Balsam fir seedlings in planting bed at NH State Forest Nursery in Boscawen. Photo: Dan DeHart, DRED
State Forest Nursery - 100 Years and Still Growing
By Dave Anderson
State Forest Nursery: One Hundred Years and Still Growing…
Picture your New Hampshire town a mere century ago. In 1910, New Hampshire forestland had been cut-over and burned over. Hundreds of thousands of sandy, barren acres of abandoned agricultural land, over-grazed former sheep pastures, were reverting to scrubby forests comprised of gray birch, aspen, poor white pine and hardwood species not particularly valuable timber at that time for lumber.
Forlorn abandoned hill farms and forsaken forests were a ruinous legacy of the previous century’s harsh agricultural practices which first stripped away forest cover and then depleted soil fertility. In the mountains, rapacious clear-cutting removed the last vestiges of the State’s original forest cover and inferior hardwood saplings inherited mountain sides formerly cloaked in fine red spruce timber.
State forestry leaders lobbying Congress to pass a federal bill to purchase the cutover land in the White Mountains for a National Forest were simultaneously engaged in planning a greener future for cutover private lands elsewhere.
In 1910, the State Forest Nursery was established by authority of the NH Forestry Commission on a parcel of land in Pembroke for raising white pine transplants. The next year, the State leased 1.5 acres including a house and barn on a terrace above the Merrimack River near the Gerrish railroad station and transferred operations to what is now Daniel Webster Highway, Route 3 in Boscawen.
In 1914, the State purchased two more tracts in Gerrish: 31 acres of farmland adjacent to the Merrimack River with a building and 109 acres of adjacent forestland to serve as an experimental forest. Since then, the State’s working public forest nursery has grown to 887 acres including the core 40 acres of seedbeds, seed orchards and the seed collection areas and buildings.
The State Nursery was established to both meet and create demand for planting stock, to establish cooperative tree plantation programs for statewide reforestation efforts with towns and private landowners and to supply native seedlings while avoiding the possibility of importing tree diseases from other states.
The Forestry Commission studied the methods used by other states to promote reforestation. They determined that bounties and tax rebates for planted land were not cost-effective. Instead the State chose to sell trees or furnish them free of charge to landowners and to publish bulletins on how to plant trees. The state also purchased land from willing sellers, reforested it and then offered to sell it back after a decade at the original cost, plus the cost of planting, maintenance with modest interest.
Over the next century, forests returned thanks in part to concerted planting efforts and robust natural regeneration. New Hampshire is the second-most forested state in the nation with 83% forest cover. Maine remains first with nearly 90% forest cover.
Beginning in the 1960’s the State Forest Nursery began to upgrade the genetics of the planting stock available to the public. Today the nursery remains actively engaged in collecting seed, propagating and providing genetically improved seedlings including white pine for reforestation and a unique blue-green variety of balsam fir for Christmas tree growers and fourteen additional conifers and six hardwood tree species.
The forest nursery sells specialty conservation and wildlife packages of fruiting shrubs for songbird feeding, nesting and cover and wildlife habitat improvement and wetland plant packages selected for wetlands restoration. Native fruiting shrubs include dogwoods, fox grapes, plums, holly and mountain ash. Non-native fruiting shrubs include varieties of crabapples, high-bush cranberry, grapes, and rugose rose.
The forest nursery also raises wild lupines for Karner Blue Butterfly restoration efforts in the rare pitch pine, scrub oak habitat of the Concord pine barrens. Seedlings are provided for sand and gravel bank reclamation, hedges and windbreaks and Christmas tree plantations. Each year, the nursery provides free seedlings for educational events hosted by NH schools, NH Fish & Game, NH D.O.T. and NH Parks.
The State nursery is a seed orchard for White Pine seed, Balsam Fir seed, and for special experimental plantings of trees resistant to blights affecting Butternut and American chestnut.
According to nursery supervisor, Dan DeHart, the State nursery annually sells and distributes an average of 300,000 seedlings and serves 1,300 customers annually providing 50 species of trees and shrubs sold in spring in convenient quantities of 10, 25, and 100. Customers have three choices for receiving seedlings. They can be picked-up at the nursery fresh out of a huge walk-in cooler. Travel time is a disadvantage to some. Seedlings are also shipped to ten county distribution points, a much shorter drive and customers can meet county foresters for advice and information. But those seedlings are only available on one date and time. Seedlings are also shipped for an extra cost via UPS right to your door and should be planted as soon as possible on arrival.
While much has changed over the past century, the excellent prices and the expert planting advice available through the State forest nursery remain a bargain. What has seemed a well-kept secret known only to forestry insiders is now available online at “nhnursery.com” The website lists various species, ages, sizes and prices. Customers can also call 271-2214 for information. Nursery hours are weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This year, the State Forest Nursery celebrates it’s centennial on Saturday, May 1 with an open house and special events. Supervisor Dan DeHart invites the public to “please visit your State Forest Nursery to celebrate the centennial, or at any time when we are open.” He adds with a grin “even if you’ve not been a part of our first hundred years, you are welcome to help us to kick off our second hundred!”
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education and volunteer services for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.