Spring an excellent time for tree planing in nothern Michigan

Spring is an excellent time for forest landowners to plant trees on their property for timber production or to enhance wildlife habitat. Understanding some basic tree planting guidelines will help increase the survival and growth of planted seedlings.

Weather allowing, forest landowners interested in planting tree seedlings on their property, should plant their trees between late April and the middle of May in Northern Michigan. Here are some tips from Michigan State University Extension to help maximize the survival of newly planted tree seedlings in an open field or forested location.

Ideally, the ground should be prepared ahead of time. Plowing and fallowing the summer before planting will give a head-start to controlling weeds that can compete with seedlings for water and nutrients and decrease survival. Where this is not possible, the next best alternatives are to either apply chemical herbicides in strips or spots where trees are to be planted or plowing and planting in furrows.

Whenever planting bare-rooted seedlings, it is important to remember that tree seedlings are perishable. Similar to a head of lettuce from the grocery store, tree seedlings must be kept cool and moist for maximum freshness. Quick planting as soon as possible upon delivery or pick-up is best as it minimizes stress to the seedlings.

If immediate planting is impossible due to poor weather or available time, there are some steps that can be taken to maintain seedlings. The first step is to keep the roots moist. Open the seedling bundles or bags and lightly wet the packing media (sphagnum moss, newspaper or other materials) around the roots. A good rule of thumb is that the roots and packing material should be damp but that no puddles should remain in the bag or bundle. Then, reclose or rebundle the seedlings securely to avoid evaporation.

The next step is to keep the seedlings cool, slowing down bud break and root development. Depending on the weather tree seedlings can be stored for up to a week in an unheated shed or in the shade on the north side of a building.

If the seedlings must be held for more than a week then the trees should be “heeled-in.” To “heel-in” select a shady spot of ground and dig a V-shaped trench as deep as length of the root systems. Set the roots of the tree seedlings into the angled depression (as if being planted) and cover with loose, damp soil. If the soil is dry water it lightly but do not flood the soil. This will hold the seedlings until planting can be arranged.

When planting time arrives place seedlings with moistened roots in a large pail (preferably light in color) that can be carried during the planting operation. Remember, even short exposure to sun and wind will damage tiny roots and reduce seedling survival. Another good rule of thumb is to never take more trees out into the field than you can plant in a morning or afternoon’s time.

Planting tools vary but a planting dibble or bar; spade or mattock all can do the job when hand planting. (For large volumes of tree seedlings consider renting a tractor-drawn mechanical tree planter). Be especially careful and make the planting hole deep and large enough to accept the entire root system. If necessary, trim off extra-long roots back slightly so that the root system is uniform and can be spread out in the planting hole.

Plant the seedling in the soil at approximately the same depth or slightly deeper than it was growing in the nursery. Tamp the ground around the seedling firmly – but not too hard – with the heel of your boot to close or fill in any air pockets. Tamping is important because soil must be in close contact with the root system for water and minerals to be absorbed.

Remember, too, that follow-up care such as weeding and watering the trees after planting is extremely helpful in increasing the survival of tree seedlings. Regarding adding fertilizer at planting, it may be more beneficial to wait until tree seedlings have become well-adapted to the site to ensure better uptake. Also, without good weed control, fertilization will help weeds to grow and compete with tree seedlings for sunlight, water and soil nutrients. For more information about tree planting, the MSU Extension Bookstore has several publications for sale at low cost that can be purchased on tree planting and on site preparation and weed control in plantations.

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