Thursday, December 18, 2014

So You Want to Plant Some Seedlings?

In my previous post I provided you with news about my new tree planting publication.  The publication focuses mainly on planting hardwood seedlings.  One of our service foresters, Tom Erdman, saw the release and shared with me an informational fact sheet he wrote about tree planting.  I wanted to share this information.  It brings to light some of the real difficulties concerning tree planting success.  Enjoy!

Look Look at a soils map (soils book or Web Soil Survey); or look at past land use.  If the land grew corn or soybeans last year, weeds will be temporarily controlled, and it’s probably somewhat well drained land.  If it was open pasture, it might be acceptable, but look for evidence of soil compaction and poorly drained areas.  A current pasture is NOT a good place to plant a young tree.  Livestock eat baby trees.

 Don’t purchase seedlings from southern nursery sources – they may not grow well in our climatic zone.  The Climatic Zone in northern PA is “5” and the remainder is “6” except for the extreme SE which is zone “7”.   Look up your climatic zone.
     Seedling sources:  Private nurseries, catalogues, on-line, PA Game Commission, Conservation Districts… experiment with small quantities first - the year before you decide to plant thousands of seedlings.
     Expect some mortality the year or two after planting.   So, order extra seedlings.  Plant the best seedlings first, and reserve the remainder in a temporary bed for potential future use.

Seedling choice:
Hardwoods take time & money to establish, with annual weed control and tree shelter maintenance necessary.    Conifers, especially spruce, take less maintenance – although they will also benefit (grow faster) with weed control for the first couple of years.  Plant native species.

Tree Shelters:
Almost all hardwood (deciduous) seedlings NEED tree shelters, or fencing, to protect them from browsing; deer, rabbit, woodchuck, vole, etc.  Depending on the shelter, seedlings often grow considerably faster in tree shelters, sometimes reaching 4’ vertical growth in one year.  This will be spindly growth until the crown develops above the top of the shelter.  This accelerated early growth is invaluable in getting above the local browse level.  Use a good stake.  Rotten stakes are the most common cause of tree shelter and thus seedling failures.

Weed Control:
Hardwood seedlings NEED weed control.  Their re-located roots do not compete well with the established root systems of existing grasses & weeds.  Your seedlings will grow much slower, if they survive at all, if you don’t control the competing vegetation.  Herbicides, mulch, hand pulling, and weed mats can be used.

Consider the time it takes to plant an acre of hardwood tree seedlings – the following are estimates                                                   
     Planting:                    1 minute/seedling 
     Install tree shelter:  5 minutes/seedling  (this will also be a yearly cost, for maintenance))
     Herbicide spray:       1 minute/seedling         yearly cost                          
     Insect control:          1 minute/seedling         yearly cost                              
Herbicide treatments and insect control may be necessary more than once/year.  Destructive insects thrive in a protected tree shelters.

Example:  100 hardwood seedlings/acre* X 8 minutes/seedling = 800 minutes = 13.3 hours - for one acre!
The following year it might be half that time, for established seedlings, but still will involve about 5 hours/acre.  How many acres of hardwoods would you like to plant???   If you don’t maintain them, you’ve wasted your previously spent time and money.                         
*20’ X 20’ = 108 seedlings/acre, 1 acre = 43,560 sq. ft.
Seedling/shipping costs, tree shelter and stake cost, herbicides/pesticides, sprayers and personal protection clothing/gear, plus the time needed for maintenance and herbicide application, for at least 3-5 years after planting…

1.       If you don’t have any acceptable hardwoods growing on your property, it might be worth it for you to plant a stand of deciduous trees.  But if you already have hardwoods established, look to see if you can improve those first to meet whatever your objectives are.
2.       Try not to dream of planting and growing hardwood trees for economic gain.  It will take at least 60 years to get a small to medium sized sawtimber tree.  Who will own your land in sixty+ years?  And if you tally your planting and yearly establishment costs, compound them over 60 years, and then compare that value to what another potential investment return might be over those sixty years, which would be greater?

3.       Be careful about planting hardwoods in an already established woodland, unless it has been logged off heavily or there are pre-existing canopy openings.  The current established trees will probably grow faster than your introduced seedlings and their live crowns will continually grow up and outward, creating more shade in the future than there is today.  You may have to periodically thin the existing tree to continually provide the sunlight that your planted trees will require.

4.       Conifers are easier and less costly to establish, but their market value for timber is not great at this time.  Blocks of them planted at 8’ X 8’ can be great for establishing critical, and often lacking, winter cover for wildlife.  You can also plant small patches of 20-50 in forest openings if you don’t have open land.

In Summary:
This is not meant to discourage anyone from planting trees.  Plant a few oak trees if you don’t have any on your property.  And, plant a few of our other native hardwoods if you don’t have them currently growing in your woods – maybe chestnut, cucumber, or hickory.  Twenty-five to one hundred diverse, nut and seed producing trees can attract more wildlife to your property.  Improve the diversity of your forest, increase potential wildlife food production, and enjoy your labors.  Have your children and grandchildren help you.  Be careful of planting too much that might be neglected in years to come, and consequently lost. 

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humble folks may circumvent this restriction if they know how.  To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel.
By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree–and there will be one.”   Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac.

Tom Erdman,
PA Service Forester, Erie County 

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