Planting bare-root seedlings in spring

PHOTO PROVIDED A bare-root seedling is shown planted and marked with a flag.

Planting trees provides many benefits including improved wildlife habitat, high-quality trees for timber or specialty wood products, revegetated buffers along streams to protect water quality, increased species diversity and resiliency, enhanced attractiveness, and a more valuable estate for your family or heirs. Planting trees can accelerate the natural progression or succession from field to forest or enrich a newly regenerating forest with uncommon species.

Ordering seedlings

Determining your objectives or reasons for planting is important. It will dictate the species and number of seedlings needed. Objectives for planting are numerous and varied. Try answering the following question to help you determine your objectives: What purpose(s) do you want the planting to serve?

After gathering information about the site, the best tree species, the number of seedlings needed, and the planned layout, it is time to order seedlings. Ordering trees grown from seeds collected from the region where you will be planting is preferred. These trees are better adapted to local soil and weather conditions and will likely have a higher survival rate. To find local nurseries that provide tree seedlings go to: www.plantnative.com.

Bare-root seedlings are most commonly used for large planting projects since they are economical and easy to handle. Nurseries grow bare-root seedlings in nursery beds, lift them during the dormant season, and bundle them without soil. They are stored in refrigeration units, so they remain dormant until shipped.

Bare-root seedlings are described using two numbers, such as 1-0, 2-0, or 2-1 stock. The first number refers to how many years the seedlings grew in the original nursery seedbed, and the second refers to how many years they grew in a transplant bed. Transplants are generally larger and cost more. Seedlings should have a balanced 1:1 shoot-to-root ratio. Those with large shoots in comparison to roots may be prone to dieback.

Seedling care and handling

Plant seedlings soon after they arrive, preferably within 24 hours and no more than one week. Store them in a cool, damp environment in the original packaging, protected from freezing. Stack bundles loosely to provide ventilation. Keep roots moist by adding small amounts of water to the open end of the bundles, and do not handle seedlings until you are ready to plant.

When transporting, take care to protect seedlings from exposure to wind and direct sunlight. Do not transport seedlings in the bed of a truck unless it is a cool, cloudy day or they are covered with a tarp. Be careful not to damage stems and buds. Buds are the source of new growth, which the tree will need to get established. At the planting site, keep extra seedlings wrapped tightly in their original packaging, covered with a reflective tarp, and stored in the shade. Only remove from storage what can be planted that day.

When to plant

In Pennsylvania, the best time to plant is between mid-March and late April, once frost leaves the ground and prior to bud break, when seedlings are dormant. It is essential to plant bare-root seedlings before buds begin to swell and new growth starts to emerge. Plant as early in the spring as possible when there is high soil moisture and cool temperatures. This will help ensure root establishment before the hotter, drier summer months. Calm, cool, and overcast days are best for tree planting. Under these conditions, roots are less likely to dry out before getting them in the ground.

Planting seedlings

Seedling roots should be kept moist and cool at all times by carrying them in a bucket of muddy water or planting bag with wet towels, peat moss, or burlap. Roots may also be covered with one of the hydrophilic gels or moisture enhancers. Never carry bundles of seedlings in your hand exposed to the air or completely immersed in a bucket of water for extended periods of time.

Dig a hole with a planting shovel, mattock, or auger. If using a planting bar, work the blade vertically into soil, first pushing the handle away and then pulling it toward you to open a planting hole. It needs to be deep enough to accommodate roots vertically. Set the seedling at the same depth it grew in nursery, only as deep as the root collar. Roots should be straight, not balled or twisted. Long lateral roots can be pruned to aid in planting.

Hold the tree straight while the planting hole is backfilled. If using a planting bar, push the blade into the soil just behind the planting hole; pull the handle toward you to close the bottom of the hole, and push it forward toward the seedling to close the top. Gently pack soil around roots using your hands or the heel of your boot. This will eliminate air pockets, which can desiccate roots. To test whether a seedling is planted properly, give it a firm but gentle tug. It should remain firmly planted.

Even when planned carefully and all necessary precautions are taken, 10-20 percent seedling mortality is not uncommon. Replacement planting in successive years can help recoup losses. A successful planting comes from a combination of good timing, luck, hard work, and knowledge of the planting site and tree species. To view a short video on tree planting go here.


With proper planning, implementation, and maintenance the trees you plant today will meet your objectives and provide numerous environmental benefits as well. Desired results are often evident in as little as five years following planting as the planted area begins to transform into a forest. The most immediate benefits are food and cover for wildlife, soil erosion control, and improved water quality. It takes a dedicated landowner to plan decades ahead. Thankfully, many are, and our grandchildren and-great grandchildren will benefit. For additional information on tree planting check out the Penn State Extension publication entitled Forest Landowners Guide to Tree Planting Success.

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Dave Jackson is a renewable natural resources educator for Penn State Extension. He can be contacted by phone at 814-359-7480 or by email at drj11@psu.edu.


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