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Don't wait to plant pine seedlings in Georgia

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

If you've been thinking about planting some pines, don't wait any longer. Newly planted pine seedlings have the best survival chances they've had in years, but the opportunity is fading fast.

"In most cases the planting season continues through February," said David Moorhead, a professor of silviculture with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forest Resources.

"We like to wrap it up by the first of March," he said. "This year, for the first time in several years, we've got good soil moisture through most of the state."

More often than not, Moorhead said, people wanting to plant pines over the past decade have had little soil-moisture reserves to work with. That's changed this year.

Soil moisture is key

"The key is good soil moisture," he said. Most Georgia soils have plenty of moisture available for pine seedlings to get off to a strong start.

For pines to survive and grow well, he said, it's vital that they get over the shock of being transplanted and develop healthy root systems before their first big stress test. They may look like they're just sitting there, but their roots are racing against time.

"May and June are critical times," Moorhead said. "If we stop getting rain, pine seedlings are going to be severely stressed through May and into mid-June. The key is getting seedlings established and roots growing well before then."

A tree race

The race to get the roots firmly established is why Moorhead tells people to begin planting container-grown seedlings in October and November. He recommends planting bare-root seedlings in late December, January and early February.

"Planting in January does better than in February, and February is better than March," he said. "On seedlings planted in January, the root tips are already growing."

Most nurseries still have seedlings available, he said. Check with the Georgia Forestry Commission office in your county.

Not too late

It's not too late to get pine trees off to a good start. Seedlings ordered now can usually be delivered within a week. For field-size planting, GFC offices may even have mechanical tree planters available.

A number of industry nurseries still have seedlings, too. You can find out about them through the GFC office or the UGA Extension Service office in your county.

In planting pines, Moorhead said, never strip off roots to make the planting easier. The roots are just too critical to the trees' survival. When you plant a crop that takes years to mature, if you mess up at planting, you'll have to live with the mistake a long time.

Best roots win

"The seedlings with the most lateral roots will get off to the best start," he said. "You want to select the seedlings with really well-developed root systems."

If you don't cull out the spindly-rooted seedlings, he said, the first soil-drying stresses of late spring and early summer probably will.

After planting seedlings, successful large-scale planters apply herbicide treatments, generally from mid-March to mid-April, Moorhead said. Controlling the competing vegetation will help the seedlings make it through that first stress test.

The bottom line, though, is that if you haven't planted already, plant now.

"I'd like to see planting wrapped up in the next couple of weeks," Moorhead said. "We've got the best planting conditions we've had in years. In wet years we can plant on into April. But we don't know when the rains will stop coming. And the later you plant, the greater the risk of failure."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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