It was my brother Dave Gray who first told me about longleaf pines. When I told him Amanda and I had our eye on a parcel of land just SW of Tallassee, his first question was “does it have longleafs?”
We didn’t know a longleaf pine from a tractor tire in 2007, but we sure know about them now. As you probably already know by now, longleaf pines were ubiquitous in the southeast US before the white man arrived but have declined significantly since then. They are resistant to fire, so the natural fires that were common in the southern forests suppressed their competition and helped them to thrive.
Dave Gray’s hunch was right, by the way; even after the loggers who plundered it under the previous owner had their way with our farm, we still have several hundred longleaf pines at various stages of maturity, from grass stage through to a couple that are 60 ft. tall or so. We do everything we can to encourage longleafs, even sometimes at the expense of the stately oaks and hickories that are also common in our forest.
Our friend Larry Davenport, a biology professor at Samford, says longleaf pines are likely to thrive in southern forests even after we feel more pervasive effects from catastrophic climate change. Contrast that with our oaks, hickories, and beloved American beech trees, which may not adapt well to the hotter, dryer climate and increase in carbon dioxide and may begin to die en masse. Larry says one of the steps landowners can take to prepare for the difficult days ahead is to plant more longleaf pines, so we have set about doing that.
So far we have planted about 300 longleafs every year at about this time. We have it down to a system, using a heavy steel rod with a handle at one end and a thick sloping blade on the other, called a “dibble.” This one is at least similar to the one we bought.
So far as we know, the dibble has one function and one function alone, but it performs that function simply and quickly. Amanda chooses a spot for the next longleaf pine and points to it. I man the dibble (note the masculine verb, befitting the forceful role I get to play in this little drama). I lift the dibble up and bring it down as hard as possible, then use my foot and upper body to finish digging a long wedge-shaped hole. Amanda inserts a longleaf seedling from her trusty canvas bag. I make another hole close by and use it to close up the space around the seedling. While I’m closing, she’s choosing the next spot.
When the process is working well (and it usually does), we can plant a tree in about 10 seconds. The video takes longer, but not much.