Spotlight: Ken Nichols—Oronoco, Minn.

Working Woodlands — Growing Healthy Woods

Ken Nichols standing by a tree in a clearing with tree seedlings"I like the way these oaks are looking. I feel like a proud grandparent," says Ken affectionately as he strolls through his woods. Ken and Sharon Nichols maintain about 12 acres of woods on their 56-acre farm near Oronoco, Minnesota. Ken jokes that trying to choose a favorite spot in his woods is "like asking a parent what kid they like best."

The Nichols have a right to be proud. They have transformed their woods over the last 25 years. "The woods were very heavily grazed by sheep and cattle," says Ken, "It was a tangly mess of boxelder and prickly-ash, and a few scattered bur oaks." Ken spent many hours crawling through thickets of prickly-ash to clear it for planting trees, work which required "a handsaw and a lot of Band-Aids!" The Nichols weren't alone in their work, though: "We had tree planting parties," Ken says, "We had friends come over to plant trees, and then we'd have a picnic."

The couple focused on adding species that would attract wildlife—oak, walnut, and fruit trees such as nannyberry and wild plum. Their hard work paid off. "When we first moved in, the woods were so barren. If we saw a squirrel at the bird feeder we got excited. Now we've got all kinds of stuff here—grey catbirds, American redstarts, brown thrashers." Ken estimates around 100 bird species hang around the property including pileated and redheaded woodpeckers. "We do leave a lot of dead trees for snags, for woodpeckers and whatever else wants to use them."

Ken is a lifelong learner with a thirst for knowledge. "I have constant curiosity," he says. He gathers information for managing his woods from as many sources as he can including his Woodland Stewardship Plan and the Master Woodland Advisor classes he took from University of Minnesota Extension. Still, he knows he can't predict everything. Some of the swamp white oaks he planted shortly after buying the property are already bearing acorns. "I was under the understanding that we wouldn't get acorns for 30 years," he says, adding wryly "these trees obviously didn't read the book."