October 6, 2023
Nature is one of our greatest allies when it comes to fighting climate change and reforestation can play a critical part. Trees absorb carbon, prevent soil erosion, support biodiversity, and so much more. Recognizing this, and in their efforts to mitigate climate change and work towards meeting our global climate goals, the United States set out a goal to plant 1 billion trees by 2030, whereas Canada has set an even more ambitious goal to plant 2 billion trees over the decade.
But how does this work? How do we go from seeds to trees? veritree sat down with seasoned forester, Jonathan Clark, better known in the planting community as “Scooter” to find out. With over 30 years of experience, Scooter has overseen the planting of more than 130 million trees and is now the President and CFO of one of veritree’s Canadian planting partners, Replant.
Step 1: Planning
First things first, before you can begin the reforestation process, you need to assess the area and land being reforested. A land assessment typically happens one or two years before the planting process takes place. This requires a professional forester or expert to visit and assess the area. During their appraisal they identify the species that are indigenous to the area. Native trees are more likely to allow an ecosystem to re-establish itself or remain in its original state, since native species are currently growing or once grew in that same area, they are more likely to thrive than non-native species.
The forester also makes notes on the conditions of the land. Based on this analysis, they then make recommendations on which species and what density and mix should be planted. The goal is to get the best mix and match based on the terrain and climate.
Step 2: Seeds
Okay, so we have our site, and we know our desired mix of species, next we need seeds.
Seeds are collected from seed pods, these can come in a number of different forms, depending on the tree species. Trees are broadly categorized into two different groups. Deciduous and Coniferous. Deciduous trees have leaves that fall off annually, typically in the Fall, common species include birches, maples and oaks. Coniferous trees, simply put, are trees that have cones. This includes pine, fir, spruce and cedar. Seed pods can be winged, ball-shaped, bean-shaped, inside paper enclosures, or within coniferous cones.
Seeds typically begin to form after spring pollination. It is crucial to collect the seed pods at the right time, too early and they may not be fully developed and may not be able to germinate.
According to Scooter, reforestation companies, like his, usually depend on nurseries to do the collecting and processing of the seeds for them. These seed collectors go into the wild to get high-quality seeds from the desired tree species. But there’s a science to doing this properly, from predicting the exact week(s) the seeds will be ready, to understanding how to collect adequate supply without depleting the system. Reforestation companies, like Replant, then essentially select their seeds from a “catalogue”. Seeds are classified according to their seed lot, which includes where the seeds came from, latitude, longitude, and elevation.
Fun fact: If properly dried and frozen, seeds can remain viable for more than 30 years! A forester can identify the year the seed was collected by the seed lot ID it is given.
Aside from collecting seeds in the wild, some nurseries also create and maintain “Seed Orchards” as a primary source of genetically improved tree seed. A seed orchard is an advanced generation plantation of genetically superior trees, managed to produce frequent, abundant, and easily harvested seed crops. According to Scooter, Orchards are typically relied more heavily on by large logging companies.
Step 3: Nursery
After the seeds have been collected, they are brought to the nursery. Here the seeds are processed, extracted, and prepared for either immediate sowing or storage.
When ready, the seeds are planted and grown into seedlings. This is often under climate- controlled conditions that mimic their natural environment, but this can also include outdoor greenhouses, as long as the seedlings are protected from the elements. Typically, seeds are grown in “jiffyplugs” and much like home gardening, 2 or 3 seeds are placed in each pod to ensure a higher chance of successful germination. If 2 or more seeds sprout, the healthiest is left to grow and the others are picked out.
How long a seedling grows at a nursery depends on the species and the region it is being planted in. In the Maritimes, where Scooter operates his reforestation company, seedlings are planted in the Fall. In this instance, the sowing of the seedlings typically happens in the Spring, which means the seedlings are only 3.5 or so months old at the time of planting. At this stage, this means they’re usually around 6 to 8 inches in height. That said, seedlings can be planted later (for instance at 15-16 months old) when they’re 8-12 inches in height, but that makes for more arduous work for a tree planter as the seedlings are larger and heavier.
Step 4: Site Preparation
According to our expert, about 2/3 of Canadian reforestation happens in unprepared or “raw” sites. This means that the area doesn’t require any alterations.
However, sometimes preparation does need to take place. Site preparation can help to create a more favourable growing area for seedlings and is usually accomplished by physically altering the soil layers.
Site preparation can be done through a variety of methods, the most common being trenching and mounding. This is usually accomplished by bringing in excavators to mix up the dirt. In some cases, if you get a very wet block, mounding is required as it helps to create little mounds of soil that are above the water level to ensure the roots of a seedling are kept dry, helping to increase the likelihood of survival. Scooter notes that this is an expensive process and is more likely to be practiced by a forestry company that has a licence to the land.
Step 5: Planting:
In the next stage of reforestation, seedlings are transported to the reforestation site. The optimal time of year for planting typically depends on when water is available, this can be after snow (if the region has any) has finished melting, but before summer heat has removed water from the soil. Our tree planting partners, like Replant, each have professional crews that are responsible for the tree planting. Individual planters are each given a small section of land, referred to as a “piece” out of a larger “block” of the reforestation site. From there, a planter will fill up their hip bags with hundreds of seedlings at once, and trek across the landscape to plant the seedlings.
Tree planters use a special tool, known as a “hoedad” – to dig a small, but deep hole in the ground. From there, they carefully place a seedling into the hole, ensuring that the root structure is intact, and then they cover the opening with soil. Optimal tree spacing varies regionally depending on the conditions of the terrain and the species of tree.
When it comes to how many trees can be planted by a tree planter on a given day, the range can vary quite widely. Out East, where the terrain doesn’t undulate as much, planting is generally a bit faster. Whereas out West it can be a little more laborious. We’re told that a typical range can span from 1,000-3,000 trees a day.
Did you know? Sometimes, if the soil nutrients aren’t as healthy, planting companies drop little fertilizer packs (picture a tea bag filled with fertilizer) inside the hole with the seedling. It takes about a year for the fertilizer to dissolve, but the added nutrients can help ensure the seedlings thrive into healthy saplings and eventually mature trees.
Step 6: Monitoring & Verification
Of course, the ultimate goal of any reforestation project should be the long-term growth and survival of the trees. That’s why monitoring is so critical to ensure that restoration objectives are on-track and that the positive impact associated with restoration, like enhancements to biodiversity, improved quality of soil, restored water systems, and so forth, can be realized.
As Scooter puts it “Monitoring the new forest teaches us what we got right and guides our future planting. In rare cases if there was mortality, you can go back and fix it”.
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