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Planting Trees

This page includes information and links about planting trees in Minnesota woodlands.

Update: April 2013. We’ve added a link to a new video showing proper planting technique for container-grown and bareroot seedlings to the General Tree Planting Guidelines section below.

Planning

Good planning is essential. Talk to a local professional forester about species selection, spacing, season and method of regeneration, equipment and contracting options, and other considerations.

planting_hands

Flickr photo by Tim Redpath. Click for original.

Planning for regeneration should begin well before harvesting the site. Thinking ahead may create opportunities for natural regeneration, which can be less costly and every bit as effective planting trees.

Planting stock

Planting seedlings, either bare-root or container-grown stock, is the most reliable way to regenerate a stand, especially for conifers. Bare-root seedlings are the most common. They frequently are designated as 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 stock, with the first number referring to how many years they were grown in the original nursery seedbed and the second to how many years they were grown in a transplant bed.

Transplants (seedlings that spent a year in a transplant bed) generally have a larger root system and stem diameter than seedlings that were not transplanted. Transplants are recommended for regenerating slow-growing conifer species such as spruce and fir, and for harsh planting sites where survival is likely to be a problem.

Seedling costs vary by tree age, species, and quantity ordered. Transplants survive very well, but are expensive and therefore are not widely used. One- or two-year-old seedlings are less expensive than transplants and are recommended for most hardwood and conifer plantings.

Two kinds of seedlings can be purchased: Bare root and container-grown.

Bare root seedlings are grown in open air nursery beds. When removed for planting, they are bundled without soil.

Container-grown seedlings usually are grown in a greenhouse in containers between 1 and 2 inches in diameter. Some biodegradable containers may be planted in the ground with the seedling in them. Others must be removed from the seedling before it is planted. Container-grown stock can be very useful for dry planting sites or for planting late in the growing season.

Cuttings are another alternative for artificially regenerating certain tree species. These usually are 8- to 12-inch lengths of tree stems about 1/4- to 3/4-inch in diameter (longer cuttings may be used on drier sites). They are cut during the dormant season from the previous year’s growth of vigorous seedlings or stump sprouts. Cuttings usually have no visible roots, but when buried vertically with just an inch of the stem protruding above ground, they will form roots. Rooted cuttings also may be available for purchase.

Cuttings produce an exact genetic replica of the parent tree. They commonly are used to regenerate poplars, but also can be used to regenerate willow and green ash. Cuttings grow best where the soil remains moist throughout the growing season.

Fruit (seed) ready for direct seeding. Photo by Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service. Click for original.

Photo by Brian Lockhart. Click for original.

Direct seeding is the process of sowing or planting seeds. In Minnesota, direct seeding is most often used to regenerate heavy-seeded hardwoods such as black walnut, oaks, and hickory. It is also used in some cases to regenerate jack pine or black spruce. In the right situations, direct seeding can be relatively inexpensive and can produce prolific regeneration.

Spacing

When designing a plantation, you need to determine an appropriate spacing between trees. Consider the crown width of trees when they reach a useful size. For example, when growing trees for timber, allocate space so individual trees are just beginning to crowd each other when the trees are large enough to support a commercial thinning. A professional forester can help you determine the correct spacing depending on the species and purpose for the plantation.

The following table shows the number of trees needed per acre for various spacings. To calculate the number of trees per acre for other spacings, multiply the planned spacing (in feet) within rows by the spacing (in feet) between rows and divide that number into 43,560. For example, if trees are to be spaced 8 feet apart within rows and rows are to be 10 feet apart, you would plant 545 trees per acre:

43,560 =  545 TREES PER ACRE
8×10

Number of trees per acre at different spacings:

Spacing (ft) Trees per acre
4×4 2,722
5×5 1,742
6×6 1,210
7×7 890
8×8 680
9×9 538
10×10 436
11×11 368
12×12 303

Site Preparation

Site preparation often is necessary prior to planting. Its purposes usually are to expose mineral soil and set back competing vegetation. While site preparation can be done with hand tools, this method usually is expensive and vegetation that is cut down may resprout. There are herbicides available for site preparation that may be very effective and economical in some situations. You also can use mechanical methods such as disking, scalping, or trenching. If you use mechanical methods, be careful not to destroy the nutrient-rich organic layer near the soil surface. Often a combination of mechanical and chemical methods is most effective. In some circumstances controlled burning can be used to remove debris from sites and temporarily reduce vegetative competition.

