Effective management of Norway spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karst.) plantations requires detailed information on stand development, which is costly to measure. However, estimating the need for early stand management from site attributes that persists stabile after ones measured, may provide an inexpensive alternative. This study compared hardwood competition in spruce plantations of varying ages and tested the usability of this information in estimating the need for early cleaning. The data included 197 spruce plantations (4–7 years old) inventoried in southern Finland in 2007. The level (Low, Substantial, High) of need for early cleaning was subjectively determined by contrasting location and size of competing hardwoods to a conifer crop tree. Then the stage of the need for early cleaning was modelled according to site and stand attributes. Nearly 60% of the conifer crop trees in the plantations were subjectively judged to require early cleaning (Substantial 37.2%, High 21.2%), but only 10 per cent of the evaluated area was cleaned. Need for cleaning was intense on peatlands or damp soils, whereas it was mild on unprepared soils or cleaned sites. Traditional site characteristics used in forest management planning can be useful for recognising the peripheral cases, where need for cleaning is probably high or low. However, on a typical mineral soil plantation (uncleaned, soil prepared) the model indicates the differences in the need for early cleaning weakly. The need for early cleaning was already high in 4-year-old plantations, why stand age did not have significant effect on development of the need. Thus, the timing of an operation can not be predicted with the model. Nonetheless, early cleaning very likely opens growth space of crop trees in a 4–7-year-old spruce plantation. Therefore, from an aspect of crop growth, an uncleaned Norway spruce plantation in this age group is quite consistently worth cleaning.