← Back to news

Tom Starkey recently visited International Forest Company’s (IFCO) open house and presented, “The Ten Commandments for Better Container Seedling Survival”. His presentation was immensely informative and valuable to our landowners, so we thought we’d share it!



Tom is a part of the Southern Forest Nursery Cooperative (SFNC), which is an organization that provides research and technical support to companies that grow seedlings for reforestation. The information below comes from published research data and the evaluation of seedlings sent into SFNC’s disease clinic over the last 10 -12 years.

We’ll cover seedling production:

  • Regionally
  • Within the Southeast
  • Stock Types


Let’s open up with a question. The south accounts for what percent of total US production?



How about another question. What percent of Southern production does IFCO grow?



International Forest Company grows 72 million (40%) seedlings in the Southern region and that number continues to rise.

Now let’s take a look at total production in the South and how it breaks down into bareroot and containerized seedlings.



There are 755 million bareroot seedlings grown in the Southern region of the U.S. Of that 755 million:

  • Loblolly pine makes up 86%
  • Slash pine makes up 11%
  • Longleaf pine makes up 0.7%


There are 181 million container seedlings grown in the Southern region of the U.S. Of that 181 million:

  • Loblolly pine makes up 34%
  • Slash pine makes up 2%
  • Longleaf pine makes up 63%


Now that we have a clear picture of what kind and how many seedlings are being grown in the South, let’s get into our seedling commandments.




Commandment #1
“Thou shalt remember that superior seedling genetics will NEVER compensate for poor planting decisions.”

Superior seedling genetics will not help if you:

  • plan holes that are too shallow/deep (longleaf pine)
  • allow poor quality/culled seedlings to be planted
  • purchase hold-over seedlings
  • have planting failure due to late season planting
  • plant too soon after chemical site prep
  • allow poor quality/unsupervised planting
  • use hand-planting when machine planting is better
  • ignore existing site problem like wet soil or tip moth
  • plant when environmental conditions say “DO NOT PLANT!”


Commandment #2
“Thou shalt focus on deeper planting holes and plant loblolly, slash and shortleaf pine deeper in drained soils.” (This commandment does not apply to longleaf.)


Directly below, you will see a comparison of studies where seedlings were planted at the root collar or deep. The circles below the center line favor planting trees at the root collar. While the circles above the line favor deep planting.




Below is another study comparing height growth of seedlings planted at a regular depth versus those planted deep.



Commandment #3
“Thou shalt remember that larger diameter (RCD) seedlings and good seedling nutrition are directly related to survival and early seedling establishment.”




The above graph shows the increased pine survival and early growth rates by planting “morphologically improved” seedlings. The red box within the graph indicates commonly planted seedlings.

Seedling nutrition facts:
Bareroot and container nurseries manage seedling growth during the growing season, so that they reach their target size at the beginning of shipping season
Fertilization is reduced or even stopped prior to and after target size is achieved
Seedlings shipped early will generally have the highest seedling nutrition

Tip: Order your seedlings early! Also, be sure to check out our containerized pine seedlings.


Commandment #4
“Thou shalt aim to plain all seedlings early…also forget the month of March!”


Why should you plant early?

  • Allows seedlings to become established before spring growth begins




In this study, seedlings were planted every two weeks from mid November to mid March, then the seedlings were removed from the ground on April 23 and again on June 13. Upon removal, the length of the new roots were measured.

You can see that the earlier seedlings were planted, the more new root growth occurred.

Why should I plant early?

  • Provides the greatest chance of survival and minimizes the potential impact of bad weather
  • Gives you a jump on seedling growth




This study is from SW Louisiana slash pine, 2nd year height and shows that no matter the stock type, early planting provides a jump on seedling growth.

Why should I plant early?

  • Seedlings coming from nurseries early have higher levels of nutrition

When should I plant?

Container seedlings:

  • After site prep is properly completed
  • When there is adequate soil moisture
  • When the container plugs hold together

Bareroot seedlings:

  • After site prep is properly completed
  • When there is adequate soil moisture
  • Mid November to February


Commandment #5
“Thou shalt not skimp on planting costs with improved genetic seedlings, such as controlled mass pollinated (CMP).”


Hand planting:


Machine planting:





This is data from Union Camp comparing hand and machine planting on the same track:




Commandment #6
“Thou shalt call your planting contractor, consulting forester, and/or nursery manager early when survival problems occur.”



Don’t be like this landowner who waited for two years before contacting the consulting forester to inform him that some was wrong with the planting.


Commandment #7
“Thou shalt always remember that the ‘once in a 100 year’ freeze, flood or drought may happen this year!”





Commandment #8
“Thou shalt handle the seedlings with care after picking them up from the nursery–avoid conditions that may stress the seedlings.”


Never pick up seedlings in an uncovered/untarped truck or trailer and watch where you park.



This goes for both bareroot and container seedlings.



Minimize seedlings exposure and remember, “If they dry, they die!”.



The best protection especially for a large planting job is an on-site barrier or simply pick up as many seedlings as you can plant in a day.


Commandment #9
“Thou shalt plant seedlings properly. Remember, green side up!”

The Do’s and Dont’s of planting…


  • Plant seedlings as soon as they arrive on site
  • Create a good planting hole (at least 8” deep)
  • Properly align the seedling in the hole
  • Pack the soil around the seedling to insure contact of the soil, roots and root ball
  • Check planting quality by pulling on the top of the seedling


  • Plant in dry soils
  • Plant if temperatures are < 35F and falling
  • Plant if soils are frozen
  • Plant too fast
  • Plant too soon after chemical site prep



There is a large forestry concern that will not allow hoedads to be used on any upper coastal or piedmont soils.



Commandment #10
“Thou shalt remember that not all containers are created equal.”


Container production in the last 40 years:









The first attempt to consolidate containers, where individual cells were put into a single container:








The second attempt to consolidate more containers into larger trays and minimize handling and cost:




As consolidation occurred, relatively few changes were made to the basic design of the container:




IFCO instituted the first major change from basic consolidation in 2005.

IFCO 128:

  • square cell configuration on top
  • large bottom drainage hole
  • multiple root pruning holes on the side of each cell
  • internal ribs direct roots to holes








Root pruning holes and ribs:




Pruning holes are indicative of the root form and growth seedlings produce as seen in the study below:















Don’t get sucked into the scales pitch that a longer plug is always better. For basic survival, it probably doesn’t matter. However, if you are looking to maximize early growth and establishment, choose wisely and be informed.

There are more important characteristics of a good container design than the length of the plug.

So, to summarize, what have we learned?

  1. Don’t make poor decisions
  2. Plant ‘em deep (with one exception)
  3. Large diameter seedlings and nutrients are your friends
  4. Plant early
  5. For improved genetics, don’t skimp on planting costs
  6. If you have survival problems, contact someone early
  7. Watch out! This may be the 1 in 100 year event
  8. Handle seedlings with care
  9. Plant properly
  10. Not all containers are created equal

If you have any further questions, feel free to contact us!

← Back to news