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Successful tree establishment takes much advance planning

by Myles Henderson

Mapleton - Someone said, “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.”

Planning ahead is the most crucial aspect of a successful tree planting project.  Identifying the objectives of tree planting will determine tree species, location, and site preparation. Proper site preparation will help the trees grow vigorously and give them the upper hand in their new home by reducing competition from unwanted vegetation and that also ensures favourable planting locations.

For example, planting a cover crop of white clover will slow advantageous weeds and help seedlings compete for nutrients, sunlight, and water. Sow in early spring just as the ground is thawing or in summer if there is adequate moisture; fall areas seeded rarely survive winter.

Proper site inspection and soil analysis will determine what tree species match the site. Spacing and arrangement is determined by objectives and means of accessing the trees for future maintenance or work such as mowing. 

Projects can greatly differ. For instance, sugar maples grown for syrup production will want large crowns essential for syrup production, yet a strong structure that will not fail in the future and induce rot. That can be accomplished by planting young maples far apart (7 to 9 metres spacing between rows and trees) where they will need pruning to promote a correct scaffolding structure after they have been established.

Another option is to plant them denser or amongst faster growing trees such as poplar or basswood. That type of planting will need to be selectively thinned to encourage large crowns, and the best maples to establish dominance. Thinning should be done when branches of competing trees are touching selected “crop” trees.

Mapleton is known for its rich, heavy clay to loam soils and that’s a reason why it is such highly productive agricultural land. Trees that are suited to heavy soils are bur oak, norway spruce, sugar and soft maples, black walnut, and many more. Even though those rich soils aid newly planted trees it also allows for vigorous growth of unwanted vegetation. Heavy vegetation around seedlings harbours rodents that can eat the young bark of seedlings.

Those areas will need heavy mowing to reduce the amount of rodents in the area. Heavy vegetation also topples young seedlings down in the winter, when weighted down by precipitation and reduces the amount light reaching them.

A writer once said, “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”

Poor drainage and heavy soils can go hand in hand. Trees that can thrive on wetter sites with poor drainage are soft maples, cedars, and tamarack as opposed to sugar maple and white spruce that need better drained sites. Planting a tree in an environment for which it is not suited will either kill it or give it a shortened and stunted life.

Why not plant white pines, as they were once plentiful in the area and are Ontario’s official trees? White pine could grow well in Mapleton if soil conditions existed similar to a forest setting where there is a higher ratio of organic matter and microbial life. Areas cleared for agriculture have disturbed heavy clay to loam soils, where white pine will have a much harder chance for long term survival.

Tree species suited to wet areas tend to clog drainage tiles. Shallow rooted trees can clog drains from a greater distance than the deep rooted trees, but deep rooted trees will also clog tile when planted in close proximity. If possible, line the area of a tree buffer with non-perforated tile; that way, roots will not interfere with the tile drain function.

Species such as white spruce and sugar maple are less likely to clog tiles - if non-perforated tiles are not an option. That again is a situation where putting the correct tree in the right spot is very important.

The Trees for Mapleton program promotes planting in “plastic mulch,” which is a layer of black film. The mulch is placed on top of well tilled soils using a plastic layer or bed shaper, creating a row of plastic mulch covering a planting bed. Trees are planted directly into the mulch, and then the film is stapled down near the new tree. Plastic mulch creates a micro climate that can accelerate growth in new plantings. The soil temperature rises, soil moisture is retained, unwanted vegetation is greatly hindered and soil crusting is prevented. Proper tilling of soils prior to laying the plastic mulch is essential.

The fall is a good time to lay plastic mulch though it may lead to extra work if winter and early spring winds displace it. Spring is the next best time to lay it, but the time window between planting and when the soil is dry enough to cultivate and lay the plastic mulch may be very small. Planning to lay the mulch in spring can lead to a very late planting or a postponed plant, especially in a spring like we just had.

The use of post-emergent or pre-emergent herbicides is an effective vegetation control when cultivation or plastic mulch is not a choice.  A backpack sprayer is an option for smaller sites, while application in bands at the desired row spacing is suitable for larger sites. Similar to cultivated sites, trees should be planted in the middle of sprayed areas of dead vegetation. All safety precautions should be taken to protect everyone and the environment from use of herbicides.

Diligent use of protective equipment and consulting the product label for instructions on proper use, storage, handling and disposal of herbicides is essential. Avoid spray drift to non-target plants and areas.

Another form of vegetation control is the cultivating or scalping of the planting site. That will create an area temporarily free of vegetation to the benefit of newly planted trees and make the planting and future maintenance much easier. That should be done in the fall so that winter freezing can further break up soil clods. Trees should be planted in the middle of the worked areas.

In areas prone to erosion or in close proximity to watercourses, intense site preparation may do more harm than good. That is because tilling can further increase the erosion and herbicide runoff could reach the water body, damaging the environment.

Herbicide application in stream buffers is therefore not recommended. Those areas will need more upkeep after planting in the form of mowing and laying of wood chips or mulch around the trees to hold moisture and hinder competing vegetation.

The planting of larger trees is also an option in those areas since their growth will be less hindered by competing vegetation. It really pays to plant larger trees especially when you want an immediate effect in the area.

Other forms of site preparation can include soil remediation (mixing of organic matter into heavy soils).

The Trees for Mapleton programs works directly under the Grand River Conservation Authority and is guided by a local steering committee made of farmers. Its role is to educate the community about the economic, social and environmental benefits of strategic plantings, while offering technical assistance and accessing financial assistance to help landowners plant and maintain trees.

The goal is to increase tree cover through the strategic plantings of windbreaks, stream and wetland buffers, shelterbelts in proximity to farm buildings, block plantings, and roadside plantings.

Call or email me with any questions about trees or if thinking of putting together a tree planting project on a property. Call 519-621-2763 extension 2259, or email I look forward to hearing from you.



August 5, 2011


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