Dirt First!

It’s tree-planting season.  My annual order of 24 native seedlings arrived today via Fed Ex from the State nursery in Missoula, Montana. Minimum order is 24 “plugs” or bareroot stock, grown for “conservation” purposes and sold throughout the state.  This year, I selected P-pine (Ponderosa).  Last year it was juniper, and western larch the year before.  I treat this as a ritual of Spring, that for me goes way back to the mid-1980s.  The serious woman at the nursery – maybe a tree scientist —  I ordered from this year wasn’t thrilled about my selection because the seeds were gathered at a much lower elevation, and from a site West of the Continental Divide, somewhere in the Blackfoot River watershed.  I’m planting East of the divide in much poorer dirt, in a more hostile setting with less annual precipitation (drought prone) and generally lower humidity.  After a robust discussion she agreed to send my 24 Ponderosa pine. 

Ponderosa pine seedling (“plug”)

These little beauties are now in 1-gallon pots.  It didn’t take long at all.


A tree-planting crew is 20-something individuals, all with their stories, all with their quirks and attitudes.  A top (“high roller”) planter – this is on USFS-USDA ground with intense scrutiny by “the Freddies” – could plant somewhere around 1,000 seedlings a day.  800 to 1,000 on tough ground.  A private-ground planter (“stuff and run”) could double that in a day, or more, due to lax, or no inspection by the landowner.  The U.S. Forest Service contracting officers’ demeaner ranged from pretty much normal, almost casual, to total flaming asshole.  Government inspector would dig our trees looking for contract violations.  Here are a few common infractions: “j-root,” pruned roots, high tree, too deep, not tight, and on and on.  Too many bad trees and they dock our pay. 

All you need is a hoedad, tree bag and a couple hundred seedlings, and away you go. Then the boss brings you more trees, and more.

I’m glad to be back planting this year, even though it’s only my token 24 P-pines.  Seems about right for an old geezer.  There’s nothing like a fist full of dirt and a well-planted seedling to commemorate the transition from winter to spring in the Northern Rockies. 

“Hoedad” tree-planting tool. Great on steep ground.

3 thoughts on “Dirt First!

  1. you should not keep them in pots. They won’t make it that way. Plant them in the open as soon as you can. I tried to grow a Bonsai from Pines. It’s supposed to work, but my few seedlings died after barely two years. They didn’t build enough roots and slowly dried out.I still keep one in our garden. It’s from the time I tried the Bonsai and it still grows but very slow. I’m looking for a small Pine seedling in the open areas here to make a Yamadori. I need one with a trunk of a few centimeters though. There are either big trees or seedlings like yours.


  2. Thanks, Barb. These will be in the ground soon. You are right, pines have a pretty strong “tap root.” Just a lot to do this time of year. All at once, everything starts growing again. No leaves out here yet, so I have a week or two to find suitable spots for them. I never tried Bonsai. Perhaps look for a tree in a steep road-cut facing full sun. Stressed trees can be found on stressed sites. Good luck.


  3. Your Hoedad looks great – reminds me of a tool we first used in Turkey when my partner & I went on a working holiday clearing, planting & making on organic land. Got one similar in UK on a market stall & my sister wouldn’t be without it. Back saver.. You’re right about hands in the dirt for sure. I’m getting 3 fresh vegetable off the towpath edge every day at the moment. Nothing like it – something fresh & green every day to balance against the outer madness. Definitely sane here at the water‘s edge.. The first Nettles, Cleavers & then Alexanders are my winter-spring transition markers.


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