Forester’s Notes: Thinning

Not being a forest owner myself means that I will never fully understand the challenges that you face in stewarding your land. It is true that I have expertise and experience in forest management, and I can give you sound advice. However, while I may understand the technical aspect of things, there’s a more human aspect that also needs to be considered.

I’ve been pondering this while working in my garden this summer. I have been trying to cultivate more of a green thumb. I tried last year to grow various vegetables, but with poor success. Why? Because I tried to produce more than my small plot of dirt could support, and I left plants crammed too close together. You can probably already see where I’m going with this.

This year I am determined to be successful, and I’ve gone all-out. I had the soil tested and amended accordingly. I have carefully selected seeds and starts, used proper amounts of fertilizer, been watering diligently when needed (but not too much), and even inoculated my young plants with mycorrhizae to naturally improve success and soil flora. But still my success ultimately comes down to spacing.

When it came time to thin my tender sprouts and shoots, it was very difficult for me to take a bunch of these plants that I had nurtured and labored over and rip them up and discard them. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do and that it was not really wasteful at all, I still had trouble. And then there were the decisions of which ones to take, and which to leave. I tried to leave the best ones, but that often meant leaving certain individual plants spaced too close together, forcing me to balance even spacing with selection of the best specimens.

I bit the bullet and completed my thinning. Then some of the ones I had left to grow died, leaving gaps in my rows. “If only I had left a different one,” I would think to myself. In other areas I would finally get things growing well and correctly spaced, only to have some of my best specimens wiped out by marauding slugs.

Does all of this sound familiar? I thought it might. Here I felt a little bit of anguish trying to thin onion starts and carrot sprouts, which really only involved minimal effort and expense to establish (and if they do not succeed, it really is not big deal). So I can only imagine what it is like for you with your trees, which take so much time and effort to establish for a long-term and fairly high-stakes endeavor.

So I am imagining that when I encourage you to do things like thin your forest, or tolerate sporadic mortality for the sake of wildlife, or give similar management advice, your internal response may be something along the lines of “Easy for him to say.” While my advice will not change in this regard (these are still the right things to do!), I am trying to develop a better understanding of the human factors and emotions that go along with these decisions.

By Kevin W. Zobrist
WSU Regional Extension Specialist, Forest Stewardship serving Snohomish, Skagit, King, and Island counties