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Forest trees are typically planted between the months of December and February. During this optimum time, dormant bare-root seedlings are lifted from the nursery and kept in cold storage for a short period of time until they can be planted. Ideally, cooler winter weather will naturally keep seedlings dormant for a month or two after they are planted. Alabama winters are also usually somewhat wetter than other times of the year. That increased rainfall usually makes for easier planting and improved soil water availability to trees in the spring. Warm weather and heavy rain have caused concern for some this planting season. Some nurseries have not had enough cold days to safely lift the trees and have therefore delayed sending out seedlings for planting. But this could be a blessing in disguise.
Of greater concern are the devastating storms that have impacted much of Alabama in December, 2015. Some areas of the state received between 9 and 13 inches of rain the week of Christmas, and that was followed by even more rain this week. Low-lying areas have flooded and soils are saturated even on many upland sites. What does this mean for landowners who have already planted seedlings or plan to? Once the water recedes from flooded areas, and it is safe to visit your forest, landowners should check for the following things.
If your seedlings are already in the ground:
1) Check to see that trees are upright – Areas that have been subsoiled can channel water flow in rips or furrows. The force of the flow can knock seedlings over or wash them out of the ground. For small seedlings like longleaf pines, make sure that the bud has not been covered by soil, as this can limit survival.
2) Check for erosion – Look for areas where soil may have been eroded by extended periods of heavy rains.
3) Look for areas of “ponding” – Low-lying areas may hold water for extended periods of time. This can cause tree mortality.
4) As temperatures drop below freezing, look for evidence of “frost heave” - Frost heaving (or frost heave) is caused when moisture in soils freeze and water in the soil expands. This expansion forces the soil upward. While it does not happen often, this upward force in saturated soils can push newly planted trees out of the ground.
5) Before the end of February, conduct a post-planting audit of your site to estimate how many seedlings per acre are “free-to-grow” and get an estimate of damage, if any.
If you have not yet planted:
1) Check all roads and culverts to make sure that your forest can safely accessed by planting crews.
2) Check your site for erosion – Areas that have been heavily site prepared are most susceptible to erosion from heavy rain. Look to see that furrows or rips are still useable planting areas.
3) Wait to plant if soils are saturated – Rips and furrows tend to stay wet longer making them more difficult to plant. J-rooting of seedlings during planting is common in saturated soils. It is also common for tree planters to tend to plant outside, or to the side of, rips and furrows in saturated soils. This is not an acceptable practice so it is best to wait until soils have a chance to dry. There is still plenty of time left in this current planting season.
4) Contact your planting contractor and/or the seedling nursery where you ordered seedlings. Let them know if your site is too wet to plant now, and arrange for alternate times to reforest.
Regardless of when you planted, it is a good idea to conduct a survival audit after the first growing season in October or November of this year. Based on the results of this audit, you can determine first year survival and decide if you need to replant any areas that do not meet your planting targets.
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