in the spring of 2018 have filled a meadow near TVA's Norris Dam Reservation with the promise of stronger, faster-growing, more resilient trees. 

These young trees are the second generation of northern red oaks that were planted almost 50 years ago at another TVA orchard in Johnson County, Tennessee. The acorns produced by the new Norris red oaks will be the beneficiaries of yet another round of genetic improvement and the resulting trees will be used for mass reforestation in the Valley. 

A Good Showing

With a 90 to 95 percent of the trees surviving their second (very) hot summer, TVA Forester Randy Short and Dr. Scott Schlarbaum, director of UT's tree improvement program, are well pleased with their progress.

“The most important determining factor during the first couple of years is the amount of water that a tree receives,” says Short.

While early 2019 brought plenty of rain to the Valley, summer 2019 turned out to be quite dry, but the baseline moisture was established and the little trees are thriving. At this stage in their young lives, there’s a lot going on underground with these saplings; they’re growing a great deal.

Dr. Scott Schlarbaum inspects a red oak sapling at the Norris Dam Reservation. 

It’s a “survival of the fittest” scenario. The trees that develop the stronger root systems early are the ones prepared to handle environmental and biological stress, including dry periods, insects, disease and competing vegetation.

As the red oaks head into their dormant stage, Schlarbaum is looking for the rains to return, jumpstarting their diameter growth.  “It’s not until the third year after planting that you start to see the stem thicken,” he says.

Along with their professor, student workers plant, track, record and measure the oak seedlings and cut the competing vegetation. Schlarbaum’s group decides what trees are removed to thin the planting, which ones remain and which ones may get grafted for replication elsewhere. “That’s UT’s job and it’s a decades-long one,” he says.

A Harmonious Partnership

The partnership between the two groups sounds simple enough. TVA provides the land, a portion of the funding and maintenance of the planting area. UT provides the science, research and student labor. But each program brings more to the table than that. Their histories and cultures of innovation are significant.

Directed by Congress through the TVA Act to “provide for reforestation and proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley,” TVA has been in the tree business since the early 1930s. The agency planted and grew millions of seedlings throughout the Valley to curb widespread erosion and flooding in an effort to aid the environment and spur economic development. During much of that time, tree improvement was at the forefront.

What the Trees Will Bring to the Valley

TVA’s goals with this program are wide and varied, and they have changed since the early days.

 “With this project, the focus has shifted to other important tree characteristics such as increased food production for wildlife, insect and disease resistance, as well as maintaining the historical and cultural significance of the TVA seed orchards by producing a new generation of genetically improved trees,” says Short.

TVA’s vast and historic orchards offer the perfect proving ground

Black and White Forestry

“This has allowed us to provide UT and Dr. Schlarbaum with specific areas to carry out this project,” says Short. “Who would have thought these areas, which were used for tree improvement plantings so many years ago, would once again serve the same purpose in 2019?”

For UT, this partnership creates an addition to the state’s seed orchard system network. Schlarbaum explains that eventually the high-quality seed goes to the East Tennessee State Nursery for reforestation efforts of Tennessee landowners.

For TVA, the partnership has reignited an interest in tree improvement within the agency. Although it would be difficult to imagine a return to the truly large tree improvement programs of the past, “it still can have a huge impact, especially with all of the issues facing our forests today,” says Short.

“No one government agency or private organization can solve these issues alone,” he says. “It will take all of us coming together, sharing our knowledge and resources if we hope to improve the health of our forests now and in the future.”