Women carrying acacia seedlings to be planted. Fiston Wasanga, CIFOR

Drones, dogs, ‘cocoons’ – it’s a new age for tree planting

A look at the technologies changing the way tree seeds are planted

To learn more about tree planting technologies join CIFOR’s Digital Forum: Can Tree Planting Save our Planet? on 29 September.

Tree planting has come a long way from the traditional method of sending out teams of planters with shovels and bags of seedlings slung over their shoulders. While individuals are still a big part of planting, automation is making it easier for governments, NGOs and the private sector to meet their reforestation goals, boost seedling survival and enrich biodiversity in degraded areas.


A drone used for landscape mapping and monitoring takes flight, Ecuador. Courtesy of OpenForests
A drone used for landscape mapping and monitoring takes flight in Ecuador. Courtesy of OpenForests

Drone technology has been taking on an ever-larger role in reforestation, with specialized planting drones capable of getting seeds into the ground on a far greater scale than previously possible. Using pneumatic firing mechanisms, they can shoot pods of germinated seed into all kinds of terrain – slopes included – much faster and cheaper than planting by hand.

Drones can also carry out post-planting aerial surveys to check on seedling-survival rates, using that data to improve algorithms that analyse topology, soil types, and moisture. 

Oxford-based Dendra Systems, a company that applies artificial intelligence, big data and other forms of technology to landscape restoration, says that while a two-person team can plant up to 3,000 seeds in a day, the same two people operating 10 drones can plant as many as 400,000 trees in the same period of time.

“We are bringing environmental management into the digital age,” says Susan Graham, the company’s CEO at last year’s Berlin Ecosummit. By combining the right species with the right location, she says, the drone “goes out and follows that path and plants those trees where they are needed.” 

Droneseed, a U.S. company, uses swarms of up to five drones at a time to replant areas devastated by forest fires within just 30 days. They map and fumigate the burned area, identify where trees will grow best, then deploy a 57-pound payload of seed vessels designed to boost survival rates. Able to propagate more than 16 hectares in a single day, Droneseed has been working with The Nature Conservancy and several large forestry companies. 

New drone-based tree-planting companies are joining the likes of Dendra and Droneseed all the time. One example, Toronto-based start-up Flash Forest, says it plans to plant 1 billion trees by 2028. While its current capacity is between 10,000 and 20,000 trees per day, Flash Forest says it hopes to increase that number to 100,000. 

The Cocoon

One innovation that is helping increase seedling survival rates is Amsterdam-based Land Life Company’s ‘Cocoon.’ It is used, says Land Life COO Rebekah Braswell, in areas with poor soil, degraded by years of agriculture or wildfires. Often a tree seedling’s chances of survival in such places are no more than around 25 percent. 

“What the cocoon does is to provide a sort of incubator for that tree seedling,” she says. With a 25-liter moat-like reservoir, “it helps drive those roots down deep, which is what you need to do to create a resilient tree seedling.” It’s an improvement on surface watering, which can encourage roots to proliferate near the soil surface. 

Because the cocoon forces the trees roots to grow downward to find its own sources of water and nutrients, it actually uses less water – helping answer the question of how to plant trees in more arid climates – and has been shown to raise survival rates by up to 85 percent.

With the stated mission of helping to plant 2 billion trees, Land Life uses a combination of technologies for tree-planting, such as an app and remote sensing.


Van Horlick's hydraulic excavators can help plant a diverse array of species in a single landscape that includes livestock, known as silvopasture. National Agroforestry Center
Van Horlick’s hydraulic excavators can help plant a diverse array of species in a single landscape that includes livestock, known as silvopasture. National Agroforestry Center

While heavy hydraulic excavators have been used for years to prepare lands left barren by logging or mining for replanting, Tim Van Horlick, owner of Alberta-based Tim C. Van Horlick Forestry Inc., has gone a step further with the invention of a machine that both cultivates and plants. Van Horlick’s cultivator-planter, the VHCP, loosens packed-down soils and then uses three maneuverable cultivator heads to insert seedlings in three rows. 

“It’s highly versatile on a lot of different types of terrain,” he says, “and can deal with rocks, stumps and other obstacles to conventional agriculture.” The machine operator can either push aside or avoid such debris by moving the heads as needed, then pierces the earth and plants the seedling clusters. It can plant up to 1,500 seedlings an hour as well as operate at night. 

And it’s not limited to planting trees. “We can plant any species,” says Van Horlick. “The machine handles anything you can grow and put in a container.” That includes grasses and nitrogen-fixing legume species, which make Van Horlick’s invention ideal for silvo-pasturage. 

