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Planting Guidelines for Trees & Shrubs

One of the most practical conservation projects landowners in the Carolinian zone can undertake is the planting of trees and shrubs to enhance the natural environment on their land. Many rural landowners are already planting windbreaks, areas of marginal or erodible land, and buffers along streams and ponds. This factsheet provides some principles to remember, in order to keep these plantings as natural as possible.


Planting trees and shrubs is one of the simplest ways for landowners to restore and protect natural areas in the Carolinian zone. The benefits are many and varied:

  • provides of wildlife habitat
  • enhances of aesthetic values
  • provides energy conservation
  • develops of future economic returns
  • controls soil erosion by wind and water
  • controls nutrient and pesticide movement in surface and groundwater
  • enhances of crop yields
  • protects of biodiversity
  • improves of water quality and water flow rates.

Ecological Principles to Remember

  1. The most important habitat in short supply in Carolinian Canada is the LARGE forested area. While there are many benefits to small woodlots, there are relatively few very large forested areas left. Such large forests provide the 'interior' habitat that some species require to reproduce successfully. A high priority in the Carolinian zone should therefore be to protect and even expand wooded areas and fill in any gaps to create as large a block of solid forest as possible.
  2. When you are designing a planting project, consider using some of the Carolinian tree species along with any common evergreen and hardwood trees you plan to plant. These species, like all hardwoods, will take a little extra effort, but a much more natural forest will eventually result. Factsheet #5 in this series suggests some species to consider.

    Remember that, in planting programs, the common Carolinian hardwood species, including maples, ashes, and oaks are just as important as the rare and unique species (or more so).

  3. Use native species, and use local stock that will be genetically similar to existing vegetation. Preserving biodiversity is not merely preserving species; it is preserving the genetic variety of the population of that species in that location. This is particularly important in Carolinian Canada, where many species are rare and of limited distribution. Planting stock that is imported from other regions of the province may cause serious shifts in genetic diversity, as well as showing poor growth response and survival rates.
  4. Try to establish naturally vegetated corridors between larger forested areas. In small isolated woodlots, individual species of birds and mammals can actually be eliminated due to lack of in-migration to provide suitable mates. Connections between the 'islands of green' are critical for enabling populations to maintain themselves over time.
  5. Observe the drainage patterns of your land, on a wet spring day or after a heavy rain, noting swales, springs, seepage areas, and run-off patterns as well as streams, ponds and wetlands. Then enhance these areas by maintaining all in natural vegetation, with buffers of natural vegetation between them and agricultural land.

    To control nutrient inputs to watercourses, current research suggests that fifty foot buffers are an appropriate width. Revegetation will also enhance the quantity of waterflow.

  6. Prairie and meadow habitats are also important. Not every area should be planted to trees and shrubs. The Loggerhead Shrike, for example (now an endangered species) depends on open meadow for survival. Discuss the importance of these habitats with a biologist, and be prepared to leave some old field areas to regrow naturally.
  7. Be aware that natural vegetation communities evolve and change over time, in a process known as succession. They also involve a mix of species, which you should try to create or maintain, so that your planting eventually does become a part of the natural community.

Planting Guidelines

  1. Plan ahead! First, plan your planting program, both in terms of species, the mix of trees and shrubs, and locations on your land, following the above principles.
  2. Include a mix of Carolinian species (see Factsheet #5).
  3. Invite a forester, biologist or ecologist from the local Conservation Authority or MNR office to review your plan while walking your land. Ask them especially for advice on which species are appropriate for different soil conditions - and follow the advice; it is a waste of time to plant trees in unsuitable conditions. You can also get advice on proper spacing of trees, site preparation, and tending.

    At the same time, be sure you are clear about your own intentions for planting. It is possible that a local forester may initially recommend a conventional planting of cedar, spruce or pines, and agencies may have stock of these species. If you want to vary this with planting of Carolinian hardwoods, be sure to explain this. It is possible, but it will also take more care and effort.

  4. Order your planting stock. You may have to do this a year, or at least six months ahead; plan to be ready to accept delivery and do the planting immediately, probably in the early spring, while plants are still dormant. Factsheet #5 in this series provides some sources of planting stock for native Carolinian species.
  5. Prepare the site in the fall. Competing vegetation such as dense grass cover should be killed off first, and preferably the areas to be planted should be mechanically cultivated. Spot spraying with glyphosate is probably the easiest approach for small areas, mechanical cultivation for larger sites. In the long run, it is more effective to spend money on proper site preparation and maintenance and use smaller trees, than to spend money buying larger planting stock.
  6. Take delivery of planting stock, and TAKE CARE OF IT. The fine root hairs of small bare-root seedlings are very fragile, and die quickly if they dry out (and drown if kept flooded). Plant as quickly as possible, and keep stock in a moist, cool, shaded storage in the meantime. Heel them in under some dirt in your garden if there will be any delay in planting them.

    Most planting is done in early spring, while trees are still dormant, but in the Carolinian zone, some have had better luck with fall planting, since winters are not as severe as elsewhere.

  7. When planting, spread roots carefully so they are pointing out. They should not be wrapped back in circles, and if roots are already in a ball, they should be trimmed.
  8. Stake, provide rodent guards, prune, thin, use mulch, keep the competition down, and otherwise care for your trees and shrubs while they grow. This stage is referred to as tending, and is generally much more important than the planting itself. Think of your trees as children; they need a lot of care and protection during the first few years of life!

  9. This is especially important if you are planting hardwoods, which suffer much more from competition for moisture and nutrients from surrounding grasses and other plants, than do evergreens.

  10. For Further Information:

    Ministry of Natural Resources. The Woodland Extension Notes Series:

    Planning to Establish a Forest in Open Fields: Getting Help and Getting Started - Ministry of Natural Resources, Toronto.

    Planting the Seed: A Guide to Establishing Aquatic Plants. - Environment Canada.

    Planting the Seed: A Guide to Establishing Prairie and Meadow Communities in Southern Ontario - Environment Canada

    Hilts, S.G. and Mitchell, P. 1994. Caring for Your Land: A Stewardship Handbook for Carolinian Canada Landowners - Centre for Land and Water Stewardship, Univ. of Guelph, Guelph, Ont.

    Ontario Farm Coalition. 1993. Environmental Farm Plan Workbook - Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, Guelph

    Tree Plan Canada. 1993. Green Side Up, A Guide to Tree Planting. Forestry Canada, Ottawa.

    Produced by

    The Centre for Land and Water Stewardship, University of Guelph, June, 1994.

    Additional copies can be obtained from your nearest Conservation Authority or Ministry of Natural Resources Office. These offices may also be able to help with further information to assist you.

    Funding for the development of this factsheet was provided by the Carolinian Canada Program. Agencies involved include: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Ontario Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation, Ontario Heritage Foundation, Association of Conservation Authorities of Ontario, Wildlife Habitat Canada, World Wildlife Fund, Canadian Botanical Association, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Federation of Ontario Naturalists, and Parks Canada.