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The fastest, most efficient and cheapest way of planting great numbers of trees is to encourage natural regeneraton.  

  If you leave home be prepared for some desertification out there.  We had great difficulty collecting seed at the location below, which is the culmination of 100 years of bad land management, in particular letting stock graze the protective seaward side of the bush.  The wind gets in and with stock treading on the delicate forest roots, the most lush bush in the world turns to desert in just a few years.  

seed collecting cabbage trees in coastal dunes Northland

People think the exposed NZ coastline must be inhospitable to plants, but it isn't at all.  Its just that the plants need shelter from the wind, just like on any island.  If you allow the natural shelter to grow undisturbed, then complex forest can get established quickly.  

Stay at home and garden !!  You will get results.

The plants in Tims' garden above are Chatham Island nikaus that are only about about 5 years old from seed and are indeed two metres tall, producing three leaves a year.  They are able to grow fast in the sheltered situation.  

Once these same covered the land in the photo below, till the stock came in (Main Chatham Island).

Get a good spade

Any spade will do, but you should make sure you use a spade, a short handled strong thing with a sharp strong small blade, rather than a shovel, a long handled tool with a wide mouth for moving piles of loose material.

Recently we have shifted to using smaller spades because we are planting smaller trees.  However the standard garden spade design (with footrests) is still a good standard item.  Properly used and sharpened, it can skim weeds, dig holes and trim roots.

Wooden handles are hard to beat for a springy soft feel but the strongest hickory is no match for the strength of a fit tree planter, spades are all steel in our world, a rubberised plastic handle is all you get for suspension but they are an amazingly good powerful tool, serious tree planters like us have a large collection of 20 or more of all sizes to suit each particular tree size and soil encountered

Sharpen your spade

Using a coarse mill bastard file, carefully sharpen your spade by holding it in a vice and stroking the file away from you. Lift the file for each return stroke.  Sharpen one side of the blade only the front side, the side away from you, a spade is like a wood chisel, the soil peels away from the spade, this why you sharpen the front.  The crucial thing is the angle.  A very shallow angle is the best for a razor sharp spade.  In order to achieve this, you will usually create a feather, which is a very thin overhang of steel on the underside of the side you are sharpening.  Once you have finished creating a nice flat shiny angle, turn the spade over and give the back side a couple of licks with the file so as to just remove that feather.  Now the spade will be so sharp as to cut your toes off, so it’s a good idea to wear some kind of strong footwear, especially if you are a novice.

 In rocky ground, where you will dull the blade quickly, it is best to have one spade for skimming and cutting the turf, and another for the actual digging and levering.  If this is not possible then sharpen the spade without too sharp an angle, so it doesn’t get dented into bluntness too quickly.

In any case it pays to use the spade for as long as possible screefing weeds while its sharp and while you have still got clean hands that grip the spade well.

A sharp spade saves a huge amount of energy, licking up at breaks eases the work wonderfully

Pre-soaking trees

Before removing the plastic container in which we have provided your tree, water the plant well.

Ideally, soak the trees in a fish-bin or bucket full of water before planting, so that they are saturated.  Soak until all bubbles have stopped rising.  This can take 1 – 20 mins for a dry plant.  Don’t leave soaking over night, as this will drown roots that need air too.

Skim the weeds

If you have sprayed, this step will not be necessary and may even be counter-productive, as weed seed will germinate in the cultivated soil following the disturbance.

If you have not sprayed, it may be desirable to skim off a circle of weeds, a turf, up to about a metre around. 

With a very sharp spade, aim at the base of the largest weed (assuming you understand what is a weed) close to where it feels right to have a tree taking every thing into account, aim with a slicing motion to sever the plant at ground level there is an exact spot where one slice will chop right thru if to high the soft top will yield and you will bounce off too low and your spade will blunted quickly and you will waste lots of energy moving soil.  Skim a circle of weeds with out digging up any topsoil. How big depends on experience, the situation, the weed species and seed in the soil.

  Here is where the sharp spade will prove it’s worth.

Dig square holes

In the middle of the skimmed circle, dig square holes, a bit deeper than the root mass of the plant being planted. The reason for digging square hole is to encourage the trees roots to find the corners and head off on their own into the native soil. Circular holes such as the ones produced by posthole borers are inclined to train the roots around the hole and back into the root ball. There have been many ways devised to speed the hard-yakka job of hole digging like special augers, with side loosening scrapers which (in theory) remove the glazed walls of the hole, special penetrating digger heads and also dynamite has been used by our friend with a stutter to plant in hard-arse country, his first experiments involved charges way too strong causing the area to be filled with craters with no back fill to be seen, once the correct charge has been set the ground receives a fracturing shock in all directions and a blast of nitrogen which may make the job much easier and speed plant growth. In describing his method in full once the fuse is lit you rrrrr run lll like fff fucken hell!

In general the holes should be wider than they are deep. Do not bury the stems or trunks of plants any higher or lower than to the level of the potting mix used by your nursery.

It is not necessary to add compost or fertiliser to the base of the holes you have dug.  Although it can be beneficial in certain circumstances.  What is more important is to start producing the compost on site, which is one of the best reasons for planting trees.  This will be discussed in more depth later in the book, but suffice to say for the moment is not necessary to add anything to the soil and this often makes it harder for the tree, by causing it to sit in a pool of water all winter, amendments should be added to the surface of the soil as in nature and not dug into the soil below the tree   Of course you should have tailored your initial tree species to the site conditions rather than trying to suit the site to the tree.

Planting trees on the surface by importing humus works but is energy intensive and impractical, growing what will grow and forming mulch right on the site is correct action thus paving the way for other more fussy species.

