Tips and Tricks: Planting Trees for Wildlife

Grandaddy planted the first sawtooth oaks on “The Place” the year I was born, 1985. I spent much of my early childhood tagging along in the woods being an impediment to habitat improvement projects for my elders. In hindsight, they were graciously kind and eternally patient with a kid who was not old enough help and certainly an obstacle to progress. Needless to say, I learned a lot while being completely oblivious to my education and the glowing ember planted inside of me that would be fanned to flame. I was taught to decipher tree species, their functions, and purposes. Collecting and planting tree seeds, raising seedlings, and then planting and maintaining them were as routine as scouting, target shooting, hanging stands, clearing shooting lanes, planting food plots and all of the other countless tasks that go into consistent, successful hunting. Now, in my adult years, studying, growing, and planting trees as part of my hunting plans has evolved into an obsession, and the profession of habitat improvement. All of that is to say, I have learned from a lifetime of successes and mistakes when it comes to planting trees for wildlife. Below is a list of tips and tricks, in no particular order of importance, to keep in mind when you are planting trees.

  • Diversify – Take the time to inventory your naturally available mast bearing trees and concentrate your plantings on diversifying not only the type of mast but the times that mast are available. Plant a variety of trees. There is no silver bullet for trees for wildlife.
    And “the best tree” varies depending on soil types, existing species, and project goals.
  • Plan – When deciding where to plant it is important to keep in mind soil preferences for the species you are planting. Also, understand how large your tree will get. Do not make the mistake of worrying about the tree being in bow range of your stand. There is nothing worse than having to cut down a healthy mature tree because it now blocks the view of your food plot or shooting lanes.
  • Source trees locally – Buy local. Ask where nursery stock comes from. Preferably you would purchase stock propagated and raised in the zone in which you intend to plant it or at least no more than a couple zones north or south.
  • Plant Native plants – Non-natives often out compete native species and become invasive.
  • Group trees by fruit/nut drop time at hunting locations – For example, we often plant sawtooth oak, dwarf chinkapin oak, native persimmon, chinese chestnut, keiffer pear, jiro persimmon, and dolgo crabapples at early season bow stands because all of these species bear fruit from late September- October. By diversifying and planting multiple species with similar drop times all of the preferred food sources are in one place at a time, in front of your stand!
  • Plant in full sun – Trees need sunlight to grow and produce mast. The more sunlight your trees receive, the faster they will grow and produce.
  • Dig holes bigger than needed – Dig your hole bigger around than the root ball. This allows room for tender fibrous roots to flourish because they are not restricted by over compacted soil.
  • Plant at the right time – This cannot be stressed enough. Plant container trees from dormancy thru March and bare root seedlings from December thru mid-March. Everything being equal, container trees planted from Nov-March have the highest survival rate.
  • Plant bare root ASAP – A tree’s roots being exposed to air is like our brains being deprived of oxygen. The longer it occurs the worse the damage. If you cannot plant bare root seedlings right away mound them into a dirt pile.
  • Tree tubes – Put a tree tube on EVERY tree. Tree tubes are insurance against browsing, rubbing, and complacent tractor drivers! They promote fast growth and production.
  • Mark trees – If you cannot use a tree tube use liberal amounts of flagging tape to mark the tree. This helps to locate the tree for maintenance and as visual aid for tractor drivers.
  • Control weed competition – The biggest obstacle you face to successful seedling establishment is weed competition. Mulch, weed, or spray herbicide regularly during the growing season for the first several years after planting.
  • Fertilizer – Do not worry about fertilizing your trees. Now, do not hear me wrong, fertilizing can be a good thing and can certainly help your trees grow quicker and produce more. For the application of planting trees for hunting, I am of the opinion that your time and money are better spent on other projects. You are not raising commercial mast crops, you are trying to put food on the ground for wildlife and your trees will do that naturally. Put that fertilizer on a green briar patch or spend the time on a controlled burn. As it applies to wildlife management you just get more benefit using your resources another way. Over fertilization can kill a tree or cause it to grow too fast and make it susceptible to fire blight. Fruit trees are especially prone to fire blight after rapid growth. If you really want to fertilize wait until the second year and use a low dose or slow release fertilizer in early spring and mid-summer.
  • Prune – Prune the lower half of hardwoods annually to promote vertical growth. Prune fruit trees annually for the first 3-5 years to build healthy scaffolding branch structure and every other year after that to improve fruit production. Always prune while trees are dormant in the late winter. Always prune with a sharp tool. Use bypass pruners which cut cleanly through material as opposed to anvil pruners which can damage a tree. It is a good idea to sterilize pruners before and after each use to prevent the transfer of disease from one tree to another.