Trees for Texas

By Michael Bracken

Managing Editor

ven though much of the world thinks Texas is filled with nothing but cactus, cattle and cowboys, more than 22 million acres of the state are forested. The Texas Forest Service, part of the Texas A&M University System since its creation in 1915, works to protect and sustain the state’s trees, forests and related natural resources.

The Texas Forest Service seedling program, which provides seedling trees from two locations — Indian Mound Nursery in Alto and West Texas Nursery in Idalou — plays a significant role in reforestation, aforestation and urban forestry programs, growing and selling seedlings for a variety of purposes.

While the Texas Forest Service provides reforestation seedlings — from 1,000 to several million seedlings per order for large acreage plantings — they also provide as few as 50 seedlings for smaller planting projects and provide wildlife packets containing mixed species that are designed for five acre and larger parcels. Even though they don’t usually sell seedlings directly to homeowners, the Texas Forest Service’s seedling program can greatly impact homeowners as on-going research helps determine which trees are best grown in each region of Texas.


“To get big trees you have to start with little trees,” explained Harry Vanderveer, nursery operations coordinator at Indian Mound Nursery, whose east Texas operation produces 13 to 16 million “little trees” each year. Although most of the annual seedling crop is pine, Indian Mound Nursery also grows an ever-increasing number of hardwoods, producing nearly a million hardwood seedlings this year, Vanderveer said.

Indian Mound Nursery does not usually work with individual homeowners, Vanderveer explained, because the smallest unit his operation sells is 50 seedlings. “For someone’s yard, that’s a lot of trees,” he said. He suggested that a landowner would need about half an acre before considering that many seedlings.

While many of the Indian Mound Nursery staff are knowledgeable about arbor culture, Vanderveer said, their main focus is forestry and wildlife and habitat improvement.

“We’re careful not to appear competitive with commercial landscape-type nurseries,” he explained. “Since we are part of the university system and a state operated entity, we try to stay in the realm of forestry and conservation plantings.”

“We have a very active and growing forest economy in east Texas and it all begins with trees,” Vanderveer said. “Reforestation is one of our main target customer areas. We reforest in the tens of thousands of acres each year in Texas, somewhere around 50,000 acres annually.”

Indian Mound also provides seedlings used to transform open lands such as pastures and farm fields that are being retired into forest. “We call it ‘aforestation’ as opposed to ‘reforestation’ since it’s beginning a new forest rather than replacing one that has been harvested,” Vanderveer explained.

Among the many counties served by Indian Mound Nursery is the 40 county area in east Texas known as the Pineywoods, Vanderveer said. Pine reforestation is most active in the Pineywoods, but hardwood planting is increasing.

“The hardwood planting is mainly for wildlife habitat improvement, watershed protection, and aesthetics; it’s not so much for commercial timber production,” Vanderveer explained. It also adds diversity to the environment, breaking up what can appear to be a pine monoculture. “When we drive around certain parts of east Texas, we see the pine plantations in large acreages and sometimes have ourselves convinced that all there is in east Texas is pine, but really it’s only about half of the growing stock. Much of the hardwood is planted in lower-lying lands near rivers and wet places,” Vanderveer said. Because many of these areas aren’t near roads, many people don’t see them.

Although Interstate 35 doesn’t define the plant zones, it makes a convenient navigating tool for anyone trying to decide which nursery to contact about trees, Vanderveer said. While there is some overlap in tree species needs along the dividing line, Vanderveer said that the West Texas Nursery primarily serves Texas from the New Mexico border east to Interstate 35 and Indian Mound Nursery serves Texas from the Interstate east to the Louisiana border.

Even though Indian Mound has 100 acres of nursery fields, half designated for seedling production and the other half for cover crops, Vanderveer said, “Our production currently is such that we only use about one-quarter of the acreage in a given year for seedling production and we have more land laid out than in production.”

Growing hardwood, which the nursery is doing more of, consumes more acreage. “You can pack more pines on an acre in a nursery than you do with hardwoods — about three acres for each unit of hardwood compared to each acre of pine,” he explained.

The nursery has not only increased the number of hardwoods grown, but also tripled the number of species grown. “Six years ago when I came to Texas they were growing a dozen species of hardwood and only about one-quarter million plants in total. This year we’ve got 35 species of hardwoods and somewhere approaching nearly a million plants in those 35 species,” Vanderveer said.

Indian Mound concentrates on growing native species, including only two non-native hardwoods — Chinese chestnut and Sawtooth oak — among the 35 they produce.

