Pine trees are a classic North American plant that even those unfamiliar with tree names, one can quickly identify. Pines hold a special place in our hearts due to family time spent decorating the Christmas tree and summertime campouts in the mountains. Why wouldn’t you want to grow one of your very own?
Pine trees are hardy trees that tolerate low temperatures, high altitudes, and acidic, sandy soil. Typically, pine trees reach full maturity in 25 to 30 years with some species of pine tree growing to be 150 feet tall! All pine trees begin as small seeds, growing to saplings and then mature trees.
Are you unsure of where the heck pine trees start (or finish?) Don’t worry, because we’re going to talk about every step of a pine tree’s development. Let’s follow a timeline from seed to mature tree!
Which Trees Are Considered To Be Pine Trees?
First of all, we need to make sure that we are talking about the same type of tree when we say “pine tree”. Not all evergreen trees are pine trees.
A pine tree has long, pointy needles. The needles grow in clusters of 2 or more. Pine trees are often confused with other conifers (cone-producing trees) such as firs or spruces.
Most pine trees grow in the classic “Christmas tree” shape that we all know and love, but some would more accurately be referred to as a “shrub” rather than a tree.
Pine trees are a unique tree because they produce seeds, but not flowers.
Most seed-producing plants, including trees, grow flowers to attract pollinating insects. Once pollinated, the flowers wither away to reveal the fruit or seed pods beneath.
Pine trees pollinate using airborne pollen, eliminating the need for bees and other insects to help.
Pine trees are also unique because of their foliage. Instead of where we would traditionally expect to see a leaf, they have needles. (To be fair, needles are a modified version of a leaf. But they’ve evolved to become very different structures.)
Pine trees are capable of year-round photosynthesis since they do not shed their needles all at once in the fall like deciduous tree leaves. (The needles are discreetly shed throughout the year, and the majority stay with the tree through the winter.)
Although some of the things mentioned in this timeline might also apply to other evergreen trees, keep in mind that this is primarily about pine trees.
Still feeling confused as to what is considered a pine tree? Cornell University has a picture guide describing how to distinguish different evergreens, including firs, spruces, pines, cedars, hemlocks, and junipers.
How Long Does A Pine Tree Take To Grow?
A pine tree is considered fully mature between 25 and 30 years of age.
Coincidentally, that is the same age range in which the human brain finishes developing!
In pine trees, this age is considered “grown up” because this is when growth dramatically slows and its wood is harvested.
A tree can be “ready” earlier depending on the species, purpose, and care it has received.
Most Christmas trees, for example, are about seven years old (Douglas fir is not actually a pine, interestingly!) Although this is far from being fully mature, it’s the perfect size for bringing holiday cheer into your home.
A pine tree will produce pine cones, shade, and aesthetic beauty long before 25 years have passed by. By age 10, a pine tree will be sturdy and established enough that you don’t need to give in the same tender care a sapling requires.
Without further ado, let’s start our pine tree timeline!
Day 1: Finding A Pine Tree Seed Or Sapling
For you new growers, you have the choice to start your pine tree from either a seed or a sapling.
Let’s discuss how to start with seeds, then we’ll discuss saplings. If you’re just interested in how that pine tree in your yard got to where it is today – still keep on reading!
Starting A Pine Tree From Seed
Pine seeds are stored in the female pine cones that drop in the fall.
Inside the cone, seeds are encased in papery wings (nicknamed“helicopters” by many) that help the seeds disperse far from their parent tree.
(Not all “helicopters” have pine seeds inside. Many trees utilize this method of seed dispersal, so you will need to identify the parent tree to know what the seed will grow into.)
You can harvest the seeds yourself, or you can purchase a variety that you would like to grow, such as this pack of 50 White Pine Tree Seeds.
You can germinate the pine seed indoors, although in many pine forests the seeds germinate right in the soil!
Germinating pine seeds takes a lot of patience. It can take up to 30 days of consistent temperature, moisture, and light for a seedling to erupt.
You don’t need anything special to germinate seeds (after all, seeds do it on their own outside all the time!) However, having some tools can help you be more successful.
This Seed Starter Kit with Grow Light includes a seed tray with 60 separate cells, a humidity dome, and a UV full spectrum bulb that replicates sunlight.
Some gardeners use the top of their refrigerator as a seedling “nursery”, as the heat that radiates off the top can provide warmth. It’s also a place where the seeds are unlikely to be disturbed!
Even with the proper tools, it’s not necessarily a simple procedure to germinate seeds, however. To make it more complicated, some of the seeds are not viable, meaning that your germination efforts may be in vain.
Many landscapers choose to start with a pine tree sapling instead because the hard work of germination has already been completed.
Starting A Pine Tree From A Sapling
You can purchase saplings in plant nurseries, both online as well as in brick-and-mortar stores,
Saplings are a little more expensive than seeds, but this makes sense, considering all of the time invested in helping the seed germinate.