Handling seedlings

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources packages its nursery trees in a plastic bag inside a wax-lined cardboard box. It recommends the following handling procedures:

  1. Protect the box of seedlings from direct sunlight and heat.
  2. Plant the seedlings as soon as possible. Seedlings should not be stored for more than three to five days and then only at temperatures of 35° to 45 F.
  3. Once you open the package, plant the seedlings immediately. Exposure of tree roots to hot sunlight and drying winds for three to five minutes may be fatal.
  4. While planting, keep the seedling roots moist, but do not immerse them in water for more than an hour.
  5. If you need to postpone planting for more than three to five days after receiving the trees, remove the seedlings from the container and heel them in a trench.
Heeling in seedlings for temporary storage

Heeling in seedlings for temporary storage

To heel-in trees, dig a V-shaped trench in a cool, shady location, deep enough so the earth will cover the entire root system and part of the lower stem. Open the boxes, spread the trees along the sloping side of the trench in two or three layers, pack soil around the roots, and water as necessary to keep the roots moist. Store trees in this manner only as long as they remain dormant.

An even better storage method is to place the seedlings in a refrigerator set at 40 F or slightly cooler.  It is absolutely essential that seedlings be planted before new growth starts to emerge. The sooner you plant the trees after they arrive from the nursery, the better the survival will be.

Planting
The best time to plant is in the spring as soon as the frost is out of the ground. At this time the soil is moist, the climate is somewhat mild, and normally there is ample rainfall. If necessary, container-grown seedlings can be planted later in the growing season. Fall planting usually is less successful because frost heaving may occur, especially on fine-textured or wet soils, and growth regulators in the tree may become imbalanced, leading to top dieback.

Be sure to take good care of seedlings before you plant them. They should be dormant when you receive them (i.e., the buds should not be elongating or flushed). Do not let the roots dry out or freeze.This will likely kill the trees, but since the crown will appear alive (conifers will remain green) for a period of time, you may not realize it. To minimize risk of tree roots drying during shipment, ask nurseries to ship by the swiftest transportation available. If you transport the trees yourself, protect them from wind and sun during transit.

General tree planting guidelines

You may plant trees by hand or machine. Regardless of the method, follow these rules:

  1. Plant the tree at the same depth that it grew in the nursery
  2. Plant the tree in a vertical, upright position to avoid a crooked stem.
  3. Place the roots in the planting hole in a normal position without twisting or bending.
  4. Carefully firm the soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets.
  5. Plant only when soil moisture is adequate to ensure survival.

Hand planting

Photo by Brian Lockhart. Click for original.

Photo by Brian Lockhart. Click for original.

There are two general methods of hand planting. One of these is the hole method. Dig a hole with a shovel, mattock, or grub hoe. It should be large enough to accommodate the tree roots without bending. Place the tree in the hole, distribute the roots evenly, and pack the soil firmly around the roots, covering the root collar. This method usually results in a high rate of survival, but it is slow and is not practical for planting large numbers of trees.

The slit or bar method is preferred when a large number of trees are being planted because it is faster. Insert a spade, planting bar, hoedad or similar tool into the soil and move it back and forth to form a V-shaped slit. Insert the tree seedling into the slit so it will be buried to the root collar or to the same depth the tree was growing in the nursery. (If you err at all, plant slightly too deep rather than too shallow.) Remove the planting bar and reinsert it about three inches behind the seedling. Pull the bar back to firm soil around the roots, then push forward on the bar to seal the top of the planting hole. Push soil into the second slit and press down firmly with your boot to seal the slit. Using this method, you can plant 1,000 to 3,000 seedlings per day, depending on your experience and the condition of the planting site.

