Forestry: Common Tree Planting Mistakes to Avoid

Tree planting is an important practice in forestry management. When done correctly, tree planting can help reforest cleared areas, provide wildlife habitat, prevent soil erosion, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and more. However, beginners often make mistakes that hamper the growth and survival of planted trees. This comprehensive guide covers the most common tree planting errors and practical solutions to avoid them.

Issues with Site Selection

Choosing an inappropriate planting site is one of the biggest reasons many newly planted trees fail to thrive. Consider the following factors carefully before finalizing a site:

Poor Soil Quality

Trees need loose, nutrient-rich and well-drained soil to develop strong root systems. Planting in compacted, nutrient-poor or waterlogged soils often stunts growth. Test the soil before planting and amend it accordingly with compost or fertilizer if needed. Select species suited to the soil or site conditions.

Excessive Slope

Steep slopes prone to erosion are unsuitable for trees since loose topsoil critical for root growth gets washed away. A slope of over 20% grade makes planting challenging. Focus on controlling erosion first before planting or use erosion control fabric, poles or natural berms to stabilize the slope.

Insufficient Sunlight

Most trees need at least 4-6 hours of direct sunlight daily for their survival and growth needs. When tall, mature trees surround a site, the canopy blocks essential sunlight. Thin dense stands first or select shade-tolerant species if existing tree removal is not possible.

Problematic Surroundings

Take stock of surrounding property uses if planting near borders or rights-of-way. Will future infrastructure or building plans affect the site? Are there invasive weeds, excessive livestock grazing or wildlife browsing that could hamper growth? Consider these factors before finalizing the planting location.

Issues with Species Selection

Choose tree species well-suited to the site conditions and intended purpose. Otherwise, the tree will struggle to survive, let alone grow and thrive.

Climate Mismatch

Cold-hardiness zone, average rainfall, seasonal temperatures and microclimate conditions should guide species selection. For instance, Southern pine species planted too far north may suffer winter damage. Refer to hardiness zone maps and species characteristics before selection.

Poor Purpose Pairing

Know the end-goal before picking a tree. Fast-growing but short-lived cottonwoods are a poor choice to serve as a long-lasting windbreak. Instead, select hardy, longer-lived species like maple, oak or pine better suited to windbreaks.

Biodiversity Considerations

To support greater wildlife diversity and ecosystem resilience, plant a mix of native species with different structural habitat benefits. Relying only on a monoculture plantation of non-native trees reduces biodiversity. Develop a species plan factoring in wildlife needs and diversity goals.

Issues with Seedling Quality

Poor seedling vigor and health impedes planted trees from becoming successfully established. Examine seedling quality closely before purchase and planting.

Signs of Poor Quality

Reject seedlings with undersized, shallow roots relative to their stems which inhibits field survival. Check for discolored or excessively dry root plugs, fungal infections, presence of pests like bronze birch borer or root deformities.

Ideal Seedling Criteria

Select nursery-grown seedlings with robust, white roots 4+ times longer than their stems. Needles, buds and stems should appear full and green without damage. 1-2 year old seedlings about 5-12 inches tall transport best.

Proper Handling

Seedling roots easily dry out and get damaged. Keep roots moist when transporting and don’t expose them to freezing temps or direct sunlight. Plant bare root seedlings immediately rather than storing them since they decline rapidly.

Field Planting Issues

Even the heartiest seedlings struggle to survive when planted incorrectly. Follow suitable planting guidelines to avoid these mistakes:

Inadequate Hole Size

Dig holes with rough sides, at least twice the width and depth of the seedling’s root plug. This eases root penetration into surrounding soil. Undersized holes prevent proper root establishment.

Poor Planting Depth

Only plant as deep as the root collar, don’t bury it. Overly deep planting stunts growth while exposing roots kills them. Gently pack original soil against roots but don’t amend backfill soil as it slows establishment.

Exposed Roots

It’s critical to keep roots moist, not exposed to air directly before planting. Letting bare roots dry out even briefly drastically reduces survival rates. For spring planting, protect fall-lifted bare root seedlings with damp moss or foam coolers.

Inadequate Spacing

Trees planted too close together compete heavily for light, water and nutrients as they mature. Spacing too little suppresses growth and reduces yields. Base spacing on the tree’s expected canopy width at maturity as per species guidelines.

Wrong Planting Technique

Don’t bend roots sideways to fit holes or cram tangled root masses into undersized spaces. Carefully spread out, untangle or trim excess roots as needed before planting. Backfill gradually to stabilize seedling and remove air pockets around roots.

Issues with Post-Planting Care

Continued care and maintenance after planting is vital since seedlings are still establishing themselves. Neglecting follow-up care can doom restoration efforts.

Lack of Watering

New transplants have limited root systems so they need regular irrigation for 1-2 growing seasons until established. Seedlings stressed by drought are vulnerable to pests and pathogens. Water deeply to encourage vigorous root growth.

Insufficient Mulching

Mulch helps retain soil moisture and suppresses grass/weed competition around seedlings. Not mulching sufficiently causes moisture stress and poor growth. Mulch at least 3 feet diameter around seedlings to a depth of 3-4 inches. Replenish as needed.

