Rethinking ‘Weeds’: Saving Saplings For Future Trees

Potting up even the tiniest trees will pay critical environmental and economic dividends.

by Susan BrackneyDecember 6, 2019
PHOTO: Susan Brackney

What is (or isn’t) a weed ultimately depends on one’s point of view. By its simplest definition, a weed to a gardener is any plant that’s growing where it’s not wanted. Those volunteer zinnias popping up in the kale bed? Weeds. Ditto for the dandelions and lamb’s quarters mixed in with the heirloom beets. Although those common greens are themselves edible, I sometimes don’t want them competing for space. And, so, I unceremoniously yank them and toss them in the compost bin.

I’m not proud of it, but in the past I applied the same rule to the teensy trees that occasionally popped up in my garden or too close to the house or other buildings. Deeming them out of place, these also counted as “weeds.” With little thought, I’d yank and compost these, too. I’ve since learned to become more discerning—now instead of yanking, I’ve started saving saplings.

Giving Trees

In the context of our changing climate—not to mention the unprecedented rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest—I’m no longer cavalier about the trees we have left. That’s why I now take the time to identify those “out of place” saplings. Provided a tiny tree is not invasive in my area, I’ll pot it up, nurture it for a while, and then find it a forever home with friends, family, neighbors or even strangers.

And, yes, I realize my efforts will take years to pay off, but, because of trees’ environmental and economic benefits, I’m convinced that saving even the smallest ones counts for something. Trees have been shown to improve air and water quality, trap carbon dioxide and increase property values. They also stabilize the soil, provide valuable habitat for wildlife, and support many kinds of pollinators. (If you live in the U.S. and want to better understand the value trees provide in your state, check out these U.S. Forest Service reports.)

The Right ID

Because some tree species tolerate being transplanted better than others, knowing just what you’re working with is an important first step for success. (Case in point, I’ve had limited success transplanting the small sassafras trees that I find on my property—they hate to be disturbed!)

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a tree expert when saving saplings. There are good books, online resources, and myriad smartphone apps to assist you with tree identification. Since a small sapling’s bark will have had little time to develop noticeable, identifying characteristics, you’ll likely need to rely on leaf type and arrangement in order to ID your tree. Looking around to see what mature trees are growing nearby may offer some identification clues as well.

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But what if a tiny tree has already lost its leaves in the fall? You can pot up the mystery tree now and plan to ID it in the spring when it develops new leaves. Alternatively, you could mark it with a small flag and revisit the sapling during warmer months. Once you have the ID, write it on a plant marker as well as the pot itself.

Tips and Tricks

Having an accurate identification before you dig can be especially helpful, because you’ll know whether a sapling tends to have a long taproot or grows more shallow, lateral roots instead. Dig extra deeply for saplings with taproots, and give laterally rooted trees a wider berth.

For very short saplings with long taproots, I sometimes use my bulb-planting hand tool. After carefully positioning the bulb planter over the tree, I sink the tool straight down. This results in a tidy core of relatively undisturbed earth, with tree and roots intact.

No matter what type of tree you’re trying to move, water it well before you dig and give it time to adequately drain. The pot you choose should also provide good drainage. If you’re reusing an old pot, wash it in warm, soapy water and then sanitize it in a mild bleach solution. (One part bleach to nine parts water works well.) Rinse, dry and fill about halfway with a humus-rich potting mix.

When you’re ready to dig up the sapling, have its new home close by. Immediately place the tree in the pot, and gently finish filling it in with soil. Be sure the soil makes good contact with the tree’s roots, water lightly and add extra soil as needed.

Once established, water according to the tree’s preferred growing conditions. During winter, I store my smallest potted trees in cool temperatures and bright, indirect sunlight. In early spring, I gradually reintroduce them to outdoor life.

Next time you encounter an unexpected plant in your garden, I hope you’ll take a moment to consider it may not be a “weed” after all and start saving saplings.