You can find deals on bulk saplings, such as this 6″ to 12″ Organic Loblolly Pine Naturally Sprouted Starter Pine Tree Seedlings. This is more than enough to quickly populate your yard with more pine trees than you know what to do with!
If cost truly is an issue, you can also find pine tree saplings growing at the bases of other pine trees.
If you choose to take a sapling from the outdoors, just be sure to ask for the landowner’s permission first!
Unless you’re in a national forest, most landowners view spontaneously growing tree saplings as weeds and would be happy for you to remove them. But you still need to ask first!
Growing your sapling indoors for a while? Make sure that you are using the best soils for pine trees in containers!
Day 1-90: Planting Your Pine Tree Sapling Outdoors
The North Carolina Extension recommends transplanting bare-root pine saplings during warmer periods of their dormant season (October through March), although saplings already established in containers can be planted at any point during the year when the temperature is consistently above freezing.
If you’re transplanting a pine tree from a container to the ground, the process is fairly straightforward. Just be sure not to damage the roots!
Planting tree seedlings is different than planting other types of plants. Rather than digging a giant hole, the Virginia Department of Forestry recommends hand planting with a “dibble”, also known as a planting bar. This method is especially useful when planting large numbers of trees.
To dibble, you need a long, thin tool. For one or two trees, a shovel can be used. Instead of hollowing out a hole like we typically do when planting trees, you create a slice. (Sort of like the dirt is a birthday cake and you are cutting a piece!)
Once you have made a long, narrow cut in the ground, temporarily push the dirt to the side using your tool. (Dirt should not come out of the ground.)
You will need to make a cut deep enough in the ground that the pine tree’s roots will be able to fit and point downwards without bending.
Push the dirt just far enough aside that you can place your sapling in the ground. Remove your tool and allow the dirt to fall into place around the sapling’s roots. Presto! You just planted a pine tree.
A similar technique is used when the internet company comes and buries a cable in the yard connecting the receiver to the house.
Jim-Gem Speedy Dibble Tree Planting Bar Tool is a heavy-duty solution for planting a large number of trees at one time. If you’re going to start a Christmas tree farm or plant a major windbreak, this tool will save you from hurting your back!
Where To Plant Your Pine Tree
Primarily found in the northern hemisphere, pine trees are often found far from the tropics in temperate and polar zones.
Pine trees are tolerant of sandy soils, high elevations, and extremely cold temperatures, so they can grow where other trees would struggle.
But just because pine trees can grow under these conditions does not mean that they thrive. Well-drained, fertile soil with full sun and plenty of water is best.
Carefully research the species of tree that you are interested in planting. Make sure that you live in a USDA Hardiness Zone where it will thrive.
Gardeners in the Southern United States (USDA Zones 6-9) will have success with a species like the loblolly pine, a pine tree that craves humidity and mild winters.
On the other hand, gardeners in the Northeastern United States (USDA Zones 3-6) might have more success with a variety like the cold-tolerant Eastern white pine.
Whichever variety you select, it’s best to plant pine trees away from your house. Not only can they grow extremely tall, but their moisture-seeking roots can also wreak havoc on your underground plumbing.
Clemson University states that the height of a mature tree can vary greatly depending on the species. A dwarf mugo pine might only grow to be 4 feet tall. But under the right conditions, a white pine can grow to be over 150 feet tall!
Plan carefully as you scout out a location for your pine. A spot with full sun and plenty of room is best.
Month 3-Year 1: Transplanting Your Pine Tree
It is best to transplant your pine tree as soon as it is warm enough for you to do so. Larger pine specimens are harder to transplant due to their long taproots, a root that plummets deep into the soil to access water.
Transplanting can be a traumatic experience for sensitive roots, and it’s best to limit it as much as possible.
Speaking of sensitive roots, pine tree roots are ESPECIALLY fragile during their first year of life.
Use slow-release fertilizers in the first year of your pine tree’s life, as the roots are sensitive to overfertilization. After the second year, pine trees are more resilient, but will still need regular fertilizer.
A slow-release formula with balanced nutrients such as Southern Ag All Purpose Granular Fertilizer is perfect for pine trees at all phases of development. It’s gentle enough for sensitive roots but provides the nutrients a growing tree needs.
Year 1- Year 3: Focusing On Sustaining A Healthy Tree
You may be familiar with this old couplet:
Good timber does not grow with ease.
The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.
It’s true that trees that have to overcome opposition from wind end up with stronger trunks.
But while this poem might inspire you to be more resilient when facing challenges in your personal life, it’s poor advice when growing young pine trees.
Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research notes that “windthrow” of 2-3 year old pine trees is a major issue in windier parts of the world.
Windthrow is when the wind blows so hard that a tree is no longer able to stand upright.
Windthrown trees can even begin to grow in a way where their trunk is permanently bent to the side!
