NC State Extension Publications


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Extreme weather, pest and disease threaten Piedmont forests in the South. This publication details simple, practical actions you can take to minimize costs and impacts while growing healthy pines. Specific focus is placed on maintaining forest health and productivity suited for a range of future conditions.

The piedmont region is home to most of the South’s people and major cities yet all are housed within a pine or mixed hardwood forest. Piedmont, or "foot of the mountain”, is the region sandwiched between the mountain and coastal plain from New Jersey to Alabama. The Piedmont is a plateau, high and mostly flat landscape divided by streams and rivers.

The Piedmont region in the Southeast extends 600 miles from Birmingham, AL to North of Richmond, VA making up the transition for the Appalachia to the fall line transition to the coastal plain. The natural drop in elevation at the eastern edge of the Piedmont marked the convergence of water power, transportation and commerce. Many state capitals and cities denote that significant geologic transition as a result.

The Piedmont geology influences the productivity and the limitation of the soils for the region. Piedmont soils are dominated by metamorphic rocks from the Precambrian era, a third of the soils are influence by volcanic, continental convergence of the Paleozoic era and a tenth of the area indicative of Triassic marine sediments from the Mezozoic era.(McNab and Ayers 1994) Soils of the Piedmont are old, weathered and highly eroded as a result of intensive, improper agricultural practices. Following farm abandonment in the 1920s, reversion to forest and pastures dominate the Piedmont landscape. The recovery of the native forest in the Piedmont has been dramatic and a legacy of industrialization and urban migration that continues to the present day.

A history of use and abuse: As an early nation, agriculture dominated the Piedmont and much of the productive top soil was lost through centuries of overuse and erosion. Today our piedmont soils are largely the clayey, red and yellow subsoil of once productive soils. Our forests are gradually restoring the fertility of bygone eras. Our history of land use has left a legacy that influences the Piedmont pine forest we today.

This guide will explain the most prudent management of piedmont pines to enhance productivity, forest health and restoration while bracing for anticipated risks – such as heat, intense precipitation, insects and disease.

What’s Ahead?

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Although natural forests in the Southeast are predominantly hardwood, planted forests are mostly softwood, predominately. Drought, wildfires, insect and plant invasions, and more intense storms all pose threats to the health and resiliency of southeastern forests. Scientists expect that increases in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns will cause these disturbances to become more common and with greater intensity and duration (McNulty et al., 2013). Forest management approaches can be used to decrease the risk of climate change on forestlands.

Piedmont Forest outlook

Warmer temperatures, along with changes in spring and summer rain, are projected to lead to more periods of drought throughout the Southeast. Forests are more susceptible to damage from pests such as southern pine beetles and Ips bark beetles during droughts. Higher winter temperatures are likely to increase the distribution and intensity of pine beetle outbreaks. Stress from drought and higher temperatures in combination with wide-scale pest outbreaks have the potential to cause broad-scale forest dieback. Planting trees with wider spacing between them and thinning existing stands in combination with competition control can increase the water available to crop trees and help prevent pest and drought-related dieback. Wider tree spacing could also reduce fuel loads and wildfire risk but increase the potential for hurricane caused blow-down (McNulty, 2002).

The basics: (What we know from research)

Plantations and modified natural forests will face greater disturbances and risks for large-scale losses due to extreme weather and a changing climate. Mitigate your productivity loss or mortality risks by following these forest management recommendations:

  • Maintain genetic diversity in forests by avoiding practices that select only certain trees for harvesting based on site, growth rate, or form.
  • Maintain stand structural and functional diversity (Ages, Species, brushiness,etc)
  • Thin early and often to promote forest health
  • Minimize site preparation intensity and fire, generally
  • Control invasive species
  • Manage plantation and natural forests in an ecologically sustainable manner
  • Select trees from families suited to local areas that approximate future climate conditions, based on climate modelling to reduce failure risk

Planting Your Piedmont Southern Pines

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Successful plantings require matching the right species to the site.

