Mass planting: driven by good intentions but often with limited results

By Dr Nicolas Zuël and Dr Christine Griffiths

Mass planting projects have become a craze worldwide, with countries or groups trying to break records of how many plants can be planted in a day or month! These seemingly good initiatives, often touted in efforts to tackle climate change, can in fact make matters worse.

Why? The carbon footprint of producing and transporting the plants, mobilizing planters, as well as the materials and tools needed pre- and during planting are only offset if the plants survive! Unfortunately, mass planting projects are in general focused on how many plants are planted. What should really matter is how many plants survive and grow to contribute to carbon offsetting and biodiversity? This is how project success should be evaluated. And yet, there is very little or often no monitoring of the plants once they have been dug into the ground!

What’s going wrong?

In Turkey up to 90% of the 11 million saplings planted reportedly died within a few months. Will those that survived live beyond one, two or three years? This catastrophic failure is not uncommon. So why do so many projects fail? Invariably, planting is done by enthusiasts, keen to make a difference, but lacking the knowledge of how to plant. Yes, planting requires a degree of skill and delicacy. It is not as simple as I have a plant, I dig a hole, I put the plant in and wish it good luck. You need to know when to plant, there is a right and wrong time, what species to plant and where, how to dig the hole for the species you are planting and in relation to the soil conditions, and what aftercare is needed. Ensuring the plants survive is the first step. For the plants to contribute as carbon sinks or to benefit biodiversity, they must thrive in their new location! Water may be essential for some species. Little thought, however, is given for the need to control weeds such as creepers or grasses that can compete with the planted plant, reducing its access to resources such as nutrients and light and ultimately contributing to its demise. Maintaining an optimum environment for the plant beyond the first year is a key factor to the success of such projects. Sadly both funding and the motivation to do this essential weeding and monitoring is absent from most projects.


Denis training participants in one of our four-day planting courses, co-funded by Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, how to plant trees.


The lack of aftercare is one of the main reasons that mass planting, or even small scale planting projects fail. Many plants go from the luxury of pampered well-watered conditions in nurseries to discover that they are in degraded soil, with no water, and in areas where they would never naturally grow. Add to that the stress of being transported to a new location, being removed from their pot by eager well-meaning volunteers whom haven’t been trained, and introduced to a new location during a season not optimal for growth. Life is hard for these saplings. In a bid to green urban areas or transform low quality terrain into more aesthetic landscapes, saplings are often planted along roadsides or into compact substrate (with little life or even soil present) that limit the potential for root growth, and hence survivorship. Roadside plants regularly face the dreaded brushcutter or slasher that slays these saplings, stripping them of their bark and ultimately killing the majority of species.


Lantana camara, known locally as vieille fille, is commonly planted, despite being among the world’s top 10 worst invasive weeds.


Horrifying (at least to a conservationist) is the preferential use of non-native species, very often invasive plants. A favourite in Mauritius is vieille fille, Lantana camara. These ornamental shrubs produce delicate flowers of yellow, orange and red hues. Often unbeknown is the true menace of this species. Vieille fille is considered by IUCN as one of the world’s 100 most invasive species, and among the world’s 10 worst weeds!


What can we do about it?

Who doesn’t want a greener world? Whatever the reason, aesthetical, fighting climate change or biodiversity conservation, there are many considerations to ensure success.

Effective planting requires long-term commitment both in terms of human and financial resources. So join and support groups that have well-planned and budgeted responsible planting projects to enable maximum success to benefit the plant, as well as our ecosystems. Enquire what aftercare and training will be involved in each project, as well as what are the project objectives. How will these be monitored? Get dirty for a success! In many cases, less is more. So planting fewer plants, but ensuring they are well cared for and given every opportunity to survive and thrive is what really matters. Discovering that the small saplings you planted a year ago are now blossoming and providing food and habitat for birds, insects and geckos is highly satisfying.


Volunteers helping restore a native forest by planting saplings at Ebony Forest.


One of our forest restoration projects is supported by Fondation Franklinia and the Forestry Service to restore forty hectares of invaded forest at four different sites: Ebony Forest, Vallée De L’Est, Providence and Montagne Longue. Once a site is weeded and the exotic vegetation is removed, we plant a diversity of suitable endemic trees, focusing on rare and threatened species. 

If you want to learn more about what we do at Ebony Forest and our approaches, or you are interested in partaking in some of our free training programmes sponsored by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, contact us on [email protected].

Small acts

of Kindness can
go a long way