How Rayonier Plants Trees in the U.S. and New Zealand
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Rayonier employees are putting our resources to work for you! We take you behind the scenes in this series of Rayonier videos and articles.

Rayonier Foresters Plant Millions of Trees Every Year

Rayonier foresters spend more time planting trees than they do harvesting them. We look at the extensive planning and location-specific methods we use for planting trees in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the U.S. South and New Zealand.

With logs rushing to meet the needs of today’s consumers, do you ever find yourself asking, “Are we going to run out of trees?”

Believe it or not, sustainable forestry companies like Rayonier plant many times more trees than we harvest. In the typical year, Rayonier foresters put more than 30 million trees in the ground. We reforest any area we’ve cut within about a year of the harvest. The trees we plant will provide for the next generation.

planting douglas-fir Washington State
A planting crew sets out to plant Douglas-firs for Rayonier in Washington state.

It’s not just a simple process of dropping seeds and leaving them alone for decades. It takes years to plan each planting operation. We combine everything we know about genetics, agriculture and soils. We also consider the unique conditions of each region where we plant to help each forest thrive.

For this story, planting teams in three different parts of our ownership, the U.S. South, the U.S. Pacific Northwest and New Zealand, explain how we plant trees in each of those regions.

Tree seedlings grow in Bay of Plenty New Zealand
Rows of 2-year-old seedlings appear on a hillside in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty region. They’re the 3rd rotation (generation of plantation trees) for this location.

Planting forests over a lifetime

Imagine working as a farmer, but rarely being able to harvest the crops you plant. You nurture them every day, but it will be for another generation to actually gather the fruits of your labor.

That is the work of a forester. They plant trees knowing they will grow for decades before it’s time to cut them.

On rare occasions, a longtime forester may see the process from start to finish. Dan Hildebrand, a Rayonier resource land manager who’s been with our company more than 30 years, has done it. He harvested the same trees he planted many years prior. Then he replanted that same field again.

forester meeting with planting crew
Longtime Rayonier forester Dan Hildebrand has been planting trees more than 30 years. He’s shown here meeting with a planting contractor.

How to plant trees in the U.S. Southeast

During a recent planting operation near Jesup, Georgia, Dan climbed aboard a refrigerated van. He checks it each day to ensure his loblolly pine seedlings inside are nice and cool. 

The van, powered by a diesel engine, maintains a 37 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to ensure the trees stay dormant. Warmth might signal that it’s time to grow. This would stress the trees unnecessarily in the already stressful transition from our nursery to the forest. 

Refrigerated van for pine tree seedlings
This refrigerated van keeps as many as 475,000 pine tree seedlings at a cool 37 degrees Fahrenheit until they’re ready to plant.

Planting trees in the coldest months

The goal is to plant all the trees in the coldest winter months, November through February. That ensures the roots have time to become established in the ground before the seedlings begin to grow.

“We have about 475,000 trees per vanload,” Dan says. “We try to plant them all in about one week.”

While some parts of our ownership rely on outside nurseries to grow our seedlings for us, in the Southeast we use trees grown in our own seedling nursery in Elberta, Alabama. That region’s rich soils grow healthy rootstocks, giving the trees a great start.

Pine tree seedling lifting Elberta Alabama
Pine trees ready to be replanted in the forest are lifted in Rayonier’s seedling nursery in Elberta, Alabama. They will be used to reforest Rayonier land throughout the U.S.

The seeds for these trees come from Rayonier seed orchards. We breed our best-performing trees in the orchards and harvest the seeds from their pine cones.

Site prep keeps trees dry in rainy months

Out in the forests Dan’s crews are replanting, all the “site prep” work has already been done to prepare the ground for planting. Since many of these properties are low-lying, we often row the soil into long, straight raised beds. That will ensure the trees are above the water table and don’t drown before they’re established. Thanks to GPS on the tractors, the rows are perfectly straight and exactly the right distance apart to ensure the right spacing for the trees.

Bedding Site Prep for Tree Planting in the Southeast
In low-lying areas where seedlings might drown in wet soils, such as this forest near Jesup, Georgia, we use this “bedding” technique to create raised rows. Baby pines are planted in the higher beds so they can get established on drier ground.

Throughout the day, Dan checks on various planting crews, each of whom will plant thousands of trees per-day. They use a tractor to pull a “hopper” through the planting area, and a person sitting in the hopper drops the seedling in the ground at just the right moment. 

“In the front is a 36-inch, knife-like disk that looks like a pizza cutter,” Dan explains. “It cuts a narrow slot in the ground. You drop the tree in the slot, and then the wheels on the back of the hopper packs the slot back together.”