Vanderveer said the nursery collects most of its seed in east Texas. Some of it comes from orchards the Forest Service maintains primarily for seed production, while the rest of it is provided by seed vendors who collect in Texas, western Louisiana, and southern Arkansas. “Last year we purchased between nine and 10 thousand pounds of acorns and other hardwood seeds,” said Vanderveer.

Tree seedlings are an annual crop, Vanderveer said. “We start over every year just like we never did it before, but we’ve been doing it since 1940,” he continued.

Indian Mound tried to serve all of Texas from the time it opened in 1940 until the establishment of the West Texas Nursery in 1978, Vanderveer said, but couldn’t adequately serve the needs of both east and west Texas. Finding trees that will grow in west Texas is a challenge, he said, because “You’re placing trees in a part of the world that nature didn’t have trees to start with.”

Many of the trees grown at West Texas Nursery are imported from other locations, other states, or even other countries, Vanderveer said. “You have to be pretty careful when you make those kind of introductions of species from far away. A big issue right now and getting more attention is we don’t want to plant something that becomes invasive, that spreads and becomes the next kudzu,” he said.


Robert Fewin, regional forester, established the West Texas Nursery in Lubbock in 1978 and recently oversaw the nursery’s move to a new, larger, facility in Idalou.

Geography was the primary reason for establishing a second nursery, Fewin said. “Indian Mound is in central/east Texas, in an area where the growing season is close to 280 days and in the central plains our growing season is about 170 to 180 days. We have extreme winters, extreme drought, and trees that produce in the east Texas environment do not readily acclimate to the high plains arid conditions.”

A need for additional space prompted the recent move to Idalou, Fewin said. They were located on eight to nine acres at A&M University’s experiment station in Lubbock and bought 53 acres for the new nursery. “We’ve been very fortunate to have space here, but it has never been adequate. When we moved, we selected a site that had a much better soil for the field nursery,” he said.

“With the new nursery, we will dramatically increase the variety of species that we grow,” Fewin said. “We have more land area and we have better soils. We will be producing a broader variety of trees for the various regions in the western part of the state,” he continued.

Where Indian Mound grows a large number of loblolly pines, Fewin said, West Texas grows more evergreens. “For us, in arid zones, we grow evergreens, but they’re entirely different. They’re evergreens that are adapted to the arid zones. When I say arid, I mean 8 inches of rainfall to 20 inches of rainfall,” Fewin said. “We grow what’s best for this part of the state.”

“Our purpose here is to grow a good quality seedling at a price that the landowners can afford and try to grow a variety of seedlings that accomplish numerous conservation goals,” Fewin said.

Among the ways that the West Texas Nursery accomplishes these goals is by producing four wildlife packets. Packet one is the quail and pheasant packet, two is the deer packet, three is the turkey packet and four is the squirrel packet, Fewin explained.

“The tree and shrub species we have in each of the packets are tree and shrub species we feel are beneficial to that particular wildlife species. For example, the quail and pheasant packet will contain just shrubs such as aromatic sumac, sand plum and Nanking Cherry,” he said. The deer packet includes species that produce mast, like some oaks that produce acorns, and native trees like western soapberry, which is excellent cover for deer.

A wildlife packet designed to attract and support a specific species can improve from five to 25 acres, Fewin said. The Texas Forestry Service works with wildlife biologists and with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to determine what should be planted and over how much acreage. The quail and pheasant package is ideally suited in a one packet per five acres ratio, but one packet can develop as many as 25 acres. “So, at least, for every quail and pheasant packet, you’re improving habitat on 25 acres,” he said.

With the new site in Idalou and the new ability to sell seedlings from their Web site, Fewin said he hopes to reach and serve many more Texas landowners.


Vanderveer and Fewin travel throughout their respective regions, so they understand the varied needs of potential buyers, but both men spend a great deal of time on the telephone working with prospective seedling buyers.

“I probably spend almost as much time talking people out of planting certain things as I do trying to impress upon them that they need to plant or grow certain things,” Vanderveer said.

“Our program area is an extremely large area,” Fewin explained. “It is not practical for us to work on site with every landowner, because we just don’t have that kind of staff. We spend a lot of time on the telephone.”

In addition to the two nurseries, the Texas Forest Service maintains offices throughout the state to assist landowners of all types.

While the Texas Forest Service’s seedling program isn’t designed to sell directly to individual homeowners, it does serve the needs of Texas landowners all across the state, from farmers, ranchers and rural landowners to municipalities of all sizes and soil and water conservation districts that resell individual trees to homeowners.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of the Texas Forest Service and their annual crop of “little trees,” Texas may one day be known for its loblolly and lumberjacks.

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