This website illustrates proper hand-planting technique.

Videos: In 2013 Extension and Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association produced a short video showing proper tree planting technique for container-grown and bare root seedlings:

Click the image to see the tree planting video on Sugarloaf's website.

Click the image to see the tree planting video on Sugarloaf’s website.


Tree planting machines
There are many designs for tree-planting machines, but generally they have a coulter that breaks through the soil surface, a V-shaped blade that opens a trench into which the operator places seedlings, and packing wheels that firm the soil around the seedlings. Some newer planting machines have spray attachments for applying herbicides for grass and weed control.

Tree-planting machines work best where terrain is fairly level and the site has been cleared of stumps and logging debris. If you use a tree-planting machine, protect seedlings from the wind and sun so the roots do not dry out. Place seedlings erect in the planting trench at the proper depth and pack the soil firmly around the roots. A three-person crew using a tree-planting machine can plant about 10,000 trees in an eight-hour day.

Protecting planted seedlings from damage

To you, newly planted seedlings are a future forest. To hungry deer, they’re a welcome meal on a cold winter day.

Deer herds in our area are far above historic norms. Deer love to browse seedlings, and unless you protect the seedlings well, deer will wipe them all out in the first winter after you plant them. There are a few common strategies to reduce deer browse damage:

Budcap. Click for original.

Budcapping. The main problem with deer browse is damage to the terminal leader (the tallest central stem). Stapling an index card over the terminal bud may deter some deer. I’ve heard other landowners talk about using different materials in place of paper once the deer get used to the paper. Other readers may want to suggest other materials?

Deer repellents : There are a variety of deer repellent products out there. Some are made from hot chili peppers, some from rotten eggs, some from blood meal (image), and maybe some others. You should be able to find these at garden supply centers.

Again, these have varying rates of effectiveness. But they do seem to work, at least for a while, in most cases. If you care to read more, here are links to two studies of different deer repellent products: Comparison and to a Walnut Council Deer Repellent Study (Illinois).

Fencing: While very effective, this approach quickly gets cost-prohibitive for large areas.

Protecting trees from meadow mice or voles:  Voles create runways and tunnels under dense vegetation and snow.  They feed on the bark of small shrubs and trees.  This damage can cause tree death.  A physical barrier to reduce vole damage in Minnesota is needed if damage is occuring.  Physical barriers, include hardware cloth, tin foil, tree shelters or plastic mesh.  These materials should placed around the tree and set into the soil to block the vole from reaching the tree stem.  Using tin foil has been shown to be effective if the foil is double wrapped around the lower six inches of the tree.

Reducing the habitat used by voles may be an effective way of reducing populations and potentially reducing vole damage.  Killing and removing vegetation in a 2 to 3 foot diameter circle around each tree combined with adding t-poles and owl boxes may increase hawk and owl predation.  However, controlling weeds will not prevent damage to your seedlings.  If voles are a problem, a physical barrier may be the best option.

Other control measures include repellants and the use of spring traps or poisons.  Repellants containing capsaicin (the substance that makes hot peppers hot) may deter vole feeding.  Poisons carry the risk of non-target species death.  If poisons are used they should be used following label instructions and placed in bait stations.

For more information read about Voles in the Landscape by J. Menken or Controlling Vole Damage to Conifer Seedlings by Duddles and DeCalesta. Also see Protecting Trees and Shrubs Against Winter Damage by B. Swanson and D. Rideout.

