Pine Planting Methods: Should I Machine plant or Hand plant?

Once a landowner has site preparation complete, the big question is which planting method they should choose. Both hand and machine planting are acceptable. However, site conditions may only allow one or the other. The tract size, availability of contractors, amount of debris, contour, slope, and soil conditions are a few factors to consider as to which method will work best. The cost of each method should also be considered.

A heavy-duty, wildland machine planter can be used on cutover sites or fields. Limitations to machine planting would be land that is too steep, rocky, or wet. The planter is typically pulled with a bulldozer or large tractor. Bulldozers are equipped with a v-blade on the front to move debris, and clear a path if the site is rough. As the planter is pulled over an area, a coulter wheel cuts through the soil at a depth of approximately 12”. A planting foot is directly behind the coulter wheel and it creates a larger furrow for the seedling. If the land has been bedded, then a farm tractor with a conventional planter may be used. If it is too wet to support heavy machinery, it may be best to hand plant. Typically, the wildland planting operation is more costly than the conventional planter. Some of the benefits of machine planting include :

  • Survival rates improve with machine planting
  • Seedling handling is reduced and they are not exposed to wind or sun
  • Machine planting fractures the ground. Cultivation from the coulter acts like subsoiling which promotes root growth-enhancing growth
  • Seedlings are planted 2-3” deeper than they were from the nursery which increases survival
  • Machine packing wheels ensure soil is packed tightly around roots promoting water and nutrient uptake
  • J or L rooting is greatly reduced with machine planting
  • Planting sites have more consistent spacing machines can generally plant upwards of 20 acres a day


Hand planting is conducted on sites that are not suitable for machines. Hand planting is practical on tracts that are rough with rocks, logging debris, or tall stumps. Hand planting may also be appropriate if the tract is too wet for machines. An individual hand planter can plant approximately 3-4 acres or 2,000 trees per day depending on site and weather conditions. Some container stock seedlings must be hand planted. Seedlings are generally sorted by the hand planter, before being placed in the “hip” seedling tote. Dibble bars, hoe-dads, or planting shovels are the tools of choice depending on the site. Some of the benefits of hand planting are:

  • Lower cost than machine planting
  • Facilitates planting steep hillsides and slopes
  • Access to the entire tract
  • Well suited for variable tract conditions such as hills and drains

Some seedling handling and planting challenges associated with hand planting are:

  • Seedlings are exposed to the elements for a longer duration
  • Human handling of seedlings can cause additional stress on young trees
  • Planters may hand-carry too many seedlings which may cause desiccation
  • J or L rooting may increase when planters are in a hurry or if the ground is hard
  • Seedlings may be planted too shallow
  • Hand planters sometimes trim or strip roots. A practice that is not acceptable
  • Careful supervision is a must with hand planting crews

Machine planting can cost between $85 and $125. Hand planting ranges from $50 to $80. Both methods have their place in southern reforestation. Contact your Reforestation Advisor a year ahead of when you decide to plant and they can make a recommendation on what may be the best option for your land. Green side up!

Article by Randy Jarzyniecki, RF
ArborGen Reforestation Advisor

Gulf Coast, Southern Alabama

Planting for Better Seedling Survival

Don’t Cut the Roots!

Customer Success Story: Jerry Merrill


“MCP and Varietals are all I will plant, I’m so happy with them. These trees have been phenomenal. Especially the Varietals. I believe, even though these trees are just 4 years old, we will easily be thinning in another 4 to 5 years. My bottom line is to create a dynasty to leave my family and this is the very best way I can do that.” 
– Jerry Merrill, Private Landowner


Need a trusted partner to guide the way?
Get in touch with a Reforestation Advisor to explore your options!
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Paul Jeffreys, Ph.D.

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