Plant your tree seedlings early this season

by | Nov 18, 2020

The La Niña climate pattern strengthening in the Pacific will influence winter weather across the globe in the coming months. In the southern U.S., we’ll be warmer and drier. For Southerners who dislike cold air, maybe La Niña isn’t so bad. For tree seedlings, not so good.

According to Management Alert 20-03 from the Southern Forest Nursery Management Cooperative (SFNMC), the late planting of seedlings has been a major contributing factor to seedling mortality across the southeastern U.S. in recent years. Seedlings are being planted too late in certain areas. As a result, the SFNMC recommends that tree seedlings be stored for shorter periods of time and that seedlings be planted earlier than historical dates. This recommendation accounts for USDA plant hardiness zones, which were updated in 2012 with several zones moving north by one to two zones. While those hardiness zones have been updated, there has been no adjustment to the timing of seedling outplanting. La Niña and updated hardiness zones together will impact the survival of outplanted seedlings if planted too late in the season. The moral of this story: plant early.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Environmental factors to consider are planting season, planting weather and soil conditions. For optimal survival, bareroot seedlings should be planted from November to mid-February in the southern U.S. and from December to mid-March along the Atlantic Coast. According to the SFNMC, planting later will result in increased mortality and planting failures. Weather – temperature, humidity, wind speed, rainfall – at the time of and shortly after planting can be critical for seedling survival. The same can be said about soil conditions. Dry, frozen or flooded soils can be a death sentence for tree seedlings.

John Hatcher, executive director of the N.C. Forestry Association, moderated a panel discussion on seedling survival with SFNMC members recently. To learn more about the SFNMC, Management Alert 20-03 and the early planting recommendation for this season, watch the panel discussion available now on YouTube. This panel discussion provides detailed information about timing of seedling outplanting and planting techniques that increase base growth and survival.

To learn more about proper planting techniques and how to increase seedling survival, read Management Alert 20-03 available online.

If you’re a landowner in need of tree seedlings, the N.C. Forest Service Nursery program ensures that residents of North Carolina have access to the best native trees and genetics available for use on your land. Current available inventory includes longleaf pine, loblolly pine, white pine, a variety of hardwoods and native understory grasses. To order tree seedlings, call 1-888-NCTREES or visit