Hesperian Health Guides

Planting Trees

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 11: Restoring Land and Planting Trees > Planting Trees

Under the right conditions, planting trees helps restore damaged lands and provide firewood, timber, food for people and for animals, and medicine. Planting trees can make land that is poor and barren become rich and fertile again. But trees planted in harsh conditions need care to grow well. Tree planting has many benefits, but it is not right for all areas or all communities (see “Use everyone’s knowledge, consider everyone’s needs,” an activity that can help decide whether to plant trees). There are several ways to grow trees:

A tall tree next to 2 seedlings.
  • Plant seeds or cuttings (pieces of a branch) directly into the ground.
  • Collect and transplant wild seedlings.
  • Grow tree seedlings in a nursery and then transplant them into the ground.
  • Graft (attach) a cutting from a tree you want onto the root stock of another tree. (Grafting is usually used to grow fruit trees and is not covered in this book.)

The method you choose depends on what trees you want to plant, and what seeds or cuttings are available.

Selecting seeds or cuttings

Many people have sayings such as, “Like the parent, so will be the child.” Just as a child whose parents are tall will also likely grow tall, a tree seedling whose “parent” has a straight trunk that is good for lumber, or produces useful medicine, is likely to share those same qualities. It is best to collect seeds or cuttings from parent trees that are healthy and have the qualities you want. If you cannot collect seeds in your area, you may be able to get seeds from an extension agent, or from a nursery or garden in a nearby town.

Preparing seeds for planting

Some seeds, usually those with soft coverings and which are mealy or juicy, must be planted soon after they are collected. Other seeds may need to be stored for many months before you will plant them.

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Most seeds need water to sprout. When a seed is covered with a thick or hard skin it may also need to be softened or cut before the water can soak in. Some seeds may need more treatment before planting.

  • If the seed covering is not too hard (you can dent or break it with your fingernail) and not too thick (not thicker than the cover of this book), plant it directly into moist soil.
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  • If the covering is hard but thin, wrap the seeds in a piece of cloth. Let them soak for 1 minute in water that is too hot to touch, but not yet boiling (80 degrees C). Take them out of the hot water and quickly put them in cool water to soak overnight. Plant them the next day.
  • Another way to treat seed coverings that are hard but thin is to soak seeds in cold water for 1 full day, then cover them with moist cloth sacks for another 24 hours. Repeat this procedure for 6 days. On the 7th day, plant the seed.
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  • If the covering is hard and thick, rub the seeds with a piece of rough stone or sandpaper until you see the soft, inside part of the seed. Be careful not to rub too deep and damage the seed.

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  • If the seed covering is soft but thick, cut a thin strip of the covering away from the soft inside of the seed, being careful to cut the seed as little as possible.
  • Some hard-coated seeds are best treated by soaking overnight in water mixed with cow dung, then dried in the sun for 1 day. Repeat this process for 3 to 4 days. The good seeds will sprout and be ready for planting. The seeds that do not sprout can be discarded.

Some seeds need more complicated treatments, such as being heated in a low fire, chilled, or being eaten and passed by animals. Experiment to find what works best. After many attempts, you will be an expert at starting tree seeds.

Preparing tree cuttings

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Plant cutting at this angle
3 to 4 nodes underground
Roots grow from nodes underground

Some trees grow best by putting a cutting in the soil and watering it until it grows roots and leaves. Trees grown from cuttings usually produce fruit or seeds sooner than trees grown from seeds.

Some cuttings can be planted directly into the soil where you want the tree to grow. Others should be planted in a nursery until they have sprouted plenty of leaves and roots and can survive on their own.

Make cuttings from the middle of a branch where the wood does not bend too much but is not too rigid. Select a piece with about 6 to 10 “nodes” (bumps on the branch where the leaf grows or used to grow.) Gently remove the leaves, being careful not to damage the nodes. Cut the branch at an angle instead of straight across, to help roots form properly.

Whether the cuttings have been planted in a nursery or directly into the ground, be sure they have plenty of water and are protected from pests until they have grown enough roots to find water on their own.

Transplanting wild seedlings

A woman kneels to dig up a seedling
Collecting seedlings from the
forest to transplant

Another way to create a forest is to dig up wild tree seedlings and replant them where you want them to grow. Find healthy parent trees and choose seedlings growing near or under them.

Dig up small seedlings, careful not to damage the main, long tap root. If this root is damaged, the tree will not grow well. Dig in a circle around the seedling and as deep as you think the tap root has grown. Use your hand or a tool to bring the seedling up without shaking off the soil around the roots.

Keep the soil around the roots of the tree seedling moist until it is planted in the ground. Continue watering it until its roots have grown into its new place and it can find water for itself.

Growing trees in a nursery

Tree nurseries give trees a healthy start before they are transplanted to other places. But creating and caring for a nursery can be a lot of work. It makes sense to grow trees in a nursery when:

  • The seeds or cuttings of the trees you want to plant are scarce.
  • Pests would damage the young trees if they were not protected.
  • People have enough time to take care of the nursery.

Planting trees directly is easier than growing them first in a nursery and transplanting them. However, many more tree seedlings die using the direct method than when you grow them in a nursery.

When to start trees

The time of year you plant will depend on how long the trees need to be in the nursery. If your area has a wet and a dry season, plant your trees just as the wet season starts so you will not have to water them as much. Most trees need 3 to 4 months in the nursery before they are big enough to plant outside.

Where to put a tree nursery

A nursery should be easy to get to and available for as long as it takes for tree seedlings to grow and be transplanted. It should also be accessible to everyone who will work there.

