Growbag Blog

How old is too old, to plant a tree?

2 Elaine

‘Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never sit beneath.’ (Chinese proverb). Well, I don’t know about old men, but this old lady has planted a fair few in her time.
I really love trees.  There is a huge and ancient oak tree at one end of our French garden,  just like there was at our childhood home – I know my sisters will remember it well. What a mighty and wondrous thing it is, teeming with life and memory.  About 747 (747!) different species of insects and lichen alone are supported by oak trees, so it has every reason to ‘teem’, frankly.  Check out Alan Watson Featherstone’s article on an oak-tree’s ecological relationships on the Trees for Life website, for some mind-boggling detail about how important they are.

Liriodendron – a spectacular colour in autumn

Most of the trees I have planted in the past – Liquidambar, Liriodendron (such a beautiful tree, gorgeous shape and the honey-colored leaves in autumn are sensational), Gleditzia, Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ (gorgeous with the light behind it, like a heap of rubies), Magnolias, etc. have been bought in pots, so the technique is fairly straightforward. Dig a nice square hole (you don’t want the roots to go round and round, afraid to dip their toes, like a nervous swimmer on Brighton beach), bung in a bit of good compost and mix it with the earth in the hole, and drench the hole with water.  Then you rub some mycorrhizal fungi grains over the roots (you can buy sachets of the stuff at a garden-center and it helps to generate quick rooting) and plant the tree at exactly the level it was growing in the pot.  Water it – a lot – until you know that it is growing away happily. Piece of cake.

red-leaved tree
Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’

Last winter we planted a little woodland on a spare piece of land.  Now this was an altogether different affair.  The exhausting bit was clearing away all the mile-high brambles and nettles first, and then, one very chilly December day, the planting began.  Approximately 130 (do dog-roses, for instance, count as trees?) bare-rooted and frankly  unpromising specimens were root-soaked, cuddled with the mycorrhizal stuff and popped in the ground.  Ten alders, ten white willows, ten field maples, ten spindles, ten hawthorns…you get the idea. Nothing fancy, though we treated ourselves to a couple of Service Trees, because they sounded so interesting.  In they all went, with coloured embroidery thread for identification, and MOST had a bamboo cane and a trunk protector.That was their saving grace.

very young trees growing at Elaine's house
Elaine’s infant woodland in France

Though they were all looking leafy and perky at Easter and at the end of May, June was unconscionably wet, and the docks and thistles rampaged over our baby trees, pulling down and overwhelming the unsupported ones.   At least that is what is claimed by a somewhat insouciant deer and an enthusiastic strimmer-wielding husband.  Never mind, we are still left with well over a hundred brave little trees, some even venturing a touch of blossom in their first spring here.
Will we sit in their shade one day?  I don’t know.  But I am hoping that our infant grandchildren will enjoy making camps there, perhaps, and have fun getting ants in their sandwiches and bird-poo in their hair.  Just like we used to, eh, sisters?


Yes, you’re definitely blessed if your garden has a veteran tree for small people to climb, install rope swings or make tree camps in, they will create lifelong memories. I well remember the mighty oak tree and have even more vivid memories (possibly nightmares) of a large conical holly tree which became a tall ship treehouse we named ‘The Invincible’. Physically the smallest child in our large family I was designated cabin boy and regularly ordered to the crows nest, a precarious plank wedged high in the  topmost branches to ‘check the rigging’ whilst my brother and sisters had much more salubrious cabins in the lower branches. 
In our Great Plants this Month feature Louise is rightly concerned about creating the right growing conditions for her unusual tree seed. Developing a new woodland is made easier if your chosen site had trees on it fairly recently, as it will have the typical brown earth soil type and a dormant seed bank of gentle woodland herbs waiting to be stimulated back into life. Elaine’s embryo woodland is on the site of an old cattle yard, deep in fossilised dung with any woodland relics being trampled into the mire by generations of Norman cattle. The docks and nettles are the typical colonising species of artificially enriched disturbed ground. But fast forward 10 or 15 years and the trees will have grown sufficiently to  cast summer shade, the brambles and nettles will loosen their grip and the natural process of ecological succession will gradually work away at ground level to favour more vernal species that are adapted to the rhythm of the woodland canopy.
You may not not have a veteran tree on your plot or the space to plant a woodland but there are many ways you can introduce a woodland feel to your garden giving shade in the summer and structural interest, and in some cases scent, in the winter.

beautiful hamamelis
Hamamelis x intermedia Elena

One  of the very best ways to do this is to plant a witch hazel from the Hamamelis genus, related to our native hazel. My current favourite is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’  which had sweetly spicy pale orange flowers for a long period in late winter, and buttery yellow autumn foliage. It is one of those rare plants that throws its scent about, so that it catches you unawares without you having to seek it out at close quarters. If I could recommend one small tree in your garden this Autumn this would be the one.


Yes all very dainty and achievable Laura, but I’d recommend getting your hands on a mighty lime tree. Their terrific winter silhouette reminds me of the Arthur Rackham postcards we all loved in the 1970s and in June their intoxicating scent accompanies the pulsating throb of bee activity. Great value  all round.
There’s no need to wait. If, like me, your tree planting experience is limited (four trees that came free in the post from Trees for Life in 2000), and you are less well-intentioned than Elaine viz-a-viz laying-down for future generations, I’d recommend getting the mechanical diggers in.

tree suspended by digger
Acquiring trees – Florida style

Florida last winter – we spotted teams with instant gratification ‘heavy plant’ dropping in enormous trees left, right and centre. Not for them the poetic self-denial of the here-and-now for the greater good of future generations blah blah blah – in the Sunshine State you can have it BOTH ways with a bit of wonga and a JCB. Even in the UK you can get a decent-sized lime in an afternoon for under £1k and 10 of them for under £3,500. I appreciate it’s still big money but reassuring to know that money does actually buy time and if you stand to gain more than it costs, like a model investing in a facelift, the sums add up.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

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