Transplanting Tree Seedlings


I have a hunch that readers thought I was joking when I wrote recently about growing tree seedlings in roof gutters. The picture above proves that it works. I thought by now (late summer) the seedlings would have died for lack of water, but we’ve had regular rain so now I can transplant some of those seedlings this fall if not next spring. I can just lift the plants out of the gutter and plop them, roots and leaf mold intact, in a hole in the ground. Ever since a reader, Ohiofarmgirl, called a broadcast seeder “one of those hand-cranked thingies” on her website, I have been thinking of putting together a catalog of farming and gardening  oddities with similar descriptions: sections of roof spouting I would label as “roof whatchamacallits for starting plants.”

There are weeds growing amid the tree seedlings up there in the gutter too, as you might notice. The trees are mostly maple, ash and elm seedlings which gives me an excuse to go into one of my favorite rants. The experts all tell me that I can kiss white ash trees goodbye because the emerald ash borer is killing them. Yes, the old ashes are all dying, but my woodlot is full of seedlings, just coming up wherever sufficient sunlight penetrates the tree canopy or, as you can see, on the barn roof. I argue that when the ash borer has killed off the older trees, it will run out of food and die off too, before these seedlings get old enough for them to kill. A whole new generation of ash trees will come along. Ash trees start producing seed when they are mere saplings.

That is what happened to the elm. Lots of new young seedling elms are growing all over our woodlot. They get old enough to produce seed before they are struck down like their parents. If we can just keep out of the woods those experts who want to kill all the endangered trees to stop the spread of a disease or predator, the ash will survive.

There are also wild cherry and cottonwood seedlings in the roof gutter, which at first surprised me since neither of these trees grows close enough to the barn to drop seeds on the roof. The cherry seedlings, I assume, got there because birds ate the fruit and then pooped on the roof.  Cottonwood seeds, as the name implies, are carried along in the wind because of the cottony growth around the seeds, so they can float a considerable distance before coming to rest on earth. Our big cottonwood is at least a thousand feet from the barn.more

All of which underlines a truth or two. First of all, old nature is one wonderfully adaptable mother. Secondly, one learns only by laboriously digging up tree seedlings and transplanting them that unless you have an automatic roof whatchamacallit, it is easier to let nature do the planting or plant seeds where you want the trees to grow so you don’t have to move the seedlings.

Many people believe that to get a new tree to grow faster to enhance a landscape, the larger the transplant, the better.  Actually, an undisturbed tree growing up from seed will often catch up with the transplant in about five years, and will in any event grow more vigorously with a much better chance of survival than the transplant. The bigger the transplant tree, the riskier the chances of survival, and of course, the higher the cost of moving the tree.

This can be true even of fruit trees which we have been taught must be purchased as grafted transplants from nurseries. If you wish to be sure of getting a good, named variety, that is true (although sometimes the good, named variety turns out to be something else).  However we are right now gorging on delicious peaches from unnamed seedling trees that came up on their own around our chicken coop (as I wrote about in a post last year, “Peach Trees Light Up The Old Henhouse”).

These peach trees are right next to the barn. If a peach tree seedling comes up in the gutter, now that would be another pleasant surprise. The trees aren’t tall enough yet to drop a seed on the roof, but I suppose a squirrel or an opossum might carry a peach up on the barn roof, eat it, and let the seed slide into the gutter. But I have a better idea. I will eat the peaches and put the seeds in the gutter, er, in my roof whatchamacallit, myself.


“roof whatchamacallits for starting plants”…. that’s what I’m talkin’ about

I think that Phillip Rutter spoke it best when dealing with invasives (fungi, pests, etc.) killing locals – “If it’s not dead, DON’T KILL IT.” ( This will allow the species around to propagate – it may not end up in the same form as the original (bush vs. tree) but it will still exist.


I bought a little gizmo from Lee Valley for taking cuttings from things. My mother had a tree in her backyard that we simply called the apple dumpling tree because she made the best dumplings from it. In a big wind storm, it blew down. We watched as little sprouts came up from the trunk. Of course, we knew it wouldn’t be the same because we “assumed” it was a grafted tree. But we let it grow and wouldn’t let Dad chop it off and it grew into another nice little apple tree. Low and behold, the apples were the same ones! So I took my little cutting gizmo, scraped the bark, packed the peat moss around it and made sure it had water each day. Everyone said it would never work. But little roots began and I am now growing my own little apple dumpling tree. We’ll see if I get the same apples! And if I can made as good a dumpling as Mom … highly unlikely!

No one knows if EAB will die out once all the ash is gone, especially since there’s billions of ash in the country for it to chew through. Seems that by letting the volunteers grow up, you’re just providing more food for the insect. EAB has been proven to attack and kill ash trees one- to two-inches in diameter, so no ash is immune. See more information on EAB at

Pastor Mike Townsley September 1, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Great ideas here folks! I wish to get some American Basswood trees started for my bees. Do any of you have seeds I can have to plant to start some trees? Thanks
Mike Townsley email is

I don’t know about permaculture–those trees will get pretty darn big so you might not want to leave them in the gutter:) I’ve been trying to think how to apply this method out here in the Golden State. In the absence of summer rains (and “absent” is the way to describe them; like Australia, California has two seasons: the wet and the dry, each lasting about six months), we would have to irrigate those rooftop seedlings. Or move them lower. Somehow, setting up a section of gutter at a level easy to reach with the hose, filling it with debris and seeds, then watering all summer and most of the fall–well, it seems to defeat the purpose of growing trees in the most labor-efficient manner possible. Maybe I’ll just collect a few shovelfuls of debris from under the relevant trees and dump them down near the pond outflow where it stays damp even in the dry. No,darn it, that means the deer can nibble on them. Hmmm, guess this requires more thought. Interesting how being lazy require more mental effort. Not to mention that the amount of mental effort expended is directly proportional to the amount physical effort, i.e., more thought, less labor. That’s my idea of a good return on my investment!

Roof top permaculture?

We have proof of this at our place. The nursery maples that we planted 17 yrs ago are stunted. The volunteer maples are getting gigantic.

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