Every nursery needs these things:

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A water source and a way to store water
Safe tool storage
A place where soil can be mixed and containers filled
Protection from too much sun, rain, and wind
A fence to keep out large animals and vandals
Space for all the seedlings
Level ground or terraces if on a hillside

Growing tree seedlings in containers

Growing tree seedlings in containers makes them easy to transport and to plant. Containers should be wide and deep enough to allow the seedling to grow a root ball, but not so big that they are very heavy or soak up more water than the tree will need.

The longer a seedling needs to be in the nursery, the bigger the container should be. A good size for most trees is about 6 inches wide at the top and 9 inches deep. They should be strong enough to stand upright when filled with soil, and have holes to allow excess water to drain out.

Seedlings in different types of containers.
Containers that will rot (newspaper, leaves, cardboard) can be planted directly in the ground along with the seedling. Containers made of plastic, glass, or wood must be removed before planting, but can be used again many times.
Young tree seedling need to be protected against too much sun. Many grow best under some shade during the heat of the day.

Soil for planting

The soil used for planting should be loose so the roots of the young trees do not rot. It should also be rich in nutrients so the trees will grow well. Soil from the forest or from bends in rivers or streams is very good for young trees.

With a shovel, a man tosses soil against a large screen.
2 parts river sand
1 part rich, black soil or compost
2 parts regular soil
Sifting plant soil

How to plant seeds or cuttings in containers

  1. Water your planting soil the day before you plant so it will be moist but not wet. Treat the seeds before planting, but not so long before that they will begin to sprout or rot. Fill your containers with soil.
  2. A watering can sprinkles a container.

  3. To plant very small seeds, scratch the surface of the soil, sprinkle 5 or 10 seeds, and cover them very lightly with dirt by scratching the soil again with a fork or stick.
    To plant larger seeds, make a hole in the center of the soil about 2 to 3 times as deep as the width of the seed. You may want to plant more than one seed in each container. Cover the seeds with dirt and press down lightly. Pressing the dirt removes air pockets where fungus could grow.
  4. Water the containers after planting. If the seeds are very small, this must be done carefully so the seeds are not washed away.
  5. When the seeds have sprouted 1 or 2 leaves, choose the seedling that looks strongest and cut away any others, leaving one seedling in each container. By cutting the seedlings you do not want rather than pulling them out, you will not disturb the roots of the seedling you do want.

Watering tree seedlings

Illustration of the below: A drooping seedling next to an upright seedling.
This tree needs water.
This tree has enough water.

Watering tree seedlings is one of the most important activities in a nursery. Water your trees in a way that gently sprinkles the water like rain, instead of in a single stream like a tap that might wash away soil and uncover roots.

The amount of water a seedling needs depends on how deep its roots have grown. Water seedlings as soon as their leaves begin to droop. But it is best that they never get to this point, because it is stressful for the plant.

Until seedlings have 2 or 3 leaves, water whenever the top of the soil appears completely dry.

Then, until they have 5 or 6 leaves, water when the soil is dry as deep as the fingernail on your thumb.

Then, until the roots push against the bottom of the container, water when the soil is dry as deep as the first joint of your thumb.

Weeding and fertilizing

Weeds compete with tree seedlings for light, water, and nutrients from the soil. A few small weeds in a container will do no harm. But if there are more, cut them away at their base to not break up the soil.

If your soil is fertile, seedlings should get the nutrients they need. If fertilizer is needed, make natural fertilizer from manure, compost, or urine.

Transplanting seedlings

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Distance between trees
Distance between trees
Distance between trees
Planting in a triangular design allows many trees to grow in a small area.

When the roots of the seedlings begin to push through the bottom of the containers (usually 3 to 4 months after planting) it is time to transplant them. If you cannot plant at this time, trim the roots back once a week. This helps the tree form a full ball of roots in the container and keeps it from rooting in the ground.

A month before planting, gradually remove the shade over the seedlings until they have the same amount of sun as the site where they will be planted. This gets the seedlings used to the sunnier and drier conditions of the planting site.

The day before planting, water the seedlings so the containers will be wet. Transport them carefully, being sure not to damage the roots. Mark where you want to plant each seedling. The distance between trees depends on the type of tree and the reason for planting. As a general rule, plant trees so their branches will just touch when full grown.

Clean all weeds or brush that might shade the seedlings or compete with them for water in a 1 meter circle around the planting area. Plant in early morning or the cool hours of the late afternoon to protect the trees from sun. Avoid damaging or drying out the roots while planting.

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Dig square holes 1½ times as deep as the containers. Round holes prevent roots from reaching into the surrounding soil. Fill the hole with soil so the base of the trunk will be level with the ground when the hole is filled. You may want to add a few handfuls of compost or rich, black soil to help the tree get started. After planting, soak the soil around the tree with water.

Transplanting in difficult places

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In dry places, make small hollows
around trees to catch water.
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Dig a 1 meter circle above where the three will be planted and form a flat terrace.
Build a small barrier to prevent the terrace from washing away.
On steep slopes, make a small terrace for each tree.
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On slopes make V-shaped ridges of soil downhill from the tree to catch rainwater.

Caring for young trees

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Make barriers to protect young trees.

A tree needs to be protected through its first year of life. Many tree planting projects fail because no one takes care of the young trees.

If the weather is hot and dry, seedlings need to be watered first once a day, and then every 2 or 3 days. After a few weeks, the tree roots should find water. But if the weather is still hot and dry, water as the trees need it.

Cut back weeds until the tree is taller than the weeds. If animals or children might damage the young trees, construct barriers around the trees.

If a tree is not growing well, or the leaves look yellow or unhealthy, it may help to spread natural fertilizer in a circle as wide as the tree branches.