Why planting eucalyptus is the way to go

Dr Athanatius Mutaawe Lubogo at his eucalyptus tree farm. Photo/Michael J Ssali

What you need to know:

  • Eucalyptus is the tree species of choice for many commercial farmers because it is multipurpose, fast-growing and has a ready market. Eucalyptus can grow well across all the agro-ecological zones in Uganda, ranging from the lowland to the mountainous highlands.

Eucalyptus tree poles are perhaps as important as sand and bricks in today’s housing construction industry in Uganda. It is quite common to see trucks loaded with eucalyptus poles heading for Kampala and other cities. They are affordable to most people struggling to set up their own residential houses and to others building large, storeyed, commercial buildings. Eucalyptus tree production is an important economic activity. 

Why grow trees 
Dr Athanasius Lubogo Mutaawe, an epidemiologist, who is also a large-scale eucalyptus tree farmer at Kanywa Village in Buwunga Sub-county in Masaka District, says trees are in great demand and tree planting is a  very paying occupation. 
“The trees are a major source of energy as firewood in many homes,” he says. 

“They are used to bake bricks and to build houses mainly as roofing material. Eucalyptus tree saw dust is used to bake bricks, tiles and it is raw material for paper manufacturing.” 
He goes on to state that more and more people should take up eucalyptus tree farming as a measure of safeguarding our indigenous natural forests. He says if people begin to grow their own trees there will be much less need for them to invade the natural forests for housing construction timber and firewood.

Ready market for your trees 
The proprietor of Greenwood Forestry as he calls his eucalyptus tree growing project measuring 300 acres, says, “As a country we have the need to extend hydro-electricity to all the villages and corners and electric wires are fixed on strong poles.”
Any farmer who chooses to invest in eucalyptus tree growing must therefore be on the right truck. There is a growing demand for the poles. Eucalyptus tree timber is used to make wooden trays for carrying lots of industrial products and it is mainly what other farmers use to construct poultry houses and pigsties, not to mention the treated poles on which barbed wire is fixed to fence off their farms. 

It would be a different story if for any construction work requiring timber everybody went to the natural forests to cut down trees.” Greenwood Forestry employs about 120 people and he says such people would most probably be without work if he had not started the project.
Reaping big 
Dr Mutaawe revealed that he is already reaping some income for his man-made forest by keeping bees. 
“Eucalyptus trees provide plenty of nectar and pollen for the bees to make very good quality honey which carries the eucalyptus aroma,” he told Seeds of Gold. 

“Eucalyptus is also a medicinal plant used to treat flu.” 
A quick search on the internet (http://www.mountsinai.org>herb) revealed that eucalyptus is to be found in many lozenges, cough syrups, rubs, and vapour baths. Herbalists often recommend using fresh leaves in gargles to soothe sore throat and to treat bronchitis and sinusitis. Eucalyptus ointments are also used on the noses and chest to relieve congestion. 

Ssendaula’s tree planting story    Gerald Ssendaula, former Minister of Finance, who is also a farmer of eucalyptus trees, has previously told Seeds of Gold, “The debate on the merits and demerits of planting eucalyptus trees is very old. Some people think the tree destroys the soil and makes it unfit for agricultural production. But such people must be reminded that there are very many different varieties of eucalyptus trees and it is wrong to make a blanket condemnation of all the varieties. Given the economic importance of eucalyptus it is difficult to control its growth by the different tree farmers. 

It is important for our forest officers and forest experts to identify which varieties to plant where and those that ought not to be planted.”
The retired politician revealed that he had planted some eucalyptus trees some years back and when he harvested them to be used as timber, he noticed that the timber kept splitting on its own and he made losses. 

Dr Mutaawe examines a young eucalyptus tree on his farm. hoto/Michael J Ssali

This is not the case with other eucalyptus tree varieties. 
He said some varieties are heavy feeders and should not be planted near water sources as they consume too much water. He also said some varieties are best suited for hill tops.” 
Ssendaula recalled a farmer who had a variety of eucalyptus trees whose scent drove away mosquitoes. 

