Tree Planting

Image of tree planting with youtube logo and play button Tree planting success can be improved if several guidelines are followed.

Planning is an important first step. After choosing a site, tree species should be selected based on the site's soil and moisture conditions. The Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey is a useful tool for assessing a tree planting site.  

Ordering tree stock from a reputable nursery is essential to ensure that you get quality seedlings of the kind and type desired. In Iowa, the State Forest Nursery is a great resource.  When you receive the stock, carefully inspect it for damage. Inspect the root system looking for mold or excessive dryness.

Many nurseries make available bare-root planting stock for either spring or fall planting. Spring is the optimum time to plant bare-root material in Iowa, but several factors may encourage a fall planting. Go to our fall planting of bare root seedlings article to learn more recommendations for planting in the fall. Fall planting of bare-root seedlings in Iowa is a landowner’s option, but it will require greater attention to detail for success.  

For best results, plant seedlings as soon as possible. The longer the time between shipment and planting, the greater the risk of losses. For short term storage of nursery stock, unheated buildings or cellars can be used. Continue to monitor the stock during this period, and if it is packed in plastic rather than a root media such as peat moss, turn the bag daily to dissipate the moisture in the bag. For storage periods longer than one week, cooler facilities (35-42 F) are necessary. Old refrigerators can be used as long as the seedlings are not exposed to freezing temperatures. 

Planting sites should be tilled or have the competing vegetation killed in three foot wide strips with a herbicide such as Roundup. Try to plant when the site is suitable for field work. Do not plant when sites are wet because soil structure will be destroyed and seedling root growth will be restricted. 

Whether planting by hand or machine, plant seedlings properly. Best planting methods involve digging a hole large enough for the seedling's root system and filling soil back around the root system with sufficient compaction to ensure good root to soil contact. Tree planting bars or mechanical tree planters are useful to increase the planting rate on large projects. When using these devices, be sure the slit around the seedling is closed to minimize drying and potential herbicide damage from pre-emergent herbicides. With all techniques, plant at the same depth the seedling grew in the nursery.

person dumping wood chip mulch from a buck onto a newly planted tree seedling
Mulching newly planted trees is important for moisture and weed control.

For all plantings, make provisions for adequate weed control for 2-4 years. Several techniques provide acceptable weed control including mechanical or cultivation, mulches such as wood chips or ground corncobs, and herbicides. Always follow label precautions and use accepted sprayer calibration procedures to ensure the effectiveness of the herbicide and to prevent damage from excessive herbicide application. Vegetation control in three foot wide strips, or circles around individual seedlings is sufficient.

In Iowa, during the establishment period of one to two years, supplemental watering during periods of drought and high temperatures will increase survival and improve tree health and growth. When first planted, trees often have insufficient root systems or at least their roots are not expansive enough to gather enough water for good growth and survival. In Iowa, a general guideline is to water new trees every 7 to 14 days if less than one inch of rainfall is received during the same time period. When watering new plantings, use enough water to soak the entire root system to that root depth of 20 inches or more. For more information go to our watering newly planted trees article.

Check out this article for specific guidance on planting containerized trees. Check out our article on transplanting trees and shrubs if you are moving plants instead of planting new stock. Additionally, our Iowa Woodland Steward Toolkit Series YouTube playlist has videos on site prep, handling and transporting seedlings, hand planting, machine planting, and weed control.   

Additional Information

The State Forest Nursery has a tree planting tips page with useful information including a diagram showing how to properly place seedlings in the hole for healthy root formation. The Iowa Department of Natural resources has a pamphlet on Grass and Weed Control for Tree and Shrub Seedlings. Iowa State University Horticulture describes some of the management required to care for newly planted trees. For techniques on protecting trees from deer check out our damage management article on this topic.