For forest landowners in western Oregon, winter is the time to get out on the land to plant the next generation of trees. There are many important things to consider when planting seedlings, whether you are planting 10 trees or 10,000. Keep these things in mind and check out the publications below for more information on each topic.
There is a saying that goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago – the next best time is now.” Well, that’s true, as long as “now” is when the seedlings are dormant and the site is favorable for good planting. At low elevations west of the Cascades, conditions are often right from early January to late March in cool, wet weather. Avoid planting during periods of frozen or dry ground, snow, hot or dry weather, and especially dry and windy days.
Transporting and storing
It is important that the seedlings are kept cool during transport from the nursery to the forest (or for temporary storage). Ideally, transport should be in a refrigerated truck. If this is not possible and you are transporting them yourself, use an insulated van or pickup truck with a canopy or cover the trees with a special heat blanket. Avoid transporting trees outdoors or with a dark tarp, which can cause additional heating.
Plant seedlings as soon as possible, within 3-4 days, if they are stored at temperatures above 42° F. If you must store seedlings, keep them cool and moist. Find out if there are local cold storage facilities. If not, a cool, shady place indoors for a period of less than a week is acceptable. You can build a temporary storage cooler with plywood, Styrofoam insulation, and a few blocks of ice.
Handle seedlings as little as possible. When at the planting site, always keep them in a cool, shady area. Take a manageable number of seedlings from the storage container, soak them in water (do not leave them in the water for more than 1 minute) and place them in a bag or bucket for planting. Avoid overfilling the bag or bucket, as overfilling will damage the roots and cause you to drop the trees when you pull them out.
The container will protect the roots from drying out, as long as it’s not a windy day. Avoid exposing the roots to the air or touching them when planting. It is easier to remove the tree only after you have prepared the hole and are ready to put the seedling in the hole.
Choosing the right spot
Determine spacing in advance (see the resources below for help on how to do this). Plant your seedlings systematically, following a logical boundary. Use open and sheltered spots when selecting each planting site. Spacing doesn’t have to be perfect, as the forest offers obstacles that you can work around and possibly use to your advantage (e.g., tree stumps that can provide shade for a new seedling on a hot summer day).
Characteristics of a good planting site include places with exposed mineral soil, away from animal holes and hunting trails, away from concentrations of regrowing shrubs, and protected/shaded areas near a stump/tree.
Use the right tool
If you are only planting a few seedlings, a garden shovel is fine. If you are planting a large area, however, it is best to invest in a special tree-planting shovel. Planting hoes are useful for removing debris from the planting site and are sometimes used to plant cuttings.
Use the right technique
The goal when planting is to create a large enough opening in the ground for the plant to be naturally positioned and ready to grow. You don’t need to dig a traditional hole. Instead, loosen the soil with your shovel until you’ve created a rectangular hole where your plant’s roots can go straight down after planting.
There is a special technique for this, so see “The Care and Planting of Tree Seedlings on Your Woodlot (EC 1504)” for detailed instructions. Avoid twisted roots by digging a hole slightly deeper than the length of the roots.
After planting the tree, pack the soil around the tree to avoid later air pockets that can cause root death (do not trample the soil). Be careful not to damage the bark of the plant when packing the soil.
Where to get help
If you don’t have the time, tools, or energy to do the planting yourself, you’ll need to hire a tree planting contractor (or rely on family and friends) to do it for you. Professional arborists can plant 1,000 trees or more in a day, whereas most of us would take a week to plant as many trees.
If you decide to hire a contractor, do it before the planting season to avoid the rush.
You can also hire a consulting forester to take care of hiring a planting crew and the paperwork.