Tree planting and site preparation - some do's and don'ts
forestry timber sales consultant forester
The perfect soil, lots of growing room, great genetics and a pinch of luck. have produced this perfect tree... a Black Walnut worth thousands of dollars. Thanks, Mr. Squirrel.
I would like to start this article with my advice on the most misunderstood concept of tree planting in Kentucky – when trees are harvested from a stand of timber, it is not necessary, or in my opinion advisable, to plant trees in their place.
Kentucky is blessed with abundant natural reproduction following a harvest. Trying to improve on this is a waste of time and money. Check out the photo journal section for a more detailed explanation of this concept. With this woodland replanting issue laid to rest, I would like to turn the attention to planting trees in open ground, whether it be ¼ acre or 100 acres.What species, what spacing, and what necessary site preparation – The answer to these initial questions will have a huge impact on the ultimate success or failure of your tree planting project. These answers will not be found in a textbook, and are quite subjective. They are often colored by successes and failures observed over a number of years. There are very few absolutes concerning choices of species, and how to insure survival for the first few critical years following planting. If there’s one thing I’m convinced of it is this –you must match your choice of tree species for a particular planting site to what Mother Nature would naturally prefer to grow there!!
All plants, especially trees, have a preference for certain growing conditions, especially soil conditions, where they will sink their roots, and perhaps live a century or more. Matching the species to the soil conditions is paramount for the long-term success of a tree planting project. There are far too many variables involved in this matchup process of species to soil to cover in this article. There is however, a good reference book that will assist you in your choices. The county-by-county soil survey books, available free at the Farm Service Agency, are an invaluable tool. To use these books, first find your farm on the aerial photograph maps in the soils book. Note the soil type on the field you plan to plant. Then find the section in the book dealing with what tree species they recommend planting on each particular soil found in your county. This is always my starting point on tree planting projects for matching species, soils, and the landowners’ desires. By far the most fascinating species to demonstrate this point is Black Walnut. It’s the highest value species found in Kentucky, and deservedly so. Its color and grain are indeed beautiful, but this does not make it the king of value. What does is this – Black Walnut is extremely particular about where it sets its’ roots. The soil must be deep, fertile, well drained, and friable. And, oh yeah, walnut trees must have full sunlight to grow and develop properly. Sounds like prime bottomland soil – not the type of soil most people, especially farmers, choose to plant a tree crop on that will take over 50 years to show a return. These factors are what makes good Black Walnut trees in very short supply, and accounts for prices ranging up to $10.00/bd.ft. There are many other dos and donts regarding tree planting, but this soil business is the key to success. Before you plant worn out pasture fields, or crawfishy bottoms, do some research or contact a professional. Mistakes made at planting time truly last a lifetime.
Finally a few words about site preparation for tree planting. The poorer the soil, the less need for site prep work. Planting pine trees on tired broomsedge fields usually requires little or no site prep. Just plant them 9’ x 9’ (500 trees/acre) and hope the deer don’t find them. With a little luck you’ll have a beautiful pine forest in 20 or 30 years. On the other hand, planting hardwood tree species on fertile creek bottoms requires knowledge, hard work, diligence, considerable expense, and some luck, to assure success.
Site prep work necessary on good soils may be hand, mechanical, chemical; or a combination of all three. Even with hard work and expert advice, I have seen, and sadly been responsible for, more failures than successes in hardwood tree planting. In summary, if you want to plant trees and forget them – plant pine. With luck, in 30 years you’ll have a beautiful, albeit rather low value stand of trees. If however, your goal is to have a high value product for the future; pick a fertile site, and plant hardwood trees; but expect a lot of hard work and considerable expense to reach your goal.
One final note – I no longer recommend planting southern Yellow Pines (loblolly and shortleaf) in Kentucky. In the last 5 years the southern pine beetle has migrated from the south and devastated these tree species throughout Kentucky. White Pine is rarely damaged by these critters. It makes a good choice for many tree planting projects. For big planting jobs consider hiring a consulting forester in your area, whose familiarity with local soils and growing conditions could save you years of hard work and frustration.