Photo via envato

5 steps to start a tree nursery

A step-by-step guide to keep your seedlings alive

This article was co-created by the GLFx Kenema, Mindanao, Nkambe and Zág Xokleng chapters.

Ever wanted to start your own tree nursery?

Each year, the world loses 10 million hectares of forests – and tree planting is one of the most promising ways to restore them.

But growing strong trees isn’t as simple as just scattering seeds. Before being planted in the Earth, tree saplings require shelter from harsh weather and attentive care in their initial stages – and that’s where tree nurseries come into play.

Tree nurseries are simple to create and offer great protection for growing dozens or even hundreds of trees. Are you wondering where to begin? Here’s a general step-by-step guide on how to get started.

Assess your goals

First, decide whether you’re hoping to plant a few trees in your community garden or if you’re working with a big team to restore several hectares of land. Assess how much space you’ll need, and gather a group to get started. 

There are many ways to set up nurseries depending on scale, climate and supplies available to you, but in general, tree nurseries consist of two main parts: trays for sowing seeds, and pots or bags where the budding plants can be transplanted. 

The scale of your nursery will depend on the location you choose and the size of your team. Courtesy of GLFx Nkambe

Choose a location for your tree nursery

To care for the plants you’ll be tending, select a site close to water – whether it’s a natural source or a rainwater catchment tank. Be intentional in finding a spot that gets good morning sunlight and shade throughout the day. 

Ideally, for your seed trays, find a space sheltered from the wind with shelving so that the water can drain through the trays easily after watering your seeds. 

To prepare space for your seedlings to be transplanted after a few weeks, find a flat outdoor space where you can place rows of soil-filled bags or sow the seedlings directly into raised beds. You’ll want enough space so that each tree sapling has space for its roots to expand. 

GLFx Mindanao
In the Philippines, landscape leaders at GLFx Mindanao created a thriving nursery with raised shelving for seeds and spacious area for saplings. Courtesy of GLFx Mindanao

Gather materials

What you’ll need:

  • Seedbed trays
  • Buckets or bags
  • Planks of wood or organic materials such as banana trees to create raised beds 
  • Compost, native soil and/or potting soil

There is no single right way to set up a tree nursery. You could buy seeds from your local nursery or forage for wild seeds in your environment. Taking cuttings from already mature trees is another great way to propagate new ones.

After you’ve gathered the seeds and offshoots you’d like to use, you’ll need to find containers to host them in. Common options include plastic seed trays and bags or buckets made of thick plastic or recycled materials. You can mix native soil with compost and potting soil to fill the seed trays and buckets to make them ready for planting. 

A great way to reduce waste is to reuse containers such as plastic water bottles as makeshift plant pots or to buy recycled polythene bags. 

The GLFx Zág Xokleng chapter uses biodegradable bags made of corn and sugarcane that double as natural fertilizers. Based in the heart of Brazil’s Xokleng territory, these landscape stewards use age-old traditions to plant sustainably.

“By honoring our ancestral knowledge and adopting sustainable practices, the Zág Institute not only grows plants but sows a more harmonious and balanced future with nature,” says chapter member Isabel Prestes da Fonseca. 

Zág community members transplant trees using local materials. Courtesy of GLFx Zág Xokleng

Prepare the seed beds

One simple way of organizing seedbeds is by using seed trays filled with potting soil. Soft seeds such as store-bought varieties can be put straight into the soil, but wild seeds with hard exteriors, such as nuts, should be soaked first. 

GLF Nkambe member Fai Caissan offers these tricks for activating wild dormant seeds:

  • Heat water to about 20 degrees Celsius, and soak the seeds in it for 24 to 36 hours. 
  • Add two teaspoons of white vinegar to two liters of water. Stir, and then soak the seeds for 24 hours. 
  • Soak the seeds in cold water for two hours. Drain the water, then place the seeds in a sealed plastic container for 48 hours. 

Once your seeds are ready, simply use your thumb to press a small indentation into the soil, and then place your seed inside and sprinkle a light covering of soil on top. These seeds should ideally be exposed to a lot of natural sunlight and watered several times a day. 

GLFx Nkambe
Community members transplant seeds into new containers in Nkambe, Cameroon. Courtesy of GLFx Nkambe

Transplant the seeds

Once the tree seedlings are sturdy and have at least two to four leaves, they’re ready to be transplanted into bags or buckets filled with compost and humus soil. Be sure to water the containers thoroughly before carefully removing the seedlings from the tray and nesting them into the new containers. 

If you’re working on a large scale, it can be helpful to keep track of the rate your plants are growing. This documentation can also aid in future planting projects as you’ll know which species thrive best in your climate. 

“Focus on species that are naturally occurring in the area,” says Emmanuel Cababarros of the GLFx Mindanao chapter. “This ensures that the seedlings are well adapted to the local environment and increases the chances of successful restoration.”

Once your seedlings have been transplanted, they’ll become more exposed to pests. Luckily, there are plenty of organic ways to control pests, depending on your climate. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Surround your beds with comfrey, a fast-growing plant that keeps soil moist and is a favorite of many pests
  • Apply wood ash monthly
  • Spray your seedlings with neem or other organic sprays

Bromelia garden
Starting a tree nursery is one of the easiest ways to join the global restoration movement. Photo via envato

Why should you start a tree nursery?

According to estimates from researchers at Trees Down Under, there are an average of 5 million trees planted everyday – an astounding statistic that points to a global reckoning with the climate crisis and deforestation.

People around the world are working to restore their native environments, and creating a tree nursery is a great, simple way to get your hands dirty and help give back to our planet. 

But it’s about more than just trees. What begins as seeds in a nursery will eventually grow into powerful forests, which provide havens for wildlife, resources for local communities and serve as powerful captors of greenhouse gases. 

Everything is interconnected. It begins with a seed. 

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