  • Choose loblolly pines if soils quality or management oversight is limited.
  • Select shortleaf on northern piedmont sites.
  • Select longleaf on well-drained, legacy remnant, southern piedmont sites

Note: Plant recipe assumes site is clear and ready for planting, if not refer to Site Preparing section prior to starting this recipe

Preparing / Gathering Information:

Your forester/ natural resource manager in concert with you should:

  • Explore Future Climate Opportunities/ Risks at Pine Explorer DSS
  • Pre-order / Select best adapted genetically improved seedling that meet your need.
  • Arrange for tree planters and cost-share assistance


430 -575

Genetically improved seedling per acre

Consult with a Seedling selection tool for best results


Use a 10‘ by 10’ spacing or similar (11 x 9, 12 x 8, 13 x 7 )

Variations: In areas with strong markets for pulp and fiber (and moist, fertile sites) use or consider the upper seedling rate

In areas with weak pulp/fiber markets (and in thin and droughty soil types) use the lower seedling rate Directions for Planting Piedmont Pines:

  • Make certain abundant soil moisture is present before beginning reforestation activities
  • Monitor seedling survival, health and vigor after first growing season.
  • Retain Moisture through ground cover protection and natural mulch
  • Protect young stand from wildfire by disking around stand in areas prone to fire.
  • Subscribe to pest & Invasive species alert services from your State Forestry Agency

Tending Middle-Aged Pines

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Once pines have reached their “teen years”, thinning to remove excess trees can increase growth on crop trees while promoting health and vigor. Commercial thinning can yield financial resources to enhance other forest related activities, shift species mix and conduct large scale improvements in forest health and diversity for the first time in a rotation

Preparing /Gathering Information:

Your forester/ natural resource manager in concert with you should:

  • Locate suitable buyers/loggers to complete the task to your specification
  • Conduct a pre-harvest plan to locate logging deck, access and minimize environmental impacts.
  • Review best management practices for Water quality and contract provisions


200 -275


Reduce crop tree density to this target (first thinning @ age 13-18)

Crop tree target for (second thinning @ approximately age 20 -25)


15‘ by 15’ – 13 x 13’ spacing or (17’ x 17’, 15’ x 15’ for 2nd thinning )

Directions for Tending Middle-aged Pines:

  • Monitor injury and vigor during and post-harvest to ensure crop tree health
  • Retain moisture through ground cover protection and natural mulch
  • Avoid operations that stress trees (like thinning and burning) during/after extreme droughts and rainfall.
  • Subscribe to pest & Invasive species alert services from your State Forestry Agency

Sustainable Final Harvests

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Once pines have reached their “financial or biologic maturity” it is time to plan for their final harvest. This is a welcome time for revenues but a great opportunity to plan for regenerating the next crop. Sustainable forestry is a perpetual cycle. The harvest of a one crop makes way for the next. The new stand can be planted or naturally reseeded. If a natural approach is taken then the timing and type of harvest must be coordinated for maximum success.

Preparing /Gathering Information:

Your forester/ natural resource manager in concert with you should:

  • Verify that the stand is at peak condition for harvest.
  • The timber’s volume and value is known before suitable buyers/loggers are solicited to bid or purchase the tract to your specification
  • Conduct a pre-harvest plan to locate logging deck, access and minimize environmental impacts.
  • Review best management practices for water quality and contract provisions


Boundary marked

Contract in place

Sale area is clearly marked , especially protected areas

Contract has been reviewed by attorney and specifies conditions.


Contract timeframe is set, provisions for logging extensions in place

Directions for Sustainable Harvest:

  • Conduct a pre-harvest plan to locate logging deck, access and minimize environmental impacts.
  • Avoid or halt harvest operations during/ shortly after extreme rainfall.
  • Monitor soil disturbance during harvest operations to maintain soil productivity and ensure water quality protection
  • Retain moisture through ground cover protection and natural mulch

Preparing the Site for Piedmont Pines

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Site preparation is the most important step to getting your pines off to the right start. After a harvest you have the most options for getting competition controlled BEFORE the pines are set and your options become limited by opportunities to cultivate, incorporate fertilizer, costs and even herbicide restrictions,.