It affects older trees too, but young trees are especially vulnerable.
A tree does not have to completely fall over to be considered “toppled”. A 15° bend in a tree trunk is still enough to cause significant long-term harm, even if the roots are still in the ground.
Protect your saplings by providing them with a protected place to grow with limited wind. Install a windbreak made out of bales of straw or select a less windy location.
In addition to avoiding powerful winds, there are plants you will want to avoid planting around your pine. Learn more about them in our article about plants not to grow under your pine tree.
Year 3 – Year 7: Continued Growth Of Your Pine Tree
Pine trees need moisture to thrive. This obviously can come in the form of rainwater or irrigation, but fog can help in areas where summer drought would dry out young trees in the wild.
Research published in Oecologia, a noteworthy ecology journal, theorizes that coastal fog is how pine forests in climates like northern California can do as well as they do.
Even if you live in a place with a drier climate, you can successfully grow a pine tree if you provide it with regular, deep watering.
Is your tree not developing the way you thought it would? All is not lost! Learn more in our guide on why your pine tree isn’t growing and how to fix it.
Year 7 – Year 200 (Maybe Even 4,000!)
No, that’s not a typing mistake. Utah State University notes that the bristlecone pine can live to be over 4,000 years old!
From about Year 7 onward, you’ll notice that your pine is sturdier than it was in the past. Most pine trees will live much much less than that. The eastern white pine, one of the most common pine trees in the United States, will typically to around 200 years but possibly even up to 450 years, according to information published on the USDA.
Although regular watering sessions will still be important, the taproot will likely be deep enough in the soil that groundwater can subsidize your watering efforts.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that your tree may live longer than you!
Of course, just because some trees grow to be 4,000 years old doesn’t mean that all will. Has your pine tree’s life come to an end? Click here to learn about reasons to cut down your pine tree and when to do it.
At around age seven, you’ll notice that your pine tree might begin to produce pine cones. Congratulations! Your pine tree is healthy enough to produce seeds!
The appearance of pine cones does not mean your tree is done growing, however! Your pine tree’s trunk will continue to grow taller and wider with each passing year.
Why Should I Grow A Pine Tree?
You might be wondering what benefits there are to growing a pine tree as opposed to another species of tree.
Research published in the Agricultural and Forest Meteorology Journal suggests that pine trees have a greater effect than other plants do when exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen.
Because they are evergreen, pine trees can continue photosynthesis throughout the winter. If your carbon footprint has been worrying you, a pine tree might be just the thing to offset that!
Pine trees do not need pruning in the way that other trees do. Of course, it’s always good landscaping practice to remove dangerous nor dead limbs, but your pine tree will not require shaping.
There are also a variety of products that can be formed from pine trees from turpentine (from the sap) to wood.
Are you interested in what else you can do with pine trees aside from landscaping? Learn more in our article on what to do with pine tree (wood uses) if you’d like!
Common Mistakes When Growing A Pine Tree
Pine trees are tough, but you can’t just abandon them and expect them to successfully grow.
Here are errors that novice gardeners sometimes make with pine trees:
- Too much water. Pine trees need water to survive, but too much water can cause the roots to rot and invite mold.
- Not enough water. If you do not use enough water, your pine tree will dry out. Growth will be stunted.
- Too much sun. When a pine tree is small, too much hot sun can burn the needles! This damage can be devastating for such a small plant.
- Not enough sun. Although it’s nice and shady underneath its boughs, a pine tree needs full sun for proper photosynthesis to occur.
- Too much fertilizer. Especially when young, a pine tree’s roots can absorb a toxic amount of nutrients if too much fertilizer is applied.
- Not enough fertilizer. If a pine tree does not have the nutrients it needs, it will not grow.
After reading that list, it might feel like you are trying to please Goldilocks rather than plant a pine tree sapling!
Balance truly is essential to keep your pine tree healthy.
Growing a pine tree from a seed or sapling is an achievable, rewarding goal. If you provide enough water, sunlight, fertile soil, and room to grow, you will soon have a tall, beautiful tree in your yard that will bless your yard for generations.
Baguskas, S. A., Still, C. J., Fischer, D. T., D’Antonio, C. M., &; King, J. Y. (2016). Coastal fog during summer drought improves the water status of sapling trees more than adult trees in a California Pine Forest. Oecologia, 181(1), 137–148.
Briggs, G. M. (2022). Inanimate Life. Pressbooks.
Dolman, A. J., Moors, E. J., & Elbers, J. A. (2002). The carbon uptake of a mid-latitude pine forest growing on sandy soil. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 111(3), 157–170.
Moore, J. R., Tombleson, J. D., Turner, J. A., &; van der Colff, M. (2008). Wind effects on juvenile trees: A review with special reference to toppling of Radiata Pine Growing in New Zealand. Forestry, 81(3), 377–387.