A giant dream
When he’s puttering in his back yard, retired businessman Ken Clevenger, 84, is about as focused on the future as a man can be. He’s passionately nurturing a project that he’ll never see to completion — not by hundreds of years.
Clevenger is raising sequoias — as in Sequoiadendron giganteum, giant sequoias — in Montgomery County. Although the tallest of his 12 trees is only a foot over his head now, if all goes well, the trees will reach 250-300 feet, the height of the monolithic giants that people visit California to see. But that will take about 2,000 years.
“Even in 100 years, they should reach a significant size. Bigger than those Stadium Oaks at Virginia Tech,” says Leon Arp, who gave Clevenger the young sequoias in April 2009.
Arp, also an octogenarian, grew these trees — and 140 others — from seedlings in a Jefferson National Forest nursery plot not too far down Craig Creek Road from Clevenger’s home. Growing sequoias in Southwest Virginia is a maintenance-heavy operation, and Arp was driving over from Blacksburg to weed, water and monitor his trees at least twice a week during the warm months. After four years, Arp’s trees were ready for their permanent home, and Arp was ready to hand them off.
Clevenger was one of several individuals who offered to plant the sapling sequoias on his own property. Since then, most of the trees — those transplanted and those left in the nursery without Arp’s care — have died, Arp says. Only Clevenger’s trees continue to grow. And that is with Clevenger’s constant attention.
First, he and his wife, Irene, planted the trees in crater-like basins filled with pine bark and needles to create the moist, acid environment the trees require. The craters hold rainwater long after the brief summer rains run off other trees and into nearby Craig Creek. Clevenger inspects the trees for fungus, scale insects and deer damage daily, and rolls out 200 feet of hose to water them when they seem dry. He also doses them with fertilizer and fungicide and prunes the trees regularly to discourage fungus on the lower branches.
“They’re my experiment,” Clevenger says. “They’re a challenge. When the deer ate off the main stem of some of the trees, I tied the next largest branch to point upward, so that it would become the main stem. Whenever something comes up, I grab a book and learn something more about growing sequoias.”
Clevenger’s research shows that the giant sequoias in California endure temperatures that occasionally drop as low as minus 21 degrees Fahrenheit and climb into the 90s in summer. He heard of a few sequoias growing in private gardens in New York and Pennsylvania.
His research has paid off; two of his trees added a foot of new growth this year. Arp, who brings visitors by to see Clevenger’s trees every month or so, says with constant watering, the trees’ annual growth could be more than twice that much.
Sequoias have been found to produce roughly growth equal to the volume of a 50-foot-tall tree one foot in diameter each year. In terms of annual mass increase, they are among the fastest growing organims on Earth, beating out even kudzu and zucchini squash.
In a few years, when the trees reach 8-10 feet, they will have passed the critical stage and won’t need as much attention. Clevenger looks forward to that time.
“I want to hang around at least two more years to get them to that point,” he says. “My daughters joke that when I die, they’ll chop those trees down. I think they’re joking. But I am thinking of having my ashes sprinkled around the sequoias. Maybe they’ll get better treatment then.”
About the giant sequoia
To grow a pound of wood, a tree consumes about 1.47 pounds of carbon dioxide and releases approximately 1.07 pounds of oxygen. With weights of 1,300 to 6,000 tons, giant sequoias are the kings of oxygen production.
A large, mature tree probably contains 630,000 board feet of lumber (A board foot is a 12-inch-by-1-inch plank that is one foot long). That’s enough to build 120 average-sized houses. In fact, a single giant sequoia may contain more wood than is found on several acres of some of the finest virgin timberland. The trunk alone of the largest giant sequoia, the General Sherman, weighs nearly 1,400 tons — the equivalent of 10 diesel train locomotives.
– Su Clauson, Special to The Burgs
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