Combining trees, forage plants, and livestock in one integrated system holds great promise for both increasing global food supplies and helping avoid climate change, he says.


World Agroforestry's Regreening Africa app allows people to record valuable data on the trees they plant. Courtesy of ICRAF
World Agroforestry’s Regreening Africa app allows people to record valuable data on the trees they plant. Courtesy of ICRAF

Smartphone apps, like the Africa Tree Finder and Regreening Africa apps recently launched by World Agroforestry (ICRAF), “can enhance reforestation projects in several ways,” says Tor-Gunnar Vagen, senior scientist and head of ICRAF’s Geoscience Lab.

The Africa Tree Finder app shows users data on the distribution of Indigenous tree species in different natural areas, along with information on the products and services those species provide. It “provides people with a set of species that are suitable for a given location,” says Vagen. “There are a lot of exotic species being planted, and one of the things we’re trying to do at ICRAF is promote diversity in agricultural systems and in reforestation projects.”

The Regreening Africa app, meanwhile, was designed to help users collect information about what they have already planted or are planning to plant. “It allows people to record where they’re planting trees, then as they come back and revisit these fields in the future, record how many of these trees have survived,” he says. “We can look at the performance of these trees and the different species being planted.” 

“Our app is actually asking the data collector to go around the plot, geotagging the tree and the location,” says Muhammad Ahmad, the Lab’s spatial platforms tech lead. That, he adds, provides evidence-based information on what is happening on the ground.

ICRAF is working with NGO partners such as World Vision, Care and Oxfam in eight different countries, but interested parties in other countries are already taking advantage of the app, too. Once verified and checked for quality, the data from each country is uploaded and visualized on a dashboard. 

“There, people can interact with and explore these data sets,” says Vagen. “And we will also link the data to the mapping that we are doing around land health, important soil properties such as organic carbon, and things like processes of land degradation, for example, so how much erosion is there.”

“In the future it will be a huge data source to go back into these areas and with the help of other tools see how restoration is working,” says Ahmad.

For Vagen, the app is an improvement for farmers. “Instead of going out to an area and saying, ‘here are some seedlings, go ahead and plant them,’ the farmers are involved in this process. They get to be innovators in this process, making their own decisions on what to plant and where, and they are able to track the performance of their own interventions.”

Indigenous techniques

Native citrus trees in Ghana. Ahtziri Gonzalez, CIFOR
Native citrus trees in Ghana. Ahtziri Gonzalez, CIFOR

Indigenous peoples are being increasingly recognized as effective stewards of the world’s natural landscapes. Their knowledge on restoration is often crucial to both the health of forests as well as their livelihoods.

Indeed, it’s not only how to plant trees that’s important but also which trees to plant. Since 2012, Twin Sisters Native Plants Nursery in Moberly Lake, British Columbia, has been sourcing and propagating Indigenous plant species for ecological restoration and remediation of mining and other industrial projects. Previous reclamation projects tended to bring in species not native to the area, says General Manager Diane Calliou, “so for us it has always been important that the land gets put back to the way it was. For our communities, that’s our main goal.” The nursery provides its clients species such as birch, for example, along with all kind of berries and willow that are vital for wildlife such as moose and caribou. 

“What we grow in our nursery is, for the most part, seed we have picked from these areas of development,” she says. “We also work with a research nursery that helps us with ensuring that what we’re planting is going to grow. If the seed is from that area, they are going to do well.” How and when the species are planted also plays an important role.

Indeed a recent study co-produced by The World Resources Institute and The Nature Conservancy pointed out the benefits of developing ecosystems that are close to what is found in nature. “This is important,” the report states, “because natural systems have their own defenses and coexistence mechanisms developed over millions of years through evolution.”

And more…

In Chile, professional dog-trainer Francisca Torres has been sending out her three rambunctious Border Collies since 2017 to run through the El Maule forest, which has suffered at least two massive fires. Each dog is equipped with 9-kilogram satchels of loose seeds from local tree species. The animals can cover distances of up to 30 kilometers at a time. Torres says she has already seen the results of regeneration, with flora and fauna returning to the charred forest.

And in Kenya, Teddy Kinanjui, co-founder of Seedballs Kenya, has devised seed pellets wrapped in charcoal about the size of a large marble. He has been going to schools and encouraging children to throw them onto barren land and persuaded helicopter charter pilots to hand some to their passengers for dispersal from the air. Even Cottar’s Safaris hands out packets of seedballs to guests at their famous 1920s safari camp in the Mara-Serengeti region. Visitors can drop them in the ground as they walk around admiring the wildlife that will one day benefit from their participation at regreening the habitat.




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