Preventing Soil Erosion Through Tree Planting

Soil erosion is a major environmental issue that can lead to land degradation and desertification. Planting trees has been shown to be an effective way to prevent and reduce soil erosion. Trees help stabilize soil and prevent nutrient loss through their extensive root systems and canopy coverage.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover why soil erosion occurs, the impacts of soil erosion, how trees prevent erosion, what types of trees to plant, and key considerations for tree planting projects aimed at erosion control.

Whether you are a land manager, forester, farmer, or concerned citizen, this guide will provide actionable information to get you started on planting trees to combat erosion.

What Causes Soil Erosion?

Soil erosion occurs when soil particles are dislodged and transported away by external forces like water, wind, or improper land use. Common causes include:

  • Deforestation – Removing trees exposes soil to erosion agents
  • Overgrazing – Too many animals remove protective vegetation
  • Improper agriculture – Tilling and leaving soil bare between crops
  • Construction and development – Land clearing disrupts soil structure
  • Wildfires – Burning vegetation and impacting soil composition

The rate of erosion depends on:

  • Slope angle and length – Steeper and longer slopes increase water velocity
  • Soil composition – Sandy and silty soils erode more easily than clay
  • Vegetative cover – Plant roots stabilize soil against dislodgment
  • Climate patterns – Heavy rain or wind storms drive erosion rates

Impacts of Soil Erosion

Allowing soil erosion impacts ecological, agricultural, and economic systems. 

Consequences include:

  • Loss of fertile topsoil – Reduces soil productivity and ability to support plant growth
  • Changes in local hydrology – Increased runoff, flooding risk downstream
  • Sedimentation of waterways – Imbalances aquatic ecosystems, causes algal blooms
  • Infrastructure damage – Clogs ditches, covers roads, bridges and fills reservoirs
  • Desertification – Permanently alters land limiting biodiversity and food production
  • Increase in atmospheric CO2 – Eroded soil releases stored carbon into the atmosphere

Globally, soil erosion carries an estimated cost of $400 billion per year. Preventing and mitigating soil loss is essential for sustainability.

Using Trees to Prevent Erosion

Trees are a natural, effective, and affordable way to control erosion across landscapes from forests to farms. Specifically, trees help prevent erosion through:

1. Anchoring and Binding the Soil

  • Roots physically hold soil in place preventing dislodgment from rain, wind, gravity
  • Fungal associations bind soil particles into aggregates resistant to erosion
  • Litter layer protects soil surface from raindrop impact and splash erosion

2. Slowing Water Flow Over and Through Soil

  • Canopy cover dissipates energy of falling and flowing water
  • Rough tree bark slows surface runoff preventing sheet and rill erosion
  • Roots create channels improving water infiltration reducing surface flows

3. Improving Soil Quality

  • Organic matter additions from litter improve soil structure stability
  • Nutrient cycling through mineralization supports vegetative growth
  • Microbial communities cement soil particles and produce compounds that increase stability

In areas with at least 60-70% canopy cover from trees and shrubs, erosion rates can be reduced by over 90% compared to bare ground.

Choosing the Right Trees for Erosion Control

When selecting trees for erosion control projects, consider these key factors:

Climate Match

  • Native species suited to local rainfall, temperatures, and soil conditions
  • Drought tolerance important in arid and semi-arid regions
  • Waterlogging tolerance useful in frequently flooded areas

Growth Habit

  • Evergreens provide year-round protection
  • Fast growing species establish cover quickly
  • Deep roots anchor soil at depth

Canopy Density

  • Broad crown types cast dense shade reducing impact of raindrops

Rooting Structure

  • Shallow and lateral roots stabilize upper soil horizon
  • Taproots stabilize deeper layers
  • Fine roots and mycorrhizae bind soil particles

Use a combination of trees with different traits to achieve multi-layered protection.

10 Recommended Trees for Preventing Erosion

Here are 10 excellent trees for erosion control across various North American climates:

1. Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)

  • Native Range: Southeastern USA
  • Attributes: Broad evergreen canopy, extensive root system, salt tolerant

2. Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

  • Native Range: Southeastern USA
  • Attributes: Tolerates flooding, stabilizes stream banks

3. Red Alder (Alnus rubra)

  • Native Range: West Coast USA
  • Attributes: Fast growing, fixes nitrogen

4. Tamarack (Larix laricina)

  • Native Range: Northern USA & Canada
  • Attributes: Thrives in wet soils, cold hardy

5. Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa)

  • Native Range: Eastern USA
  • Attributes: Taproot anchors deep soils, drought tolerant

6. Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

  • Native Range: Northern & Western North America
  • Attributes: Extensive lateral root system

7. Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

  • Native Range: Northern North America
  • Attributes: Withstands poor drainage, stabilizes sand

8. Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

  • Native Range: Eastern & Southeastern USA
  • Attributes: Thrives in poor soil, fire resistant

9. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

  • Native Range: Widespread Continental USA
  • Attributes: Hearty and adaptive small tree

10. Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)

  • Native Range: Eastern & Central USA
  • Attributes: Rapid growth rate, easily transplanted

Consult local native plant guides or conservation agencies to choose species well-suited to your specific conditions.

