RECENTLY Don and Jane Chafin of Wilmington, Ohio, went for an after-dinner stroll through a grove of very special trees. It was a planting of Scotch pine in front of their property, which announced to passers-by what their newly begun business was all about - Christmas trees. The couple took a road-front meadow and almost overnight turned it into a plantation by setting out 500 pines, averaging four to six feet in height.
The trees were ``green, handsome, and growing well,'' Mrs. Chafin says.
But what made that after-dinner stroll particularly gratifying was the fact that the healthy trees represented a total turnaround from the picture presented five months earlier.
Back then, it seemed likely that not a single one would survive the dry, grueling summer. By mid-July, every tree might be lost unless irrigation were provided.
At that point, Dr. Chafin, an associate professor of agriculture at Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio, was led to try something he had never done before: He sprayed the trees with a substance called Wilt-Pruf, an ``anti-transpirant.''
That action, he reckons, saved the trees, holding them through the time it took to bring in the irrigation drip lines.
``Overnight the trees turned from pale green to dark green,'' says Chafin. ``In four days the candles on some of the stressed trees had grown as much as four inches.''
Equally important, the anti-transpirant allowed the trees to get by on less irrigation water throughout the rest of the water-short growing season.
What brought about this spectacular turnaround?
All leaves transpire, or give off moisture. They sweat, in other words. Anti-transpirants slow down this process by coating the leaves with a thin polymer layer.
Under normal conditions, an anti-transpirant is unnecessary. But in the case of a drought or freezing temperatures, it becomes a very useful product.
When trees lose water from the leaves faster than the roots can draw it up from the soil, they become stressed. In Chafin's experience, the needed balance was restored, because loss through the leaves was lowered enough to match incoming moisture from the roots.
Holiday trees hang on to their needles
What proved so effective in a hostile growing season, the Chafins now realize has applications in the festive season as well. ``A tree brought in for the holidays will retain its moisture and greenness in the hot interior much better if it's protected this way,'' explains Mrs. Chafin, ``and that applies to a live or cut tree.''
What the Chafins have deduced from their experience, other Christmas tree growers and suppliers have discovered as well. A tree sprayed this way does not drop its needles so rapidly and is less of a fire hazard, because it does not dry out so fast.
Some suppliers treat trees with the anti-transpirant before shipping them to customers. They look on it as a form of insurance against customer dissatisfaction.
A small but growing number of informed homeowners are also treating their Christmas trees this way, since several brands of anti-transpirants are available in spray cans from garden centers.
The first anti-transpirant, sometimes called an ``anti-desiccant,'' was developed 40 years ago by Powers Taylor, a nurseryman in Westchester, N.Y., and Luther Baumgaertner, an industrial chemist.
It was a gooey, hard-to-apply substance, but it worked. Improved formulations were later developed.
Over the years, any number of other applications have been discovered. A major use now involves protect ing evergreens from windburn in winter. In this instance, the dry winds of winter force leaves to transpire moisture that cannot be readily replaced by the roots if they are locked in frozen soil. In the spring, when new growth resumes, the dried-out leaves turn brown, giving the appearance of being burned, then drop off.
Spraying these evergreens with an anti-transpirant in the fall, with an insurance spray applied on a mild winter day, can dramatically cut down on winter burn and often eliminate it altogether.
Multiple uses for anti-transpirants
Some other applications for this type of product are:
Storing summer bulbs and tubers such as dahlias, cannas, gladiolas, begonias, and tender lilies. Spray the bulbs in the fall to prevent excessive drying in storage.
Transplanting, including annuals. Spraying the plants before setting them out in the garden or field reduces water loss while the plants are adapting to their new situation.
Animal-proofing. For several years, now, the Monitor's gardening columnists, Doc and Katy Abraham, of Naples, N.Y., have found that a tablespoonful of Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper to a gallon of anti-transpirant is enough to keep deer away from evergreens in winter.
Water savings. What the Chafins found with Christmas trees, researchers at Texas A&M University discovered in experiments on peach trees. On average, use of water in the peach orchard was reduced 30 percent for the season when anti-transpirant was applied - without major alterations in tree growth or subsequent fruiting.
Cuttings. These remain more viable during rooting when treated with an anti-transpirant.
A handful of companies now manufacture anti-transpirants. The latest to do so is Safer, best known for its range of insecticidal soaps.
While all lines are reportedly effective, some are vulnerable to low temperatures during storage. If you plan to keep yours in a garden shed, watch out for those labels that warn against freezing.