Finding Seedlings

Winter is time to buy tree seedlings and wildlife shrubs from Conservation Districts, the most available suppliers in Michigan.

   Buying tree seedlings may not be on the top of the “to-do” list during the middle of winter. Nevertheless, that’s when most of Michigan’s Conservation Districts distribute and post their catalogues. The stock is sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Ordering sooner, rather than later, is a good idea if you have a site ready for spring planting.

   Most counties are served by a Conservation District (, which is an organization that tries to serve local conservation needs. They have elected boards and are usually grant-driven. Tree seedling sales are an important fundraiser for many Districts. If your county doesn’t have such a seedling program, then maybe the next county does. Most have websites or Facebook pages.

   Of course, forest owners can buy directly from a tree nursery, which may be a good idea when thousands of seedlings are needed for reforestation. The Michigan DNR maintains a list of seedling nurseries. However, the advantage of buying through a Conservation District is that it’s nearby, the dollars support local conservation efforts and trees can be bought in smaller quantities. Most nurseries are geared-up for larger economies of scale. Some Districts have their own nursery.

   Orders are prepared by District employees and volunteers, then distributed from one or two locations within a county, on a spring date that is printed in the catalogues and on the District websites. Some Districts have a second round of tree seedling sales, using containerized stock, for the fall planting season. Keep in mind that planting only a few apple trees is a different deal than dozens (or more) of conifers or hardwoods.

   The spring seedling programs sell mostly “bare root” stock. The moist spring soil helps roots recover from being “pulled” from the nursery beds. The seedlings are usually available in different sizes and ages. The older seedlings are larger, have better survival potential, but are a bit more expensive and can be more difficult to plant. Seedlings might have the coding “2-0” or “3-1”.

   The first number indicates the age of the seedling, two years or three years, in this example. Smaller seedlings can be quickly planted using a planting bar. These bars are often sold at hardware stores. Some Districts rent planting bars for a nominal fee. Older, larger seedlings often require a shovel or a post-hole digger and more time and work. This becomes important when hundreds or thousands of seedlings are planted.

   The second digit is the number of growing seasons since the roots were pruned. Root pruning older seedling is important. Without the pruning, the bare-root stock will have long, gangly roots which are difficult to plant. A deeper hole is needed, as roots need to be in the ground straight-down. Curled or “j-rooted” seedlings result in health problems in the years ahead.

   For planting large areas, 2-0 or 2-1 stock is a standard selection. However, 3-0 or 3-1 stock will have less mortality. The trade-off is the ease of planting and that’s it’s a forest owner decision. For large plantings, scheduling a weekend with family and friends can be a rewarding experience.

   Containerized seedlings are grown in multi-celled styroblocks. They are usually only a year old and are smaller than bare-root seedlings. However, each seedling comes with a plug of soil. Because the tiny root hairs are intact at planting time, containerized stock often has higher survival rates. They can be planted at any time during the planting season, although fall is often preferred.

   Another consideration in buying tree seedlings is whether or not the stock has been inoculated with mycorrhiza. These fungi work symbiotically with root systems, helping roots absorb water and nutrients, in exchange for sugars produced by the tree. These fungi are usually endemic to a wide variety of soils, but inoculated stock can be a good idea in heavily-disturbed sites, such as old farm fields.

   It takes time and money to grow tree seedlings for sale. Growers need to anticipate market demand. Conservation Districts work as a block to make arrangements with nurseries. Winter sales allows Districts to better purchase the correct number and species mix of seedlings. Over the years, trends have been developed to help nurseries decide what to grow, leading to more efficient operations.

   For the more ambitious, tree seedlings can be transplanted from the woods to more desirable locations. However, this is a lot more work and legal access is needed.

   If tree planting is on your list of springtime things-to-do, then Conservation Districts are good sources of stock. Of course, there’s a whole lot more to planting trees than buying seedlings. Survival also involves proper planting techniques and site preparation. Also, there’s always the weather during that first growing season. Nothing can be done about weather variability, but choosing tree species that suit a particular site and then following recommended planting, spacing and protection practices (these are important!), will increase survival rates of planted trees.

   Tree planting is a risky endeavor, usually engaged by optimists. It’s hard work with no guarantees, but the rewards are great.


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