How to plant a tree, Milkwood style

1403 pdc treeplant01 Planting a tree is a simple act. But, as we’ve learned on a site that’s sometimes less-than-welcoming to tree establishment, there’s ways, and there’s ways that work.

Last week, with our Permaculture Design Course students, we planted oak trees. And for this site, there needs to be a little more involved than poking holes in the ground and inserting acorns into them…  1403 pdc treeplant02

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How to plant a tree, Milkwood style

- Dig a hole twice as deep and wide as the pot of the seedling you’re planting. This creates a loose soil zone around the root ball for easy growth and good water holding ability

- sprinkle a small handful of gypsum in the hole. Gypsum starts breaking up the clay around the edge of the planting hole to help new roots penetrate outwards

- Mix up spadeful of compost with the soil you’ve removed from the hole, at a ratio of about 1:5. To this mix add a handful of trace mineral dust or mycorrhizal tree starter, if you can get your hands on some

- Insert a few spadefuls of that mix you made into the hole

- loosen roots of potted plant a little, especially if tightly bound.

- put plant in hole and push remaining dirt mixture in and around, pushing down firmly with your fingers.

- If we’re talking a big hole here, water it in as you backfill with soil mixture. This will help things settle properly without air pockets.

- mulch planting hole and surround, leaving a small open ring at trunk

- mulching right up to the trunk can cause fungal problems in some plants.

- Water intermittently (maybe every week or so) if it’s especially dry in the first month after you planted your tree.

Big thanks to Brendan Morse for his contributions above and leading this tree plantathon.

Notes of growing Oaks in non-oaky places

Oaks are a fantastic tree, for all sorts of reasons – they’re fire retardant, hardy once established, deciduous, beautiful shade trees from beneath which sprout tasty mushrooms (if the right mycelium are present beneath the tree).

Then there’s their timber – great for shiitake logs in the short term, or perhaps a boat, one day.

So ever since we moved here we’d been poking collected acorns in holes, hoping they’d all grow into a nice oak forest. But the acorns refused to grow, year after year.

We then tried acorns carefully tended to in pots, and still, nothing.

The way we finally got them to grow was by collecting some leaf litter, or duff (or tuff, or toof, depending on which British isle you’re from) from under the mature oak trees we were collecting acorns from.

We aded a goodly sprinkle of this duff to our pots, when planting our next round of acorns.

And whaddaya know. We grew happy little oak seedlings.

The thing is, not all soil types have a complimentary soil food web for some trees. Sometime, the necessary microbiology and mycorrhizal relationships that a certain type of tree needs to thrive just ain’t there.

This is not a situation limited to oaks either, of course.

Anways, collecting some duff from under healthy trees of the type you’re trying to plant can have a huge effect on the health of your future seedlings, by introducing just enough beneficial microbiology to get the soil food web pointed in a direction that’s complimentary to that tree.

This same technique can also be applied to trees that are not doing so great, with no apparent reason.

It works particularly well on trees like casuarinas, for example.

A word of warning though: there’s the potential for bringing across diseases etc with this technique, as well. But it seems to us that if the duff you’re gathering is from under a super healthy tree, it’s highly likely that you’re bringing across primarily good stuff.

Using duff in this way is an old tree planting technique, and something that the fabulous Cam Wilson put us on to. Thanks also to tree man Paul Ward for his additions.
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The final result of all this? Oak seedlings aplenty.And so we planted them, with nitrogen fixing support species of casuarinas and tagagsates all around.

People say oaks are for your grandchildren, and that’s fine with me. Imagine if each and every year we all planted a few. The future of the world would be that much brighter.

Possibly helpful tree resources:
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13 Comments

  1. Heather
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hello! Are the tree (book) resources listed above specifically for Australia? Thanks!

    • Posted April 4, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink | Reply

      Heather the book is decidedly American. The tree starter is Aussie but there would be equivalents across he world

  2. Posted April 4, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink | Reply

    Your posts often leave me wanting more land. This garden block just can’t go to oaks and casuarinas and… then read the post on comfrey, which has long been a friend, but I hadn’t realized how excellent it is for building up soil and as I have an old, long neglected block, which is long degraded, it sounds just perfect. Thank you, as always. You might like my beginner’s blog about moving to the country, living sustainably,

  3. Posted April 4, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Slow Natural Living.

  4. Speedy
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    A good Aust book on the subject is
    ‘Working with Mycorrhizas in Forestry and Agriculture’ (ACIAR)
    it’ll set you back about 80 bucks, but very informative and quite technical.
    some libraries may have it.

    and a couple of books published in New Zealand
    ‘Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World’ (Ian Hall et al.) gives examples of many edible and poisonous ectomycorrhizal fungi .

    Taming the Truffle (Hall, Brown and Zambonelli) truffles are ectomycorrhizal so this book, focusing on all aspects of Truffles -natural history , human use, plant,fungi, animal interaction, and cultivation, gives a bit of insight into ectomycorrhizal associations.

    main thing to remember with establishing ectomycorrhizae is to not fertilize trees with highly soluble fertilizers…especially Phosphorus .
    it’s the job of the fungi to do that . they grow better if they have to work harder to unlock Phosphorus that’s normally unavailable to the tree.
    in exchange for the Phos, the tree feeds the fungi
    carbohydrate (sugars) from photosynthesis

    There has been a bit of R&D done in Spain with edible ectomycorrhizal species
    (Boletus spp. and Lactarius spp) for inoculation of oaks and pines.
    A very handy website with info and spawn for sale (need to contact AQIS for details before importing)

    http://www.micofora.com

  5. nopalito
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for your tree planting insights! We’re in the early stages of planting out our property into pretty solid clay soils, and this looks like a good strategy for some of the areas we’re hoping to put trees into. Have you had any experience with deep ripping prior to tree planting, in areas you intend to turn into orchards for example?

    • Posted April 4, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yep we have – there’s not many parts of our property where you can deep rip without breaking the shank, but the tree planting contour lines we did rip (before breaking the plow each time) prior to planting saw a much better rate of tree growth than the other similar spots.

  6. Erica
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink | Reply

    We have planted about 30 oaks this year and given away at least 50 more. We sprouted them by putting the acorns in damp coir in a ziplock bag in the crisper until roots emerged then potted them out, we had a 95% success rate and probably only lost 10 trees. We still have more then twenty to plant and will try to propagate and plant out at least 20 every year. Supposedly they grow quite quickly the first 20 years then slow right down, hopefully a decent shade tree in our lifetime and a forest for the grand kids.

  7. Sérgio Murra
    Posted April 5, 2014 at 6:21 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hello. Just out of curiosity, what are the oak species that you planted? Best regards. Sérgio form Portugal

  8. Rena
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    Lovely! We’re up to our ears in oaks here in the bay area of California and love them dearly. One thing to watch out for – don’t plant them too close to any structures as oaks tend to self-prune. Giant heavy branches can come crashing down without much notice.
    Also in our area, there is a real problem with “sudden oak death” – you can google around for it for more details. Hopefully the pathogen hasn’t reached your shores.

  9. fALk
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

    There are so many little oak trees growing under one of our oaks – if anybody knows with the little cute thingies – don´t really want to kill them -.- but have already about 20 oaks on the ground and they get HUGE – so planting more is not really an option at least not in this lot.

    Also I am baffled that there is so little information on allelopathy of oaks on the web – every german gardener I talked to is sure that you can´t grow anything under oaks and looking beneath the big once you would tend to agree – but I have found zip zero information on it anywhere – if its the leaf litter or the roots or the green fooliage. If anybody has any information on that I would be glad to hear about it.

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