Excessive Shade

Newly planted trees need sufficient sunlight for strong photosynthetic activity and growth. Overshadowing by competing vegetation or nurse trees deprives them of light. Clear around seedlings or provide shade protection if exposure is too sudden.

Neglected Pest/Weed Control

Noxious weeds, aggressive sod grasses, deer and other pests plague tree plantings and slow establishment. Actively control competing vegetation through mowing/herbicide and protect against animal damage using repellants or tree shelters.

Lack of Monitoring

It’s critical to regularly inspect plantings to assess issues like drought stress, damage or disease early before they escalate. Infrequent monitoring leads to poor productivity and survival. Address deficiencies in a timely manner. Keep detailed records.

Helpful Tips to Boost Success

Follow these useful tips to avoid common mistakes and ensure your tree planting thrives:

Test Soil Beforehand

Conduct soil analysis for organic matter, pH, drainage capacity, salts and nutrient content. This data helps match species to site and determine amendments required to optimize growing conditions.

Use Quality Planting Stock

Source nursery-grown container or bare root seedlings on-site immediately before planting for highest quality. Local seed sources suited to microclimate perform best. Specify appropriate age/size stock.

Prepare Site Well

Eliminate vegetation competition by herbicide spraying, smothering, solarization or mulching at least a full year prior to planting. Incorporate needed organic matter by tilling or ripping compacted soils.

Time Planting Appropriately

For temperate climates, prioritize fall planting when seedlings enter dormancy. Alternatively, plant in early spring before bud break. Avoid planting during mid-summer heat or winter freezing spells.

Invest in Tree Protection

Guard against animal browse, mower/trimmer damage and weed overgrowth using plastic grow tubes, mesh wraps or weed mat squares. Stake larger stock against wind damage. Manage pest insects.

Provide Follow-Up Care

Monitor tree health routinely post-planting, especially during establishment phase. Water, replenish mulch, control vegetation, watch for pests/disease and replace dead stock to ensure high survival rates.

Helpful Resources

These online resources offer in-depth practical guidance on tree selection, planting techniques, site preparation and post-planting care best practices:

Arbor Day Foundation –

Forest Service –

Tree Canada –

International Society of Arboriculture –

With proper planning, preparation and care, your tree planting efforts will thrive and foster healthy, resilient forests for future generations. Avoid the common mistakes outlined here when undertaking your next restoration or planting project. Let this guide set you up for success!

The tree species you select and how you care for them makes all the difference between a successful planting and disappointed expectations. Follow this three-step approach when planning your tree planting project:

Step 1: Match Tree Species to Site Conditions

Taking time to understand your site’s unique conditions lets you pick suitable species adapted to thrive there.

Key aspects to consider:

Soil Drainage

Wet soil favors bald cypress, willow oak or swamp white oak, while Persian ironwood and junipers handle dry, rocky sites best.

Sunlight Exposure

Select more shade-tolerant American hornbeam, Eastern hemlock or American beech for heavily wooded areas, and light-loving black locust or ponderosa pine for open sites.

Climate Conditions

Choose cold-hardy American elm, red maple or white spruce for northern zones, while southern pine and live oak suit hot southern climates.

Mature Height

Plant towering tulip poplar, sycamore or white pine away from infrastructure, and opt for smaller serviceberry, dogwood or redbud near power lines.

Take your site’s unique combination of soil, light and climatic conditions into account when selecting species. Native trees suited to the local area generally perform best.

Step 2: Prepare Planting Site for Success

Proper site preparation sets up seedlings for vigorous, healthy growth.

Key tips for planting site prep:

Clear Vegetation

Remove grass, weeds, invasives and brush using herbicide, smothering or solarization methods.

Improve Soil

Add organic matter like compost to nutrient-poor soils, or break up heavily compacted areas.

Install Infrastructure

Put in deer fencing, tree shelters or erosion control measures like water bars or retaining walls if needed.

Shape Terrain

On steep slopes, create planting terraces or berms to help retain soil moisture and reduce erosion.

Adequately prepping the site reduces competition and facilitates easy seedling establishment.

Step 3: Provide Follow-Up Care Post-Planting

Continued maintenance improves tree survival over their vulnerable establishing phase.

Key aspects of follow-up care:

Water Regularly

Up to 15-20 gallons per week for 1-2 years promotes extensive root establishment.

Control Vegetation

Mulch at least 3 feet wide around stems and manually remove competing plants.

Monitor Tree Health

Watch for disease, pests and other stress factors like drought wilting.

Protect Against Damage

Install plastic grow tubes or wire caging to guard against animal browsing and mower damage.

Replace Dead Trees

Swap in new plantings for specimens that don’t survive to maintain desired tree stand density.

Providing adequate aftercare improves plantation survival rates and productivity long-term.

By matching species to site, preparing planting areas beforehand and caring for trees after installation, you can avoid disappointing losses and nurture vigorous, thriving forests. Use this guide to plant successfully the first time!

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