Clemson Extension Forestry and Wildlife

Seedling Selection Guidelines for Forest Landowners

The selection of tree seedlings for reforestation or the conversion of open land to woodlands is often only done a few times over ownership of a property. Therefore, making sure that the right seedlings are purchased is a very important step in woodland management. The factors to consider when selecting seedlings are landowner objectives, soils and other site characteristics, seedling sources, and availability, and budget.

Landowner Objectives

Landowner objectives should be the foundation for any management decisions that are made on a forested property. When selecting tree seedlings to purchase and plant, species options can be limited by site characteristics, but landowners usually have some choices they can make among species to meet their management objectives. These objectives can include producing timber income, enhancing wildlife habitat, reintroducing native species, improving aesthetics, stabilizing soils due to water or wind erosion, increasing stocking of desired species within an existing stand, or providing an additional source of income such as pine straw production.

Often the selection of single species can meet multiple objectives. For example, the recent emphasis on the reestablishment of longleaf pine within its natural range has led to an increased interest in planting longleaf seedlings. Longleaf is a pine species which provides timber income and income from pine straw production, is aesthetically unique, and planted stands, especially with management that includes prescribed fire, can enhance wildlife habitat. Hardwood seedling selection can also meet multiple objectives. Planting oaks in pure stands or underplanting an existing stand to increase regeneration stocking before a final harvest can establish a future source of income from timber, improve aesthetics on a property, and provide additional sources of mast for a wide variety of wildlife species.

Soils and Other Site Characteristics

One of the most important factors in seedling selection is the site characteristics where they will be planted. These include soil types (sand/clay), soil pH, past management history, hydrology, flooding or drought potential, slope and aspect (especially in more hilly or mountainous terrain), and impacts from existing vegetation or nuisance wildlife. Identifying the tree species that occur naturally and are thriving on adjoining acreage is often a good place to start in considering seedlings for planting. Generally, pine species can grow on a range of acidic soils (pH of 4.5 to 6.5), while most hardwoods are adapted to slightly acidic (pH of 6) to neutral soils (pH of 7). Selecting a species that is adapted to the pH of the soil where it is to be planted is a better option than trying to augment soils to adjust the pH.

For landowners who are not familiar with the soils they have on their property, an online mapping application called Web Soil Survey ( age.htm) can be used to determine soil series, soil properties, soil suitability for management practices such as site preparation and planting, and even the risk of seedling mortality based on soil characteristics. The soil properties listed on Web Soil Survey include flooding and erosion hazard, drought potential, and other characteristics of soil which could affect seedling suitability. Sites that have been in agricultural use may also need to have a soil sample taken and analyzed to see if there are residual effects from past practices that could negatively impact seedling establishment. This could include high levels of residual fertilizers or insufficient pH.

Another site characteristic that should be evaluated before selecting and ordering seedlings is existing vegetation in the area to be planted. Adequate site preparation should be planned before planting any area, whether a recent clearcut or an old field or pasture. Competition from grasses, herbaceous vegetation, or natural hardwood and pine regeneration can drastically reduce the survival rate of planted seedlings, requiring replanting at an additional expense.

Finally, impacts from wildlife can reduce seedling survival success. Feral hogs and white-tailed deer are usually the most destructive to newly planted pine and hardwood stands. Containerized longleaf seedlings are a favored food for feral hogs and can be destroyed by rooting and consumption. This can lead to complete planting failures if seedlings are not protected in areas where there are high feral hog populations. White-tailed deer will browse on hardwood seedlings and the buds on pine seedlings. Normally, the use of fencing or other exclusion devices such as tree shelters can be cost-prohibitive on larger reforestation areas.

Seedling Sources and Availability

Purchasing either pine or hardwood seedlings that come from a seed source that is fairly local to a planting area is one of the keys to a successful planting. South Carolina landowners are fortunate to have access to pine seedlings which are grown from genetically improved seed that was sourced from within the region, as well as a wide variety of native hardwood species. The decline in forest industry operated seedling nurseries in recent years has reduced the number of companies offering seedlings, but seedling availability has remained fairly consistent with other private nursery companies purchasing former industrial facilities. The availability of seedlings can be a factor when ordering species or varieties that are in high demand. As the demand for containerized pine seedlings has grown, most producers recommend ordering as soon as a reforestation or afforestation plan is finalized for the coming planting season. Popular hardwood species, such as those planted for wildlife benefit, can also sell out quickly. See table 1 for commonly available tree species sold in South Carolina.


The final consideration when deciding what seedlings to order is how much is budgeted for this expense. Keep in mind that there will also be an expense for planting. The price per pine seedling will vary greatly with the genetics of the seedlings ordered, and whether they are bareroot or containerized. Landowners should do some research into the potential productivity of the different varieties of seedlings that fit their reforestation budget and determine if the added expense of the superior genetics will provide them a greater economic return.

The options in genetics for pine seedlings continues to increase. Selecting from clonal seedlings, controlled mass pollinated, or open pollinated is a decision landowner now have to make when placing a seedling order. Clones, which are identical replications of a superior genetic stock, are the most expensive pine seedlings available. They are usually at least 3 times more expensive per thousand seedlings than controlled mass pollinated seedlings. Controlled mass pollinated seedlings are produced from female cones that have been fertilized with specific pollen from a known genetic source. These seedlings are about 2 times more expensive than open pollinated (OP) seedlings. OP seedlings come from a known seed source that is fertilized by windblown pollen. Therefore, only one-half of the genetic stock can be controlled. These are the most inexpensive pine seedlings to purchase.

