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How to Help Teeny-Tiny Seedlings Grow Up Strong

Q. I enjoy listening to your show and have learned a lot! But I have a question I haven't heard you address. We are getting seedlings from the Game Commission this spring to plant on our property for wildlife. We'll be getting Norway Spruce, Silky Dogwood, Mixed fruiting shrubs, and some flowering crabapples. They will be very small seedlings when they come, and I'd like to maximize their chances of survival. Can we plant them in large pots or a temporary garden area to grow for a year or two or would it be better to just plant them in their permanent home?

---Anya in Julian, PA (20 minutes north of State College)

A: A great question! A lot of people received {quote} "trees" as part of an Arbor Day celebration this Spring, and are wondering how to care for the poor things that are barely the size of a pencil. Luckily for this answer, my very own wife came home last year with a face that said "I'm sorry" and an arm full of tiny little trees in plastic sandwich bags; orphans left unclaimed after an Earth Day event. So I became an unprepared nursemaid for a dozen tiny trees that had sat out on a lunchroom table for a week.

And all but one made it through our savage winter; and that one went completely missing, so it was taken by some animal as a result of my poor caging. So let's walk through what I did; and what others should do when they get tiny seedlings like this.

First thing you do when you receive any bare root plant—a plant that's not in any kind of soil—is let the roots sit in water for an hour or two. Not the entire plant—just the exposed roots. This will help rehydrate them and perhaps send a message to the plant that it's not dead yet. Then you want to fill medium-sized plastic pots that have good drainage holes in the bottom about half-way up with a light, loose, bagged "soil-free mix" like a seed-starting mix or potting soil. Not terra cotta pots or old yogurt cups and no garden soil. Water the mix well.

(You should never use garden soil in a container because it's heavy and full of weed seeds. Terra cotta is pretty, but it doesn't hold moisture well—and it wouldn't survive winter outdoors, which these pots will have to do. And I prefer professionally-made containers for tricky jobs like this; there's less to go wrong.)

Now, in a separate container, mix up a batch of half compost, half soil-free mix. Place the moistened roots of one tree or shrub on top of the moistened mix in one of the prepared pots and then fill in around it with the new mix. Only one plant per pot. Pull the plant up gently as you work so that when you're done, only the roots are below the soil line. Then sit the pots in a couple inches of water until they're saturated. Then take them outside and put them in a spot where they'll get about a half day of sun and place chicken wire or other protection around the whole set up; these tiny plants need to be outdoors but are prime food for deer, rabbits and such.

Make the covering easy to remove and 'rock' the pots every day to see how they feel. When they feel light, slowly add water. But don't water them if they feel heavy. The baby plants shouldn't go without water for long stretches of time, but they can't sit in constantly wet soil all the time, either.

Don't 'feed' them; that's what the compost is for. If they start to grow rapidly, you can water them with some compost tea or spread an inch of fresh compost or worm castings on the surface of their soil, but nothing stronger.

Then comes winter. These kinds of plants can't come inside for the winter. They need to be exposed to a certain number of hours of cold temps and need to go through the normal progression of the seasons. But they can't be left outside in exposed pots or the roots will freeze. So when summer turns to fall, dig holes and bury the pots up to their lips in an area where the soil drains well. Water them a little bit if winter is really dry, but not too much. Dormant plants don't need a lot of water. (Protection from strong winter winds would be much more important.)

Oh, and be sure to rig up a really sturdy protection of wire mesh for them; winter is when herbivores really chow down on small plants.

Then in the Spring, lift the pots out of the ground and decide what you want to do. If the plants have achieved a decent size, consider planting them where they're going to stay permanently. (Read the tree planting Q of the Week for details on this procedure.) If you're unsure—and you're going to be around to care for them all summer—take them through another season in pots and plant them the following Spring.

And be prepared to protect them from rabbits and deer with either spray-on repellants or physical barriers for years to come. Most purchased bare root trees and shrubs are several years older and MUCH larger when you get them, and they're still prime targets for deer and rabbit attack. You can move up to just wrapping the trunks when they're teen agers, but the longer you protect them from animals, the better chance your grandchildren will get to see them.

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