Tips For Using Tree Shelter Tubes

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I’ve planted a lot of tree seedlings over the last 25 years, and almost all of them were protected by plastic “tree tubes” or shelters in the seedling stage. I highly recommend you use a shelter on every tree seedling you plant this winter, and here’s why.

The main function and advantage of these translucent plastic tubes is to dim available sunlight except at the top, which encourages the tree seedling to put energy into vertical growth to reach the open light at the top, just as a seedling would that is struggling to compete in the understory of a mature forest. I took the photo above through an actual tree tube to illustrate a seedling’s “view” from inside; in these conditions, the seedling will naturally “go toward the light.” Thus, the tube forces the tree to grow above the reach of browsing deer while also leaving behind ground-level shrubs, forbs and grasses that compete for light. Once the seedling emerges at the top of the tube into full sun, it then branches out and begins to form a full crown.

Tree tubes provide other advantages. They also protect seedlings and saplings from being rubbed by bucks, and they afford some protection from harsh weather conditions while also conserving moisture around the seedlings. Two different scientific studies, both conducted at Auburn University in Alabama, found significantly increased survival (nearly double in most cases) and vertical growth (double and sometimes triple the growth rate) in seedlings protected with tubes compared to non-protected seedlings.

For details, read one of the studies about tree shelters, and another that combined tree shelters and weed control efforts.

My own non-scientific testing has shown the same results. In winter 2008, I planted several southern crabapple seedlings, including a few in my suburban backyard. I left a couple of the seedlings un-protected to see what would happen. The photos in the Gallery below tell the story (click on any one of the images to enlarge). After one growing season, the sheltered seedlings emerged from the tops of the tubes. In the second growing season, they branched out into fine-shaped crowns. Meanwhile, the seedlings without tubes started branching out at ground level instead of growing upward. They remained in the danger zone where deer browse on plants, and browse they did. As you’ll see in another photo, the unprotected seedlings were “hedged.” Their branch tips have been bitten back, regrown, and been bitten back again so many times that knobs of scar tissue have formed at the ends of the branches. Neither vertical nor horizontal growth has been very successful.

Granted, when you can’t grow unprotected tree seedlings because of deer browsing, you probably have a deer density problem and need to develop a doe-harvest plan or improve habitat quality (or both). This test occurred in my suburban yard in an area where deer density is high and hunting pressure is almost nil. But even one deer happening upon a young tree seedling can nip off most of this season’s progress with a few bites. If you spent good money on quality tree seedlings, spend a few bucks more to protect each of them with a tree tube. A 5-foot tube will cost around $4 to $5 depending on quantity. Considering the survival and growth benefits, this is a wise investment.

Here are a few more tips based on my experience using tree tubes.

• Buy tubes that are at least 4-feet tall, and 5-footers are even better. Shorter tubes don’t stop deer browsing.

• Both solid tubes and those perforated with air holes work fine, but I have found that some profusely branching species like crabapples will occasionally branch out through the air holes. Solid tubes might be a better choice if you have the option.

• When planting each seedling, countersink the bottom of the tube an inch or two in the ground. This may help prevent small rodents from entering the base of the tube and using it as winter shelter or “girdling” the stem of the seedling.

• In the South, fire ants sometimes use the bases of tubes for their headquarters. This probably doesn’t affect tree survival, but if it bothers you, fire-ant bait will fix the problem.

• Be sure to use the mesh covers that go over the tops of newly installed tubes. This prevents wasps from building nests inside the tubes, and trust me, these tubes are preferred wasp habitat. If you don’t use the covers, you’re likely to get an eyeful of wasps when you look down the tube to check your seedling.

• Stake each tube for support, and attach the tube to the stake with zip-ties. Once the tree emerges from the top, you may need to use cord and stakes to support the tree as well. It is not common, but sometimes the rapid vertical growth associated with tubes produces a somewhat weak trunk that may need extra support until it is strong enough to support the weight of the crown.

• Leave the tube on the tree after the sapling emerges. In fact, I recommend you leave it on until the trunk is almost, but not quite, filling up the tube. This maintains protection against rubbing bucks for the longest possible time. But don’t wait until the trunk is filling and splitting the tube, as moisture and dirt can build up on the trunk, causing favorable conditions for diseases and funguses.

• If gypsy moths are present in your area, consult with your state forester for advice before using tree tubes. The tubes can provide shelter for moth reproduction.

• Wrap-around style tubes can be removed from trees intact and re-used. Non-wrap-around tubes will have to be cut off and cannot be re-used. Consider which you prefer when shopping for and ordering tubes.

If you make your tree seedlings “go toward the light,” they won’t be heading for the afterlife but for a bright future providing mast and fruit for whitetails!

