Planting in your school forest

groups a female students standing by a planted tree.

Planting a variety of native trees, shrubs, and forbs in your school forest keeps your site healthy and resilient. Plants can attract wildlife, reduce erosion, provide shade and windbreaks, and make your site more comfortable and interesting to teach in. The sooner you plant, the sooner you create your own forest legacy.

We add plants to:

  • Reduce the number of invasive species that can resprout after a removal project.
  • Help a forest regenerate in a healthy way after a harvest.
  • Create an arboretum of a variety of species to learn tree identification.
  • Create natural outdoor "rooms" for learning (a grove of conifers for a reading spot, etc.)
  • Reduce erosion.
  • Attract desirable wildlife and pollinators.
  • Protect from cold winds and hot sunshine.
  • Enhance outdoor beauty and interest in all seasons.

What to plant

Refer to your woodland stewardship plan. If you don't have one, contact your local DNR Stewardship forester or soil and water conservation district forester for your county. If your school forest is on city land, contact your city forester.  Choose trees, shrubs, and forbs appropriate for your site.

Where to get plants

Tree seedlings and saplings

three boys adding mulch to a pine seedlingRegistered school forests can get free tree seedlings from the State Forest Nursery. You cannot order directly from the nursery; you must order through your DNR forester. Your forester will ensure that there is a plan in place to plant the right trees in the right places. These seedlings are quite small, always bare-root, and most appropriate for larger sites away from lawn mowers.

At urban school forests, saplings—not seedlings—are often a better fit. Ask your city forester or local soil and water conservation district for trees and shrubs. They may have money set aside to plant saplings for shade and community health.

Your local nursery may also be a source for donated plants, especially if you are looking for larger tree saplings that come in containers. Offer to post a sign thanking the nursery for their donation.

Forbs and grasses

A variety of interesting forbs, grasses, and shrubs grow in fields, prairies, wetlands, and forest floors. Students can learn a lot about Minnesota history, ecology, and indigenous life by studying plants.

A local prairie restoration group can also offer advice and plants.

How to plant tree seedlings

Will your plants survive? There are time-tested ways to make sure your trees and shrubs will thrive. Make sure your students and adult volunteers understand correct techniques using these resources:

Protect your new trees and shrubs

pine seedling with bud cap over the leader branch.Rabbits, deer, human vandals, and even well-meaning grounds staff can destroy your good work.
Communicate about your planting project with school leadership. Tell grounds staff what you will plant, where you will plant, and why. Post signs near projects to raise awareness and protect growing plants.
Use cages, tree tubes, and/or bud caps to protect new trees from children and animals if needed. A simple wrap around the trunk can ward off colonies of hungry rabbits in cold winters.


Teachable moments: Planting. young boy holding milk weed seed.

  • Teach students how to collect seeds in the fall to replant later.
  • To propagate native beneficial plants such as milkweed, bluestem, Solomon’s seal, serviceberry, etc., teach students how to collect seeds in the fall. The best time to collect the seed or berry is when it would fall off the plant naturally. Collect in small paper bags and show students where and how to scatter seeds. Lesson on seed dispersal
  • Try having students collect acorns or maple samaras ("helicopters") and plant them in soil in a paper cup. Students can record seed growth in their science notebooks and then plant them in your school forest after a few weeks. Even if the seedling never grows, the students will have learned something. How to plant acorns from The Old Naturalist
  • Use these lessons about how Dakota and Ojibwe people use plants such as paper birch, sweetgrass, dogwood, raspberries, cattail tubers, and wild rice.
  • If you are lucky enough to have a few or more mature maple trees (sugar, red, silver, and even box elder maple) try Wolf Ridge's Maple Syruping Lessons.

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