It may seem a bit early in the year to be ordering pine seedlings and getting planting crews booked for this winter planting season, but now is the time. If you plan to do reforestation and tree planting this fall and winter season, you need to get your plans together now, get seedlings ordered, and get planting contractors booked. Most nurseries start taking orders in spring or early summer, and pine seedlings sell out very quickly. A good rule of thumb is to have your order in by June at the latest. This is especially true for the best improved genetic varieties, which are a great investment when planted on good ground. In this article we will discuss how to get your plans together and get prepared to make your winter reforestation efforts go smooth. Most forestry rotations are 30-40 years or more in our area, so whatever planting decisions you make now will be felt for the life of the plantation.

Containerized pine seedlings. UF/IFAS Photo by Dawn McKinstry

It is not just about seedlings either, your site must be properly prepared for planting and establishment. Pines do not like shade and competition, so site preparation is a critical step to getting a plantation started right. Site preparation is not a time to cut corners and save on costs. You will pay for a poor site preparation with poor survival, ongoing vegetation control, and lost growth over the rotation. To this end you need to have your site preparation planned out and executed through the summer and the planting site ready by planting season. If you have not worked on this step and gotten your site preparation scheduled; it may be better to wait a year when you can get your reforestation plan together. It is better to delay planting than to rush site preparation or skip important steps due to scheduling problems. The boost in survival and growth from a site free of competition and brush will more than make up for a planting delay. Use your consulting forester, county forester with Florida Forest Service, or local county extension office for recommendations on site preparation and the optimal scheduling of these treatments. Your goal should be to have the site ready to plant by the time planting season starts in November, so consider that before finalizing a seedling order.

Once you have site preparation planned and in place, you can be certain that planting will go as smooth as it can. Before you order seedlings, you need to have selected the pine species to plant, what level of genetic improvement, and what planting density (trees per acre) to plant. Landowners also have a choice between bareroot or containerized seedlings. Depending on your experience as a forest landowner; making these decisions may not be easy. The best way to make a good decision is to seek guidance from a forestry professional. If you do not currently have a consulting forester, it is often best to get one to help with the planting process. A consulting forester can handle making seedling selections and getting your seedlings ordered and planted, which makes the process much easier. If you are going to handle the process yourself, seek guidance from the county forester and your local UF/IFAS extension office. You will need to consider the conditions of the planting site and how this lines up with species and genetic selection. UF/IFAS has an excellent publication available called, Planting Southern Pines in Florida.  

A brief primer on what to determine before you finalize your seedling order

  • Site-Soils and site conditions determine how well a given species and genetic variety will perform on a site. It is essential that you match the best site conditions to the best tree selection. An outstanding improved genetic strain of loblolly pine will not perform well on a poor site. Loblolly and slash do better on sites with more moisture and better soils, and loblolly in particular likes more clay content. Longleaf will do well on a much broader range of conditions, but as conditions get very wet slash performs better. Longleaf and sand pine are the best options for dry sand hills. Get the right pine species on the right site so the trees will perform well.
  • Pine Species-As mentioned your site will primarily determine what pine you will want to select, but there are other considerations. Some sites will present you with several options. For instance, longleaf pine has advantages, particularly for landowners that are focused on burning and native groundcover. For faster rotation and more production focus, slash and loblolly tend to have a growth advantage over longleaf. Consider carefully how each species lines up with your forest management goals and plans and select what matches best for you.
  • Improved Genetics-Many landowners may not be aware of the advances in pine breeding over the years. One exciting aspect in southern pine reforestation now is the extensive availability of high quality genetic seedlings. Both slash and loblolly pine have extensive breeding programs going back decades, and these have produced some excellent genetic improvements. Longleaf and sand pine have limited improvement and are still mostly produced from forest sources. Improved longleaf is available but the actual performance improvement is somewhat limited. You should carefully consider the options available and select the best available genetics that fit your site. It will definitely pay off with improved growth, reduced disease, and better tree form. For more information on pine genetic improvement, check out this publication Genetically Improved Pines for Reforesting Florida’s Timberlands.
  • Seedling Type-This is an important decision and requires coordination with your planting crew. Seedlings come in two types: Bareroot and Containerized. Bareroot seedlings are grown in beds and shipped fresh from the nursery in bundles but are very perishable. Containerized seedlings are gown in trays or other containers that produce a seedling with the roots in a soil plug. Each have advantages and disadvantages. Bareroot are cheaper and often available in larger numbers and varieties but tend to have a poorer survival rate and are more sensitive to poor seedling care, weather variations, and planting techniques. Containerized seedlings are much more expensive but have advantages such as a longer planting window, easier planting requirements, and higher survival. Regardless of which you chose you need to talk to your forester and planting crew to make sure they are familiar with and able to plant bareroot or containerized seedlings. You do not want to order a seedling type your contractor can’t plant with their equipment. For more detailed information on these seedling types refer again to Planting Southern Pines in Florida.
  • Planting Density-Deciding on your planting density (seedlings per acre) must be done before you order, as it determines how many seedlings you need. Planting density and spacing may seem like a mundane subject but it determines a lot about a forest planting. Higher density plantings often mean the stand will need to be thinned earlier and the trees will compete at a younger age. It has advantages like encouraging straighter trees with fewer limbs and limiting other competing vegetation. Lower densities have advantages such as better access with equipment and requiring less thinning at a young age. Of course, the more trees you plant the more it will cost, but the nursery may offer a discount on larger orders. Consider your density and spacing options carefully and make a good decision that fits your needs. Once you know the total number of trees you are going to plant, make your order accordingly. Nurseries usually sell in units of 1,000 seedlings, so it is best to round up and order a bit more than you need. Planting is not an exact science, and you may have some cull seedlings in your order as well. You will appreciate having a buffer, since there is nothing worse than running out of seedlings with several acres left to plant.

Doing reforestation right is one of the most important parts of forest management. You may be able to fix some issues like vegetation or density management as you go, but if you start with poor site preparation and or a bad planting job this can ruin your forest establishment. Now is the time to review your planting plans and make sure you are ready to go. Use the information presented here and in the UF/IFAS publications to make the best decisions on site determination, tree selection, and planting density to get you off on the right foot. As always, it is best to have a consulting forester to help with your reforestation efforts. If you are not certain you will be ready to plant, consider the option of waiting until next year. Once you have a good plan in place and are confident you are ready to plant this winter, get that seedling order together.

Every person I know in the pine seedling business fields calls each season just before or at the start of planting looking for last minute seedling orders. With the demand for seedlings high and the supply limited you do not want to leave that all important seedling order until the last minute. The best genetically improved varieties sell out first, as do most containerized seedlings. The longer you wait the more likely it is that the nurseries will not have what you want. When you are making a 40-year investment, getting off on the right foot is essential. If your plan is to plant this winter reach out to your consulting forester or nursery representative to make those order plans now. You can rest easy knowing you will be planting what fits your plan and that you already have your seedlings reserved for wintertime.

Ian Stone