Tree shelters:  Tree shelters may be solid walled, perforated or mesh tubes, typically 3 to 5 inches in diameter and 1 to 6 feet tall.  They are often used on hardwood or coniferous seedlings to protect trees from animal damage.  Each type of tree shelter provides different benefits and may affect plant growth differently.  For example, a 2’ tall mesh tree shelter can be effective at protecting the tree from rabbit damage.  A 4 or 6’ tall solid walled or perforated tree shelter may be effective at protecting a hardwood seedling from deer damage.  Increased height growth has been demonstrated from the use of solid walled shelters for some tree species.  Follow the distributors’ recommendations and talk with persons who have experience with tree shelters.  Proper use of tree shelters is essential to reducing risk and gaining the most benefit.

Competing vegetation: If you can keep the deer off of your seedlings, you’ll still need to control competing vegetation, especially in old field situations. There are many different ways to approach this, including use of herbicides, mechanical soil disruption (like discing), and more.

This will need to be an ongoing effort–planted seedlings will need several years of vegetation control in order to overtop and outcompete the weeds. You can learn more about controlling competing vegetation in your tree plantings in an Extension publication called Vegetation Management in Forestry and Agroforestry.

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21 Responses to “Planting Trees”

  1. Rodney Hansen says:

    HI, I would like to do is start a couple of hundred acorns in styrafome cups and plant them along the borderlines of my property. Al the info I could get about planting would be greatly appreciated.
    -Rodney

  2. Avatar of MyMNwoods MyMNwoods says:

    Hi Rodney. Starting oaks from seed is not easy, but is definitely doable as long as you’re careful about selecting viable seed, exposing them to cold for the winter, and protecting them from rodents. Here’s great guide from Mississippi State Extension on growing your own oaks from seed: http://z.umn.edu/growingoaks (PDF). They may have different species in Mississippi, but the process is the same, including the temperatures for cold stratification. Good luck!

  3. Mark Berg says:

    Years ago in the watergate era, my brother and i had a tree planting machine on a three point hitch behind a F14 farmall tractor. We hauled it all over Itasca county every spring planting seedlings. I have restored the tractor and am looking for a machine like we had, three point hitch, one of us rode on the back over the wheels, wheelbarrow wheels that packed the slit made by the rolling colter and the wedge. It was a simple machine, and Ijust cannot remember themake, Id like go on ebay and find one… for restoration.. We hit ten acres one day, not a rock on it. The rocks were the enemy of the rolling colter, and we planted 10,000 norway in 10 hours. You cans ee this stand south of Grand Rapids with a housing development inside it. Time goes by….

  4. Avatar of Eli Sagor Eli Sagor says:

    Great story Mark! It must be gratifying to look at that stand now and remember that long day of planting that got it started. Ebay or Craigslist might turn up a planting machine, but a better source might be the DNR’s Marketplace Bulletin.

    There’s no cost to place an ad. While an ad in the MB might reach fewer people, it’ll be a lot more targeted toward folks who might know where to find the kind of planter you’re looking for. Instructions for placing an ad are on page 8 of the Fall 2010 issue. (If interested, lots of back issues are here.)

    Thanks for the story and good luck tracking down the planter!
    -eli

  5. Paul Ojanen says:

    Those planters were made as needed; some of the DNR offices have one to borrow. I believe a man named Maki from Esko developed them originally.

  6. al says:

    For Bud Capping use tyvek house wrap cut into strips…then staple it on the main shoot. It will last for as long a you want

  7. Avatar of MyMNwoods MyMNwoods says:

    John Rajala’s Northwoods Notebook blog has a nice follow-up piece, with photos, showing how oak seedlings respond to paper and balloon budcaps.

  8. JT says:

    Thank you so much for starting this forum. I am looking suggestions on protecting poplar seedling from deer, mice and voles. I planted 1500 poplar last year. As I was putting the last 100 trees in the ground my two neighbors came to inquire about my planting; they stated they had planted several hundred poplar over the years to have them all girdled by mice and voles?
    I have 600 varieties of oak trees ordered for this spring. Looking for any stories of successful tricks to nurture the oaks over the next 5-10 years. I purchased 50 tree tubes for crab apple and oak trees I also planted last year. I wish they were more cost prohibitive to buy for the 1000s of seedlings I have. But it was amazing to see how well they encouraged growth with some crab apple trees growing 2-4 feet in the first year in the ground vs. inches of the unprotected test crab apple trees.

