Planting to perfection

Chris FerreiraCountryman

Each year on our farm we would have a tree-planting weekend, The Greening of Greenacre. About 20 hardy souls would get more than 3000 plants into the ground — watered, mulched and fertilised — and all done for the cost of a few snags on the barbie.

School groups, local contractors and non-profit tree planting groups such as Men of the Trees can undertake broad-scale planting quickly and effectively.

Since 1979, Men of the Trees — a wonderful community group — has planted more than 11 million trees in the farmland of WA, most of which was done using the mighty efforts of volunteers.

Quality Counts

Only use high-quality seedlings of eight to 12 months of age, and purchased from commercial tree farm nurseries. There are many nurseries in WA — Men of the Trees, Muchea Tree Farm, Hamel Nursery, Australian Native Nursery, Habitat, Bandicoot, Apace, Zanthorrea and a whole host of great farm tree nurseries in the Wheatbelt.

I advise against using advanced stock for large-scale farm revegetation — unless you are getting expensive plants from advanced-tree nurseries such as Ellenby Tree Farm — because they could have compromised root systems that can let them down in a tough summer; within one to two years, they will be overtaken by smaller tube stock seedlings planted at the same time.

Get it right

Always space and place plants according to their needs and ultimate size. As a general rule, tree seedlings should be spaced four to five metres apart, middle-storey three to four metres apart and shrubs two to three metres apart within the planting line. You can also place them at the side of the planting line if the site is waterlogged and increase the space between seedlings by about one metre as the rainfall declines.

Slow-release, broad-spectrum fertiliser may be added at the time of planting, especially on ‘gutless’ sands, or a few weeks later in better country.

Tree planting pills are ideally suited for farm plantings. Generally use one pellet per plant. Make sure it is placed at least 10cm to the side of the plant, otherwise it can burn the roots, and well below the soil surface so it does not encourage weeds.

The soil around the plants should be firmed in and, if possible, give each plant two to five litres of water when planted. This will help to remove potential air pockets in the soil and settle the seedling into its new home. On sandy soils, watering in with a wetting agent is a great idea to make sure rain gets to the roots.

Be on your guard

Tree guards can be an effective means of protecting young seedlings, especially when rabbits, kangaroos, traffic, wind and AWOL machinery are going to be a problem.

You can buy ready-made plastic tree guards or make them yourself with milk cartons, fertiliser bags or even branches cut from bush and pushed into the ground to form a ring around the seedlings. This not only makes a surprisingly effective home-made tree guard but it also acts a bit like a Coolgardie safe, cooling and shading the young plants through their first summer.

If using a plastic tree guard, leave a two to five centimetre gap at the base to let cold air drain out to stop frost from killing sensitive seedlings. In summer, especially in hot, dry sands, the guards can cook and kill seedlings if they do not have most of their young canopy above the bag.

To stop this problem, either push the bags down or remove them before the onset of the first hot weather to stop that deadly heat up. If grazers are a problem at this point, replace the plastic guards with wire guards or something like the branches described above to protect — and shade — the fledgling seedling.

Drought-proofing plantings

If you are planting out in the sticks and on the far-flung edges of the dry and thirsty Wheatbelt where conditions can be tough for plants, then it will pay to add the following fail-safe steps to your technique:

•Dig and bury deep — This may mean burying your seedlings in 20cm to 30cm of soil, or until only 20 per cent of the shoot is above the ground. Research has shown that in dry areas the extra soil around the root ball acts like a giant mulch layer and protects the area from drying out.

•Only use drought-hardy, quality tube stock — Forget all but the best and stick to the toughest seedlings. Anything that is large or too old will not have the root vigour to survive and will die in the first dry onslaught.

•Plant early or late but beat the weeds — In a place where every drop of moisture counts, you can ill-afford to let weeds gobble up precious soil moisture. Make sure weed control is at least 120 per cent effective.

•Water works wonders — Research by Mike Kirkman, one of the State’s best Wheatbelt revegetation experts, has shown that if plants can be put in with one litre of water at the start, it will give them a real boost. He has even been able to achieve this with broad-scale mechanised planting systems.

•Don’t forget your jelly — One of the State’s biggest commercial tree planting outfits plants seedlings with a handful of water absorbing gel mixed into the soil. This helps to stretch the moisture-holding capacity of dry sands.

•Fantastic furrows — In soils that dry out quickly and do not suffer from winter waterlogging, plant into broad and shallow basins to scalp away any water-repellent soil, put the plants closer to ground water and help plants to capture rainfall.

Successful tree planting in our drying climate is no accident and it takes a lot of work.

In fact, the act of planting a seedling is only 5 per cent of what is required to get that seedling to the stage at which it has a good chance of reaching maturity. The other 95 per cent is split between the preparation you put into the site before you plant and your management after the plants have gone into the ground.

When this leaves jaws gaping, I tell people, ‘We would rather you plant half as much but get twice the result’. In other words, planting 3000 plants with only 300 surviving would be enough to make me walk off the land, whereas planting 1500 and getting 1200 to survive would fill me with confidence for the year ahead.

For information, contact For details of free Heavenly Hectares workshops, visit

This is an excerpt from Chris Ferreira’s up and coming book, Heavenly Hectares — a guide to creating a beautiful, productive and sustainable landscape

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