Ralph and Karen Pabst receive award from Arbor Day Foundation

Pabsts earn award from Arbor Day Foundation

The best Christmas gifts do not come with bows and tinsel

Ralph Pabst received a special Christmas present last month — a handsome plaque from The Arbor Day Foundation recognizing him for his tree project.

Pabst’s tree project fulfills the Arbor Day Foundation’s mission of inspiring people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees, and his lifetime dedication to planting and caring for trees shelter.

What made the Arbor Day Foundation award extra special was the appreciation for his project  that came from his daughter, Michelle Beeman, who nominated her father for the award.

“It’s a legacy thing,” Pabst said during a recent interview. His family shares his interest in trees, they value the beauty and the environmental benefits of trees, enjoy walks through the woods looking for berries and nuts, and learning about the various species. “Four generations down the road, if it’s still in the family it will be priceless,” Pabst said.

The family’s interest in trees seems to go back to Pabst’s grandmother, Katherine Meins, who brought a black locust tree with her when she emigrated from Germany to America in early 1900s.  She married Fred Pabst on Ellis Island. She planted the tree on the family farm southwest of Sanborn in Cottonwood County. “It’s still there along the driveway,” Pabst added.

During the 1970s, Ralph’s father, Albert Pabst, bought a tree spade and started moving trees, and got into the business of moving and transplanting trees.  His sons’ participation in the work inspired their appreciation for trees.

 Ralph Pabst initiated his own tree project southwest of Sanborn in 1998. “The NRCS came out with a program to protect watersheds,” Pabst said during a recent interview. They called it a riparian buffer for stream bank stabilization and to protect water quality of the watershed.  Their approach was to surround highly erodible area with trees,” he explained. “We looked into that. It was pretty interesting. We enrolled in it.”

The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) is the primary federal agency that works with private landowners to help them conserve, maintain and improve their natural resources.

In the first phase of their project, the Pabsts planted 11,000 trees on 26 acres in three days. When the project was finished, Pabst had 40 acres planted in trees.

“The prep took me about a year. It was an old cow pasture with lots of weeds — an overgrown mess is what it was,” said Pabst. “We had a lot of assistance from NRCS and David Bucklin, from the Cottonwood County office in Windom.” 

Pabst laid out a plan, eradicated the weeds on the acreage, and then about six weeks later worked up the sod for rows of trees, established rows, disced the ground, and prepared the seedbed for the following spring.

“The next spring the weeds were coming back, so I sprayed it again, got it all cleaned up and went to Heron Lake to get the trees,” Pabst added.

 “It was a family project,” Pabst recalled. “Karen and the kids helped. Karen’s parents, Rose and Elmer Meine, helped.  We went to the nursery in Heron Lake. We took Elmer’s greenhouse truck and we filled it with trees — mostly deciduous liners, 2-3 feet tall, bare root. I rented a machine from NRCS, Windom, and we went to work.”

The Pabsts planted 68 different cultivars and turned the acreage into a forest after a time. “I studied quite a while regarding recommendations of what trees would work here or there,” Pabst said. “We did pretty well with all of them except four or five.”

“Once we got the trees established, the first year we had a pretty good go. Everything was coming along well,” Pabst commented.

“The second year we got a huge hailstorm. I lost my crop and it battered the trees badly. There were dents and gashes in the bark and I was afraid we would lose them. They healed up and did pretty well. I was surprised,” Pabst recalled. “The third year you could see the imprints of the hail on the bark of the young trees but after a couple of years you          didn’t know they had been damaged.”

“We had some challenges with wildlife,” Pabst continued. “They took up residence a little quicker than anticipated. Most of the trouble was with deer. The second spring we lost all of our (100) black spruce trees to the deer.”

The Pabsts planted replacements and did a lot of watering the first couple of years.  “I used to take the farm truck with 2,000-gallon water tank to the field and Karen would help with the hose,” he said.    

The early years of the project were labor intensive. “The first year we hand-weeded the entire acreage,” Pabst said. “I worked with the family — with whatever help I could scrape up. About half the summer we were there weeding and watering the crop of trees. I used to take the farm truck with 2,000-gallon water tank to the field. Karen would help with the hose. “It wasn’t an easy establishment,” he recalled.  “It was worthwhile. We managed to save almost every tree.”

 “It turned into a haven,” Pabst said. “The original idea was to take the opportunity of long-term use of the program, and establish a wildlife refuge.  Most of what we put in was with the idea of a wildlife haven and have a little forest amid all the barrenness out here. It looks pretty nice now. It has come along well.  We didn’t lose a lot of trees.”

The Pabst woods is home to about every kind of song bird you can think of.  “There’s a bird nest in almost every tree. One summer I went down there to do a bit of hoeing (thistle patches here and there),” Pabst recalled.   “We had a lot of wild black cherry trees loaded with fruit and a few days later I was working in the area, and I noticed lots of birds. I got off the tractor and watched huge numbers of cedar waxwings.  There were about 300-400 birds and it took them two days to clean off the black cherries from about 300 trees.  There were even some Bohemian waxwings that are somewhat rare in this area.”

Now the trees are past the point where even the deer can’t hurt them.

Pabst has a long-time interest in conservation. Albert Pabst established shelterbelts. “In those days there wasn’t conservation tillage,” Ralph explained. “We’d have rain and then a strong wind would create black clouds” – erosion.  It was pretty ugly.”

In 1975 Albert Pabst planted five miles of wind break with a variety of trees. “Don Hellickson would come out with his water truck and water the trees.  My brother, Brian, and I helped care for the trees.”

Pabst enjoyed experiments in growing unusual cultivars. “There’s some really interesting things in there as far as different cultivars that aren’t native to our area,” he commented “like Serbian spruce.”  It’s important to keep trees healthy and maintain a diversity of tree species, he noted. The Pabsts work at trimming and keeping their trees healthy.

It’s been a learning experience, too.  The Pabsts lost about 300 sugar maples and about 300 red maples. “We learned that you can’t start them out in the open where they get full sun.   They die in the winter when the sun heats them up during day, and cools off overnight. That cracks the bark and they die,” Ralph explained.   Sugar maples must be raised in the shade of another tree until older and sturdier.

Ralph and his brother, Brian, now work together in transplanting trees, taking over where their father left off.

The Pabsts enjoy growing various tree species in their farmyard, too. They have peach trees, hawthorns and Eastern red bud trees on their law. A pecan tree about 25 feet tall grows in the farmyard. The tree has wintered over well and has yielded small pecans in the spring, but later fall off,” Ralph noted. “It might needs some soil amendment,” he surmises.

 The Pabst trees provide great fall colors and beautiful spring blossoms.  “We have about a half mile of apricot trees. It’s really nice out here in the spring. Blooming in pink and white,” Ralph commented.  They have picked a few apricots from the trees and made jam.

 “It’s been an adventure,” Pabst said. “I wouldn’t trade the trees.  Some people say they take up cropland or sometimes are a nuisance around machinery.  We have neighbors taking down trees. That was hard to watch. About 2½ miles of trees lost . . . and for what, he asked, “a couple of rows of corn?”

Pabst is committed to the tree project.  “I don’t ever plan to return the land to cow pasture,” he said. He’s glad to have taken marginal farmland and turned it into something worthwhile.

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