MWM reforestation class - learning how to plant a tree.jpg

Landowners practicing planting Douglas-fir seedlings during an OSU Extension workshop in 2019.

For forestland owners in Western Oregon, winter is the time to get out on the land to plant the next generation of trees. There are many important things to keep in mind when planting seedlings, whether you’re planting 10 or 10,000. Keep these things in mind and refer to the publications listed below for more details on each subject.


There’s a saying that goes, “the best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago — the next best time is now.” Well, that’s true as long as “now” is when the seedlings are dormant and the site is favorable for proper planting. At lower elevations west of the Cascades, conditions are often suitable from early January through the end of March on cool, wet days. Avoid planting during times of frozen or dry soil, snow, hot or dry weather, and especially dry, windy days.

Transporting and storing

It is crucial that seedlings are kept cool during transportation from the nursery to the woods (or intermediate storage location). Ideally, arrange transport in a refrigerated truck. If that is not possible and you transfer them yourself, use an insulated van or pickup with a canopy or cover the trees with a special thermal space blanket. Avoid transporting trees uncovered or with a dark tarp, which can cause added heating.

Plant seedlings as soon as possible, within 3-4 days if they are stored at temperatures above 42° F. If you must store seedlings, keep them cool and moist. Check to see if there are any local cold storage facilities available. Otherwise, a cool, shaded, indoor location is acceptable for periods less than one week. You can make a temporary storage cooler of plywood, Styrofoam insulation and some blocks of ice.

Proper handling

Handle seedlings as little as possible. When you’re at the planting location, keep them in a cool, shaded area at all times. Remove a manageable number of seedlings from the storage container, dip them in water (do not leave them in water for more than 1 minute) and place them in a planting bag or bucket. Avoid overfilling the bag/bucket, as stuffing them in will damage the roots and cause you to drop trees when pulling them out.

The container will protect the roots from drying, as long as it isn’t a windy day. Avoid exposing the roots to air or touching the roots when planting. The easiest way to do this is to only remove the tree once you’ve prepared the hole and are ready to place the seedling in the hole.

Choosing the right spot

Determine your spacing ahead of time (see the resources mentioned below for help on how to do that). Plant your seedlings systematically, following a logical boundary. When selecting individual planting spots, take advantage of cleared spots and protected spots. Your spacing does not need to be perfect, as the forest will offer obstacles for you to plant around and potentially use to your advantage (such as stumps that can help shade a new seedling on a hot summer day).

Characteristics of a good planting spot include spots with exposed mineral soil, away from animal holes and game trails, away from concentrations of resprouting brush and protected/shaded areas next to a stump/log.

Use the right tool

If you’re only planting a few seedlings, a garden shovel will do just fine. But if you’re planting a large area, you may want to invest in a specialized tree planting shovel. Planting hoe/hoedads are good for clearing debris away from the planting spot and occasionally used for planting plugs.

Use the right technique

The goal when planting is to create a large enough opening in the ground so the seedling is positioned naturally and ready to grow. You do not have to dig a traditional hole. Rather, you will loosen the soil using your shovel until you’ve created a rectangular hole that will accommodate your seedling’s roots so they go straight down when planted.

There is a special technique to doing this, so check out “The Care & Planting of Tree Seedlings on your Woodland (EC 1504)” for more detailed instructions. Avoid crooked roots by digging a hole slightly deeper than the roots are long.

After planting the tree, tamp the soil down around the tree to avoid future air pockets, which can cause roots to die (do not stomp on the soil). Be careful not to damage the bark of the seedling when tamping the soil.

Where to get help

If you don’t have the time, tools or strength to do the planting yourself, you will need to hire a tree planting contractor to do it for you (or call on family and friends). Professional tree planters can plant 1,000 trees or more a day, whereas it would take most of us a week to plant that many.

If you choose to hire a contractor, do it before planting season to avoid a rush. Read “Choosing the Right Tree Planting Contractor for your Family Forest (EM 9201)” for help on how to hire.

You may also choose to hire a consulting forester who can make arrangements for hiring a planting crew and take care of the paperwork. See “Choosing the Right Consulting Forester for your Family Forest (EM 9241)” for more information.

For more info

Visit the OSU Extension Catalog Forestry & Natural Resources Reforestation page at Along with the publications above, a key publication worthy of reading before you plant is “Successful Reforestation: An Overview (EC 1498).”

Alicia Christiansen is the Forestry Extension Agent for OSU Extension Service of Douglas County. Alicia can be reached by email at or phone at 541-672-4461.

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