The Best Time To Plant An Oak Tree

GON Staff | November 11, 2010

Acres of sweetgum seedlings at the ArboGen nursery in Shellman, Ga.

The old tree-planting axiom goes like this: The best time to plant an oak tree was 30 years ago. But the second best time is today.

For anyone with land who would like to plant hardwoods or fruit trees for wildlife, ArborGen has expanded their hardwood seedling inventory with trees you can use to improve your property for wildlife.

Five nurseries in the Southeast, including two in Georgia, one at Shellman, and one at Bellville, produce about 250 million pine and hardwood seedlings each year.

Well known for producing pine trees for reforestation, ArborGen has seen a big increase in the demand for hardwood seedlings and other wildlife plantings. According to Geoff Hill, a sales coordinator and an ArborGen forester, over the past five years ArborGen has doubled its hardwood program in response to reforestation, mitigation and wildlife demands. The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are among ArborGen clients for hardwoods for wildlife habitat.

Bareroot hardwood seedlings are shipped from the nurseries beginning in December, with the big push in Georgia in January and February, which are the optimum planting months.

Robert Cross, Jr., is nursery manager for the ArborGen nursery in Shellman, 30 miles west of Albany. The nursery produces 2 1/2 million hardwood seedlings and 50 million pine tree seedlings annually.

Sawtooth Oaks, Wild Apple, Pear, Beautyberry, Lespedeza and Crabapple are popular species ordered by hunters attempting to improve their hunting land, said Robert.

“Hunters want a fast-growing tree that produces acorns at a young age,” said Robert. “They certainly like regular Sawtooth Oaks and Gobbler Sawtooths — a Sawtooth with acorns small enough that a turkey can swallow them. Water, Willow, White, Swamp Chestnut, Nuttall, Overcup, Shumard, we grow just about anything you can imagine in the Oak line.”

While rapidly growing Sawtooths are popular, they may not always be the best species for your land, and matching the species to the soil type is important.

“Sawtooths don’t like to get their feet wet,” said Geoff. “They are more of an upland species. They are pretty adaptable, but I would not recommend planting them in wet soil.”

For that soil type, Robert said a Nuttall Oak often fills the bill.

“The Nuttall Oak originated on the Mississippi River,” he said. “It is a Bottomland Red Oak that grows real fast. It makes acorns in three to five years just like a Sawtooth. The Nuttall can be grown in damp areas, and it is another popular wildlife species. There are Sawtooths for the uplands and Nuttalls for the bottomland, and both grow fast. If you take a White Oak or a Cherrybark Oak, it may be eight years before you have a substantial acorn crop. These two species have acorns in half that time.”

The seedling catalog gives a brief description of the optimum planting site for each species and the benefit of the planting.

“We want the trees to survive and thrive,” said Geoff. Getting high-quality seedlings properly into the ground is the critical first step.

“We look for an eight-inch root that is undercut laterally and root pruned so it is a compact root system about as big as your hand. The stem diameter is about as big as a pencil — about one-fourth of an inch, and the 1-year-old seedling will be about two feet tall. The trees are culled in the nursery, and the culls are tossed. Then the root system is sprayed with gel to retain moisture while it is shipped.”

According to Robert, the hardwood seedlings, like the pine seedlings, leave the nursery in prime condition.

“The seedlings are loaded with nutrients,” he said. “We expect them to explode out of the ground.”

The trees must be planted correctly, however. Common errors in planting bareroot seedlings include planting the trees too deep.

“Hardwoods are sensitive to planting depth,” said Robert. “We recommend bareroot trees be planted only two to three inches deeper than they were planted in the nursery bed.”

The tap root should be straight, not bent into a “J” or “L” shape, and all lateral roots should be in the hole.

A site in full sunlight is optimum, and moisture, obviously, is a basic requirement.

“If you plant seedlings in dry soil, regardless of how tough they are, they aren’t going to make it without moisture,” said Robert. An inch of water a week is adequate moisture, he said.

The ArborGen experts do not recommend fertilizing seedlings during the first growing year.

“The roots need time to grow and get established, so they can take up any nutrients available,” said Robert. “You may be wasting your fertilizer if the tree can’t use it. Then all you are doing is fertilizing the grass and weeds that compete with the seedling.”

Robert and Geoff both stressed that eliminating nearby competition is critical for a seedling tree getting off to a good start.

“You can overdo fertilization of a seedling and burn the roots,” said Geoff. “I lean more to weed control — getting rid of the competition around a seedling is more important than fertilization.”

“Grass is a horrible problem to have around hardwood seedlings — or any tree species,” said Robert. “Hardwoods aren’t very resistant to competition. Pines are tough and will push up through the competition, but hardwoods are very sensitive to outlying competition. Grass takes the moisture and nutrients the tree needs, so if you keep the grass and weeds away, the tree will do better.”

Robert recommended using a herbicide to control grass and weeds. You can spray herbicide around a seedling so long as you do not get it on the foliage, he said.

During the second year, lightly fertilize the tree around the drip line.

Are treeshelter tubes a good idea for seedling hardwoods? Yes, if you can swing the price, said Robert.

“These treeshelters are anywhere from $1 to $3 apiece.” he said. “If you can afford them, they work. They provide moisture from condensation and protection from wildlife and farm animals, but they are expensive. If you aren’t planting too many trees, you might want to invest in them.”

Protecting young trees from deer damage is essential in most areas of Georgia. Welded-wire cages will keep young trees from being either browsed by deer or destroyed by bucks rubbing their antlers.

Overall, trees will respond to the amount of attention you provide, just like a vegetable garden will do, said Robert.

“The more you do to a tree, the better it’s going to grow. If you hoe around it, weed, water and fertilize the more it’s going to do. The less you do, the less it’s going to do.”

For a hunt club or small landowner, ArborGen offers seedlings in quantities as few as 25 per species. You can receive seedlings shipped to your door in an enclosed package.

You can obtain an ArborGen catalog by contacting 888.888.7158, or visit the ArborGen website at Years from now, you’ll be glad you planted oak trees this year.

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