What's the point to a "tubeling"? Why not just sell plain old "bare-root dormant" nursery stock?
Tubelings are to "bare root dormant" nursery stock as an Automobile is to a Horse.
Truly. But growers really have to remember that you cannot feed your Automobile hay. Tubelings have an entirely different set of rules and needs- many failures have happened from very experienced tree planters who planted on 'automatic'. That will kill the tubelings, reliably.
The short version: tubelings are far more versatile than bare-root dormant nursery stock, and can be very successfully planted over many months, rather than a few weeks. They are much easier to ship in large numbers, require much less soil disturbance to plant, can be 'put on hold" at the planting site for months, and are more genetically "up to date".
Our goal is to get the strongest plants we can into our customers' hands, as affordably as possible, so farmers can start making real crops. Tubelings are our best answer, so far, though we continue to work on other pathways.
The ideal way to get a nut tree or bush started would be to just plant a nut right where you want the tree. Then the plant could grow roots without being disturbed and settle right in to its future home. The problem with this is animals—everything that walks or flies will search out and eat chestnuts and hazelnuts. The little green shoot of the new seedling is just a convenient flag for the animals, showing them where to dig. It may be hard to believe, but we seriously estimate that hazelnuts and chestnuts are on the order of 10,000 times more attractive to animals than the familiar grain of corn or soybean. There are complex reasons why, but part of it has to do with the relative wildness of the plants. The nuts' main purpose in life is to attract an animal of some kind, be picked up, and carried away from the parent so it will have a chance to grow. Corn and beans, on the other hand, have been through thousands of years of selection for their ability to NOT attract animals. What grows in our fields is what the animals failed to find or didn't want.
Adding to the confusion here is the fact that many people have planted a few nuts and have gotten away with it. We did, too. But what happens when you start planting large fields, with many nuts, is that the animals start signaling their relatives, friends, and competitors —"Hey! There's a big pile of food here!"—and they start concentrating their search efforts on your nut planting.
There are, in fact, ways to protect direct field planted nuts so they survive, but the methods are time-consuming and very expensive on even a moderate scale, and it takes time for new growers to really learn them so they work. Planting seed directly can be much the same as tossing dollars into the ocean, nearly always. It's just not economically workable, particularly with high-value seed of improved hybrids. It can be done if you are making a wildlife planting and have a lot of wild seed available.
Point 1: Hazels are difficult and relatively expensive to move as bare-root dormant stock, because they tend to start growing so early in the season that, about half of the time, they are all leafed out and growing by the time the soil is dry enough to dig in the spring. Some big nurseries can get around this by digging their plants in the fall, then storing them in special refrigerated buildings until spring. We don't have that many millions of dollars floating around, though. Also, hazels that are one year old and field grown can also have so large a root system that they are both difficult to dig and too big to fit through a standard forestry tree planter. The machine will break the roots badly. Chestnuts also grow big root systems fast, though in other ways they transplant fairly well. They will, however, often grow slowly the first 2 years after transplanting by the bare root method.
Point 2: In many, many cases, planting younger nursery stock will actually give the buyer much better performance than transplanting bigger, older, plants. You get not just less expensive plants, but bigger plants quicker. Moving a big plant is a big shock to it, and the bigger the plant, the bigger the shock. Often, such plants will grow slowly for several years while they recover. Meanwhile, a much younger and smaller plant, put in the ground at the same time, will often grow bigger than the more expensive large transplant. Since it doesn't have to deal with transplant shock and healing damaged or destroyed roots, it just grows and grows. Lots of consumers have a hard time believing this, and they want to plant the biggest trees they can. It is satisfying to look out and see a tree right after you plant it. Lots of nurseries are glad to sell them expensive big trees.
We aim to get our tubelings to you with a healthy young root system and in an active growth phase. If you get them planted in a timely way, they should just take hold and keep right on growing through the end of the year. Done right, these plants will be as big as a 2-year-old field grown plant in one year, and they will be set to take off again the next year.
Point 3: The nuts. Animals love 'em. Planted out in the field, the great majority of nuts will wind up as wildlife fodder, not as plants. When we were trying to scale up from our early research days, when we planted nuts in between rows of corn and pumpkins to hide them, there were 2 years in a row when we planted 10,000 hazelnuts and harvested about 800 plants. In spite of enormous efforts to control the critters, from electric fences designed for raccoons to fabric row covers to protect them from woodpeckers, sooner or later, all defenses would be penetrated. The critters, after all, have nothing better to do but work 24 hours a day to get at this delicious, nutritious, aromatic food. They will. For valuable breeding material and controlled hybrids, planting in a field is death. So we were really forced to build a secure, mouse-proof greenhouse. And having done so, we find the tubelings are in fact the most economical way to produce healthy, vigorous, planting stock. They are what we plant ourselves, in the great majority of cases.
Our tubelings are actually independent of the nut when we ship them. It's still there, as a "luxury" food source for the seedling, but it's not necessary. Often, mice or other critters will steal the nut off newly planted tubelings. The plants should stand this easily, being too big to be easily pulled out of the ground, and the plant will grow just fine without the nut. In fact, that's what most often occurs in nature—in our experience, a nut seedling is just a flag to waiting wildlife showing them where a nut is. The critters eat the nut, but the seedling survives. (If you are planting in very sandy or loose soil, we recommend you pull the nut off yourself at planting, to avoid making the newly planted tubelings attractive to animals. In a few sandy places, whole plants have been pulled right out of the ground by raccoons or squirrels after the nut.)
Point 4 is the work involved. The young tubelings have a small but vigorous and actively growing root system, and are easily handled and planted with little work. Digging holes for bigger plants quickly becomes a very serious chore, making large plantings expensive and difficult.
Point 5 is timing: Bare root dormant nursery stock must be planted in early spring. This can make your spring work schedule crowded, and if the weather does not cooperate, you may not get any planting done at all. Tubelings are far more flexible and can be held for quite a long time if planting must be delayed. At Badgersett, for years we've planted tubelings in May, June, July, August, and September. All summer, right in the heat. It works, giving you much greater flexibility in your plans. In zone 5, planting can go on into October. Tubelings are not big enough to be planted in early Spring, when they might face late frosts, so worrying about getting land ready for planting in April (wet and cold) is not necessary.