  9. Avatar of MyMNwoods MyMNwoods says:

    Hi JT. Great questions, and I hope we can help you find an answer that protects some of your seedlings.

    First off, you will definitely need to protect the seedlings from rodents, particularly over the winter. I’d recommend some sort of mechanical barrier to do that (see the “Rodents” section in Extension’s Protecting Trees and Shrubs from Winter Damage pub or this short guide). While anchoring wire mesh tree tubes 2″ underground may not be practical for large-scale plantings like yours, you will get some protection from anchoring them at ground level. There are a variety of other tree tube designs available that, if properly anchored very close to the ground, can provide protection.

    One landowner, a recent Minnesota Tree Farmer of the Year, used a combination of soft plastic tree shelters with rodent bait traps for an oak planting, as pictured here and here. He has found this approach effective in the past, although it takes a lot of work and some expense to establish and maintain the bait stations.

    Another approach is repellents: “If many trees and shrubs are to be protected, application of a commercial repellent may be more practical. The repellent can be sprayed or painted on the trunks and branches. The effectiveness and duration of the repellent will depend on the severity of the winter and the availability of other food (source)”

    Good luck! I hope this information helps, and would love to hear back what you tried and how well it worked.
    -eli

  10. JT says:

    I love the idea of the rodent bait traps in the photos. Is there a suggested number of stations per acre and do you raise the stations to snow level during the winter?
    Is there a brand name to the repellent that be sprayed on trees?

  11. Mark Behrends says:

    I am wondering if the 5′ tall x 5″ diameter plastic tree tubes used for deciduous tree seedlings could be cut into 20″ tall pieces and used for red & white pines. It would get them through the first few years & could be pulled up for future years.

    Anyone with any experience or opinion?

  12. JT says:

    I know you can order 12″ and 24″ tree tubes. Seems very time consuming having to cut the 5′ tree tubes.
    My best luck with 2500 white pine seedings was stapling 1/2 of a manilla to the main lead so the deer wouldn’t browse the tops. A lot of work but took 4 of us a couple of hours to do 2500. I left another 500 without and it is night and day difference in the growth of the trees.

  13. TQ says:

    I have cut longer tubes in half before. You may need to punch some holes for stake ties in them if the cutting leaves too few existing holes. I have wondered if the cut tubes without a flared top lead to any bark damage as the tree grows up out of the tube and the wind bangs it against the sharper top edge. I haven’t noticed the problem, but I know the manufacturers recommend ventilated or mesh tubes for wide open/windy sites as a way to combat bark damage.

    There are a couple of other issues with tree tubes I wanted to mention.

    1st is their propensity to kill birds, particularly bluebirds and tree swallows. They will land on the lip of a shelter and jump down into it–and then find themselves trapped, doomed to a slow death. One brand of shelter used to sell mesh caps designed to help minimize this. I don’t think they all come with a cap these days, but it might something to consider if you are planting in a site that will likely be attractive to bluebirds or tree swallows. In my experience this has been more of a problem in 4 foot and taller tubes.

    Also, very lush tree growth extending into early fall is possible within solid tree tubes, and a hard frost can led to some stem dieback. This doesn’t necessarily kill the tree–in some hardwoods I have seen repeated die back end after a few years. I believe that the root system grows enough to eventually allow the tree to grow right up and out of the tube in one growth year–after which dieback is less common.

    Some of the new tube designs account for this with holes punched in the tube to facilitate drying air flow. I have had good luck just liftting the tube slightly on the stake before the first frost, so the bottom is open to air flow. I drop the tube back down before winter comes, when the small rodents and rabbits are most likely to do their damage.

    If you are just looking for critter protection and can do without the “greenhouse” growth boost of a solid shelter, the open mesh shelters solve a bunch of the issues noted above.

