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Tools of the Trade: John S. Ayton State Tree Nursery

Photo of pine seedlings

Pine seedlings

The Maryland Forest Service produces millions of tree and shrub seedlings each year for reforestation and other plantings across Maryland and Delaware. The first state nursery, near College Park, was founded in 1914 primarily to grow trees for roadside planting. The state nursery later evolved and expanded to grow seedlings for conservation purposes including wildlife habitat, watershed and soil protection, and forest products.

Fred W. Besley, a student of Gifford Pinchot (the father of American forestry), brought forest tree nursery science to Maryland as its first state forester. Besley gained his knowledge and experience from working in 1904 as a superintendent at the first federal tree nursery established in the country, the U.S. Forest Service Tree Nursery in Halsey, Nebraska.

During his term as State Forester between the years 1906-1942, Besley established three state forest tree nurseries, all on the property or near the University of Maryland at College Park. With each passing year, productivity increased at the tree nursery from thousands to millions of trees produced annually.

In the 1940s, the state expanded operations to the Beltsville Experimental Tree Nursery, while the College Park nursery moved to Harmons in Anne Arundel County and was later renamed Buckingham Tree Nursery. Here, a new tree improvement program propagated superior loblolly and eastern white pine.

Photo of man in his office

Fred Besley in his office, 1940s

In 1996, the nursery moved to its present site near Preston, in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore. John S. Ayton, former nursery supervisor at the Buckingham State Forest Tree Nursery, was instrumental in the design and construction, from buildings to grounds and operations, of the present-day nursery which today bears his name.

Today the nursery comprises 300 acres of land and is managed by three Forest Service employees throughout the year.

Growing seedlings requires attention to nature’s schedule. Seed is harvested during late summer and the fall. Planting occurs during the fall and spring. Seedlings are harvested and shipped February through early May. During spring and summer, seedlings are watered, fertilized, and weeded. It’s a never-ending cycle of renewal that results in healthy, vigorous seedlings being planted across the state.

Customers can begin checking the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website in mid-October when the nursery begins taking orders for the next spring planting season, and products available can be viewed on the DNR website anytime.

Richard Garrett is the is Nursery Manager for Maryland’s John S. Ayton State Tree Nursery. Historic information written by Francis “Champ” Zumbrun. Article appears in Vol. 24, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2021.