The N.C. Forest Service is sowing for the future

by | Sep 5, 2023

Since 1924, the N.C. Forest Service (NCFS) has provided native tree seedlings of the highest quality for planting throughout North Carolina. Through the Nursery and Tree Improvement (N&TI) Program, the NCFS serves as a stable provider in the ever-changing tree seedling market with the purpose of providing native forest tree seedlings of the highest quality.

The N&TI Program is comprised of two separate operations that work together for one common goal. The Nursery Program steers the planning, growing, selling and distribution of the annual seedling crop while the Tree Improvement Program works to improve select tree species that are of high economic value to woodland owners such as loblolly pine, longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, Eastern white pine, Atlantic white cedar and Fraser fir. With an average annual production of 16 million seedlings, the Nursery Program produces enough tree seedlings to plant more than 30,000 acres of land each year. The long-term efforts of the Tree Improvement program have resulted in dramatic increases in volume growth, disease resistance and physical properties of these species.

Trees in the orchard are painted with different color bands for easy identification. Each band represents a particular tree family that has been replicated in this orchard.

Claridge Nursery in Goldsboro, N.C. and Linville River Nursery located just outside of Crossnore in western North Carolina, both offer bare root and container grown products to meet the needs of a diverse customer base with varying objectives. Claridge Nursery, the largest NCFS nursery which produces more than 50 species of conifers, hardwoods and native grasses annually, is home to the agency’s Tree Improvement Program and functions as the statewide hub for seedling distribution. Linville River Nursery supplies Christmas tree growers with premium fir seedlings that are produced in an innovative greenhouse. Seedlings grown at these nurseries are used for Christmas trees, reforestation, wetland mitigation, land reclamation and wildlife habitat.

Like many fruits and nuts that are grown in orchards for food production, the Tree Improvement Program maintains orchards to produce seedlings with improved growth rates, increased resistance to disease and better characteristics needed for producing quality forest products. Evidence of the genetic gains made by the Tree Improvement Program can be measured by the time needed to grow a commercially mature stand of loblolly pine, having been reduced from 45 to 50 years down to 25 to 30 years.

These grafted orchards are established in climate zones suitable for the tree species being produced. In addition to the seed collected from its orchard, the Tree Improvement Program coordinates the annual hardwood seed collection needs where more than 50,000 pounds of hardwood seeds are collected from across the state. This seed is brought to Claridge Nursery where it is cleaned, processed and transferred to the Nursery Program for planting.

N.C. Forest Service Nursery and Tree Improvement Program Head Bobby Smith explains how the Nursery and Tree Improvement Program work together for one common goal.

“NCFS district and county staff who collect seed for the production of hardwood seedlings play a pivotal role for the Nursery and Tree Improvement Program,” said Bobby Smith, nursery and tree improvement program head. “Without their support, the nursery could not produce the variety of species that we currently do. They provide 99% of the hardwood seed that we grow.”

Longleaf pine seeds are poured into the longleaf sowing head that mechanically plants a seed in each cell of each tray.

One of the most important operations conducted by the Claridge Nursery occurs during sowing season. This process begins every spring when NCFS staff use steam to sanitize seedling containers to remove dust and weed seed contaminates.

Like the Swiss Army knife for planting seeds, a long, multipurpose conveyer belt serves as the center piece of the operation. McClain Davis, nursery manager for the Claridge Nursery explains how this contraption helps the NCFS produce roughly 5.3 million individual seedling cells in a short period time.

“Seedling trays are loaded onto the belt and pass through the tray filler which dumps potting soil into the individual cells that make up the tray,” explained Davis. “Since we’re sowing longleaf seeds today, we’re using the longleaf sowing head that mechanically plants a seed in each cell of each tray. Staff are lined up along both sides of the belt between the sowing head and the top dresser to hand sow seeds, ensuring that each cell receives a seed,” he added.

Staff are lined up along both sides of the belt between the sowing head and the top dresser and are sowing seeds by hand to ensure that each cell receives a seed.

The top dresser McClain referred to earlier is the next step in the process.

“From there the trays will travel through the top dresser where they are topped with sawdust to cover the seed,” he explained.

Fully equipped with a seed and gently covered with topdressing, the trays enter the water tunnel where they’re doused with a splash of water to help the sowing contents settle into the tray cell. Seedling trays are then stacked, shrink wrapped and covered.

“This somewhat creates a greenhouse effect that will assist with germination before the trays are placed outside and in direct sunlight where they’ll grow to their sellable size,” said McClain.

Growing season occurs from May through mid-October where the seedlings are cultivated and nurtured to maximize survival and performance during outplanting. Following the growing season, seedlings are lifted from the trays, securely packed into boxes and shipped to customers.

McClain Davis, nursery manager for the Claridge Nursery explains the sowing process as seed trays pass through the water tunnel.

“And that’s pretty much the life of a seedling container.”

The NCFS N&TI Program is always researching ways to enhance, improve and in some cases, restore native tree species. As part of a collaborative effort with the American Chestnut Foundation to restore the once dominant species, the NCFS recently established an additional American chestnut orchard at its Morganton Forestry Center.

“The American chestnut is such an important part of our past as it served many purposes for both wildlife and humans,” said Smith. “It continues to be a major component of our operation at Linville River Nursery as we’ll produce roughly 40,000 American chestnut seedlings this year. Being a part of this restoration effort is special.”

The mission of the N&TI program is critical to the success of landowners across the state. The program ensures citizens of North Carolina have access to the best genetics available for use on their land. Equally as important is the assurance that the seedlings being produced are regionally adapted and geographically suitable. By offering seedlings in a variety of order quantities, the NCFS makes certain that the program serves all North Carolinians. For information on planting trees, customers are encouraged to contact their local NCFS county ranger. Contact information for NCFS county office and nursery locations is available at For more information about seedling sales, visit or call 1-888-NCTREES.