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Ensure Good Survival in New Conservation Tree Plantings

Early explorers described Nebraska as "the great American desert" with not a tree to be seen in a day's travel. The first settlers realized the value of trees for protection, lumber, fuel and food. Planting trees quickly became a Nebraska tradition and Nebraska has long been known as the "tree planter's state." In keeping with this proud tradition, each spring over 1 million tree and shrub seedlings are planted in Nebraska for protection, beauty, and wildlife habitat, lumber, watershed protection and other conservation purposes.

All conservation plantings require considerable care to ensure good growth and survival. Taking care of your trees should begin early -- when you receive the seedlings.

Pre-planting Care

Immediately check the roots for moisture. If the roots appear dry, wet them down and keep moist until planted. It is best to plant the seedlings the same day they are received. But if it becomes necessary to hold seedlings for several days, they should be placed in the coolest place available, out of the sun, and kept moist. Never allow the roots to become dry or hot, as this will greatly reduce the chances for survival.


During the planting operation the roots must be kept moist at all times. Carry the seedlings in containers partly filled with water and covered with moist burlap. Plant the seedlings the same depth they grew in the nursery. Planting too shallow or too deep may result in poor survival. Make sure the seedlings are planted firm and straight (without doubling the roots) and the soil is well packed.

Many tree planters are very enthusiastic about getting their trees planted in the spring. They do a good job of everything up through planting the trees and then seem to forget them. These same people wouldn't think of planting their cornfields or gardens and then forget them. They become frantic if weeds or grass start to grow in their cornfields. They certainly wouldn't allow livestock to trample and eat their corn. Oddly enough, these same people often give little thought to the effect of poor care and lack of protection on their trees.

Enhance New Tree Survival and Growth

After planting, treat trees as you would any other crop. Help them in their fight for survival against drought, weeds, disease and pests by giving them the best care and protection. Visit your tree planting often the year round, to determine any attention it may need.

Protect your tree planting from animals, insects and disease. Animals may cause severe injury to trees. Soil compaction around roots, browsing, debarking and trampling by large animals is some of the damages from which your trees will need protection. The only remedy for this kind of damage is to build and maintain a fence to keep all large animals out of the planting.

Rabbits, mice and other rodents may cause severe damage to young trees, usually during the fall and winter months when other food sources are scarce. Debarking, girdling and even chewing-off the tops of some seedlings by rabbits is possible.

Trees can be protected by a guard made from hardware cloth encircling the stem and extending 12 inches above the highest snowfall. Homemade or commercial repellants and poisons are available. Mice will usually cause little damage if trash and debris is removed from the base of the tree, where they congregate and breed. If insect or disease problems are suspected or if your trees lack vigor and color, contact an extension specialist to diagnose and recommend treatment.

Weed Control

An important consideration in establishing seedling trees and shrubs is removal of weed competition. The first year is extremely critical; young trees depend on surface moisture to survive. Competition for moisture, light and nutrients by aggressive weeds and grasses may severely stunt or kill newly planted trees and shrubs.

Methods of controlling weed competition include cultivation, mowing, herbicides, and mulching. Removal of competing vegetation about two feet on each side of the tree row is most critical. The best and easiest time to control weeds and grasses is before or during their seedling stage. Established weeds and grasses can hide small tree/shrub seedlings and much more difficult to control.

In parts of the state where moisture is limited or erosion is not a problem, it may be best to cultivate between tree rows to remove all weeds and grass. Cultivation is the surest method to control weeds and retain moisture for the seedlings. Cultivation should not be too deep and should never ridge soil against the trees. Mowing vegetation between rows may be a better method of weed control where moisture is sufficient and a cover between rows is desirable to prevent soil erosion.

Some attempts have been made to plant brome grass, tall fescue, or other aggressive grasses to control weeds between rows of trees after the first year of cultivation. This is not recommended. Aggressive grasses can smother out weeds, but give young trees and shrubs the worst kind of competition for moisture and nutrients. When planting between tree rows is necessary, a short warm season grass or grass that goes dormant during drought conditions may be the best alternative.

Young trees and shrubs should be relatively free from weed competition for several years until they have reach a growth that will partially shade out grass and weed growth. By this time the tree root system will be established and developed to a degree that competition from weeds will be less of a problem.

Remember, the time spent protecting and maintaining your planting will pay substantial returns in comfort, protection and beauty.

By Dennis Adams, Nebraska Forest Service