How To Start A Mini Nursery For Found Saplings

When you come across special, "found" saplings, you can park them in this tiny arboretum for the time being. Here's how to build and use a mini nursery.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: Susan Brackney

Maybe it was the result of a forgetful squirrel. Or it could’ve been an especially robust seed. Regardless, I spied the tiny oak sapling growing between a concrete border and a bed of small rocks.

Somehow it was flourishing. But, because it was located in a retailer’s oft-weeded parking lot, it probably wouldn’t last. I carefully coaxed it out of its spot, with its long tap root intact.

It’s worth noting that one can make a much greater impact by direct-sowing tree seeds. Nevertheless, I still save “found” trees—particularly those that are native to my area.

Unfortunately, my collection of potted trees was getting out of hand. I had accumulated cedars, oaks, a nice pine…. Still, I couldn’t plant them on my own small patch of land.

(If I placed them too close to my septic field, their roots might destroy its delicate finger system.)

Whether your circumstances are similar to mine or you lack land entirely, you might consider installing a mini tree nursery for now. That way, you can give found trees a better—albeit temporary—spot to grow until you can find them their forever homes.

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I’ve had good luck asking friends and family if they’d like some trees. Invariably, someone has the space and inclination to plant something new.

Read more: The “Trees from Seed” philosophy makes reforestation free and easy.

Getting Started

You can easily build your own mini nursery with some scrap lumber and a handful of screws. (Essentially, you’re aiming for an extra-tall raised bed.) The box itself has no bottom. Instead, it sits directly on the ground.

My mini nursery is 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and a little over 1 foot high. In hindsight, that’s shallower than I would’ve liked. As a result? I probably won’t let my found trees linger for more than a year or two before relocating them.

See, saplings with deep or fast-growing roots might have a chance to penetrate ground level. This, in turn, could make successfully salvaging them for transplant more difficult later. A few relatively fast-growers include silver maples, red buds, some pines, black locust, flowering crabapple and chestnut oaks.

Other Details

Ideally, you should fill the box with loose, humus-rich soil. (For my part, I used so-so fill dirt mixed with a lot of finished compost, and I’ve had decent results so far.)

If you like, you could plant orderly rows of the same type of tree. I’ve tried to do that with my cedars and pines, since I have a lot of those. I’ve further organized like types of trees by size and age.

I also have a “hodgepodge” row of different kinds of trees. There is a lone American elm, one (non-native) ginkgo tree, sundry maples and empty space for future finds.

Alternatively, you could plant just one type of tree throughout your mini nursery. Whatever you’re planting, allow 4 to 6 inches between very small trees and slightly more space between older, larger trees.

Read more: Weed or tree? Rethinking how we look at saplings can yield future trees.

Nature and Nurture

For areas with nibbling deer—or, perhaps, some of your own nibbling livestock—you may want to encircle your nursery with a bit of chicken wire or fencing. Prefer to keep things simpler? You could instead protect only your most tempting trees with small, hardware cloth cages.

Besides keeping critters away, you’ll also need to water your found trees consistently. I give mine a good soak with collected rainwater nearly every day. (You may notice, too, that some of your newer arrivals need even more water or more frequent watering sessions.)

Finishing Touches

As you fill your mini nursery, it can be easy to lose track of your tree details. Writing some brief notes on a waterproof tag is a great way to keep things straight. At minimum, a found tree’s tag might include the tree type, its original location and the date you added it to the nursery.

This last detail can help you to decide whether it may be time to find a tree its permanent location. (Just remember, transplanted trees’ odds of survival will improve if you plant them as soon as the ground has thawed in early spring.)

Once you do find a found sapling’s forever home? Water the tree to be moved. Then use a sharp shovel to remove it from the nursery.

Dig as wide a radius around the tree as you can. Take care to minimize disturbance to the surrounding trees. You should also dig as deeply as you can, keeping as much soil with the tree’s roots as possible.

Afterward, replace the void left behind in your mini nursery with fresh soil. You should also water all of the remaining trees well.

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