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Little Otter Tree Farm focuses on Carolinian tree and shrub species


Jeff (left) and Brent Scott with young blue ash stock.

For more than 35 years, an unassuming farm with five hoop greenhouses on the Keswick Road near Tillsonburg has played a vital role in establishing Carolinian trees throughout Southwestern Ontario.


The Little Otter Tree Farm specializes in Carolinian tree and shrub species which numerous conservation authorities, municipalities, including ReForest London, schools, Boy Scout troops and others have used for restoration programs and biodiversity initiatives.


Founder Jeff Scott, and his brother Brent cultivate potted Carolinian species that customers use for rehabilitating ravines, quarries, gravel pits, tree-lined streets in new subdivisions as well as for landscaping  local residences. They sell both retail and wholesale.


The Carolinian life zone in Ontario occurs in “Canada’s Banana Belt”, from Lake Erie north towards an imaginary line from Grand Bend to Toronto.  It’s the northernmost extension of the deciduous forest region of eastern North America, and is named after the two Carolina states.


This bioregion boasts the most frost free days and mildest winters in Canada, giving plant species that are commonly found south of the Great Lakes a foothold in Ontario.  The Carolinian Canada website states that the Carolinian region boasts 70 unique species of trees alone.


Little Otter Tree Farm grows many of these trees and bush species: Sassafras, Ohio Buckeye,  Ironwood,   American Sycamore , Hickory, Witch Hazel, Pawpaw, Kentucky Coffee Tree, Chinquapin Oak and its relative, Dwarf Chinquapin Oak,  Northern Hackberry, Dwarf Hackberry, Sweet Birch and Black Gum.


The Scotts grow approximately 40 species, including a few non-Carolinian ones.  Most of the trees are deciduous, with some evergreens, such as White Pine, White Spruce, Hemlock and Tamarack and firs.


The Scott brothers’ personal favourites include the blue ash which has square twigs; while they consider the Black Gum as “phenomenal for landscaping”.


Why specialize in Carolinian zone species?

 “We live in it and I always liked trees,” said Jeff.


The Little Otter story begins in the 1980s, when Jeff studied forestry at Sault Ste Marie College for two years.  Upon graduation, he returned home to work at the former Delhi Research Station; first as a summer student; then on contract, working in (a new alternative crop?) program. 


In 1990, Jeff left to work for local arborist and nursery owner Keith Somers.  About this time, Scott launched his own nursery near the Little Otter Creek, starting with a few seeds he collected. Eventually, he moved the expanding business to its current locations in Norfolk and Southwest Oxford Townships.


After the local factory that he worked at closed in 2008, Brent arrived to assist in the nursery’s management and with the planting.  Also helping out is Brent’s father-in-law, Bev Leadsom.  Brent’s wife, Laura, handles the bookkeeping and Facebook page; the children and grandchildren help out periodically.   


“But we three (Jeff, Brent and Bev) are it; you’re looking at the crew now,” said Scott. “We’re a low-key operation.” 


The Scotts obtain seeds from various collection sites across Southern Ontario – their only on-farm source is a chinquapin oak.  Germination is complex and varies between species.    Jeff keeps his notes and technical manuals handy. He previously took a germination course from the late Guelph arborist, Henry Koch, a pioneer spokesperson in the urban natural habitat movement.


Each seed needs to be “stratified” to sprout. This process artificially conditions the embryo’s temperature-based internal clock. It stimulates the seed’s germination process by mimicking its seasonal sprouting conditions that occur in nature.


Some species only require a cold stratification in the Scott’s refrigerator. Others, such as the Ironwood, require two stratifications – two winters with a ‘warm stratification” season in between.   Black elderberry demands a  60-day warm stratification, then a cold stratification for 150 days. Meanwhile, the hobblebush – a viburnum -- needs almost three summers to sprout, said Scott. 


“It’s an art and a science and it’s not always successful,” said Scott.

Germinated seeds are transferred to trays or jiffy packs and monitored in the greenhouses prior to potting.  Although some stock exists at Jeff’s home farm over in Norfolk County, the majority remain at the Keswick Road production facilities, where they sell both retail and wholesale.


A small percentage of stock sells as table centre pieces or as wedding favours that come “potted and ready to plant”.  Scott said that in the past, a Markham politician gave out 4,000 seedlings on Earth Day, while former Premier Dalton McGuinty used hemlock centerpieces at a Toronto convention centre.

“This trend comes and goes in waves,” explained Brent.


Tree stock won’t. Not with the growing awareness of using native plants in landscaping and land rehabilitation, resulting in more nurseries and even local horticultural societies selling them.


“When Little Otter was founded in 1988 not too many people doing it’, said Scott.  “But we sell some of the some hard to find ones, such as Blue Ash and Sassafras.”

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