Planting plan map

Photo Credit © Jeff Strobel

Do I really need a plan for where and how I plant my trees?

I was talking with a landowner (Julie) recently about the tree planting her and her family were doing this spring, and she seemed a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. It turns out they have planted a few trees here and there in the past, but nothing compared to the scale they had in mind this time.

I first asked Julie what they had done so far in preparation for the planting. I was pleased to hear they reached out to their local DNR forester for some advice.  Based on their soil types, the forester recommended a few tree species to plant to help them attract more wildlife and get some income when the trees get bigger. I told her this was a great way to start the process and inquired again as to what was bothering her.

She explained that several members of her family have different ideas on how the trees should be planted.  None of them have much experience in planting thousands, or even hundreds of trees, so there was a great deal of fear that things could go wrong.  Needless to say, she was glad I had time to help get her going in the right direction before the trees arrived.

Making a Plan

The first thing we talked about was how to arrange the trees on the property.  Arrangement includes things like the direction the rows of trees are planted in, the spacing between trees, and how different species are mixed in the planting.  Making small adjustments in any of these can have big impacts on how the trees grow and what kind of habitat is being created.

Some people think that a random arrangement of trees appears more natural than straight rows, while others say that regular spacing makes for easier maintenance around the trees. It is easy to strike a balance between these views by offsetting trees in adjacent rows and leaving some gaps in the rows to create openings for wildlife.  Aligning the rows along the contours of the landscape or at an angle to the most common view of the plantation will help reduce the sense that the trees are planted in rows.

How far apart you plant the trees has a big impact on the eventual shape and size of the trees.  Standard distances between trees and rows are 6, 8, and 10 feet.  Trees planted closer together will grow taller, straighter and with fewer lower branches than trees planted farther apart.  So, if you are looking for trees with the highest economic value, then plant them closer together.  If you are looking for trees that are better for wildlife (i.e., bushier or with more branches for cover and nesting sites) plant them farther apart.  Julie mentioned they wanted a bit of both for their plantation so I suggested they divide the area they are planting and use different spacing in each.

Julie told me she purchased a mixture of hardwood trees and conifers to add some variety to the planting.  They could plant alternating rows of hardwoods and conifers, they could alternate between hardwoods and conifers within a row, or they could create different sections and plant conifers in one and hardwoods in another.  I suggested creating a simple map of the plantation (see the example with this article) to help them visualize how it all will come together. I also advised her to talk with their local DNR forester again (find your local forester here) for specific guidance on the best arrangement based on their property and goals.

Preparing for the Planting

We then talked about what they had done to prepare the area for planting.  The best time to prepare for planting is the summer and fall before you plant in the spring.  However, Julie told me they have done no site preparation, and so I recommended that they at least do something about the grasses at their planting site.  Mowing the existing plants/grasses is a good start.  Even better would be to hit the plants/grasses with an herbicide before the planting takes place.  If you plant your trees before the existing plants/grasses start to grow, then it is a good idea to come back and spray around your planted trees with an herbicide.  Use something like a stove pipe to put over and around your trees while your spray so that the herbicide does not get on your trees. And always use gloves and other protective clothing when handling and applying herbicides.

Julie said they were okay with using an herbicide and were planning on doing some regular mowing between the rows to keep the competing plants under control.  We talked a bit more about how the size of her tractor for mowing is important when considering how much space she will need between and around her rows to maneuver safely.

After we finished our conversation, Julie seemed less anxious about the whole thing and ready to plan the layout of their planting.  She also planned on calling her local DNR forester again for recommendations on which herbicide to use and suggestions on how to arrange their planting. I suggested bringing all the interested family members along on that call or to that meeting, to help build a consensus as to the best way to proceed with their woodland.