Preparing /Gathering Information:

Your forester/ natural resource manager in concert with you should:

  • Determine the competition like to impede future pine growth.
  • Decide if economic returns reveal a preferred “site prep” option
  • Arrange for cost-share assistance, if available confirm decision.
  • Submit paperwork for cost-share. Finalize a timeline.
  • Locate suitable contractors to complete the task by machine, tractor or hand
  • Note: Site prep costs are the largest front-end costs of a pine investment so be diligent about cost containment and maximizing growth opportunities at the least cost and impact. The ”time cost” of money will require a 3 to 4 fold return at interest rates of 5-6 % just to breakeven in a fairly short 25–year rotation!


Competition in Check

Conduct the appropriate level of competition control and preparation at the least cost and intensity to meet goals.

Minimize Disturbance

Seek savings by treating with a light touch. Selective herbicides are often least cost and least disruptive of soil, carbon and diversity.

Directions for Preparing Site for Pines:

  • Monitor competition to seedlings before planting an through first few years.
  • Retain moisture/litter through ground cover protection and natural mulch
  • Follow all laws related to herbicide use and best management practices.
  • If equipment is available during site preparation- create a firebreak at that time to minimize costs and wildfire losses.
  • Assess sands for competition and schedule release treatments as needed
  • Subscribe to pest & Invasive species alert services from your State Forestry Agency


  • Have a forester/technician conduct a reforestation assessment.
  • If warranted see Site Preparation for Piedmont Pines
  • If warranted see Planting Your Piedmont Southern Pines
  • If natural pines are likely see Tending Young Pines

Tending a Hardwood and Pine Woodland Mix

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This guide was prepared with a specific focus toward pine management; however sites and woodland conditions are as varied as their owners. With respect to those differences, many minor adjustments to the recommended treatments in this text can often reduce costs and diversify the hardwood component of your woodland. Confer with your forester or natural resource as to the best approach on your woodlands to create a hardwood and pine mix that suits your budget, your land’s capability, your desires and future market opportunities.

To Favor Hardwood Pine mixes:

  • Reduce site preparation intensity
  • Reduce prescribed fire frequency, intensity or alter seasonality of your burning regime
  • Reduce or selectively utilize herbicides
  • Use selective logging that favors hardwoods
  • Favor hardwood on moist and productive sites – where they compete best.


Skip to Summary

Resilient Piedmont Pines provides the typical recommendations for a successful, healthy and profitable management regime. Since every tract is unique- landowners are urged to seek professional assistance to refine our general recommendations to landowner's goals, and to local site and market opportunities. This note contains recommendations for forest health and vigor. Our hope was to illustrate a complete and sustainable forest management cycle. While landowner resources and goals differ, the range of suggested tree densities and desired conditions contained in this note provide “sideboards” to ensure future forest goals are met while sustaining a healthy, productive and profitable venture.

Literature Cited

McNab, W.H.; Avers, P.E. 1994. Ecological Subregions of the United States: Section Descriptions. WO-WSA-5. Washington, DC: USDA Forest Service.

McNulty, S, Caldwell, P, Doyle, TW, Johnsen, K, Liu, Y, Mohan, J, Prestemon, J, & Sun, G. (2013). Forests and Climate Change in the Southeast USA. In K. Ingram, K. Dow, L. Carter, & J. Anderson (Eds.), Climate of the Southeast United States: Variability, Change, Impacts, and Vulnerability (pp. 165-189). Washington, DC: Island Press.

McNulty, SG. (2002). Hurricane Impacts on Us Forest Carbon Sequestration."Environmental Pollution. Environmental Pollution, 116, S17-S24.

Piedmont reg.

The US Southern Piedmont Region with county and majors cities denoted.  CC BY 4.0


Extension Forestry Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Area Specialized Agent, Forestry
Harnett County
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Forest Economics
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Former Asst. State Climatologist
Southern Regional extension Forestry
ANR Program
University of Maryland

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Publication date: March 12, 2018

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