Why it’s time to plant a tree

Elaine

Let’s celebrate the New Year by planting a tree! Or lots, if you have the space and right environment for them.

Human beings have already wiped 40% of the world’s trees off the face of the earth. In summer 2019, research led by experts at ETH Zurich (one of the world’s most prestigious universities in science and technology) revealed there is 1.7 billion hectares of treeless land across the world on which more than 1 trillion native tree saplings would naturally grow. If planted, those trees would successfully offset two-thirds of all carbon emissions from human activities.

‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now’.

Chinese proverb

And some people in the UK are making a good effort…Thetford Town Council, for instance, has pledged to plant 3000 trees by March. I hope they are native species like aspen, alder, field maple, rowan, hazel, crab apple, hawthorn, spindle….there is no need for fancy and expensive ornamentals or gigantic forest trees. Our dwindling wildlife just needs the familiar shelter and food-sources that we have been so intent on concreting over in the last 20 years.

Spindle, carbon storage, flowers for pollinators, then these beautiful fruits in the autumn.

‘Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.’

Wangari Maathai – Kenyan environmental activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner 2004

Network Rail has pledged £1m. to plant trees through a pilot community scheme over the next 4 years. The philanthropist Richard Caring has pledged £100,000 to plant 1,000 orchards in 1,000 schools. The Isle of Man will plant one tree for every person living on the island in 2020. I understand that Chelsea Flower Show this year will have a strong emphasis on using sustainable materials, especially timber. All inspiring initiatives, and wonderful for raising awareness.

The year ‘2020’ brings to mind the concept of ’20-20′ vision – in other words, clear and perfect. Many of the alarming effects of global warming and loss of wildlife habitat that we see around us, have resulted from the opposite – a blindness and unwillingness to acknowledge what we as humans are doing to the planet.

Planting trees is not the whole answer, of course it’s not. But can’t we as gardeners make our own small contribution to the health of our precious planet? Kahlil Gibran wrote that ‘Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky’ but I mustn’t get all poetical – I can already hear Laura harrumphing loudly in the background……

Laura

Well actually it’s only a quiet harrumph as, despite all the unnecessary flowery quotes, Elaine has for once done some research and most of the places she has put forward as tree planting sites are good choices, on erstwhile amenity or community sites, many of which need a tree boost following the loss of so many ash trees to ash dieback. Rather excitingly there are now some disease resistant elms coming onto the market ….

But as she points out, tree saplings would naturally spring up in most areas that ceased to be managed, so if you had a community site in your area you could propose a rewilding approach rather than a shortcut to full woodland (which can actually look unnaturally regimented in the early stages with all those stakes and tree tubes).

Yes there would be a messy stage of ruderals, (that’s weeds, Caroline) bramble and thicket, before the locally dominant trees emerge and take control, but each of these successional stages has its own associated wildlife, and if properly signposted and explained this could be a wonderful long running citizen science project, charting the changes in biodiversity.

Bramble and briars soon spring up on unmanaged sites but will give way to new woodland that blends seamlessly with the surrounding countryside over time.


And let’s just be careful about what we might be losing in the headlong rush to plant more trees. The whole of the UK was once covered end to end with woodland, and large pockets of this ancient woodland still remain, teeeming with specialised insects, fungi, flora and fauna that have evolved over millennia.

Here ancient hornbeam coppice stools provide wonderful habitat for all manner of other woodland species.


But as agriculture progressed much of the woodland was cleared and other habitats emerged, hay meadows, chalk grassland, and lowland heath, each with their own distinct and beautiful biodiversity. These now rare habitats are what ecologists call ‘plagioclimax’ communities, held back from reverting to natural woodland by the constant removal of tree saplings by grazing animals or often nowadays, hard working volunteers. So let’s not plant trees on these beautiful romantic sites and destroy the habitats of species like the rare sand lizard on our lowland heaths or the Adonis blue butterfly on the chalk grassland of the South Downs.

The rare and beautiful sand lizard says ‘please don’t plant trees on my open heathland home’.

Caroline

But if you didn’t want a massive boffin-fest on biodiversity (Laura’s contribution) and simply want to plant a tree in your garden, here are some tips (it’s easy but you can still cock it up, trust me).

Right now – winter – is the very best time to plant a tree so just take your pick. Native species such as oak and beech are effective at storing carbon dioxide according to the Woodland Trust, but they get mahoosive so only consider them if your garden is field-sized with no power lines overhead, as in our feature picture this week.

As Elaine said, petite trees such as hazel, blackthorn, crab apple, and the very pretty spindle tree are suitable for smaller spaces, while medium-sized tree options include elder, field maple, hawthorn, holly and yew.

A little clump of blackthorn brings the added bonus of one of the ingredients for sloe gin

If, like me, you can’t be bothered testing the acidity etc of your soil, just look around at what other trees grow well in your area and grow the same ones (actually what Laura said but in a quarter of the time).

Obviously pick your spot imagining your tree is full size. I planted an acer far too close to the house and now it’s full-grown it’s a bit of a bugger for preventing the render from drying out after rain (but we do get biblical amounts in Scotland!).

Spot the rookie error. The lime render on the house is NOT enjoying the close proximity of this acer. But it was so teeny-tiny when I planted it!

Two things are worth doing – dig the hole really wide so you don’t have to scrunch up the roots to fit them in, and at a depth so the bit where the trunk becomes the roots sits just above the surface of the ground.

Actually there’s a third – put a protector around it. Sapling bark tastes like fillet steak to deer, rabbits and anything else with gnashers. Oh and actually a fourth thing. Once planted, put a good amount mulch around it to keep it moist and the weeds at bay, ah, and a fifth, it’s a very good idea to stake your tree if only because it can prevent your OH from accidentally strimming it off at ground level + all the costs of a divorce thereafter.

By the way, if you’re looking for a small tree with winter interest – you will really love Louise’s Great Plant this Month What a stunning photo!

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4 Comments

  1. Good Morning Ladies
    A happy new year to you all.
    This is another great article – thank you.
    I look forward to more from the 3 grow bags.
    Well done and keep it going!
    Best wishes- Roger Biggs

    1. Happy New Year to you Roger, glad to hear you are enjoying our blogs. We will certainly do our best to keep all our lovely followers entertained and hopefully a little better informed in 2020 … all the very best Laura

  2. Love this article, particularly the spindle. At the moment I’m planning to plant a hedge and would love it to be something worthwhile. Do you have any suggestions?

    1. Hello Sue, Laura here, and glad you liked our blog this week. We planted a native hedge about five years and chose the species that we knew would flower (for pollinators), fruit (for birds) and not grow too big (to save us trimming it all the time!) We planted spindle, native dogwood, guelder rose (beautiful berries!) hawthorn, wild roses and honeysuckle. Every now and then we put in a tree species that would grow a bit taller such as rowan, crabapple or bullace,to provide roosting perches for birds. We bought all the plants cheaply as bareroot whips, mixed up a bucket of mycorrhiza, dunked the roots in this and slit planted them with a spade. We didn’t lose a single plant and the hedge gives us a great deal of pleasure. Hope this is helpful. Best wishes and happy gardening in 2020 Laura

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