Transplanting Seedling Trees

Environment and climate changeTrees and agroforestry


If you want to grow your own seedlings in containers in your nursery, here is how to help your trees get a good start.

First, prepare the place where you’ll be planting the trees. Uproot and clear away the grass and weeds to a distance of one pace (one metre) around the spot where you’re going to plant the tree. The tree will grow because it won’t have to compete with the grass and other plants for food, water, and light. Also the cleared space will discourage insects and small animals from damaging the tree by eating the bark.

It is best to dig your planting holes before the rainy season begins so they will have been well watered by the time you begin planting after the first or second good rain. Dig holes about 30 centimetres deep and 45 centimetres across. As you dig, put the good topsoil in a pile to one side of the hole and any poorer soil from down below in a pile on the other side. Then loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole but leave it down in there.

If you have compost or manure, put some in the bottom of the hole and then mix in some of that good soil from the topsoil pile until the hole is about half full. Be sure the soil is moist. If it isn’t, add water and let it soak in. It should be moist but not wet when you plant your tree.

When the holes are ready, water the trees. Then take the trees in their containers right to the spot where you’re going to plant. Keep them in the shade. Better still, do your transplanting on a cloudy, cool day. Seedlings are easily damaged by direct sunlight. Put the seedlings in the ground immediately, before the roots dry out even a little.

It is important that you handle the seedling tree carefully, because you must not disturb the soil around its roots. If your seedling tree is growing in a container that will rot in the ground, just slit the sides of the container from top to bottom with a knife. Then plant the whole thing in the planting hole. If the container won’t rot right away a plastic bag, bamboo cup, coconut shell, or something like that remove it carefully.

Don’t disturb the soil mass around the roots.

Gently place your tree, roots and soil mass, in the middle of the planting hole. Be sure that the tree will not be planted too deep or too shallow. It should be at the same depth as it was growing in its container.

When you fill in around the roots and soil mass, first use the rest of the good topsoil you dug out of the hole. Push it down firmly with your hands around the soil mass your seedling tree is growing in. Then fill in the rest of the hole with the poorer soil you dug out from lower down in the hole.

There should not be any large air spaces in the soil that’s filled back into the hole with the tree. So be sure to pack down the soil with your foot but not too hard. Seedlings grow better in well aerated soil.

Then, if you live in a dry area, you may want to build a rim of earth around the tree to hold any rainwater that does fall.

You can also hold moisture in the soil by placing flat stones on top of the soil that’s just been filled in around the seedling. Even when the surface soil gets dry, it will be moist under the stones. And that’s moisture the roots of your seedlings need to get a good start.

If you have no flat stones, put mulch, such as grass or leaves, on top of the soil to keep the roots cool and prevent the moisture from disappearing into the air.


  • This script was reviewed by Bob Morikawa, Agroforestry Consultant, Toronto, Canada.

Information sources

  • Tree planting in Africa south of the Sahara, David Kamweti, 1982, 75 pages. The Environment Liaison Centre, P.O. Box 72461, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • “Tree nurseries” in Footsteps, No. 5, December 1990. Tear Fund, 100 Church Rd., Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8QE, U.K.
  • “How to plant and care for trees”, in Kengonews, Vol. IV, No. 3, July 1991, KENGO, Mwanzi Road, Westlands, P.O. Box 48197, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Trees as a guide to ecology, 1982, 40 pages, United Nations Environment Programme, P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Trees for Zimbabwe, Beth Conover, 191 pages, ENDA Zimbabwe, P.O. Box 3492, Harare, Zimbabwe.
  • “Agroforestry seeds”, in Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 3, September 1990. CUSO, 17 Phahonyothin Golf Village, Phahonyothin Road, Bangkhen, Bangkok, 10900, Thailand.
  • “Tips on planting fruit trees”, in Agriculture in Action, July 1990. Barbados Agricultural Society, “The Grotto”, Beckles Road, St. Michael, Barbados, W.I.
  • Forestry Training Manual, 1982, 390 pages, Peace Corps, Information Collection and Exchange, Office of Training and Programme Support, 806 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20526, U.S.A.
  • Especies de árbol de uso múltiple en America Central (Species of multi purpose trees in Central America), 1991, 47 pages, CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Ensenanza), Turrialba, Costa Rica.
  • “En viveros, nadie nace aprendido” (“Tree nurseries learning for everyone”), Enlace, Number 23, Revista Enlace, Apartado A 136, Managua, Nicaragua.