With over 2000 seedlings to install total, and a silty-clay soil that makes it very difficult to plant bare root trees in dug holes, I chose to use a planting technique known as 'notch planting' for this particular installation. Most of the seedlings I'd ordered for this project measured between 6-12" in height, so they had yet to boast significant root systems. Also, the fine, dense soil structure on my site makes the job of planting a tree rather challenging in that you usually need to try to break up chunky clumps of soil in order to have enough loose material to carefully pack around exposed young roots.
Notch planting utilizes a simple 'planting bar' to make a 6" wide slit in the soil, ideally just large enough to invite the seedlings' bare roots. This heavily-constructed tool amounts to little more than a blunt wedge attached to a T-shaped handle. You step the wedge into the soil at the desired planting location and attempt to match the depth of the notch to the length of the roots. Lightly wiggle the handle back and forth to open a wider notch. (Take care not to lever it back and forth too far or you end up creating a large pocket of air at the bottom of the hole that can be difficult to close up cleanly around the roots).
Grab the seedling you intend to plant and inspect the root system, pruning any broken, dead, or damaged roots and then carefully 'swipe' the plants' roots into the notch, setting the plant at the proper depth - either at the 'collar' or transition between the roots and aerial parts - or slightly deeper. (Many hardwood species will tolerate deeper planting depths). Then use the planting bar to create a notch an inch or two uphill from the seedling and use the tool to firm up soil against the planting notch, removing all air pockets. Repeat this process another 2 or so inches uphill. I then usually use the tool to carve away the soil around the edge of the final notch, creating a smooth basin for water to collect just above the seedling. And then I carefully firm up the soil on either side of the seedling by stepping lightly around the perimeter of the young tree.
In many cases I actually took one additional step to make for better root-to-soil contact in my clumpy soil. I first used a mattock to finely shave up some soil just above each planting location. I could then use this fine soil to fill in around plant roots before closing up the notch. Finally, I attached a plastic label around the base of each tree with the species name written in Sharpie. This not only should help me identify the trees later on should there be any confusion (assuming the Sharpie doesn't wash off or fade - which it likely will with time), but it also proved very valuable to help locate individual trees amidst the growing herbaceous vegetation before I had a chance to protect them with tree shelters.
Although notch planting is by no means the most tender approach to installing your seedlings, I found it to have a very high success rate, and it allowed me to install my plants considerably faster than I would have been able to had I dug holes for each. Working alone, I averaged about 80 trees per day, but that also includes considerable time spent broad forking each planting site beforehand.
In anticipation of this large installation, I sought out a tree planting machine - a tractor pulled implement that makes the job immeasurably faster. I was unable to find one available for rent, and I chose to look no further because the short (30') East-West orientation of my rows would not have suited a tractor-pulled implement anyways. But anyone considering a larger installation may well want to explore the potential to enlist in the use of one of these machines that make it possible to easily plant over a thousand seedlings in a single day with a crew of at least 3 people.
To protect plant roots from drying out and slow their budding out with the coming spring, I kept the seedlings' roots wrapped in wet newspaper, stored upright with their aerial parts exposed to the air to prevent them from staying overly wet and potentially developing mold. Kept in a dry, dark place, it's possible to keep them dormant as such for several weeks. It's absolutely vital to keep roots hydrated - letting them dry out is a virtual recipe for failure.
Prior to planting, I soaked each seedling in an inoculant slurry comprised of several species of endo- and ecto-mycorrhizal fungi. I purchased this product from Fungi Perfecti, although there are several others on the market. Knowing that I was asking quite a bit of my little seedlings to get established in an area that's been managed as a hayfield for the past several decades, I wanted to at least make sure they had the potential to develop mutualistic relations with symbiotic fungi. I realize that it takes quite some time to shift the balance in soil biology from an early-successional, bacterially-dominated matrix to an old-field or forest ecosystem with it's more fungal-dominated populations, but this felt like the best I could do given the limited advanced planning I'd done the previous season. This year I intend to surround each seedling with a 3"+ ring of wood chips to help add a woody component to the soil surface and make conditions far more hospitable for these crucial fungal populations.
When it came to the actual spacing and plant selection, I'd already laid out a fairly logical approach to follow, so it became a matter of fitting my desired pattern into the landscape. My system varied as I continued to refine it, but generally I began by using landscape flags to lay out the location of the next 15 or so trees - I found that to be a nice 'batch size' to work with. I left about 1.5 paces between each plant - roughly 5-6' and tried to make sure each row was staggered or offset from the one above it.
Because I'd planned to create a 'stepped' planting from west to east, I usually selected a bundle of plants for each successive batch. From west to east - a few lower shrubs for the western edge, 2-3 mid size trees, a couple of tall trees, at least one conifer somewhere within the central belt, and then finally any number of fruit or nut-producing species along the eastern edge, ideally with the lowest growing fruiting shrubs or small trees along the far eastern side of the row. In this way I maintained a 'quiver' of possible plant species in a moist bundle under an EZ-Up tent I successively moved along as I progressed, retreating under the tent with each new batch to select and organize my next set of plants before stepping out into the field to plant them. I found this approach worked very well. Handling 45 different species in a mixed planting with varying row lengths and a dynamic structure does not lend itself well to a pre-packaged, assembly-line style approach. So although it did take some time, I enjoyed the break I found with each successive batch to commune with the plants and think through my next set of decisions before needling to make them on the ground.
