Organizing a Tree Planting Day

students planting seedling

How do I keep seedlings fresh? When should I dig the holes? How deep should the holes be? How many buckets? Do I really need gloves? Details, details, details! Setting up a spring planting day can be an easy, fun, and memorable experience. A tree planting day can engage student learning, involve community volunteers, create a future forest, and create memories. (Many students return to visit "their" tree for decades.)

Here is a guide to keep you on track and prevent getting overwhelmed.

  • Be sure all students and volunteers know how to plant trees. Print and distribute copies of How to Plant a Seedling.
  • Don't let the roots dry out on planting day. Keep the seedlings in the shade, and the roots damp until you are ready to put them in the ground. Please resist the urge to keep them in buckets of water. This can spread root fungus. Many School Forests keep trees in the plastic bag and box from the DNR Nursery in the shade and keep the roots damp with wet towels or occasional water spritzing. If you are planting hundreds of seedlings, make sure someone is monitoring the seedlings on planting day.
  • To dig or not to dig in advance? For younger children, it might be helpful to dig holes in advance. A shovel or auger can be used for this. Consider having older students prep holes for younger students or pair older and younger students to ensure you have enough muscle to make each hole.
  • What about the long roots? Two options:
    1. Dig holes deep enough to put all the root straight down preferred.
    2. Trim the roots. Using scissors, trim roots to be at least 8 inches or as long as the above-ground portion, whichever is longer. Trimming can be done the morning of planting or as the trees are being planted.
  • Don't J root! Place the seedlings in the hole, so all of the roots are straight down in the hole. If the roots are curling back up from the bottom of the hole and making a "J," the roots can grow up and kill the tree.
  • Stomp out the air. Be sure to heel in each seedling. Lightly stomp around each seedling to make sure the soil is in good contact with all the roots. Soil-to-root contact allows for nutrients to be exchanged and keep the tree alive.
  • Develop a watering plan, if necessary. Mulching helps reduce the amount of watering needed to keep the trees alive.
  • Consider leaving up some of your flagging tape or stakes to alert maintenance to the newly planted trees. This reduces the risk of trees being mowed.

Start gathering materials in early spring or whenever you have time. Store them at your school to be ready for planting day.

  • Planting Plan
  • Flagging tape and stakes to mark where to plant seedlings or mark boundaries
  • Seedlings
  • Place or way to keep seedlings cool and roots damp until planting day
  • 5-gallon pails or buckets for moving seedlings, water, or mulch
  • Scissors for trimming long roots
  • Shovels and/or planting bars
  • Water, hose
  • Mulch
  • Mulch movers: pitchforks, shovels, or wheelbarrows
  • First aid kit
  • Drinking water for volunteers (tell students and volunteers to bring water bottles)
  • Optional: Gloves
  • Make or re-visit your planting plans with your DNR forester. You may designate certain areas of your School Forest for specific purposes: perhaps one section planted in conifers to create a windbreak, another section planted with various species for tree id, or another section of plants to encourage wildlife. Set priorities and pick one to focus on this year. Rome wasn't built in a day.
  • Consider: How you will care for your seedlings after planting, during the first summer, and beyond. Are you able to water regularly? Are you ok with increased seedling mortality if you cannot water?
  • Some seedlings will die, no matter what. Is your school ok with that? What can you do to minimize sadness in younger students? Or will it not be an issue?
  • Keep appropriate maintenance staff, administrators, teachers, and/or neighbors in the loop about your plans.
Early spring
  • February/March: Contact your DNR forester to get free Arbor Month seedlings.
  • Set a planting day and a bad weather backup date.
  • Contact enough volunteers for planting day help (parents, grandparents, Master Gardeners or Naturalists, etc.). You know your students: consider the appropriate adult/student ratio you think you'll need.
  • Consider how to water the seedlings within a few hours after being planted. If it is a hot and dry spring, can watering be done daily or weekly?
  • Find a place to keep seedlings cool and roots damp until planting day.
  • Figure out how you will get materials: shovels, buckets, mulch, wheelbarrows, etc.
  • Set up a supplies and materials storage area.
  • Identify a solid source for mulch. Make arrangements for delivery or pick up.
  • Share planting plan with volunteers. People should understand how their work contributes to the big picture.
Prep Day

(1-2 weeks before planting)

  • Before planting day, store your seedlings in a cool, shaded place. Keep the roots damp, not wet. Many School Forests store them in a refrigerator or a cool garage/outbuilding under blankets. Bare-root seedlings from the DNR Nursery should come in a plastic bag. Check every few days. Add moisture, as needed, with damp towels or spritz with a water bottle, then reclose the bag.
  • Check your materials; confirm that you have enough buckets, shovels, etc.
  • Confirm your mulch source and arrange for delivery or pick-up.
  • Identify good areas of shade to store your seedlings on planting day. With little leaf cover and spring sun, it can be tricky. Remember to check your seedlings throughout the day and shift their location to keep your main supply in the shade.
  • Set out flagging tape and stakes to indicate where you want seedlings planted. You may choose to mark each planting spot when working with younger children. Or section off an area and indicate planting density for older students.
  • Remind all students that they need to dress appropriately. That means: wear clothing that can get dirty and closed-toe footwear. Have a backup plan to deal with students who arrive unprepared.
  • Set up a schedule that includes when different classrooms/ages will be there and how groups will rotate or do a station format. Giving volunteers a schedule will help them better use their prep time between groups and be more comfortable with the day.
  • Assign adult volunteers to student groups. You may assign some groups to specific tasks such as watering or mulching. Or you may assign all tasks to small groups of students, so each student has a turn at digging, planting, watering, and mulching.
  • Send volunteers an email that includes: seedling planting instructions; confirms the date, arrival time, location; a brief reminder of expectations; the schedule; and a sketch of the planting site. Remind them to wear proper footwear, clothing to get dirty, and bring a water bottle and sun protection.
  • Optional: Invite the local media.
Planting Day
  • Ensure flagging tape/stakes you set out earlier are still in position.
  • Assemble tools in appropriate spots.
  • Assemble a drinking water station.
  • Have volunteers arrive before the students. Important: Show adults how to plant a seedling correctly.
  • Direct volunteers to their task area. Guide on working with students. Teachers should be present and handle discipline.
  • Instruct students on seedling planting. This is most effective when done in small groups. Ideally, volunteers will show students how to plant trees.
  • Be sure to use the DNR seedling planting instructions and check out the tips section of this website.
  • Put the roots in the dirt, and have fun!

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