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April 6, 2023

The Tree Planting Series II. – More than just digging holes in the ground

In my first article on the topic of tree planting I dove into the reasons why I started tree planting, and some hardships of planting as a rookie.

This second article dives deeper into planting itself, focusing on the mental and physical aspects of planting high numbers.

Whenever I meet a family member I don’t keep contact with or old classmates they always ask me what I do for a living? I plant trees – I say. From the job title, tree planting sounds incredibly self-explanatory but they always ask me immediately – “So all you do is digging holes and putting trees in for a whole day?” Then there’s usually 2 groups of people, the ones that fall in awe saying things like “Sounds fun!” or “You’re saving the planet” (none of them is exactly true). or the other people who think it’s an easy job and they could do beat my PB (personal best) on their first day.

Those who know planters or are open to listen to my actual experiences, know of stories of black flies or multi-leveled blisters, both of which are more true. What few outsiders know about tree planting is the depth of logistics required during planting and the competitive physicality of the job.

For every planting contract, we have a required tree density. For instance, in Scotland we had our own patches at one sight where the trees had to be planted randomly but in each patch we had to plant 200 trees, so I got to decide for myself where I plant them. In France once we had to plant 4×4 trees in a square shape, at other sites we planted in lines and the trees were at 2m spacing meaning  your trees must be spaced 2m off each other in all directions.

Normally, at the start of our day, the foreman would point out our patches, which becomes our ‘piece’ but in my rookie year I didn’t have a foreman so we decided for ourselves how we wanted to solve this question. The size of our piece is was decided by our planting average (how many trees you can typically plant in a day) – so those who already planted before had bigger parcels depending on their personal average, while us rookies were left with the smaller parcels.

You also need to ensure you’re pairing the right species of tree for each particular land type, which can vary greatly depending on contract. At some places we only planted pine, but other places we had to vary 5 different native trees in a given ratio. This meant that throughout the entire day, we had to strategize the fastest way to fill our allocated piece, keeping track of tree density, tree species, and also keeping an eye on the time since we all want to try to finish our piece by the end of the day. For an experienced planter, this happens while they are planting. For a rookie like me, it meant significant time lost standing and trying to see where I have already planted, and where to go next, wasting time on measuring the spacing and keeping lines straight.

When I started planting I felt like I was painfully slow. I was advised by a planter friend, Kieran to rather go slow but make sure I learn to put the trees in the ground properly to ensure good quality, so later I can focus on speeding up. He explained it’s harder to re-learn to plant good quality trees once you are planting fast but you’re trees are shitty. So I ended up spending at times a good 2-3 minutes with my first trees, trying to plant them super straight and making sure they can’t be pulled out and that the roots aren’t bend either.

Quality checkers from both our company and the client check every single piece that’s planted. Any poorly planted trees or incorrect density requires you to return and replant that particular piece of yours. Logically, you are not paid to replant these, so we all want to ensure high quality.

By far the most rewarding part of planting was tracking my own improvement. I can distinctly recall the day I broke 1k on my third day, especially because that day, no one even got near to a thousand. Or the day when I broke my then PB with 1200 in only 5 hours – you can guess, I didn’t even stop to pee. All those don’t seem much from an experienced point of view but as someone who never planted a single tree before, I was super proud of myself.

The trees themselves came in boxes or bags, from 40-50 trees per box or even 500 in a bag. All the tree boxes you need are stacked together in a common area called the cache. You must then take the trees from the box and load them into your tree bags which rest on your hips. Once you bag up the trees in your bags, you must return as quickly as possible to planting, then once you emptied your bag quickly head back to the cache for your next bag up.

As the season went on, the mental aspect became the primary driving factor for how many trees I planted. Planting a tree is no brain surgery, but the real difference comes from doing it every single day.

In it’s own way, I learned to love what we went through – the pains and aches in the body, the godforsaken landscape, midges, horseflies, the harsh weather conditions – hail, rain and sun, not having enough water, forgetting my food or getting my period unexpectedly early in the middle of nothing… Despite all, I found so many moments of pure, unbridled joy.

Being presented with a new opportunity to push yourself — mentally and physically — every single day was revitalizing. It didn’t matter if the day before I had to replant some lines, or didn’t plant near as much as I wanted. Every day is an empty canvas, and I can only push as hard as I am physically able to.

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