  • Ed

    I have found that some species of trees don’t do as well as others in tubes without ventilation holes. Plantra is by far the best I’ve found. Smaller vents also keep mice from enlarging the holes and gaining entry. If I don’t use fiberglass posts, I use rebar metal posts, simply put unless you can get enough sunlight to keep the wood dry or your area drains very well the wooden posts will rot at ground level and break off. Runnings, Tractor Supply and the like have them at reasonable prices. Mice will climb up and into tubes and make nests anyplace they can which leads to everything from the bottom chewed off to part way up. Hornets love tubes, the mesh most places sell is designed to prevent birds from falling into your tubes. (Blue birds are prone to this), ants can also make quite the nest and kill everything. Here in NY as I imagine elsewhere in the North the tubes will heave, so as early as you can in the spring after the frost is out check them to make sure they are still down below the surface or voles will crawl underneath and cut them off like a Beaver had been there. Even if you find an older tree that has been browsed, prune it, tube it and be amazed at how fast it goes upward. Because most tubes prevent natural trunk conditioning when a sapling blows to and fro they will tend to be weaker when you remove the tubes. If you can leave the tubes on until they free stand, great, but if you have to take them off I suggest putting in a fiberglass rod strapping it in multiple places to prevent a snap off. This will allow the tree to flex while it strengthens. The last trick is to use old pool hoses for example on saplings that can handle the weight to prevent buck rubs after the tube comes off. As I said before some trees can handle the extra “heat” some don’t do well. Crabapples for example seem to need the air flow. Walnuts don’t seem to like it at all. Oaks on the other hand seem to handle it well. Good luck, plant, plant, plant. It may seem like this gets expensive, but loose a 5 year old apple to voles and you soon realize it is much cheaper than loosing time. You can’t get that back.

  • Jammer

    I got excited about ‘tree plots’ in 2012, and have planted about a hunnert trees. My research also said that tree tubes were the way to go. I used Plantra ventilated tubes, 4 and 5′ staked with 1/2 plastic electrical conduit. Unfortunately I have some issues I’d appreciate feedback on. 1) pear seedlings planted in Sept grew great, but never lost their leaves (zone 6b). A February freeze hit’m hard, killing 3/4 of the stem. They survived and are growing, but that doesn’t seem like a good deal. 2) on pears and some persimmons, I’m getting multiple (like, 6-8) spindly stems growing to the top of the tube. Should I lift the tube off (before the tree top spreads) and prune, or wait for natural pruning? 3) chestnuts in tubes consistently have weak stems and require staking; most fenced chestnuts do not require staking. And, just as a sad story, planted one of the Dunstans in spring, which quickly doubled to 8′, then a storm snapped it off at the top of the tube. The plastic stake allows a lot of flex, but not enough this time. doggone.

  • Michael Chubb

    I have been using tree tubes for over 25 years now and have a lot of opinions. #1 In Michigan only use vented tubes. Non-vented tubes act as “greenhouses” just like they are supposed to. This is bad and does not let the tree harden off in the fall chill and the tree WILL die back to the roots. #2 I use 5/4 12′ treated (non soil contact) deck boards cut to 1″ x 1″ x 6′ stakes. Nothing is perfect but I would not put EMT in my field. When the stake rusts off at the ground the “pungie stakes” will take out a tire. #3 You must clean out your tubes at least once or twice a year. Leaf litter will collect in the tube and provide an environment for bad things mentioned in the main article. #4 I have a theory (non-scientific). Mice have learned behavior. Once a mouse has learned to chew the wire tie flap out and nest in the tree tube, destroying the tree of coarse, future generations of mice will do the same. I could go on but I will say its all worth it because in the top of every tube you will get a bright green tree frog as a friend.

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Thanks for these insights, Michael. And thanks for reading. You’re right about the tree frog!

    • Ed

      ditto on the mice/voles. I loose more seedlings to them than anything by far. constant battle.

  • Osceola

    Good tips, Lindsay! I undertook a major reforestation project in 2009 planting 500 oaks on my Michigan property with tree tubes. I have learned a lot from the experience and it has been very gratifying to watch them grow over the years. If I could offer one addition piece of advice to others it would be to avoid bamboo stakes! I believe I paid about a dollar a piece for 500, 6 ft. long, 1″ diameter bamboo stakes, only to have them start to break at ground level after a few harsh winters. I ended up replacing nearly all of them with 1/2″ conduit. This was costly in both time and money!

    • Wayne

      Is your property found along US131 on the West side? I see a tree tube community going there.

      • Osceola

        Hi Wayne, That’s not me, but I know exactly where you are talking. I pass it on the way to my property. That guy has a stake problem, too!

        • Wayne

          I’m near Chase in Lake County… Trying to bring my small acreage to life… Slow but sure!

          • Osceola

            I’m not far from you…near Leroy. Not a “trophy” area, but my hunting gets better every year as I continue to make habitat improvements. Good luck!


About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA's Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.