The Proper Planting And Care Of Your Seedling Trees

It's February and time to plant your future mast-producing trees. Here's how to get your young trees off to a great start.

GON Staff | February 1, 2007

Georgia deer hunters have become food-plot specialists in recent years in attempts to both improve the health of the local deer and enhance their hunting opportunities. There has also been an increased interest in recent years in planting trees to benefit deer and turkeys. Oaks, apples, persimmons and crabapples are but a few of the trees sportsmen are planting this time of year to benefit the wildlife on their property down the road.

February is prime time to plant trees, particularly bare-root seedlings, and many clubs will be planting trees this month. Just as with preparing and planting a food plot, trees will respond best when planted properly. We spoke with Jeff Fields, nursery coordinator for the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) at the Flint River Nursery, for information on the proper planting and care of a young tree. The GFC offers a variety of pine trees and popular hardwood trees as bare-root seedlings.

Planting a high-quality seedling is your first step toward growing a healthy tree.
“We look for five or more first-order lateral roots on a seedling,” said Jeff. “These are good-sized roots growing perpendicular to the tap root.”

Depending on the species of tree, a year-old seedling should have a stem diameter of 1/2 inch to one inch.

According to Jeff, the year-old sawtooth oak seedlings the GFC offered this year, which were planted as acorns last year, are now 4 1/2 to five feet tall.

“We push them pretty hard, timing the fertilization with the flushes of new growth,” said Jeff. “And we pump the water and nitrogen to them to get them as big as we can.”

With your seedling trees in hand, the first critical decision is where to plant them.

“Hardwoods require a lot of sunlight,” said Jeff. “Try to find an open area. If you plant them in the woods, where they will be shaded, they will likely just sit there.”

An open area in a field or cutover with full sunlight and fertile soil is your best choice.
For planting the seedlings the GFC produces, Jeff recommends a hole approximately eight to 12 inches in diameter and one foot to a foot and a half deep.

“If you are planting a lot of trees, I recommend an auger attachment on a three-point hitch behind a tractor,” said Jeff. “If you are only planting a few trees, a good set of post-hole diggers work well, or you can use a shovel.”

There is a little bit of flex in how deep you plant the tree in the hole, says Jeff, but generally he recommends planting it about 1/4- to 1/2-inch above the soil line left on the seedling when it was removed from the ground. A bit too deep, however, is better than too shallow, he said.

The hole should be deep enough and wide enough that the roots can spread out fully and the tap root is not bent to the side.

Fertilizing the tree or adding soil amendments at planting is usually not necessary.
“They make slow-release fertilizer packets that you can put in the soil when you plant, but that’s usually not necessary,” said Jeff. “The main thing during the first year in the ground you just want the root system to get established in the ground so the tree will survive,” he said.

Water, on the other hand, is extremely critical to seedlings during the first year — if they get too dry, they die.

The soil that was removed to dig the hole should be pushed back in around the roots and tamped down firmly to push out any air pockets. Then the tree should be watered thoroughly to keep the roots moist.

How often a young tree should be watered depends on the amount of rainfall, but two or three times a week is not excessive, says Jeff. During their year-long stay in the GFC nursery the seedlings are watered daily. Once the tree greens up in the spring, you can gauge when it needs water by watching the leaves.

Tree shelters, the plastic tubes that are available to protect seedlings, aren’t usually necessary.

“We don’t provide them or sell the tree shelters,” said Jeff. “You can purchase them from forestry-supply catalogs. If you are in an area with a high deer population, you may need to protect the trees, but they are an added expense.”

You can purchase large lots of sawtooth oak seedlings from the GFC for $400 for 100 trees; 40 cents per tree. The cost of tree shelters ranges from about $1.50 to $4, adding significantly to the cost per tree.

Deer damage can be a serious concern, and to deter the deer welded-wire enclosures can be placed around the young trees to prevent them from both being munched on and to keep bucks from wrecking them by polishing their antlers on them.

Eliminating competing vegetation is another critical concern.

“We try to grow larger seedlings so they will over-top their competition from weeds and get off to a good start,” said Jeff.

Grasses and weeds are usually eager to move into the freshly disturbed soil around the base of a young tree and can become a significant drain on both moisture and nutrients that otherwise would nourish the young tree.

“You can purchase a bio-degradable mat to place around the base of the tree to block weeds and grass,” said Jeff. “If you don’t want to use those, you can use something like glycosphate to kill grass and broad-leaf weeds around the tree, just don’t get it on the leaves.”

Another herbicide, Poast, can be used from sprayers to control grass without damaging the tree, he said.

The second spring your tree is in the ground is the first time you might consider fertilization, said Jeff.

“When the tree first begins to green-up in the spring, when you first start seeing leaves, that is the time to fertilize,” he said.

He recommended using ammonia nitrate to encourage above-the-ground growth, but a balanced fertilizer, like 10/10/10 is beneficial. Time your fertilization just ahead of rain so that it will be washed into the soil.

After four or five years in the ground, however, the cost/benefit of fertilizing trees diminishes, said Jeff. “Usually when they get that big they have a large enough root system to get what they need out of the soil,” he said.

Judicious pruning can benefit your young tree.

“As the tree grows, if you trim off some of the lower limbs, you will encourage the tree to grow taller,” he said. “Most acorn production is from the canopy rather than from lower limbs.”

The catch to planting seedling trees is that you do have to wait before you see acorns — even from fast-growing sawtooth oaks. But half the enjoyment is nurturing the trees and watching them grow, as well as knowing you have made a positive, long-term investment for the wildlife on the property. For acorns, apples, persimmons and crabapples on your hunting property in the future, the time to plant is now.

Finding Trees To Plant
While February is the right time to plant trees, it is not the best time to acquire seedling trees. Growers like the GFC or International Paper offer trees but prefer you order trees the summer before you plan to plant. Some seedlings, particularly sawtooth oaks may still be available now. Contact the GFC at (800) GATREES, or at their website at <>. International Paper’s seedling program can be contacted at (888) 888-7158, or check their website at <>. If you just can’t wait, sawtooth and persimmon trees up to 16-feet tall are available from Acorn Trees of Lakeland, Fla. (863) 944-0900. In northeast Georgia, Ray’s Green-house offers both seedling and potted sawtooths. Lawson’s Nursery in Jasper carries many fruit trees including an excellent crabbapple. Many species of trees are also available in containers or balled in burlap from local nurseries or garden-supply centers. The Market Bulletin is also an excellent resource for locating private tree growers.

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