For me, the best part of converting a piece of barren land into a plantation or orchard or wildlife habitat is not the planting of trees, but watching them grow the first and second years. The transformation from bare root “twigs” or tiny seedlings to flourishing trees makes all the work in preparation and planting worth it. Unfortunately, the mistake many folks make is thinking they can just sit back and watch the trees grow without doing any kind of maintenance on the plantation. This decision has led to the demise of many a planting. A good understanding of what threatens seedlings and how to control or reduce these will ensure that you have a high survival rate within your planting.
As an undergraduate forestry student, I picked up a job maintaining some seed orchards in the summer. The job entailed spending hours walking behind a brush mower and wielding a weed whacker to keep the vegetation between the rows of trees low. I was also tasked with running behind a tractor fitted with a tank filled with an herbicide and spraying around individual trees while the tractor drove between rows. Now, these might not sound like glamorous jobs, but they taught me a great deal about what works in ensuring a healthy and vigorous planting.
The first thing this job taught me was that if you keep the competition on the ropes, you have a lot better chance of beating them. For planted trees, that competition is the other plants growing around the trees. It might not seem apparent, but there is intense competition for sunlight, soil moisture, and nutrients in the immediate vicinity surrounding your planted trees. The trees that you plant are at a disadvantage in that they have to reestablish their root network whereas the existing plants are already well-situated at home in the soil. Even if you did prepare the site by killing competing vegetation, these weeds tend to outgrow the trees over a season.
You need to give your trees a competitive advantage by either killing the competition or reducing their vigorous growth. Using herbicides to kill the competition is one of the best ways to accomplish this. You can spray around and over your trees when they are still dormant to kill off the plants that sprout early in the spring. When your trees are actively growing and still small, you can place a water-tight cone over them and spray the surrounding plants without hurting your trees. (Read the label carefully before applying herbicides.)
If you prefer to not use herbicides, mowing is a great way to reduce the impacts of competing plants. To give your trees their best chance, make sure to mow between rows of trees and between the trees themselves especially when they are still small. You will need to mow at least 2-3 times during the growing season and most likely more than that to ensure you keep the competing plants down.
The second thing I learned working at the seed orchard was that there are a wide variety of critters out there that would love to munch on your trees. Deer can be a huge problem and not everyone wants to fence off their plantation. You can place bud caps on the tips of branches or small nets over the entire tree when the trees are dormant, but these need to be removed once the growing season starts up again. You can also try deer repellents, usually a liquid made up of a smell or taste not attractive to deer that is sprayed on the tree. These need to be reapplied after it rains.
Rodents can be a bigger problem due to their sheer numbers, and the damage is usually at the base of the tree where you can’t see it. Luckily, what you are doing to keep the plant competition down works to keep rodent populations in check as well. Taller plants provide cover for rodents from predators, so the mowing that you do protects your trees in two ways. Some landowners have even taken the step of creating a tall perch in their plantation for owls and hawks to hunt from.
It can be frustrating to find your trees losing the battle with other plants and wildlife. By undertaking some of the simple activities mentioned here, your trees will have a lot better chance of making it to maturity.