This was also borne out by a Google search (http://www.mountsinai.org>herb) which indicated that some eucalyptus trees are also repellants of mosquitoes, cockroaches, ants, flies, spiders, lice and more. 

Ms Eseri Nankya, a soil scientist, and a PhD student working with National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro), agreed with Ssendaula and said that there are several eucalyptus tree varieties and that only some of them are dangerous to soil health. She agrees that eucalyptus tree farming should still be encouraged because the trees are fast maturing and very important for housing construction, fuel for cooking, and other purposes. 

Viable economic activity 
Aden Kamugisha, a prominent tree farmer in Masaka, who also makes and sells cloned South Africa eucalyptus seedlings, believes that eucalyptus tree farming is one of the most viable economic activities. 
One of his main arguments is that the most important eucalyptus tree farming country on the continent is South Africa which is also the strongest economy in Africa. He disagrees with the thinking that eucalyptus trees are not good for soil health. 

“On the contrary eucalyptus trees drop leaves all the time which cover the soil and turn into manure. It is the reason crops like maize grow very well in fields where eucalyptus tree forests have been cut down. It must also be the reason many coffee farmers are nowadays using eucalyptus tree branches for mulching.”  

He owns a large field of vigorously growing maize which was originally a eucalyptus tree forest and he attributes the good appearance of the maize to the eucalyptus tree leaves that must have turned into soil during the many years of the existence of the forest.
He agrees that eucalyptus is a heavy feeder tree whose roots normally stretch very far in search of water and soil nutrients. He however advises farmers to observe the old rule of digging a deep trench of about three feet deep all around the eucalyptus forest in order for the farmer to trim off any roots that emerge from the trees in the forest. 

Eucalyptus tree farming requires some patience. 
The trees are generally fast growing and they may be harvested within perhaps three or four years depending on their height and the fertility of the soil where they are planted.
 Kamugisha says that the spacing and the number of trees planted per acre depends on what the farmer is aiming at. “If the aim is to sell roofing poles or the smaller size we normally refer to as ‘Kampala’ the farmer may plant some 1,740 trees in an acre at the spacing of five feet by five feet. If the farmer’s aim is to produce timber or electricity poles the recommended spacing is 10 feet by 10 feet and to have some 430 trees on an acre.”

Factors influencing cultivation
Seeds sown in the nursery take between 7-14 days to germinate. When the seedlings are at the two-leaf stage, they should be pricked out into individual containers or polyethylene sleeves.
Proper fertiliser/manure use is recommended for healthy and vigorous seedlings. 

For the period the seedlings will be in the nursery, they should be protected from excess sunlight, strong winds, weeds, pest and diseases.
The seedlings should also be watered (every morning and evening), with care being taken to avoid waterlogging.
Planting and husbandry 
The spacing during field establishment determines the final tree population per unit area of land. The spacing is determined by the intended use and the agro-ecological region (mainly water availability).

In high potential areas, and with timber, transmission and construction poles in mind, a spacing of 2-2.5m by 2-25m is ideal, while in arid and semi-arid areas, the spacing should be increased to 3m by 3m to reduce excessive competition for water.
The transplanted seedlings require nurturing to reduce competition with weeds for water, nutrients, and sunlight.

Pests and diseases
As mentioned earlier, the first two to three years after transplanting are important as far as pests and diseases are concerned. For this purpose, routine pest and disease scouting should be practised.
The most common and important insect pests include Blue gum chalcid, aphids, snout beetles, and termites. 

Blue gum chalcid is a severe eucalyptus insect pest that results in galls on the foliage and tender growing points, thus affecting growth.
The pests can be controlled using insecticides. 
Diseases can be controlled by spraying using appropriate chemicals.