How Can I Succeed with Orders from the NH State Forest Nursery?

Jennifer Montgomery, Natural Resources Steward
three bare root tree seedlings


I first heard of the NH State Forest Nursery Seedling Sale during one of my first Natural Resources Stewards (NRS) classes at Canterbury Shaker Village in 2019. Someone brought up the seedling sale, and many of the people around me ooohhhed and aahhhed about all the great deals and what they were going to try. I just listened—in a bit of silent panic—and wondered at how little I knew about anything related to the State Forest Nursery, seedlings in general, and this near-mythic yearly sale.

There were several moments like that for me in my NRS class, but the seedling-sale one sticks out. After the class, I went home and searched online to see what everyone was talking about. I found the NH State Nursery website and the sale catalog—but it was as good as Greek to me.

The catalog had very little descriptive information, and I was too much of a novice in most things stewardship-related to fill in the blanks. It reminded me, actually, of my mom’s and grandmothers’ old recipes on 3x5 cards. They are wonderful recipes, but you need to know the methods from prior experience because they included the ingredients and not much else. I knew what to do with the recipes, but I found the seedling options entirely intimidating.

I actually tried to put together an order suitable for our home, but I never completed it. I just had too little sense of what might work, where things should go, how much care they would require, and so on.

It's four years later now, and I still have never ordered from the seedling sale, though I intend to each year. I did revisit the State Forest Nursery page recently, though. There is slightly more information there now, but a few more basics could help.

In case you have had a similar experience of being overwhelmed at how to proceed, here are a few things I have learned—with the generous advice and direction of Mary Tebo Davis:

Narrow down seedling selection based on your own space and place: This is where things get especially complicated for those of us with limited knowledge, plant confidence, and experience. The “What goes where?” question can drive me off into a figurative ditch. But thinking through answers to a few core questions help narrow down options and focus your decision-making.

Mary reminded me of the “right plant in the right place for the right function” advice. After you have identified possible locations in your yard, she said these four considerations can help you select your best options from among the many trees or shrubs available in the seedling sale:

  1. How much sun do your potential planting locations get? If you haven’t yet paid attention to this, it’s a great place to start. You might be surprised at what you learn when you pay close attention. Some people like to make a “sun map” of their yard and record details for different times of the year and different times of the day. Or you may have a good idea from your experience over time. I personally have been amazed at the difference a few feet can make, especially in relation to changing patterns based on the angle of the sun at different times of the year. We planted a highbush cranberry in what we thought was a perfect spot, but as the summer days shortened that spot lost all of its sun due to the shadow cast by our house.
  2. Is the potential planting space wet or not? We have areas in our yard that are entirely sandy and drain instantly. And we have other areas that drain water from higher elevations and so remain sopping wet all spring and during rainy days in the summer. Taking into account the average soil moisture of your possible seedling locations will further narrow your choices to best effect.
  3. What functions would you like your new planting to fulfill eventually? Examples include wildlife habitat, pollinator habitat, wind break, beautiful foliage, erosion control, bird habitat, etc. Knowing your preferred function(s) will help you identify your best options.
  4. Finally, as you narrow your choices, imagine the plantings as full-sized trees and shrubs. And imagine in two dimensions—both height and diameter. For example, you might not want to plant shrubs near your house that will grow tall enough to block the view from your windows. Or if privacy is your goal, you might want to prioritize that feature. And you won’t want to crowd your seedlings just because they are tiny upon purchase. Gaining clarity on your space available and the size upon maturity will help you further narrow your choices of seedlings and not overbuy.

Mary also made the point that you can plant seedlings close together temporarily, if needed. For example, you might want to grow them out in a bed while planning to move them later on.

“I have some American plum from the nursery that I just stuck in my garden close together as I wasn’t sure where I wanted them and didn’t have time to plant them,” Mary Tebo said. “Now I have a space for them, so in the early spring I will move them. They doubled in size even when I got them into the ground late.”

 Mary’s core advice here was very helpful. Still, I find myself wanting to add additional questions and qualifications to my seedling selection. But that likely speaks more to my fear of making mistakes or killing things than anything else. I trust Mary. I know that if I can somewhat confidently answer those four questions, my choices are well narrowed and to best effect.

How to choose once you’ve analyzed your site possibilities: Once you can answer those key questions about your own location, you can move on to the next step and make the best use of your research time on sites like The Native Plant Trust.

Native plants remain the best option in the context of Natural Resources Stewardship. And the State Forest Nursery offers many inexpensive native seedlings “grown from seed in our own seedbeds to ensure they are well adapted to the regional climate and conditions,” according to the seedling-sale homepage.  The State Forest Nursery promotes its seedlings for purposes like site reclamation, hedgerows for wind and snow breaks, wildlife food and habitat, erosion control, and more.

Various websites beyond the State Forest Nursery provide high quality information about specific species of trees and shrubs and their value for birds, pollinators, wildlife, and the environment. Here are a few New England-specific sites that can help build foundational knowledge from which to make good seedling choices:

The Native Plant Trust provides high-quality information and advice specific to native plants in New England. Explore its Garden Plant Finder, check out its list of classes (in-person and online options), or visit its Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA, to see native plants in natural settings.

•UNH Cooperative Extension’s page “New Hampshire’s Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines with Wildlife Value" provides a richly detailed table of options and their specific values to wildlife.

The Wild Seed Project and the National Audubon Society also have detailed information about choosing native plants best suited to your locale and needs.

NOTE: A problem with trying to figure out what to get from the NH State Forest Seedling Sale is that it’s so easy to go down internet rabbit holes. While the seedling-sale website strikes me as spare in its information, the opposite is true of other great websites. If you’re like me, you need to make a note to self: Actively avoid analysis paralysis. And answer Mary’s four core questions about your own location first.

Seedling survival: Once you have placed an order, it’s time to worry about whether you’ll kill these things in the spring. I say that with a bit of humor—but only a bit. The thought that these bare-root seedlings actually have a chance in the wilds of our yard amazes me. The New Hampshire State Forest Nursery now has a good page for best practices when planting your seedlings titled Seedling Survival Tips. These Seedling Survival Tips are clear and doable, and they answer a lot of my questions.

Final thoughts: I do get a smile out of the pictures on the seedling-sale website. Pictures of each tree or shrub show them in their mature glory, when what you get to plant are little sticks.

It reminds me of my ancestors on the Great Plains of North Dakota who planted so many shelterbelts to block the wind and the snow and slow down erosion of topsoil. They must have been wildly optimistic to envision that tiny seedlings would grow into mighty trees--and full stands of trees in a landscape inhospitable to trees. It’s time for me to commit to a bit of that optimism, do my research, and finally place an order…. As Mary reminded me, “These little guys are tough and want to survive, so save the worrying and just do it!”