Once I'd completed sections of the planting, I returned to apply some broad spectrum mineral applications (primarily Azominte and green sand) along with a thin layer of compost. And finally, because I wanted to make sure I got an edge on the competing vegetation, I broadcast a blended site-made mix of ten or so soil-building cover crop plants including, but not limited to, alsike, red, white, and sweet yellow clover; buckwheat; cowpea; tillage radish; field pea; fescue and a general pasture mix. After inoculating the legumes, I mixed 5 gallon buckets of seed together. Because I generally only needed to apply about 10 pounds per acre, I then made this mix far easier to spread by diluting it with a carrier - in this case I used sand. To do so, I filled the bottom inch or two of a bucket with the seed mix and then covered it with sand, mixing thoroughly. I kept adding batches of sand incrementally until the entire bucket was about 3/4 full with the sand/seed mix. This dilution made it far easier for me to achieve recommended broadcast density and allowed me to spread my seed investment over a much larger area.
My final step was to make sure I protected my investment from the hungry droves of voles, mice, and rabbits. I'd already learned the previous year that small mammals represent a significant foe to any reforestation effort in my area. Girdling any and all young trees at their base (except for the gooseberries I'd planted), they'd inadvertently caused all of my previous installations to coppice (primarily Chinese Chestnut, serviceberry, hybrid willow, and hawthorn). I didn't want to take the same chance this year. so I opted to make my own hardware cloth screens for each tree.
To do so, I purchased four 100' x 3' rolls of 1/4" hardware cloth. I started by cutting the 3' roll in half into two 18" rolls first using a circular saw with an abrasive blade, finishing off the cut with a sawzall (The circular saw blade was not wide enough to cut through the entire diameter of the roll). I then laid out the roll in 30 or so foot lengths, laying several layers on top of one another and used the circular saw with abrasive wheel to cut these long lengths into 10" wide strips. This length yielded a tree shelter with a 3.2" diameter. Four 100' rolls were enough to yield 960 shelters. At about $105/roll, this meant I had spent just shy of 50 cents per shelter in materials (I later bought several hundred 2' tall plastic 'TreePro' shelters for 90 cents each for the sake of comparison).
With this pile of flat sheets then began a very long process of conversion into round, bound tree shelters ready for installation. We used a scrap piece of 2" ABS plastic pipe as a rough form, rolling each sheet into a rounded shape. Then we used a needlenose pliers to fold over the ragged edge of the shelter around the metal links on the opposite side at both the top and the bottom, tying it together.
Finally, we began by making our own 'ties' out of a light gage metal wire. This proved very cumbersome, and after a few hundred, we modified our plan, buying bulk zip ties, making the process so much faster. I had plenty of opportunity to keep track of our progress and found that it took us about 1 minute to wrap and bind each shelter. I finished the process wondering if it weren't a better option to just buy the plastic shelters instead of making our own. I'm still not sure I've made a clear decision, but this year I'm back to ordering hardware cloth (although I'm planning to make the shelters 2' high this time around) so I suppose that says something. I definitely prefer the hardware cloth over plastic shelters for their superior ventilation, durability, and ease of installation.
It was very easy to install the hardware cloth shelters. Because we'd cut the full roll of hardware cloth in half lengthwise, it meant that we always had one end that had a rough, jagged edge. We oriented these edges downwards, centered the guard on the seedling, and then put balanced, firm weight on the guard, lightly wiggling it back and forth until it was anchored at least 1.5" deep in the soil. This proved near impossible with the plastic shelters we'd purchased. The firmness of the clay completely resisted the plastic guard's edge, so despite the pre-assembled conditions of the plastic shelter, we ended up spending considerable time carving away a ring of soil into which we could place the plastic shelter's bottom edge, only to later repack the circumference with soil to lock it in place. Just one winter later, the freeze and thaw cycles seem to have loosened several of these plastic shelters, leaving the base of the trees vulnerable to rodent attack.
The metal shelters still feel very firmly embedded in the soil, but I added a stake behind each for good measure. Because I had it, and I like making stakes, I rived out cedar and/or black locust stakes about 24" long by 1" square and used a hatchet to put a point on the bottom end. When I ran out of this material, I conceded and bought 3/8" by 4' long bamboo stakes, which although fairly easy to install, probably will only last a couple of years.
With the exception of some early-season watering during the first few weeks of the season (we went close to a month with zero rainfall between mid-April and mid-May), and 2 passes with the weed whacker spaced out during the season, that it was for treatment during 2013. I would have loved to have made it out for a fertilizer application and also a heavy wood chip mulch application, but time, other projects, and financial resources all left these tasks for me to finish in future years. It still feels a bit early to project but by the end of last season, I'd say I had an 85% survival rate which is just fine as far as I'm concerned. I know I'll want to do some thinning as the hedgerow/'thicket' matures so this natural culling helps do some of my work for me. As spring grows closer with each passing day, I hope I find similar results in the coming year.
This has been quite an educational experience for me. Probably the best yield to date, and perhaps the most important one, has been and likely will be, information. I hope that this detailed description has been of use to you. I've chosen to include it here as something of a case study in multi-purpose coppice stand installation. Your circumstances, goals, and resources will likely be quite a bit different than my own, but I hope you've been able to benefit from my own trial and error processes, learning from and integrating lessons I've learned along my path. As we approach another exciting growing season, may all your efforts be blessed, productive, and vibrant!