Rewilding Happen(ing)s!

Getting Our Ash Together

Organizing cost-effective, organic inoculation of ash groves to preserve seed production in the face of emerald ash borer.

By David Brynn

A few days ago, I welcomed Richard of Trees Vermont into our family forest to inoculate three white ash trees against emerald ash borer, using the organic pesticide azadirachtin 6% (aka TreeAzin or Azasol). Even though the best time of year for inoculating (springtime, during leaf out) had passed, my forest lies close enough to the known infected ash trees in Bristol that I didn’t want to risk waiting until next spring to act.

Richard prepares the organic pesticide, Azasol, to inoculate white ash trees in our family forest against emerald ash borer.

Of the three ash species native to Vermont, only white ash grows in our forest. My aim is to protect a small grove of white ash, safeguarded so that they can continue to produce seeds after emerald ash borer (EAB) has killed the other ash trees in my area. 

Richard inoculated three white ash trees—8”, 10” and 14” DBH (Diameter at breast height). When selecting the ash trees to treat, I looked for trees that appeared to be in excellent health, with vigorous, deep crowns, smooth bark with no nicks, not too close to roads, and not too close to the edge of forest, so as to be protected from winds. 

Size was also a factor—big enough to be well established and producing seed, but small enough to keep inoculation costs down, since price is calculated on a per-inch-DBH basis. I wanted to protect more than one tree for a few reasons. A lot of the cost associated with inoculation comes from the fixed cost of simply getting the certified pesticide applicator to the site. So treating one tree is fine, but inoculating more than one reduces per-tree cost. It also builds in insurance for the possibility that a treated tree succumbs to drought, other pests, wind or any number of other factors including EAB.

Treating multiple trees also helps safeguard seed production. Most tree species are monoecious, meaning that their flowers have both male and female reproductive parts, allowing them to self-pollinate. Ash trees, however, are generally dioecious, meaning that individual trees have either male or female flowers. (The vague term “generally” comes into play because white and green ash are dioecious, while black ash can be either monoecious or dioecious). 

I used three bands of flagging to identify the ash trees I marked for inoculation.

So a single white ash tree can’t produce seeds on its own. If it’s possible to treat both male and female ash trees in your forest—and preferably more females than males—you stand a much better chance of seed production. In my case, none of my ash trees had flowers or seeds to confirm sex, so I simply chose on the basis of health and size. With luck, I have both sexes. 

If family forest owners across our region inoculate 3-5 ash trees, we’ll be creating small ash seed orchards, available to repopulate the larger landscape. If successful, we may see them as Sacred Ash Groves. It’s a small act, but one that represents and enacts a change in consciousness toward mutually beneficial relationship with the land.

The Inoculation Process

Richard drills another hole to inject the Azasol

To inoculate the 14” white ash, Richard drilled six 7/16” holes around the base of the tree, at the root swell zone. He inserted a small plug in each hole, then inserted a needle into each plug, which delivered the Azadirachtin 6% at 60 pounds of pressure into the tree, where the ring-porous sapwood could draw it in like a big straw. Richard then tagged and numbered the tree and recorded its diameter.

As healthy sugar maples do when drilled for sugaring, the white ash will compartmentalize the injection injury, creating a small, elliptical dead zone around the drill site. So to treat trees annually, each year’s injection sites will move up the tree systematically.

It was a wonderful thing, to participate in the inoculation process. A way to give back to the ash trees that have given so much to me and to our community. Richard’s work took about ½ hour per tree, and the bill for treating the three trees—which together totaled 32 inches of trunk diameter—was $325. A hefty sum. 

Treated white ash tree, tagged for easy identification.

How can we make it more affordable, and put it within the reach of more people, making it more likely that they’ll commit to on-going treatment? By commoning—by acting together on our shared need and shared vision. We conducted an initial survey of VFF landowners to see if there was interest in affordable, effective, organic treatment, and 33 landowners expressed interest. 

We placed many queries for a local certified pesticide applicator willing to take on our grassroots inoculation initiative, but came up empty. So I’ve decided to get my pesticide applicator license and take on the work myself. We aim to tee up all interested landowners so that we’re ready to jump into inoculation next spring, since the inoculation is most effective during early leaf bud. Though we don’t yet know exact costs for collective treatment, we hope for less than $7 per DBH inch, which is less than half of what it costs for treatment by a commercial applicator.

Now is the time to determine which ash trees you’d like to treat. Use the criteria I mentioned earlier: excellent health, with vigorous, deep crowns, smooth bark with no nicks, not too close to roads, and not too close to the edge of forest, so as to be protected from winds. Trees with seeds are definitely females. Trees without seeds could be either sex, since it may simply be a year when the tree is not producing seeds. I suggest that you mark each tree with three flagging bands, so it’s clear what it’s marked for. Aim for at least 3-5 trees in your protected ash grove.

If you’d like help identifying the best trees to inoculate, we’ll walk your woods with you. By next spring, we’ll have small sacred ash groves sprinkled across the Center-West Ecoregion ready for their first inoculation. My sense is that, like sugaring, we can drill smaller holes than were drilled for inoculating the ash trees in our family forest. I also see ways to streamline the inoculation process, which will reduce associated costs, as will purchasing the TreeAzin in bulk. It’s all really exciting to imagine.

Stepping up to Commoning

Right relationship is what it is all about, as far as I can see. Aldo Leopold knew early on that forests were thinking ecosystems ,not just resources to be managed and controlled like a row of corn. His thinking was inspired by Pieter Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum.Inspired by Leopold, we at VFF envisioned ‘family forest’ as an alternative to ‘tree farm’. Inspired by Martin Buber, we started to see trees as ‘thou’ rather than ‘it’. 

Early on we called ourselves stewards, but that seemed less mutualistic than we wanted the relationship to be. Pieter Kropotkin’s book, Mutual Aid,woke us up to the reality that mutually beneficial relationships represent more of what is going on in the natural world than do competitive ones. So we arrived at friendship, rather than stewardship, to describe our intended relationship with the forest. The Irish use the term anam cara,soul friend, and that’s where we are and want to be. John O’Donahue brought that to us in a very deep way. FOREST FRIEND is what I aspire to be now. 

Before European settlement, this land was unbounded and unowned—it as a commons. The people of this region—the Abenaki—were commoners, living in mutually beneficial relationship with these home commons. The “Tragedy of the Commons”—if there was one—was that the commoners were forced out of their roles as tenders and keepers of the commons. This was essential for capitalism to flourish in the early days. 

Capitalism is with us and can be an agent for good, but that will not happen until commoners re-emerge and take up—take back—the essential work of caring for the natural commons that still remain in our home grounds, shared by all and the responsibility of all: air, water, and wildlife. We’ve abdicated our commoning role to state and federal government, entrusting these institutions with the care of these precious commons. But, at least for now, owned by corporations, government is more of a tool for the strategically-located and less of an agent for labor, land, and the common good.