  14. Brent Carlson-Lee says:

    I am planning to reforest 2 acres of old farmland (currently grassland) in Otter Tail County.

    I have ordered some bare root seedlings from the Arbor Day Foundation as they have the best prices I could find (50 Colorado Spruce, 50 White Pines, 50 Sugar Maples). Obviously, I’ll need more trees than this but it’s a start. I do want to make sure I am planting an appropriate mix of trees. The nearby woodlands is a mix of primarily maple and spruce with some elm.

    Could you recommend a good mix of trees? And/or a local source for bare root seedlings at a good price?

  15. JT says:

    Depending on how many you need, I have found the quality of trees from the MN State Nursery good. And the prices can’t be beat.
    http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/forestry/nurseries/pricelist.html

    I have purchased there packages (listed on the bottom of the pricing sheet) to add diversity to my tree plantings; oaks, spruce, white & red pine, crabapples, dogwoods, and this year I am purchasing the spruce/fir combo.
    Minimum order is 500 seedlings.

  16. Brent Carlson-Lee says:

    Wow! Thanks. Those are great prices. I was planning to plant 250 this spring, but I guess I’ll do 500.

    Do you use seedling protectors or just assume that some aren’t gonna make it due to deer or rodents?

  17. JT says:

    I have started using tree tubes from treeprotectionsupply.com. Scott Berta has been great to work with and very helpful with questions. I ordered the Tubex combitube 4 ft’. Looking back I wish I ordered the 5′. I had crab apples grow over 4′ in a season with the tubes, and the deer already browse the tops off. I swear by the trees tubes. I planted over 600 oak and black cherry last year, and had a DNR forester walk my property in November. He couldn’t believe the growth I had with the tubes. He also added the tubes I selected were the best for MN’s climate changes because of the venting. The tubes also allowed me to spray the base with round up this summer to kill the competing grasses. Not one tree was lost with my spraying or to rodents.
    As far as the spruce and pine go. I have had mixed resulted. The deer haven’t touched the spruce until they are big enough to start rubbing, and they have gotten a hold of a dozen spruce. The white pine I let go the first year. The second year I stapled bud caps on the leader. The deer could browse the lower branches, but couldn’t touch the leader to stunt the growth. I used manila office folders ripped in half, and stapled tight to the leader. The leader would grow through the top open. The bud caps lasted a couple of years, and allowed the trees to get tall enough the deer didn’t bother the height growth. Here is where the story gets odd. I have been planting red and jack pine for years, and the deer always left them alone. Until last year. I had a dozen jack and red pine hammered. Some of these pines were 7′ tall, and the mowed every branch they could reach on their hind legs. This year they must’ve started liking the taste, because every single red and jack pine have been destroyed. They didn’t touch a single white pine I could find.

  18. Brent Carlson-Lee says:

    Thanks for the info! Just ordered my evergreen package from the DNR today. Can’t wait for the ground to thaw.

  19. Brent Carlson-Lee says:

    I’ll end up planting about 1,200 trees, starting with the 500 Evergreen Package from the DNR. If I also want to work in some maples and fruit bearing trees, should I intersperse all the types or do stand of white pine, stand of fir, stand of sugar maples etc?

  20. JT says:

    This is personal choice and what your objectives for your land are. I personally like the diversity of mixed woods. I do have solid stands of white pines I planted 15 years ago; used for screening and blocking. But more recently I have begun to mix the spruce and pine together. I recently have had the rust that affects white pines, and I needed to trim the lower branches for air flow. So I lost the screening from the pines. Wish I would have inter mixed spruce when I planted.
    My most recent years, I have planted poplar, oaks, black cherry, crab apple, pines and spruce mixed together; 2000+ seedlings. My goal is for wildlife vs. logging. Changing up my spacing from 8-16′ a part.

  21. Brent Carlson-Lee says:

    Perfect. Thanks! I’m not looking to log either. For wildlife, carbon sequestration and personal enjoyment. Maybe 1-2 Christmas trees/year.

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