Trim the roots

Inspect the tree roots.

Certain plants such as monocots (plants like grasses and palms) do not need to have much attention paid to the roots, for they can grow new ones from the base of the plants.  Giant timber trees need better attention, for if their roots are spiraling or compressed into a blob in the bottom of the hole, they will stay like that and the tree will never be as good.  It might survive perfectly well as new roots develop but more likely it will languish, or it might thrive initially and then blow over in a storm, or develop a constriction on one side of the tree that restricts all sap up that side of the tree, causing leaf fall and death of that side of the tree.  One just doesn’t know what might happen; hence one must try to get it right, putting in an appropriate amount of energy for the species involved.

 Ensure roots are balanced and pointing in the right direction, which is away from the tree, in all directions, rotate the tree so the largest best looking live roots are facing in the direction of the prevailing wind flow. Study the roots of a big tree in nature when the opportunity arises, toppled mature trees are common giving us major insights to root structures, road cuttings and erosion slopes show root structures clearly. Usually most roots grow sideways, out into the active layer of topsoil or leaf litter, where nutrients are most available this is called the root plate, most trees form sinker roots from this plate sometimes called tap roots but it is the root plate that is the most important thing that anchors the tree in the wind.   Consequently we should make sure that the roots are initially led in this direction, not just pointed straight.  Roots need to go in all directions.  The reason we suggest digging a square hole is to avoid the roots spiraling around and around within the hole.  Roots will always grow away from the tree, out to the corners of the hole, and then out into the surrounding ground.  Frequently the subsoil is too hard and bony for roots to be bothered with.  They are looking for moist compost, for food.

Prune the roots using a sharp tool, the best being anvil type secateurs. Cut any roots that do not point in the right direction or go around and around. 

People are often concerned cutting into roots or tops of trees claiming it is unnatural.  It is worth remembering that the process of cultivating a tree is unnatural to begin with.  The tree that has been in a cultivated state in the nursery is in need of a sensible steering back toward the natural form.  The answer is to plant trees when they are small.  Not only does this reduce the amount of work in planting, but it also reduces the amount of pruning necessary.  If trees are too big to stand up by themselves, do not stake them....cut them back to half height.

Spreading the roots

 Place the root ball of the tree on a small mound of loose soil in the base of the hole. Some roots should be going down, but most should be placed so they are growing outwards from the tree, with a few going horizontally near the surface.  

Pack fine soil loosely in around the roots whilst holding them in position.  Fill the hole with soil so that the soil level is brought back to a level slightly higher than the surrounds.  The backfilled soil will at this stage be very loose.

Whilst holding the tree upright, gently firm the soil down.  Ensure that all roots are covered with soil.  Do not pack soil hard, as this removes the air necessary for roots to grow, as well as making it difficult for water to penetrate. Firming is an important step to get right. It’s sometimes possible to see by the growth of a row of trees who planted each one by the growth.  A certain degree of sensitivity is required to understand just exactly how well to firm. It is normal in a windy climate for trees to develop a ‘socket’ around the stem especially if the tree is too large for the conditions, young trees may spend much of their time flat to the ground in every direction, it is temping to try to force them to stay upright with further and heavier firming, this can cause what roots that may have become established to be broken, what is better is pouring dry sand down the socket. Staking is only an option that should be considered with valuable plants otherwise unobtainable. Cut back plants or smaller tree stocks will overtake big floppers in no time. Stakes can help but more usually hinder a trees successful establishment, the method needs to be elaborate and costly to be effective and must be loosened and attended with care, trees most often snap of at the place they were secured.

In a very dry climate one may plant into a slight depression.  In a very wet climate, one may plant into slightly raised mounds.  In general it is best to plant so that the final soil ends up at its natural level.  This will usually mean you have to leave behind a slight mound of loose soil, which will settle slightly over time.

Tree prone to root disease may need especially careful attention to the height of the ‘crown’ of the tree i.e. slightly raised

Post planting care

Water thoroughly.  In particular do not allow the plant to dry out at any time.  The post plant watering is extremely beneficial, and seldom does the rainfall intensity make up for an actual watering.  Not much water needs to be applied, enough to fill the plant pot if the plant pot was empty – that’s a general guide.

In a commercial situation, watering may be ignored, because all the other factors are right, such as correct soil moisture, plants going into the ground moist at a cold time of year prior to lots of heavy rains for the next few months.  In practice this is difficult to achieve.  We say that watering in is best, but that is the prescription for best growth.  If one is now in so much of a hurry, watering in can be skipped.

We have found that the timely addition of a very small amount of water can double growth response in the first year.  This water should ideally be applied within minutes of planting.  That would be the ideal, so as not to slow the growth of the tree one bit.  Drying out after transplanting is the biggest single factor that slows down the subsequent growth response. The difference is whether or not you keep the plant powering, so that it doesn’t even get a check when it hits the ground, but experiences a dramatic improvement in conditions which it responds to be growing away furiously…or you can have a plant that merely survives all the shock and mistreatment of being in a nursery and being planted by a ruffian then drying out.  From our experience these plants survive too, but they are slower to recover and get away.  We often still plant trees without watering them, because it is too difficult to get the water on.  However I accept the compromise of trees that are slower growing initially, and that more will be lost.


This photo shows manuka flowering after two years of growing on a tough coastal reveg site.  Another 149,999 manuka trees were planted like this nearby, on equally magnificent coastal slopes, that were covered in a thick swath of kikuyu grass.

Forest Floor  wholesale tree nursery in Whangarei Northland produce the best manuka plants in NZ.  They are the obvious choice whenever manuka are specified.  

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