By Pamela Doan
It’s hard to imagine planting anything when the landscape is covered by this frozen snowpack, but a month from now, things could (fingers crossed) look very different. Order forms have started arriving in my inbox for local seedling and plant sales. Three of the hardest to resist offers are from the Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Native Plant Center. All of them have early ordering dates for native trees, shrubs, and plants that can brighten the landscape and provide habitat for birds and wildlife.
Last year my enthusiasm outweighed my good sense and I picked up 50 seedlings from the Soil and Water sale. Witch hazel, forsythia, viburnum trilobum, meadow sweet and two kinds of native ferns came with their roots wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag. I chose them because they all are native and less likely to be eaten by deer. I say “less likely” because in a high-browse area, nothing is completely and truly off limits for a hungry Bambi unless it’s fenced in. There aren’t any guarantees in life and there are fewer in gardening.
Sugar maples and invasive weeds, picture acres of Japanese barberry in the woods, dominate our landscape and we’re trying to restore a balance of biodiversity, all without having to fence everything from the deer, which is challenging to say the least. The plant sales are a wonderful way to buy bulk trees for less than the cost a commercial nursery would charge. The trade-off is that the trees are seedlings.
Seedlings look like 12 to 18-inch twigs with bare roots. They probably won’t have leaves when they arrive. The advantage is that it’s easy to plant seedlings. Rather than wrestling with a 5-foot white pine with a heavy root ball and digging a hole that is deeper and wider than said root ball in what is most likely a heavy clay soil with a lot of rocks, simply use a spade to carve out space for the seedling’s roots to slide in. Adding compost and organic matter improves drainage and soil nutrients. Then just cover it over and mulch in a wide circle.
Although it sounds easy when I write this now, doing that 50 times last summer actually became quite a chore, so I’d urge anyone to be realistic about the time and work involved.
Watering is easier for seedlings, too. Newly planted trees need heavy watering in the first year. Seedlings can be managed with a watering can instead of a hose, making it easier to plant things in out of the way places that the hose might not reach. Cost is the final deciding factor. For example, at the Soil and Water sale each variety is sold in packs of 10 and the cost ranges from $1.50 per seedling to $3. It’s certainly affordable in comparison with several hundred dollars for a mature tree.
If a 10-pack is more than is needed, find a friend or neighbor to share the order. I don’t expect all the seedlings will make it, though so overplanting isn’t an issue. Wildlife damage, pest damage, and gardener neglect or error — yes it happens! — can all doom a young tree to failure.
If privacy and blooms are the goal, however, a mature tree can provide instant gratification that a seedling will not. The joy of watching a seedling mature is its reward and it may take a few years to get fruit or blooms. There are many fast-growing options, though. All the three organizations mentioned provide great information on their order forms, including soil preference, light preference, growth rate, and best uses, making it easy to choose seedlings that are ideal for a particular setting.
For more information on ordering and the varieties available, visit sunywcc.edu. Call the Soil and Water District at 845-878-7918 to ask them to email a PDF of the order form and list. The order deadline for the Native Plant Center is Feb. 28. Download the order form here. The DEC deadline isn’t until March 31, but some varieties are already sold out so if there’s something really desirable, order soon. The Soil and Water deadline is March 26, with pick-ups on April 25-26. Educators take note: The DEC provides free stock to schools. This could be a great project for a classroom.