If your goal is to establish a hardwood forest on open land, it may seem best to begin by planting hardwood seedlings. However, it is better to follow the principles of ‘Forest succession’. Forest succession is a term that describes the basic stages in the development of a forest. When farmland is abandoned, the first plants that move in are grasses and sun-loving herbaceous plants and shrubs. These are followed by fast-growing trees like pines. As pines age and drop their branches, sunlight reaches the forest floor. Seeds from hardwoods like oak and hickory can germinate and grow. These hardwoods eventually overtake the pines and shade them out. The natural progression from cleared land to mature hardwood forest may take 100 years or more! We can manipulate this successional process with a variety of different tools, but it is generally expensive and carries no guarantee of success.
There are two main methods of pushing succession forward: planting pine seedlings or planting hardwood seedlings. Planting hardwood trees requires much more labor, materials and early care; because we are trying to skip a large portion of the natural process. Such expense is best saved for very high priority areas such as establishing hardwood forest buffers immediately adjacent to waterways.
Therefore, we generally recommend afforesting open fields begins with planting a pine forest. When a pine forest is established, it creates a favorable habitat (cover, food and thermal protection) for many wildlife species, such as migratory birds, small mammals and game species.
This forest management technique is used very successfully on our State Forestlands in Virginia. With the exception of specialty areas, a hardwood forest is established naturally on open land by planting pine. Though this may seem strange, it is a very economical way to establish a successful hardwood forest over the long term.
The Virginia Department of Forestry can assist you in establishing forests on your property both economically and naturally. To begin your project, please contact us at 434-220-9035 or email me at David.Powell@dof.virginia.gov.
- By David Powell and Nelson Shaw, VDOF