Planting Hardwood Seedlings and Saplings

Historically, landowners in Ontario have primarily planted conifer seedlings – red, white and jack pine, white and black spruce, larch and some tamarack. However, over the past several years there has been a shift, and the popularity of planting hardwood seedlings is growing.  Many woodlot owners are now seeking out hardwood seedlings to plant for a variety of reasons (see Table 1).

To meet this new demand, private nurseries growing tree seedlings for reforestation and afforestation projects are working to fill this new market segment. A recent check of one nursery’s product list showed over 20 different available native hardwood species including: red oak, white oak, bur oak, silver maple, sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, hackberry, butternut, bitternut hickory, black cherry and many others.

Table 1: Commonly Planted Hardwood Species by Property Objective

Wildlife (cover or mast)

Red oak, bur oak, black cherry, black walnut, butternut and ironwood


White ash, red oak, sugar maple and black walnut

Buffer Strips (riparian areas)

Silver maple, black willow, green ash, white ash, black walnut and red oak

This article will focus on some of the different aspects of handling and planting hardwood seedlings and saplings.

Planting Tips

Whether you are planting conifers or hardwoods, here are a few simple tips for successful tree planting. 

  • Seedlings are perishable and should be planted as soon as possible after receipt from the nursery. Careful storage and handling is required to ensure that the roots don’t dry out and the buds remain dormant. Seedlings should be transported and stored in a cool environment and protected from the sun (overheating) and wind (excessive drying). 
  • Plant species that are adaptable to the site. You should match the species to the soil type, moisture regime and the seed zone of your planting site.
  • Seedlings should be planted upright (not at acute angles) with the soil around the stem firmly packed to avoid air pockets.
  • Keep organic debris, stones, twigs, etc., out of the planting hole. They will create air pockets that will dry out the roots.
  • Choose the best site to plant; avoid frost pockets, water holes, stumps, heavy duff conditions and shallow soils.
  • Protect the roots!  Only remove the number of seedlings from storage that you are able to plant.  When separating the seedlings from their bundles, cut the elastic off, and gently separate; do not rip the seedlings apart.
  • Don’t plant seedlings too deep or too shallow. Seedlings should be planted so that after the soil has settled the root collar swelling is slightly above or level with the ground.
  • Don’t bunch, twist or bend the roots.  Make sure the hole is deep enough to accommodate the entire root system and position the roots straight down in the hole in a natural arrangement. Ensure there are no exposed roots.

Other Aspects of Hardwood Plantings

Hardwood seedlings are no different from conifers; they will only succeed when they are planted on the right site. Table 2 provides an overview of the right hardwood species to plant, given specific site conditions (drainage and soil texture).

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Table 2: Hardwood Species Recommendations for Site Conditions

Soil Texture

Natural Drainage

Well to moderate

Imperfect to poor


Red oak, poplar, black locust* and sugar maple

Green ash, willow


Green ash, red oak, black cherry, beech, basswood, bitternut hickory, black walnut, poplar, black locust*, white ash, butternut, bur oak, red maple and sugar maple

Silver maple, red maple, green ash and willow


White ash, black locust*, green ash, red maple, black walnut and poplar

Silver maple, green ash and willow

Source: Planning for Tree Planting, OMNR 1995   * Not a native species

It should also be noted that hardwood species generally require more soil nutrients and moister soil conditions than conifer species. However, higher nutrient levels bring more competition, and good site preparation and follow-up tending will be required for the first three to four years. This care will greatly increase survival rates and growth. Hardwoods are much more susceptible to rodent damage, and controlling grass competition will also assist in minimizing this type of damage.

Hardwood seedlings should have a shoot height of 30–60 cm and a root collar diameter of at least 0.8 cm.  Refer to Table 3. The roots should be well developed and have several lateral roots.  A quality seedling will have a good root-to-top ratio, meaning a seedling with a balanced ratio of shoot growth and root volume (growth).

Table 3: Preferred Seedling Size


Preferred Minimum Stem Length

Preferred Root-Collar Diameter

Black walnut

30 cm

1 cm


30 cm

1 cm

Sugar maple

60 cm

0.8 cm

Red oak

50 cm

0.8 cm

Black cherry

50 cm

0.8 cm

Source: BMP Agroforestry Series Vol. 2 – Establishing Tree Cover

If part of your property is a farm operation, keep in mind that the toxins in some hardwood species are known or suspected to be incompatible with livestock. For example, tree species such as cherry and black locust are not compatible with horses, cattle, pigs or sheep. Red maple, black walnut and butternut may affect horses.

Transplanting Saplings

Instead of planting seedlings, you may want to consider transplanting saplings taken from another part of your property. Here are a few tips on how to undertake this project successfully.

  • Select saplings from the edge of your woodlot, not from shaded areas within the woodlot;
  • Choose healthy and vigorous growing saplings, ranging in height from 4–8 feet;
  • Only transplant trees when they are dormant (i.e., in early spring before the buds begin to develop or in the late fall after the leaves have dropped);
  • The larger the root ball, the better. As a guide, the width of the root ball should be 9–12 inches and have a depth of 6–20 inches; and
  • Remember, site preparation before planting, and follow-up tending in the first few years after planting, are important to avoid unnecessary mortality.
Table 4 provides a difficulty rating for transplanting various common hardwood species found in Ontario.

Table 4: Transplant Difficulty Rating by Species of Hardwoods
(< 2 inch in diameter – tree whips i.e., branchless trees)


Silver maple, sugar maple, white ash, green ash, honey locust, elm and poplar


Bur oak, birch, hackberry, hawthorn, red oak, black cherry, Kentucky coffee tree, Shumard oak and willow


Ironwood, Chinquapin oak, hickory, sassafras, tulip tree, walnut, white oak, staghorn sumac, and beech

Source: Best Management Practices Agroforestry Series Vol. 2 – Establishing Tree Cover

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For More Information

There are a number of publications and extension notes readily available to landowners that will provide more information about planting conifer and hardwood seedlings. Here is a short list:

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