Planting pines with a tractor in Southeast
On the flat ground of the U.S. South, we use tractors. The planter rides in the “hopper” in the back. After a front wheel cuts a “slot” in the ground, the planter drops the seedling in. The two back wheels push the dirt back into place.

Dan says the planters use a “cadence,” planting every two or three seconds to ensure each tree is 5 feet apart. The spacing will ensure even growing conditions, similar to how one would plant a garden.

Ensuring the trees are planted right

Dan walks the field and performs what our foresters call “an audit.” He checks the trees to ensure they’re being planted deep enough, giving a gentle tug on their tops. He makes sure the roots are planted straight down and the stems haven’t been handled too roughly. 

Planting Loblolly in Georgia
Dan conducts a planting quality audit. He checks a row of freshly-planted loblolly pines to ensure they’re deep enough in the ground with roots lying straight.

Since all trees are primarily alive only in their outer cambium layer, Dan explains, “The live part of this 1-year-old tree is thinner than a piece of paper. It has to be planted deep in the soil to stay protected.”

Once they’re in the ground, these trees will be under a careful forest management plan for the next two decades. They will receive fertilizer treatments, competing weeds will be removed, and, in about 12 years, the weakest of the trees will be thinned out and used for pulp products like toilet paper, cardboard and paper.

Thinning a Forest
About 12 years after Rayonier plants a forest in the U.S. South, we thin it. By removing a row of weaker trees, we make room for the stronger trees to grow.

Somewhere between 18 and 25 years from now, the remaining trees will be harvested for products such as lumber and fencing. It’s a long time, but as you’ll see, in other areas, our trees grow twice as long.

How to plant tress in the U.S. Pacific Northwest

Our planting operations in the Pacific Northwest are done with entirely different trees, methods and terrain. Near the small Washington town of South Bend, David Springe pulls on a jacket to fend off the chilly weather.

Out here, the cold Washington air is just right to keep our Douglas-fir seedlings dormant.

David, a resource land manager for our Hoquiam team, picks up a seedling and admires its root system.

Forester looking at seedling roots
Resource Land Manager David Springe checks the root system of a Douglas-fir seedling. His planting crews plant thousands of them daily.

“This has a good root to shoot ratio,” he says, explaining a tree should have a generous amount of roots for the amount of green “shoot” coming out of the ground.

While our trees in the Southeast were only about a year old at planting time, here they grow an extra year in the nursery, reaching their second birthday before they’re replanted to ensure they’re about two feet tall before they’re exposed to the infamously rainy weather of the Washington mountains.

Freshly planted Douglas-fir in Washington
While our seedlings in the U.S. South are no larger than a patch of grass, our Pacific Northwest trees are larger. This freshly-planted Douglas-fir is about two years old and two feet high.

Leaving stumps and branches on the ground

While we plow neat rows in the South, here in Washington we leave most stumps and tree debris (known as “slash” to the locals) on the ground after the previous forest is harvested. That will help hold the soils in place, preventing erosion on the steep slopes and keeping sediment out of waterways below. It conserves the organic matter and nutrients within the soils. And, as the slash breaks down, it will also serve as a natural, slow-release fertilizer for the trees we plant today.

There is a reason slash is left behind after a tree harvest
All that debris our planters have to work around? It’s there for a reason. It may not look good, but it holds soils in place and will fertilize the next generation of trees as it breaks down.

Planting each tree by hand

With steep slopes and rough terrain, these forests aren’t planted using tractors or other heavy equipment. Out here, each tree is planted by hand and shovel.

While the work isn’t easy, experienced planters can put more than 1,000 trees per-person in the ground in a single day. Just like the tractor planters in the Southeast, these planters develop a rhythm that keeps them planting at a steady pace while they’re evenly spaced apart from one another.

Hand-planting a Douglas-fir in Washington
Each Douglas-fir is planted by hand in our forests in Washington state.

“They dig a hole by stomping on their shovel and wrenching it back and forth, which loosens the soil. Then they place the seedling with the roots hanging straight down and use the shovel to push the soil back in,” David explains.

Each person on the planting crew wears two bags loaded with trees: the pair weighs about 40 lbs. when full.

Seedlings are carried in bags for forest planting
Together, the two bags each planter wears weigh 40 lbs. when full.

Watching as a crew planted across a picturesque hillside, David said, “They’re choosing the best location to dig every hole. It’s one of the most important decisions made in each of these trees’ lifetimes.”

The typical forest in the Pacific Northwest will grow Douglas-firs about 40 years before they’re harvested.

How to plant trees in New Zealand

Our New Zealand team, Rayonier | Matariki Forests, also plants primarily on steep terrain, so hand-planting is the most common method. Seedlings come from a number of independent nurseries who work closely with us.

