Article #82, April, 2004
By Bill Cook"
Tree planting is often an April activity. The snows disappear and ice melts. The soil once again thaws. Our “green” feelings sometimes turn to tree planting. Unfortunately, many trees suffer from poor planting technique, a lack of site preparation, and abandonment after planting.
Planting trees is a way to increase the odds of seedling survival. In nature, only a tiny fraction of the seeds ever become trees. Nature’s strategy involves masses of opportunity but very low rates of success. Even sloppy planting usually improves upon natural designs.
However, when people shell-out money to purchase trees and expend considerable effort to plant them, low survival rates become discouraging. Successfully establishing trees from seedlings takes three general steps; 1) effective site preparation, 2) good seedling stock and planting technique, and 3) follow-up treatments.
To plant trees this spring, the site should have been prepared last summer or fall. Preparing a site involves removing competing vegetation, especially dense sod in an old field, and leaving at least a patch of bare soil for each seedling. The transplanted seedling has undergone transplant shock, increasing its vulnerability in an already hostile and competitive world. Good site preparation gives the seedling a sporting chance.
Most people, however, usually don’t plan far enough ahead to have their planting sites prepared in advance. Commonly, one unsuccessful planting season provides a good lesson for subsequent attempts. If your April seedlings don’t have a nicely prepared site to call home, all is not lost. The job is just much harder. Make every effort to plant the seedlings in a spot free of competing vegetation, especially grasses. Each planting location will need to be “weeded” several times during the growing season.
Obtaining quality seedling stock and treating them carefully during the planting process is critical. Bare-root seedlings should not be stored more than a day or two, and then the place should be cool and shady. If longer storage is absolutely necessary, temporarily “plant” bunches of seedlings in loose soil, making sure there are no air pockets around the roots. This is called “heeling-in” the seedlings.
The actual planting process requires special attention. Each seedling must have its roots fully extended down. Curled roots or “J” rooting results in problems for the tree, often death within a few years. The soil around the roots must be packed tight. Using a specialized planting bar helps make this task easier, but planting can be done with a shovel, too.
The importance of protecting the soon-to-be planted seedlings from exposure to wind and sun can’t be emphasized enough. Under certain conditions, death can occur in just a few minutes, although the seedling might look just fine when it is planted. Keep those planting bags in the shade with the roots covered.
After the planting season is over, the tools are cleaned off, and the Ben-Gay is applied, the job is not done. Even with excellent site preparation, the competing vegetation will likely need to be controlled within the next year or two. Nature abhors a blank place on the soil surface. If herbicides don’t sound handy, then become friends with an assortment of tools through many long hours of familiarity. To keep those trees healthy, they will need lots of sunlight. Depending upon the species, five or six years may be needed before the trees grow taller than the surrounding plants. Even then, stiff competition occurs under the ground for water and nutrients. Competing vegetation may need to be controlled even after the seedlings rise above the grasses and shrubs.
Lastly, many critters can make a quick snack of all your efforts. Deer, rabbits, and mice can wipe-out entire plantations. Hardwoods can be protected with individual tree cages. Ideas abound about which method is most effective. For conifers, the top bud is what must be protected during the dormant season. Using a “bud cap” of some sort can be an effective way to keep the browsers from munching on the all-important terminal bud.
Planting and growing trees can be very satisfying, but it does take commitment of time and money. The actual planting is only a small part of the process. If you are a bit non-committal, start out the first year with only a few trees, maybe 50 to 100. Otherwise, help an experienced tree planter and learn from their experiences. Tree planting is a wonderfully romantic idea that can be a disappointment without some planning. For more information contact the Conservation District or the MSU Extension office.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
Posted by Don Squire