Sitka Spruce Can Shepherd Your Cedars Toward Maturity

By Steve Townsend, tree farmer near Kapowsin

Editor’s note: Many small forest landowners in Washington attempt to plant Western red cedar, only to be thwarted by browse by animals, particularly deer and elk. Steve Townsend has used some unique strategies, and has written up his well-documented efforts here.

Starting with one Western red cedar and one Sitka spruce P+1 seedling per hole, we planted the plantation near Kapowsin in Pierced County in 2014.

The holes were spaced 12 feet apart, giving about 600 trees in 300 holes per acre. After allowing for roads, trails, slash piles, a building, and some other areas that could not be planted, the 17-acre plantation was stocked with 4,000 cedars.

The expectation was that the spruce, with their sharp needles, would deter the deer and elk from eating the cedar.

Generally speaking, the combination is working.

Cedar&Net.Spruce copy
Cedar treelings can also be planted adjacent to older spruce trees to protect them from browsing, as long as they are also protected by hard netting. (Steve Townsend)

There was some browsing the first year, but by year two the branches of the trees had become intermingled and the spruce were protecting the cedar as planned. Probably the most telling sign of success is in those pairs where the cedar has grown taller than the spruce; in many of these cases, the cedar has been browsed down to the height of the spruce, but no further.

About 95 percent of the spruce and 80 percent of the cedar survived the first summer in 2014. This led to some serious inter-planting in the years to follow.  In February 2015, 300 cedars were crowded in beside a spruce in places where the accompanying cedar had died.

Starting in 2016, and subsequently in 2017 and 2018, the surviving spruce were too well-developed to accommodate a new partner planted just inches away. As a consequence, the current method of replacement planting has been to place the cedar a foot or two away from the base of a protective spruce, and then to place a vexar net (aka rigid tubing) around the cedar to protect it from the animals until the branches of the spruce grow out to encompass it. In those areas where a cedar is desired and no spruce exists, the cedar is planted and netted on its own, much the same as one would protect the trees in a plantation of Douglas-fir.

CedarwithSpruceSkirt copy
The spruce trees can be topped at 4 feet high, so that they stop competing with the cedars for light but still protect their bases from rutting deer and elk. (Steve Townsend)

By fall 2017, many of the cedar were tall enough so that the spruce could be trimmed back to allow the cedar to be the dominant tree of the pair. Typically, while working with a pair of trees with the hand pruners, all double tops or suckers on the cedars were removed, and the tops of the spruce were cut off at a height of four feet.

The hope is that the spruce will live long enough to continue to provide some protection for the cedar against antler rub. This will be an ongoing process for the next several years as the plantation continues to develop.

This report would not be complete without mentioning the smaller browsers. Whereas the spruce does an effective job of protecting the trees from the deer and elk, they do not protect the cedar from the mice, voles, rabbits, aplodontia (mountain beaver), and other small tree-predators that attack from below. In the areas where these animals are prevalent, the tried-and-true vexar nets are usually effective.

CedarwithSpruce weevil
The spruce weevil damaged the top of this spruce tree. Many nursery spruces are susceptible to infestation, but that is OK in this setting because they still live long enough to protect the young cedar trees. (Steve Townsend)

It is also important to note that nursery-grown spruce tends to be very susceptible to the spruce weevil. Sooner or later, most of them become infected. This is of little concern if the spruce is ultimately scheduled to be eliminated, but it removes the option of allowing the spruce to grow to maturity on those micro-sites where a cedar does not seem to be viable.

CedarwithSpruce after
After five growing seasons, this part of the Kapowsin plantation shows all of the planting approaches mentioned in the article above. (Steve Townsend)