Key Considerations for Tree Planting Projects

To successfully establish trees for erosion control, follow these guidelines:

Site Evaluation

  • Assess current erosion severity and mechanisms causing soil loss
  • Identify most vulnerable areas needing stabilization
  • Consider site factors that could impact survival like soil quality, drainage, and exposure

Project Planning

  • Define objectives like percent canopy cover needed or slope stabilization target
  • Calculate number of trees needed to meet objectives based on spacing guidelines
  • Develop budget based on species selection, planting density, project scale

Species Selection

  • Consult local native tree guides to choose climate adapted varieties
  • Use suitable mix of characteristics like growth rate, crown width, root depth
  • Favor native species when possible to maximize survival

Planting Methods

  • Prepare sites by controlling competitive weeds and grasses
  • Amend planting pits with high organic matter topsoil if needed
  • Space trees appropriately based on size at maturity to achieve goals
  • Use proper planting techniques ensuring full root contact with soil
  • Include protection against herbivory if deer or livestock present

Ongoing Care & Monitoring

  • Water plants during first few years until established
  • Replace dead trees promptly to maintain protective cover
  • Monitor survival rates and growth progress
  • Overseed with stabilizing ground cover plants like native grasses
  • Reassess canopy density against project goals every few years

Following best practices during establishment is key to growing effective erosion control trees.

Common Challenges and Solutions for Tree Planting Projects

Despite good planning, erosion control tree plantings can encounter issues. Here are some common challenges and mitigation strategies:

Poor Seedling Survival

Causes: Improper planting, desiccation, disease, pests
Solutions: Select hardy stock, proper planting methods, use shelters to reduce stressors

Inadequate Growth Rate

Causes: Poor soil quality, competition with grass, climate extremes
Solutions: Prepare soils, control vegetation, utilize nurse trees for protection

Herbivory Damage

Causes: Deer, rabbits, livestock, insects chewing stems and leaves
Solutions: Physical barriers like fencing, tree shelters, repellent sprays

Environmental Extremes

Causes: Flood, drought, wind damage
Solutions: Select species adapted to climate variability, emergency irrigation

Invasive Species Encroachment

Causes: Aggressive weeds, vines, shrubs overwhelming plantings
Solutions: Monitor for invasives, quickly control outbreaks protecting desirable speciesHaving contingency plans and resources to overcome common obstacles will set your project up for success.

Tips and Best Practices for Preventing Erosion with Trees

Based on the latest erosion control research and forestry expertise, here are key tips for preventing erosion with trees:

  • Conduct site assessments determining erosion type and severity to choose appropriate solutions
  • Plant across slopes, using dense hedgerows of trees to break up slope length and reduce water velocity
  • Dig planting pits wide, at least twice the root ball diameter, to encourage lateral root growth
  • Apply mulch rings around new trees to conserve moisture and reduce weed competition
  • Group plant clusters of different species with complementary traits like canopy density and root depth
  • Include native grasses and shrubs in plantings to provide additional soil anchoring between trees
  • Use erosion control blankets like jute netting to protect soils while trees establish
  • Be patient, it takes 10+ years for most trees to reach full soil holding potential
  • Attempt multiple planting times if initial survival is low, to determine best season
  • Maintain canopy density through pruning and thinning to preserve soil protection
  • Combine tree plantings with other measures like contour farming, terracing, and cover crops to holistically address erosion on site

Following science-backed best practices will set your erosion control plantings up for optimal success.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the early signs of erosion issues I should look out for?

Early indicators of erosion include: exposed tree roots, pedestals of soil around plant stems, rills and gullies forming, bare areas expanding, accumulation of sediment in downhill areas, and visible soil deposits in nearby water bodies.

How long does it take for erosion control plantings to become fully functional?

It can take 10 years or more for trees to become large enough to effectively reduce erosion across a site. Use faster growing nurse tree species combined with ground covers to provide more immediate erosion protection.

Is it better to plant seedlings or mature trees for erosion control?

We recommend using containerized or bare root seedlings over mature transplants for erosion control projects. Younger plants establish roots faster, are more resilient against transplant shock, and are more economical allowing you to plant densely.

What is the best time of year for planting erosion control trees?

The best planting window is species-dependent, but early spring before bud break and mid-fall after leaf drop are good general guidelines for containerized or bare root stock.

How can I get funding assistance for tree planting aimed at reducing erosion?

State forestry agencies, local conservation districts, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service offer financial and technical assistance programs that support using trees to control erosion. Grants may also be available from private foundations and non-profits.


Controlling soil erosion is critical for ensuring productive landscapes and healthy ecosystems. Strategically planted trees offer an accessible, low-cost solution to stabilizing vulnerable soils. By understanding what causes erosion and how trees can help prevent it, landowners and managers can design effective erosion control projects.

Careful planning, species selection, planting methods, and follow-up care are key to successfully establishing trees for erosion prevention. Patience and persistence are also required, as it takes trees years to maximize their soil anchoring potential. But the long-term benefits for agricultural sustainability and downstream water quality make tree planting a smart investment.

Whether combatting gully formation on cropland or stabilizing stream banks, the knowledgeable use of trees offers a sustainable win-win for both the health of the land and the people who depend on it. We hope this comprehensive guide has provided you the tools to go forth and plant trees to protect our precious soil resources.

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