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Seedling Planting & Care   arrow


Seedlings shipped from the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery are packaged in protective wraps or containers. Included is a moisture holding medium, usually sawdust, to keep the roots moist. Exposure to air and sunlight for even a brief period can kill a tree’s root system and, eventually, the tree. Immediately upon receiving seedlings, add water to the sawdust for absorption and thoroughly water any container plants. For best results, promptly plant them. (Note: seedlings can be extremely stressed in a vehicle, particularly on a sunny day.)

If seedlings cannot be planted immediately, keep them (still packaged) in a cool, shady place until planting. A refrigerator (not freezer!) is an ideal storage location. For potted stock, the north side of a building provides cool shade. When planting must be delayed for more than one week and cold storage is not available, bareroot trees and shrubs can be “heeled-in.”

Heel in seedlings in a cool shady place. Dig a small trench, remove seedlings from the shipping bundle, spread them out in the trench, cover the roots with soil, and water. The soil around the roots should be kept moist but not saturated. Transplant survival rapidly diminishes during the spring as buds swell and break, therefore, heeled-in stock should be planted long before this occurs.

When you are ready to plant, remove bareroot seedlings from the shipping package and immediately place the roots in a bucket of a hydrated polymer or soil and water (mud) slurry. Fine seedling roots (root hairs) are extremely susceptible to drying; it takes only a few seconds of exposure to hot, dry conditions to damage roots. Carry plants in this slurry and remove one seedling at a time, planting immediately. Polymer root dips coat the seedlings’ roots and minimize drying. They also protect roots placed in extremely dry soil until the plants can be watered. Never take a number of trees from the bucket and carry them from place to place with the roots exposed. Do not store seedlings in a bucket of water; the plants will not charge themselves with additional moisture and may “drown” from lack of oxygen.

Container grown seedlings should remain in the Styrofoam block or tarpaper container until holes are dug and you are ready to begin planting. When you are ready to begin planting, grasp the seedling at the base of the stem (for Styrofoam blocks) and gently pull; the seedling should come free easily. For seedlings in tar paper pots, carefully slit the paper with a knife and gently remove. Do not break the root ball or leave seedlings in sun or wind following removal from Styrofoam block or tar paper. Once the seedling is free, plant immediately. (Note: Styrofoam blocks containing piñon and bristlecone pine seedlings should be cut apart with a knife to remove seedlings.)

Use a shovel to dig planting holes that are at least as deep as the roots are long and four inches wider than the root system is in its natural form. This procedure loosens the surrounding soil, allowing for better root establishment. Root ends should not be curled upward and should spread naturally. Excessively long roots may be pruned. Pay close attention to planting depth; plant trees to the depth they were grown at the nursery. Be sure that the root ball of container stock is not exposed; check after watering as the soil will settle. Avoid pre-digging the holes too far in advance; winds may evaporate moisture from the planting site. If holes are pre-dug, recharge them with water 24 hours prior to planting. Gently pack the soil from the bottom of the hole upward so that no air pockets exist. A good practice is to fill the hole half full of soil, pack it, finish filling with soil, pack again and water. Mechanical tree planters may be available from your local Colorado State Forest Service or Soil Conservation District office; mechanical planters are recommended for planting 200 or more trees. The mechanical tree planters require a tractor with a 3-point hitch. In addition, chainsaw augers can be used to make planting easier and help speed up the process. However, when using an auger, rough up the sides of the hole with a shovel. Seedling order forms are available each fall, and seedlings are distributed from March through May, depending on the area. In nearly every county in the state, CSFS, Extension Service, or Soil Conservation District offices compile seedling orders, offer technical assistance, and distribute nursery seedlings. For seedling order forms contact a local CSFS district office or the CSFS Nursery at (970) 491-8429.

Machine Planting

There are essentially two ways to plant trees – by hand or by machine. Both provide excellent results and the method of choice usually depends on the number of seedlings being planted.

If many trees are being planted, contact your local conservation office to find out if help is available. Some offices either provide planting services or will rent you a tree planter if you wish to do your own planting.

After planting by machine, walk the entire windbreak strip. Lightly tug on the seedling while tamping the soil at the base of each tree to be sure they are vertical and firmly in the ground. Good root-soil contact is essential to a successful planting. If the soil is dry, the seedlings will benefit from a small amount of water (approximately 1 – 2 gallons) applied at planting.

Care & Maintenance

Weed and Moisture Management

Weed control is an extremely important factor for tree growth and survival. Weeds are better competitors than seedlings for moisture, nutrients, and sunlight. They also provide fuel for fires and habitat for tree-injuring pests. Mulch, cultivation, and herbicides are three basic methods for controlling weeds.

Under drought conditions, supplemental water may be necessary for the survival of newly planted trees and shrubs. Various types of drip irrigation systems are available.

Plastic Mulches and Landscape Fabrics

Woven plastic mulches and landscape fabrics have significantly improved the survival of tree plantings. Mulches reduce competition from weeds and are woven in a pattern that helps conserve soil moisture. Mulches come in various widths (six foot wide is recommended) and can be installed by hand or by machine. Machines and technical assistance on the installation of the woven plastic mulch may be obtained from your local Colorado State Forest Service or Soil Conservation District Office. Organic mulches such as wood chips, old straw, and hay can also be used; apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch within a four foot diameter circle around each plant.

Protection from Wind and Sun

Plants vary in their tolerance to direct sunlight, high elevation tree species such as Spruce and Fir grow best under partial shade. Most deciduous (non-evergreen) trees do not need shade. Shade can be provided using a number of items. Existing vegetation, rocks or logs are the easiest and cheapest to use, shake shingles work well, and commercially manufactured shade products are also available.

Damage, Disease & Replanting

Livestock Damage

Fence livestock out of windbreaks to prevent browsing and trampling of seedlings. Livestock can also damage windbreaks with increased soil compaction.

Wildlife Damage

A common problem with newly planted windbreaks is damage from small rodents. To avoid rodent damage, remove the weeds from around the seedlings. If woven plastic mulch is used, also mow the weeds from the edges of the fabric.

Animal damage can also be minimized by using individual plastic seedling protectors. Some consist of plastic nets which are effective for 2 to 3 growing seasons. Others are corrugated plastic tubes which completely enclose the stem. The disadvantage with tube enclosures is that they may not allow the main stem to properly harden, and thus the seedling may need to be staked once the tube is removed. Chicken wire can also be used to protect plants from wildlife damage.

Insect & Diseases

Regular inspections of a windbreak for signs of insect or disease damage are beneficial, as early identification can help reduce damage.


Even under the best conditions, some seedlings die. Check for and replace dead seedlings for at least three years. The effectiveness of a windbreak depends largely on the initial impact of the wind against full, compact rows of trees and shrubs. Gaps or low-density areas within the windbreak concentrate the force of the wind, causing more problems than in unprotected areas.

Additional Resources

Colorado State Forest Service