Are you thinking about converting your yard or farm field into a lush forest filled with food-bearing native trees and shrubs? Are you interested in planting a tree and watching it grow? If so, read on. This article contains a distillation of my best tips and advice learned by planting over 2,000 native trees, along with a step-by-step startup guide you can use for your own tree planting project.
Make Your Plan
The very first step before undertaking any gardening, farming, or forestry project is to observe. Permaculture wisdom suggests studying the land for a full year, and taking notes throughout all the seasons. Does it hold water? Do animals use the land? Is it vulnerable to fire, drought, flood, or erosion? Are there any special plants already present on the land that you want to save?
Wendell Berry uses a different phrase, “Consult the genius of the place.” The land has been before you ever were, and will continue to be long after. Try to consider its needs first and foremost, and trust that what’s good for the land will be good for us.
During this observation phase, consult the experts. Call up your county extension office and your local NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) office and ask them for advice and history about your land and your goals for your project. They can help you select tree species that are likely to grow well on your site. Draw on all this wisdom when making your plan.
The best place I have found to order lots of native trees is the state DNR (Department of Natural Resources). Indiana’s DNR runs two tree nurseries, and many other states do this too. They’re stocked with really high quality trees, and the prices are a steal. You can purchase trees in bareroot bundles of 100 trees for about $30-$45 per bundle. They carry many great varieties, including many that produce food for people. They also sell variety packs for those who don’t want 100 of a single tree species.
The DNR opens for tree orders on October 1st, and they sell out quickly, so mark your calendar. You order in October and you pick up the trees in March. The trees will need to be stored somewhere cool and moist, like a basement, after you pick them up. They’ll keep under those conditions for about two weeks. If you need to store them longer than that, you can dig a big trench and bury the roots on a slant, digging up trees as you have time to plant them. You must irrigate that trench regularly.
If you’re going to be planting by hand as I did, I suggest keeping your order small. I find that I can plant about 30 trees in an average work day, and 200 trees has been a reasonable number for me to plant each spring without stress or the need for trenching. If you have help or lots of free time, then you may be able to plant more. If you are unsure about your physical fitness level, then maybe limit yourself to one bundle of 100 trees your first year to see how it goes. You’ll get strong as you plant them, and perhaps you can plant a larger quantity next year! If you need to plant more trees faster (as I did, because of my grant), plan to dig some nice deep trenches in advance of receiving your trees. Plant your trees temporarily in the trenches. You can plant from March – May, and again from October – December. Don’t bother planting trees in the summer, they probably won’t survive.
If you want to grow a named cultivar, an affordable way to do that is to graft a cutting onto your tree a couple years after planting, using the DNR tree as a rootstock.
If you have your heart set on a native tree species that the DNR doesn’t carry, you might find it at Cold Stream Farm nursery. I have ordered some of their trees for my project with mixed success. I find that their small trees are really small compared to the DNR trees, and I have had poor survival rates using that small size. I may order from Cold Stream Farm again, but if so, I’ll spring for a bigger size tree in hopes of better survival rates.
For wildflowers and other native herbs, Prairie Moon Nursery is a great resource.
To plant the trees, you’ll need a good transplant spade. A spade is a long handled digging tool, kind of like a shovel, but shaped in a way that lets you dig with minimal effort. There are several different kinds of spades, and it’s worth noting that a transplant spade is different from a garden spade. Garden spades are short and wide, and they’re intended for digging shallow holes in soft topsoil. Transplant spades are long and narrow, and they allow you to dig deep holes for tree roots in tougher field soil. I recommend choosing a transplant spade with wide shoulders, so that you can comfortably push it into the ground with your foot. The one I have has narrow shoulders, and sometimes when I step on it, my food slides off the side of the spade. This can be painful when it happens, so it’s best to avoid it if you can. If you can’t get a transplant spade, shovels and garden spades are not workable substitutes, but you can substitute a good digging fork.
You’ll also need at least one 5 gallon bucket. At the beginning of your work day, you’ll load the bucket with trees for planting, and fill the bucket with water so the roots won’t dry out. My favorite place to get buckets is a fast food restaurant chain called Firehouse Subs. They sell really sturdy buckets for an affordable price. The buckets are used and they smell like pickles (pro or con, depending on perspective, but the trees won’t mind). New pickle-free buckets can be found at hardware stores for a little more money.
Each tree must be well watered immediately after planting. If you have a hose that reaches everywhere you plan to plant, then you’re all set. I have 10 acres and they’re mostly not irrigated, so I fill up a few more 5 gallon buckets to water with. I pull my water buckets and tree soaking buckets with a small hand-pulled garden cart (pictured above). Some people may choose to use a tractor-pulled cart with a 55 gallon drum of water loaded into it. Note that the 55 gallon drum is much too heavy when full to pull with a hand cart. I’ve tried.
One other supply that may come in handy is a 300′ surveyor’s tape. I used one of these to help me lay out straight-ish rows, and maintain a healthy spacing between each tree.
If your land doesn’t flood, you might want to consider mulching around the trees. I wasn’t able to do this with my Flood Plain Food Forest, because the mulch would have all floated away. I plan to try it in my orchard though, which does not flood. As a child, my parents planted 300 White Pines on their land, and they mulched thickly in wide circles around each tree to keep weeds at bay, conserve moisture, and make it easier to mow around each tree. It worked well for us then. When mulching around a tree, leave about an inch around the tree trunk with no mulch to discourage rodent damage and reduce the chances of trunk rot. Wood chip mulch is available for free or almost-free from ChipDrop.
You’ve observed your site, made your plan, gathered supplies, ordered trees, and now it’s March and you’re ready to plant! Dig a nice big hole for each tree. The hole should be at least a little longer and at least a little wider than the tree’s roots. Place the tree inside the hole, making sure that none of the roots are curling around in circles or hitting the bottom and turning back upwards, and that the soil line meets the tree just at the top of the roots. You don’t want any roots sticking out over the soil surface, or for the trunk of the tree to be buried. The DNR will give you a nice pamphlet with pictures and detailed planting instructions. Follow them to the letter for best results. With your tree in position, gently fill in the soil around the roots, a little at a time, until all the soil is back in the hole. Gently tamp down the disturbed soil, so none of it blows away or floats away, then give your newly planted tree a deep drink of water. Optionally, say a prayer for the tree or offer the tree a blessing or a few words of encouragement. Depending on your goals, you may want to label the tree for easier identification. Now repeat with the next hole!
Depending on your site and situation, ongoing care may include annual mulching around trees, monthly mowing around trees, and watering once per week if there hasn’t been any rain. For native trees, once the tree is 2-3 years old, it shouldn’t need watering except perhaps during times of severe drought. As the tree grows, it may benefit from early spring pruning. Depending on your location, the tree trunk may need to be protected from deer antler damage once it reaches a sturdy size.
When planting very young trees such as the ones discussed here, not all the trees will survive. A 50% survival rate is about normal. I’ve had a lower survival rate in my wetland forest, because the conditions are extra harsh there. That’s okay. The trees that survive will be well adapted to your site. Plan to buy a bundle or two every spring for a few years to replace any trees that didn’t make it. Once a tree makes it to three years old, it has a really good chance of continued survival.
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