Hand-Planting Trees Northland New Zealand
Planting trees by hand in a Rayonier | Matariki forest. These boxes were taken directly from the pods they were delivered in and carried in a frame on the planters’ hips. That minimizes handling and stress on the seedlings. / Photo By Patrick Dravitzki

“I enjoy working with the tree breeders, seed producers and nursery growers to deliver treestocks that are ‘fit for purpose’ for our field sites, silviculture and target wood products,” says Forest Estate Manager Paul Adams. “Nurseries are like ‘mini’ plantations, and each year they produce treestocks that are the start of the next age class of productive, high-quality forests across our estate.” 

Collecting treestocks New Zealand Nursery
A team lifts tree cuttings and packs them into pods in a Pinus radiata nursery in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty region.

Delivering Seedlings with Care

The team has a carefully-planned process to deliver seedlings to the forest in the best possible condition. 

Many of our regions are able to plant tree stocks within 24 to 48 hours of lifting. There are generally daily deliveries of stock from the nursery to planting sites using a pod system to reduce compression of stock from boxes stored on boxes,” Paul explains. 

New Zealand Seedling Transport Pod
These small, protective planting pods are loaded with boxes of treestocks at tree nurseries and delivered daily to New Zealand forests during planting season. A typical pod holds 3000 trees. / Photo by Jaco Nortje

“These boxes are then carried in the field, commonly on a belt around the planter’s waist. The seedlings are taken directly from the box and planted in each planting hole.”

The work is undeniably challenging.

“Hand planting can be a difficult job due to the terrain, weather conditions and the physicality of the work,” says Forest Estate Manager Paul Adams. “It can take two to three years before a planter is proficient.”

Planting Trees in New Zealand
A Rayonier | Matariki planting crew plants in the hills in Canterbury, New Zealand. They use canvas bags to hold the trees and planting spades to create the planting hole.

Planters hard to find

While the scenery is beautiful and the work is consistent throughout the winter, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find enough planters to keep up with the demand. The New Zealand team is looking closely at advancing technology in the hopes that there will one day be efficient mechanical methods to assist with planting efforts. But, for now, there is nothing better than hand-planting.

With the coldest weather coming at the opposite time of year versus the United States, in New Zealand the prime time to plant is from mid-May to early August. The New Zealand team plants mostly radiata pine, some Douglas-fir and—on high altitude sites—some pine hybrids.

1 year old cuttings Southland New Zealand
A forest of 1-year-old cuttings in Southland, New Zealand.

At times, the team is able to plant without having to prepare the ground beforehand, like our Pacific Northwest team. Other times, there is so much tree “residue” left behind that it would be too difficult to plant on. In those instances, the team uses mechanical site preparation. They collect the “residues” from the previous harvest into windrows, or “heaps.” If soils are compacted so much that they will limit tree growth, then ripping or mounding may be undertaken. In frost-prone areas, the team uses “spot mounding” to plant seedlings above ground level, where it will be warmer.

Windrowing machine preps land for planting
A windrowing machine with a rake attachment prepares the ground for planting in New Zealand.

Taking pride in the trees we plant

Our foresters take pride in the trees they have planted. They’re contributing to the forests’ lifecycle, the health of the environment now and the needs of generations to come. Just ride along with one of them through the forest, and they’ll point out each stand they remember planting.

Closeup Douglas-fir seedling at planting time
Our foresters take pride in what they plant, from admiring a healthy stem and root system at planting time to nurturing the towering forests they become decades later.

For Dan, there are many, many forests in the Southeast that he had a hand in planting.

“These trees will be used by my children and my grandchildren and their children,” he says.

Planting douglas-firs in western washington
Rayonier’s planting crews work long days throughout the rigorous planting seasons. We thank them for their hard work! The results will be forests that capture carbon, that provide homes to wildlife, and that, one day, will provide the forest products needed by a generation yet to come.

To Learn More about our planting process:

Read our article, How Foresters Use Controlled Pollination to Improve Tree Performance, to learn more about our genetic breeding process.

Watch our video, Planting and Lifting Seedlings at Rayonier’s Tree Nursery, to learn more about our pine tree nursery.

See a timeline and videos about all the steps of a tree’s life in the forest on our Lifecycle of a Forest web page.

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4 Comments

  1. Outstanding presentation. I have learned much. And, Dan Hildebrand has been a close friend of mine since he first started with Rayonier at Fernandina. He is an exemplary gentleman in every aspect.

    1. Thanks, Frances. Yes, Dan is absolutely exemplary. Rayonier has been very fortunate to have him on our team all these years!

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