The decision to order containerized or bareroot seedlings can be based on several factors. One of the primary reasons that containerized seedlings are chosen is due to their increased survival rate over bareroot seedlings. Other benefits of containerized pine seedlings are they extend the planting window and are easier to store for longer periods than bareroot seedlings. However, bareroot seedlings cost about 1/3 to 1/4 of what containerized seedlings and can be shipped and planted more cheaply. Therefore, they are a good choice on sites of moderate to high productivity and when planting will occur within the normal range of months (late November to midMarch). When planting hardwood seedlings, bareroot seedlings can be planted more easily than those that are potted, but potted seedlings tend to have better survival. It is best to avoid mail-order bareroot hardwood seedlings that come from rootstock outside of the region.

Planning for the reforestation or afforestation of a site should include careful consideration of seedling options available to a landowner. For assistance with seedling selection or for information on seedling nurseries, contact your local Clemson Extension Forestry and Natural Resources Team agent.


Barry J. Making Sense of Loblolly Pine Seedling Varieties. Fayetteville (AR): University of Arkansas Cooperative  Extension Service; 2011. [13 July 2020].

Radford A, Ahles H, Bell C. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill (NC): The University of North Carolina Press; 1968. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Columbia (SC): 2014. [13 July 2020]. USDA, NRCS. The Plants Database. Greensboro (NC); 2020. [13 July 2020].

Seedling Sources

SC Forestry Commission/ArborGen

  • 5 million seedlings grown for SC landowners at greatly discounted prices
  • Individual orders limited to 100,000 seedlings at discounted price
  • After sales cap reached, seedlings sold at normal ArborGen pricing
  • Containerized longleaf; other southern pines are bareroot Also sell a variety of hardwoods and Christmas tree species
  • Price guide available at:

International Forest Company (IFCO) – Moultrie, GA

  • Sales made through seedling advisors –
  • Bareroot and containerized southern pines
  • 1-800-633-4506

Weyerhaeuser – Aiken, SC

  • Bareroot loblolly and slash pine
  • Call Katie Vann for seedling availability and pricing – 252-633-7165

Private Nurseries – South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina

  • Bareroot and containerized loblolly and longleaf
  • Bareroot and potted hardwood


Table 1. Commonly available tree species sold in South Carolina.
Commonly Available Native Species Best Growth (Soils/Sites) General Native Range in SC
Baldcypress  Very wet soils and tolerates standing water  Coastal Zone, Coastal Plain
 Black Walnut  Deep, well-drained bottomland soils; north & east slopes and in coves on upland sites  Coastal Zone, Coastal Plain, Piedmont & Blue Ridge
 Chickasaw Plum  Sandy soils but tolerates heavy clays and clay-loams  Statewide except eastern Coastal Zone and Coastal Plain
 Dogwood  Range of soils except extremely dry or extremely wet  Statewide
 Eastern Red Cedar  Dry soils to moist, well-drained loamy soils  Western Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge
 Oak, Cherrybark  Loamy, well-drained bottomland soils but low tolerance for saturated soils or standing water  Southern Coastal Zone and Southern Coastal Plain; northern Pee Dee River basin
Oak, Live Moist, well-drained sandy and clay soils; tolerant to occasional flooding and drought Coastal Zone, Coastal Plain, and Sandhills
Oak, Red Well-drained sandy-loam and clay -loam soils on middle and lower north and east-facing slopes Piedmont and Blue Ridge
Oak, Shumard (Swamp Red Oak) Moist, well-drained loamy soils along streams and on river terraces; low tolerance for flooding Minor species
Oak, Swamp Chestnut Well-drained, silty clay and loam soils Coastal Zone and Coastal Plain
Oak, White Deep, moist, well-drained soils but can tolerate droughty soils and occasional saturation Statewide
Oak, Willow Moist, well-drained soils; in drier regions of state found in low areas along creek drains Statewide except western Piedmont
Persimmon Moist, well-drained soils but can tolerate droughty, poor soils Statewide
Pine, Loblolly Broad range of soils except in very wet or highly eroded shallow soils Coastal Zone, Coastal Plain, Sandhills, Piedmont
Pine, Longleaf Broad range of soils except poor drained or saturated; productive on deep sands Coastal Zone, Coastal Plain, Sandhills, Eastern Piedmont
Pine, Shortleaf Broad range of soils except those that are excessively drained Statewide except northern Sandhills and northern Coastal Plain
Pine, Virginia Well-drained clay and sandy loam soils; can tolerate poor, severely eroded sites Piedmont & Blue Ridge
Pine, White Range of well-drained soils, from light sand to heavy clays Blue Ridge
Southern Crabapple Well-drained, moist soils; in drier regions of state found in low areas along creek drains Southern Coastal Zone and Southern Coastal Plain; Sandhills
Sycamore Wide range of soils, including upland sites, but best growth on bottomland or riverine sites; can tolerate prolonged flooding Statewide
Yellow Poplar (Tulip Poplar or Tree) Well-drained, deep, moist soils; intolerant of heavy, droughty, or wet soils Southern Coastal Zone and Southern Coastal Plain; Sandhills, Piedmont, and Blue Ridge


This article was originally featured in the Summer 2020 Version of CU in The Woods newsletter.


Janet Steele, Cooperative Extension, Forestry and Wildlife Agent

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