Planting Seedlings

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Planting your containerized seedlings

You’ve picked up your seedlings along with their shelters, stakes, and nets. Now what? Here are some tips for planting your seedlings and giving them their best chance for success.

Store seedlings carefully: When you get your seedlings home, store them in a sheltered area away from wind and direct sunlight. Keep your seedlings watered until you’re ready to plant them (which should be as soon as possible).

Choose your planting site(s): Ideally, you’ll have your planting site(s) picked out before you order your seedlings. If you’re going to use an herbicide to clear the site, you’ll need to apply it well ahead of time, and if your planting site is near water, be sure to use an herbicide approved for waterside use. Take a look around your planting site—is there poison ivy nearby? Are there grasses and other low plants that can harbor ticks? Prepare for these conditions as you head out to plant.

Plant on a cloudy day: Choose a cool, cloudy day to plant if possible.

Prepare for work! Wear shoes and clothing appropriate for digging in the dirt. Bring along some water, sunblock, bug spray, work gloves, and anything else you may need for working outside.

Gather your tools and seedlings: Grab a mallet, a small board (at least 6” x 6”), a shovel, a small tarp (optional), a knife or shears, plant labels, water, mulch, your seedlings, and their stakes, shelters, zip ties, and nets. Select only as many seedlings as you can get planted during the time you have available. Check that these seedlings are healthy, and water them before planting them.

Dig a broad hole: Dig a hole about as deep as your seedling container, and 3 to 4 times wider. Pile the dirt from the hole onto your tarp, if you have one, or just near the hole.

Set your seedling carefully: Gently lay your seedling on its side and carefully remove its container, keeping the soil surrounding your seedling’s roots intact. (Set the container aside for proper disposal later.) Take a look at your seedling’s root ball: Are the roots circling the root ball or bunched at the bottom? Gently untangle those roots—you don’t want all your seedling’s roots tangled up at the bottom of the hole or off to one side. Set your seedling into its hole, arranging its roots as evenly as possible down the sides of the hole; you may cut off a very long root if it makes the seedling too difficult to fit in the hole. Make sure the “root flare”—where the seedling’s trunk widens at its base—is just a little higher than ground level. If the seedling is sitting too low, add some dirt to the hole; if it’s too high, dig a little deeper.

Backfill the hole: Holding your seedling vertical with its roots evenly spread, gently backfill the hole, packing the dirt around your seedling’s roots while making sure the seedling stands straight and vertical. Gently but firmly tamp down the dirt so there are no air pockets.

Install the seedling shelter: Gently lower the seedling’s shelter over the seedling until the shelter’s bottom edge contacts the ground. Carefully rotate the shelter back and forth to work it about two inches into the ground around the seedling; or set your board over the top of the shelter and use your mallet to gently tap the board, driving the bottom edge of the shelter into the ground. This will help protect your seedling from root-eating rodents.

Add the stake and netting: Use your mallet to drive the stake into the ground just to the outside of the shelter. If you’re planting in a windy area, place the stake on the north side of the shelter—or upstream, if you’re planting in an area prone to flooding. Use the zip ties to secure the shelter to the stake, and cover the top of the shelter with the netting.

Water and mulch your seedling: It’s best to give your seedling a good watering after it’s planted. Then spread mulch around the shelter. If you’re using wood mulch, spread it in a three-foot diameter circle around the shelter. If stone mulch (A2 stone is recommended), a two-foot diameter circle is sufficient. This barrier will discourage rodents from damaging your seedling and weeds from competing with it for water and sunlight.

Want to know more?

  • These illustrated instructions from the Arbor Day Foundation are a great help for planting your seedlings and giving them their best chance for success.
  • The Penn State Extension offers an excellent video series, “Growing Great Buffers,” that will teach you everything you need to know to maintain your seedlings and a healthy riparian buffer.