Regenerate Your Forest

Now is the time to start getting organized and order seedlings if you plan to plant next year. A little bit of forethought will go a long way toward making your planting efforts a success.


The best time to plant varies with the type of planting stock, soil conditions, climate, and your location in the state. Before planting the soil moisture should be saturated to a depth of at least 12". This requires from 2" to 4" of rain in most areas. Many landowners report best survival when seedlings are planted during a light rain or drizzle. Avoid planting during extended warm and dry periods, or when frost or extreme winds are likely. At higher elevations, plant when the snow is gone and the chance of frost is minimal. In the Sierra Nevada, northern California, and the eastern side of the Coast Range, planting conditions are usually optimal in late winter to early spring. On the warmer west side of the Coast Range, planting can begin as early as late fall once the rains have saturated the soil, and can continue through to late winter.

Seeds or seedlings?

Seeds are inexpensive and easy to sow. However, the success rate is low in California due to animals, disease, and weather and soil conditions. If you decide to go ahead and plant seeds, it is imperative to prepare the site carefully and keep animals out. In California most people choose to plant seedlings. Seedlings have a head start over seeds but they, too, have a lot to overcome. Seedlings can be eaten or trampled by animals, heaved from the soil by frost, burned, drowned, shaded, and starved. To survive, seedlings need all the help you can give them.

Bareroot or container?

There are two types of seedling stock to choose from—bareroot and containerized. Bareroot seedlings are grown in a nursery bed, then carefully removed. The roots are exposed so they must be planted while dormant to avoid damage. Stock should be evaluated when you receive it. The buds must be firm with no evidence of new growth. White root tips should be less than 1/4 inch. There should be no mold or sour odor. Strip back the bark from the stem and roots on a couple of trees—the inner bark should be moist and glistening white. If it is yellow, brown, or has brown spots, the stock is badly damaged and probably won’t survive.

Care for your seedlings. Keep them moist and cool; plant as soon as possible. If you have to store the seedlings for more than three days, plant them temporarily in a trench in a cool, shaded area. Containerized stock has been grown in a container with special soil, often in a greenhouse where climate is controlled. Containerized seedlings are usually more expensive but they can be grown in a shorter length of time and can be planted during the growing season because of the soil around their roots. They may be more successful than bareroot in rocky soils.

Site preparation

Good site preparation is essential for seedling success. Studies have shown that neglecting site preparation in California can lead to seedling losses ranging from 40 percent to nearly 100 percent. Depending on the site, you might want to use mechanical means, such as a bulldozer or tractor, to clear the area. Controlled fire is another method, with obvious pros and cons. To reduce competition from other plants, you can use physical removal or herbicides. Consider every potential threat to your new seedlings and try to minimize it. Posting the area, fencing out livestock, and removing brush piles that harbor rabbits and rodents can all help seedlings survive. The greatest challenge, however, is making sure your seedlings get their full share of soil moisture and nutrients. This is especially critical in California with its Mediterranean climate characterized by long, rain-free summers where soil moisture is severely limited.


The number of seedlings you need will depend on your planting objectives. Timber is usually grown at spacings from 8 x 8 feet (680 trees per acre, or tpa) to 12 x 12 feet (300 tpa), closer spacing if poor survival is expected. Christmas trees are commonly planted at 5 x 5 feet (1240 tpa) or 6 x 6 feet (1210 tpa). Eucalyptus for firewood is planted at 6 x 6 feet (1210 tpa) to 7 x 7 feet (890 tpa).


There are a variety of hand and power tools you can use for planting. Planting bars, hoe-dads (also called a western planting tool), and mattocks are used with easily worked soil. The hoe-dad is generally the most effective in rough terrain with rocky soils. Power-driven augers can dig holes in compacted soils or soils with a hardpan. Planting machines are limited to fairly level sites with careful site preparation. These are cost effective only when planting large areas. Care of seedlings is vital no matter which planting technique is used. Roots should always be kept moist, with no more than 3 hours worth of stock in the planting bag at one time. Seedlings should be planted erect at the depth they were planted at the nursery. Roots should be properly placed pointing downward in the planting hole; kinked or J-shaped roots will eventually strangle themselves. Eliminate air pockets by firming the soil around the roots.

Follow up

Planting should be followed by regular regeneration surveys to check seedling survival and plan for any replacement trees. Planting represents a large investment that is carried over the life of a stand. It is in your best interest to:

    1. Plan regeneration operations carefully.
    2. Prepare your planting site.
    3. Take proper care of your planting stock.
    4. Closely supervise the planting crew.
    5. Follow through with regeneration surveys.

The success of your planting effort depends on each of these steps.