Planting a tree

Photo Credit © WI DNR

Tree planting and maintenance

by Randy Mell

Last Saturday I found myself walking the woods with a good friend. Today was one of those perfect mornings that you remember in the dead of winter that picks up your spirits.  I have had many walks in the past with him through his woods. On those walks he would express his thoughts about his plans for his woods and would ask me, his forester friend, what I thought was possible or on occasions, what the costs might be for a certain project.

This hike however halted as he stopped so abruptly in his tracks that I almost bumped into him. “Will you look at that!!!” he exclaimed. “That tree was growing so good and now its dead!!!”. I could see that he was very upset and tried to explain that it was not possible for all the young trees on the forest floor to survive. Mother Nature’s strategy was to seed in as many young trees as possible over the years so when there was an opening in the upper canopy these young trees are there to grow into that space.

“That is not the point” he exclaimed.  “ I planted that tree with my grandson. It was our tree. Now we have to start over.” So we took some time to find out if the tree was indeed dead and if so the probable cause. It had indeed died. “Did I do something wrong?” he asked. Then in an instant a flurry of other questions. “Did I plant it right? Should have I watered it? Did it have a disease?” He continued to doubt his tree planting skills and thought he was responsible for not providing the proper care for the tree. “Maybe I should have fertilized the little tree. Did I need to put a shelter around the tree to stop the deer from eating it?” He further stated that he needed to be sure of success if he was to replant a tree again. We spent the rest of the mourning discussing how he might be more successful in his next tree planting.

If you have experienced something similar or have had limited success in your planting of trees maybe I may be able show you some helpful techniques I have used to enhance planting success. The first thing is that all tree seedlings need proper sunlight to grow well. Trees like other green plants produce their own sugars and starches to feed themselves. Inadequate sunlight means inadequate food resources. Then there is the condition of the soil in which the tree is growing in. The ability of soil to hold moisture and provide nutrients during dry periods of the growing season is also critical. Inadequate levels of sunlight and soil moisture will limit a young tree seedlings health and ability to compete with other plants and trees growing around it.

My recommendation to enhance your success in establishing trees is to plant them in sun lit areas so that they receive direct sunlight. Planting young trees under tall vegetation and trees can be difficult. To do so takes more aggressive site preparation to control herbaceous completion and proper placement of trees in sun lit areas. It has been my experience; young trees planted in the shade will grow slower and with less vigor as compared to those planted in direct sunlight. To be more successful in establishing young trees, look for open areas on your property and plant there. These may be old abandoned fields or small open areas near field edges or woodland edges.

Choosing the proper tree species for the site is also important. This matters because most tree species have preferred soils in order to grow well. As a rule, sandy and gravely soils will grow pines, spruce, and fir trees. The heavier soils such as loams and clays are better suited for hardwood trees. There are also some pines, spruces and fir species that will grow in heavier soils. There are some exceptions to this of course. This is where talking to a professional forester will be of value to select the tree species to plant that best matches the soil conditions of your planting site.

I would suggest you temper your project to the size you can handle. Preparing the site and planting the trees are only the first steps. To be most successful you will need to care for the planted trees for 3-5 years after the initial planting or until the trees are 6-10 feet tall. You have the choice to plant your area all at once or over a number of years. For example; your area to plant is 5 acres, you may choose to plant one acre at a time for a few years until you complete your area. Planting this way has the advantage of spreading your establishment and maintenance costs over more years making planting more affordable.

I am also recommending following these steps listed below to enhance your success in establishing trees.

  • Select a site for planting on your property.
  • Contact your local forester. Here is a link to locate your Wisconsin forester https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/forestlandowners/locator/ . View the site with your forester to discuss the proper tree species to plant, number of trees to order, spacing to use when planting the trees, hand or machine plant the site, site preparation needs, are tree shelters needed to keep deer away, and what cost-sharing programs are available to me. Write this all down so you can remember it.
  • Apply for a cost-sharing program(s).
  • Prepare the site by controlling vegetative completion.
  • Order your trees.
  • Plant trees.
  • Place deer fence or shelters around trees if needed.
  • Control vegetative competition in the fall or spring for the next 3-5 years.
  • Maintain your deer fence or tree shelters (if needed) until the trees are 6-10 feet tall

You can do this go for it. Plan to plant some trees on your land. If there is anything more that the earth needs at this moment; it is more growing trees. Watching and caring for young trees is very rewarding. Personal observations over the years as the young trees grow and transform the landscape is a sight to behold. Being a part of that transformation is especially gratifying.