Seedling Planting Guide

Properly selected and carefully planted trees and shrubs improve landscapes, increase property values, and provide shade, weather protection and year-round enjoyment.

Planting Guide also available in PDF format (51 KB).

Planting and Caring for Trees

Trees and shrubs are permanent and important parts of the landscape. When properly selected and correctly planted in an appropriate location, vegetation can improve a home's appearance and increase its value. It also provides shade, weather protection, privacy and year-round enjoyment. Because trees and shrubs are such an important investment, they must be planted with care.

Care and Storage of Seedlings

Improper care of seedlings between the time of delivery and when they are planted is one of the greatest causes of mortality. Do not store seedlings in heated buildings or where they are exposed to warm air, sun or wind.

Potted trees should be watered frequently to keep soil moist. One method is to submerge the entire 30-seedling tray in water for 10 to 15 minutes.

If planting is to occur within 48 hours of delivery, leave bare root bundles intact and store in a cool place (under 50 degrees F). If planting is not planned for more than two days, open the bundle, separate the seedlings and place them in a trench, cover the roots with loose soil and fill the trench with soil. Keep the soil in the trench moist and protect the roots from exposure to air.

Site Preparation

Proper site preparation enhances the soil's ability to catch and store moisture, reduces grass and weed competition and prepares the soil for planting.

Medium to heavy (clay) soils can be summer-fallowed the year prior to planting. Leave it rough over the winter and disk, harrow or roto-till just before planting.

Do not summer-fallow light, sandy soils, as they are subject to wind erosion. Instead, plant cover crops such as sorghum, grain or Sudan grass the summer prior to tree planting. Cultivate just before planting, leaving the strips between rows uncultivated.

Weeds and grasses take much-needed moisture away from newly planted seedlings. Eradicate weeds such as Canada thistle and bindweed before trees are planted; grasses also should be eliminated.

Preparing Seedlings for Planting

Bare Root

Create slurry by mixing a shovelful of soil (or two tablespoons of polymer) in a five-gallon bucket half-filled with water. Open the bundle and immediately place seedlings into the bucket and submerge the roots completely in the slurry. Plant as quickly as possible. (Note: Do not store seedlings this way for more than two hours or root death may occur.)

Potted

Completely remove tar paper from tar paper pot seedlings. For styroblock seedlings, grasp the main stem of seedling near soil level and gently pull while pushing up through slot in the bottom of block. With piƱon pine, bristlecone pine and Douglas-fir, cut away the styrofoam with a knife. Do not break the root ball or leave seedlings in sun or wind following removal from block or tar paper. Seedlings should be removed from the containers just prior to planting.

Hand Planting

Bare Root

Dig a round hole at least one foot in diameter. Make a small mound of soil in the bottom of hole. Take the seedling from the bucket of slurry and spread the roots out in all directions, using the mound as a root support. Pull loose soil back over roots, filling the hole halfway. Lightly tamp soil down or fill with water. Backfill the rest of the hole and tamp soil again or re-water. Do not compact the soil by tamping wet soil. Soil compaction eliminates oxygen, which roots need to survive!

Be sure the seedling root collar (where it was planted in the nursery) is at the finished soil level. Watering is the best method to settle the soil, eliminate air pockets and provide moisture to the root system.

Potted

Follow the same planting instructions as for bare root, but do not disturb the roots. Make sure the root ball does not become exposed after final watering.

Machine Planting

When planting more than 1,000 seedlings, consider using a planting machine. Contact your local CSFS District office to see if a machine is available for rent at that location. Instructions on machine planting should be obtained at the time of rental.

Caring for Trees

Watering

Water each seedling with one to two gallons at planting time. Periodically check soil moisture by digging up soil near the plant. Fabric mulch is highly recommended to conserve water; a drip system can be installed. Check with your local forester.

Fertilizing

Using fertilizer on new seedlings generally is a poor idea. Do not put any manure in the planting hole. Do not use nitrogen until the roots have had at least one growing season. Nitrogen can be applied the second year at the rate of three pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Mulching

Fabric mulch reduces weed competition and soil water loss and can be obtained from the CSFS. Mulch allows rainfall to pass through the fabric to the soil, restricts weed growth and permits oxygen exchange between the air and the soil. Installation of fabric mulch on large plantings can be done efficiently by renting weed barrier equipment (available for rental from some CSFS districts. Contact your local forester for availability). Alternatives to weed barrier fabric include wood chips, straw, peeler shavings, corn cobs and rotted sawdust. Keep these alternative products less than three inches deep to avoid rodent problems.

Weed Control

Eliminate weeds around each seedling for at least two feet. This can be done by hand pulling, mulching, mowing (watch out for the seedling), hoeing or treating chemically. Roundup herbicide can be sprayed, under low pressure, on weeds near seedlings. Cover seedling with bucket (or use another form of shield) to keep herbicide spray from the seedling. Be careful not to damage shallow roots when hoeing.

Wildlife Damage

Weed control will discourage rodents from chewing seedlings. Commercial tree guards can be purchased from CSFS, or window screening can be used to make a rodent guard; use poisons as a last resort. Eliminate pocket gophers by placing a half stick of chewing gum in the burrow. Deer or elk may need to be entirely fenced out of the planting. An effective deer repellent can be made by mixing whole eggs with tap water to form a 20-percent solution; strain and spray on seedlings. Another homemade method, currently under research, is the use of 6.2-percent hot sauce (Capsicum pepper concentrate). If the deer problem persists, a combination of methods may be required.

Common Causes of Seedling Mortality

  • Roots exposed to hot, dry air
  • Improper storage
  • Seedlings planted too shallowly
  • Low quality/high salt water
  • Grasshoppers
  • Roots tangled or not spread out
  • Seedlings planted too deeply
  • Lack of water/moisture
  • Seedling mowed down
  • Livestock trampling
  • Rodents
  • Deer and elk browsing
  • Weed killer spray
  • Weeds not eradicated before trees are planted
  • Poor control of competing weeds/vegetation