Sydney Red Gum Tree by Peter Sherratt

Planting trees

The truth behind your pledge to plant a tree

Following the Black Summer bushfires, the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife launched a tree-planting initiative to help protect and grow natural habitats for endangered species. As part of the Plant a Tree for Me! program, people can donate $10 to plant one tree, with the aim of growing and planting 1 million trees in disaster-affected areas by 2025.

Planting trees in areas ravaged by deforestation, floods, bushfires or other natural disasters is vital for the health and longevity of connected natural landscapes in our national parks, as well as another public and private land. However, there are significant success elements that enable these plantings to survive and thrive, which can be taken for granted and disguised by the often nominal cost that’s promoted to plant a tree. In short, if you’re paying $1 to plant a tree, you may not be getting what you think.

Reforestation efforts around the world help to mitigate human impact on the natural environment, by reinvigorating native vegetation, restoring wildlife habitats, increasing oxygen production, and offsetting carbon emissions. It is why thousands of people and large organisations flock to initiatives that commit to planting trees with a financial pledge or action on social media.

But without a firm grasp of what truly goes on behind the scenes, tree planting programs can sometimes prove unviable. We saw this in action during the social media storm in 2021 that started with a simple caption, “we’ll plant one tree for every pet picture”. After tens of thousands of pictures were shared on Instagram for the cause, it was quickly scrapped after becoming too big for the organisation responsible to fulfill its promise.

The truth is that planting trees is not as simple as paying for saplings and planting them in the desired area. There are several essential considerations to factor into habitat restoration and revegetation initiatives, wherever they may be deployed.

 

Building a strong reforestation roadmap

Planning is key. Due to the time it takes for trees to reach their full potential, optimised planting layouts need to be outlined to ensure each tree has enough space to grow. Planting sites need to be surveyed to ensure the correct number of trees is allocated to prevent underutilisation or overcrowding. Lenient planting densities help to reduce competition that enable faster growth rates to individual trees, which is important when restoring habitat for threatened species or capturing carbon from the atmosphere stored in plant tissue. Restoration must also incorporate a number of determinant criteria including past land use, potential for natural regrowth of forest, conservation value and opportunity cost from other land uses.

Other external factors can also impact the success of a planting site, such as the control of weeds, flood water and soil health. In some cases, work must be carried out to ensure a planting site has enough nutrients (or too much) for new seeds, trenches and barriers need to be formed, and weed suppressant materials such as mulch may be needed.

This all must occur before the first seedling is planted. All of these factors are standard considerations that bush regenerators take in their stride that are often not clearly communicated as part of forest tree planting pledges and habitat restoration projects.

 

Trees are not ‘one size fits all’

It might seem obvious, but some trees are just not suitable in certain areas. Gardeners have been aware of this issue for centuries. They might require more moisture than neighbouring trees and are therefore incompatible with the environment, or their foliage may be inedible or even toxic to local fauna. It is important that reforestation efforts are conducted by sourcing seeds of the area’s local indigenous or endemic plant species and supporting local wildlife in doing so.

 

Planting and monitoring

Depending on the species, seedlings must be planted during specific times of the year to maximise germination, soil moisture, and site adaptation to local environmental conditions. This is because trees respond more positively to their native environment, which can vary depending on temperature, weather patterns, and moisture availability. Once planted, seedlings must be monitored for at least the first two years to track their growth and overall health. Due to the financial investment in reforestation site planning, seed purchase, and the labor required for planting, seedlings cannot simply be left to their own devices. Imagine spending millions of dollars to restore a bushfire-stricken area, only to realise years later that the seeds were never suited for the designated environment and the trees would never grow effectively. Findings gathered during the first two years of seedling growth will influence if they need replacing, supplementation, or repositioning.

 

What’s the solution?

The solution is firstly to never stop caring for the environment. While the logistics behind planting new trees can be somewhat complex, long-term success requires a program that acknowledges and accounts for those complexities. Does that mean it’s not worth steering donations towards such programs? Certainly not. Not every commitment to plant a tree through a company, a social media trend or other fundraising initiative is destined to fail. If you come across a tree planting program that you wish to support, just be sure to research the organisation behind the effort. Does it sound reasonable or are the proposed outcomes unrealistic? Don’t be afraid to ask critical questions. Find out about the scope of their commitment and how you can get involved. Finally, if you think you’re hearing an outrageous claim just ask yourself where on earth will they get that many seeds from?

 

Find out more about the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife’s Plant a Tree for Me! here or call 1800 898 626.