Thread: starting seedlings in containers

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  1. #1

    Join Date
    May 2009
    Hickory, NC

    starting seedlings in containers

    I'm trying to obtain some information about planting bare-root trees in containers to start them off and "nurse" them until ready to plant in the ground. I'm wondering why there's little information about this on the net...

    I recently obtained red maple, pignut hickory, river birch and black tupelo (black gum) bare-root seedlings at my city's Arbor Day celebration. We've had little luck with such seedlings in the past, mainly due to lack of time and care by us. Recently, however, I discovered a hidden passion within me and a commitment to planting and caring for my yard and environment. I'd like to make sure these seedlings take and grow, and wondered if maybe they'd do better in containers to start with.

    There's information in the Arbor Day literature about starting the seedlings off in a "sheltered" location to start off with, where they will be protected against the elements the first year or two. This is what I'm trying to accomplish with the container idea. I'd find it easier to care for the seedlings if they are all together in a protected area, easily movable if outdoor conditions change.

    I live in zone 7. My front yard where I want to plant my trees gets a lot of strong winds and full sun. I went ahead and planted the 4 seedlings in containers which I placed in a more protected area behind my house. This way they are getting partial sun and protection against the wind (and my husband's mower). The seedlings are doing very well, all having gotten leaves after a few weeks. I'm not sure, however, when is the right time to plant them in the ground; how long I can keep them in containers; what to do with them when colder overnight temperatures come in the fall/winter months. Also trying to obtain the info so I know how to proceed with the 10 free ADF seedlings I am to receive in Nov. I really want to see them succeed.

    Thoughts? Advice? Thanks!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Western NY, Zone 6

    RE: starting seedlings in containers

    I've done this myself, as well as some other members of the forum who post here regularly. Starting tress in pots, from my experience, is not only perfectly fine, but also seems to give the trees a head start and a better chance for survival once they are transplanted into the ground to their permanent locations. It's a great way to give yourself some time before planting, and carefully consider where to plant each tree based on its size and spread when it matures.

    Make sure the pot/container is large enough to handle the tree you're planting, some trees will root quickly and become pot-bound faster than others. For example, that River Birch will root quickly, so the earlier you get that into the ground, the better.

    You should consider the pots *temporary*, a few months of growth in the containers should be fine. You need to keep the pots constantly watered so that they don't dry out, it's also good to shade the pots so that the soil doesn't become too warm. You can plant containerized/potted trees at any time, though waiting for cooler and wetter weather to transplant (such as the Fall) would be more optimal than planting them in the middle of a hot, dry heat wave. If you decide to leave your trees in pots through the Winter season, dig up an area in the ground where you can surround the pots with soil so that they don't freeze all the way through during the Winter (which would kill the trees).

    Last year, I started my 5 Hybrid Poplars saplings in pots, all of them grew nicely in the pots and I transplanted them by mid Summer (we had a wet, cool Summer last year) into their permanent locations. They continued to grow after planting them in the ground, and all but 1 survived the Winter. This year, I started my Sugar Maples (bought 10 saplings from my county) in 2 gallon containers, I've already transplanted half of them into the ground and they seem to be doing fine. How long you leave your trees in pots should depend on the size of the container - I've been told that 1 month per gallon is usually a safe bet. So, in a 10-15 gallon pot, a young sapling tree (unless it is very fast growing) should not out-grow the container or become badly pot-bound over the course of a year.

  3. #3

    Join Date
    May 2009
    Hickory, NC

    RE: starting seedlings in containers

    Awesome, thanks for the info!

    I was surprised to read your advice to keep them in the containers only a few months; I was thinking more of a year, but can understand the fear of the tree getting root-bound. I wanted to firstly make sure the tree survives before I dig a hole in my yard and also wait until they are large enough to not look goofy and may get run over by my husband who doesn't share as much of a passion for this, though I imagine this can easily get addressed with a large mulch island around the seedling.

    I figured I'd plant the 4 seedlings late this fall, unless they'd have a better chance of survival through the winter in the containers in my garage or something (thoughts?). I never thought or heard of the idea of keeping them in containers but in the ground; do you think that's a better idea than putting them in the ground or keeping in the garage? Also, on the 10 ADF seedlings due to arrive in Nov -- what's my best course of action, in your opinion? I worry about another harsh winter which could be an issue for both container and ground planted seedlings. Is containers in the garage near a sunny uncovered window a good course of action at all?

    Thanks again for the advice and for sharing your experience!

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Western NY, Zone 6

    RE: starting seedlings in containers

    Read through this thread I created regarding Fall planting failures. If you're receiving a bunch of ADF trees in the Fall, I would definitely suggest planting them in containers until you see their buds swell up and leaf out the following spring. Otherwise, as you noted, why bother planting it in the ground (only to have it die months later)? You'll save yourself some work/hassle by starting them off in pots and letting them stay there while they are dormant. Storing them in the garage is probably ok - just make sure you keep the soil moist in the containers, don't let them dry out.

    I've had terrible luck with Fall plantings, our Winters are too harsh and windy, seedlings generally don't survive the Winter season in my area. I will never plant bare root saplings ever again in the Fall, I refuse to waste my time in doing so again. From here on out, I'll only buy saplings in the Spring, or I'll buy trees in containers which have grown for a few years.

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