Clemson Extension Forestry and Wildlife

Identifying Common Longleaf Pine Planting Mistakes

Longleaf seedlings. Photo credit: David Dickens, University of Georgia,
Longleaf seedlings. Photo credit: David Dickens, University of Georgia,

Successfully planting longleaf pine requires attention to detail. Recognizing mistakes may mean the difference between moving forward with a successful stand or starting over. Here is what you should be looking for:

It is highly recommended that you work with your planting contractor so that you can check in during the planting process. If you’re not able to inspect during planting, a planting inspection should be made within 48 hours, but no later than 5-10 days following planting. Timely inspection will allow you to hold the contractor(s) accountable should there be any issues.

Were the seedlings planted to the correct spacing? This may be crucial if you are enrolled in a cost-sharing program that requires a certain planting density to qualify for funding.  Longleaf seedlings can be quite picky when it comes to planting depth. Most seedlings being planted are containerized stock so that is what we will focus on here. The most important thing to ensure is that the terminal bud is not below soil level. Generally, the seeding should be planted to ensure the terminal bud will be left exposed. Conversely, it is also important to avoid planting too shallow, as this can lead to excessive drying of the seedling and lead to mortality.

There are specialized tools for use when planting containerized seedlings. The tool and planting method must match the shape and length of the containerized plug. Creating too large of a hole can allow seedlings to dry out once planted, and too shallow of a hole leads to seedlings being planted too shallow or creating additional issues with the root system such as J or U rooting. In these cases, the taproot is forced into the hole but allowed to fold and either turn parallel to the ground’s surface or turn upright, pointing towards the sky. In both cases, poor survival or less than favorable future growth will become an issue. Also, if the seedling is not heeled-in properly, it could be too loose in the soil, which leads to drying of the roots. This can be tested by grabbing 4-5 needles and firmly tugging on the seedling. There should be no free movement of the seedling in the soil. It is also important that the seedlings be upright and no more than 30 degrees from it. If additional holes are created in the process of heeling-in, they must be stomped in as well.

When inspecting your planting, you should be observant and take note of other potential issues. In fields that were scalped prior to planting, consider potential soil movement relative to the seedlings planting depth. A seedling planted with the terminal bud at the soil level has a high potential to be covered up as soil moves back into the scalped row.  Discarded roots may indicate that the plugs were trimmed, which is not acceptable. Seedlings planted in a subsoil furrow or rip may be prone to drying out and/or having their buds covered as the seedlings settle in the furrow. Seedlings should be planted to the side of the rip instead. Evaluate site prep activities and control of competing vegetation such as Bermuda grass or other pines.

A survival check needs to be made either during the fall or early winter following planting. It can be especially important if you are enrolled in a cost-sharing program that requires a minimum density. This step looks at the area planted as a whole to determine the number of seedlings still alive versus those that died. It is rare to see 100% survival. In fact, most successful stands have survival rates of 80% or higher. There are many ways to conduct a survival check, but one of the simplest ways is to walk across the rows in several areas and, as you approach a row, examine five seedlings and note whether they are alive or dead. These numbers can be tracked by using tally counters to count all living and dead seedlings at each row you cross out of the five trees examined. It is important that you walk across the stand in several different areas so that areas such as poor soils, poor drainage, heavy competition, etc., are included. Once you are satisfied you have covered enough area, simply divide the total number of living seedlings by the total number of seedlings counted (living and dead).

Planting acreage to pines can represent a substantial investment to landowners. It is important to evaluate planting success in order to learn from past mistakes (if doing the planting yourself) or to hold accountable the professionals you are paying to do the job. Successful planting efforts benefit everybody involved. By following the procedures outlined above, your chances of success will be improved.


Ryan Bean, Cooperative Extension, Forestry and Wildlife Agent

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