In conversation

I had lunch with some lovely people from Friends Of The Earth today because they were interested in planting woodlands and how more people could do it. We talked about a lot of things that I’ve discovered over the past five years. Other people might be interested too, so here in no particular order are some of the things we touched on (and a few that we didn’t):

Tree survival rates: if 95% of your newly planted trees get through the first couple of years that’s considered good. Major threats to newly planted trees include:

  • Drought, especially in their first year. Planting season is November to March, ideally get them planted early in this season so they have the best chance to start growing before a potential hot dry Spring/Summer. You could water trees if you have a water supply and a small number of trees.
  • Competition from grass. Mulching around newly planted trees is a lot of effort (and you have to obtain woodchip or other suitable materials). It will likely take you longer than it too to plant the trees and the grass can grow back through it very quickly. Manufactured mulch mats are more expensive, stil time-consuming to fit and most aren’t biodegradable. I’ve mulched around a few trees with a layer of cardboard followed by grass cuttings, time-consuming but if you have a lot of cardboard and a scythe this would be viable for small numbers of trees, I have done this in the orchard area. Herbicides (glyphosate) would a cheap and practical alternative, but damaging to people and the environment (and to your new trees if you’re not careful).

Some useful resources:

I’ve been met with massive enthusiasm from everyone who’s been involved so what’s to stop everyone doing this?

  • Availability of land (expensive to buy / difficult to find someone with land where you can plant a woodland for the long term).
  • Time – it takes a lot of planning / organising and a lot of planting time when the trees first go in. However once the trees are planted they should establish themselves and your time commitment should be relatively minimal.
  • Knowledge / confidence – it’s a big thing to do if you’ve never done it before and you don’t know how. For me the learning curve was part of the fun and I’ve tried to share a lot of the knowledge and resources here.

If you’re not buying land yourself what other options might be available? Find a friendly land owner (a farmer? a big business for example a utility company? a charity? local council?). Or find a business willing to put money into creating a woodland. Or individuals to get together and purchase land collectively. Or individuals able to donate towards the cost of buying land. Does that land have to become woodland forever or would it be ok if a landowner could only guarantee (say) 20 years?

Last year I spend some time with a few friends and a specialist advisor trying to figure out a model for collectively buying and owning land to plant a wood. We realised in the end that we had quite different goals and expectations, but we did produce some useful ideas including this document comparing possible legal structures. Following this we also looked into the “Charitable Incorporated Organisation” structure.

How to find people to help? I had a massively enthusiastic and positive response from people I asked to help plant trees, but I also put a lot of thought and effort into making it a positive experience. I used email and Facebook to invite friends, I used this blog to share in more detail what would be involved. I made sure the weather was nice (by cancelling planting days when it was wet), I provided hot drinks and hot lunch (cooked on a rocket stove) and shelter from the wind (an old box tent). I invited everyone to bring their kids, dogs and friends. I took photos of people having a great time and I shared them online. More and more people came and many of them came back for more. Today – years after the bulk of the tree planting – people still ask me if they can come again and ask how the trees are growing, I think they feel some attachment to the woods they planted. I regularly get emails from strangers who’ve found my blog and want to ask questions, many of them are starting off on the same course as I’ve taken.

It’s fair to say that planting with volunteers isn’t always highly productive (think absolute beginners with dogs and kids) – Sometimes I could plant as many trees in a day alone as I could with five volunteers. But it’s great fun and the positive energy from other people definitely helps keep you going. If you’re involving lots of people, maybe including people you don’t know, you should definitely consider accidents, dangers, risk assessment and maybe public liability.

What do you need other than land and trees? You’ll probably need deer protection – either tree shelters and stakes or deer-fence the whole plot. If you’re not using tree shelters then you may need rabbit protection – spiral guards and canes. You’ll need tools – sturdy spades (we broke lots of them until we eventually found Bulldog Newcastle Drainers) and mallets of you’re using stakes. You’ll need everything to look after your teams of planting volunteers (eg. a rocket stove and kitchenware to feed people, seating and shelter, some spare hats are useful too). I used Rootgrow. Materials to mulch your trees if you choose to. Don’t forget to have a comprehensive first aid kit and plans for what to do in an emergency.

You need to plan what trees are going where – start by marking your paths and clearings, after that I used stakes/canes with painted ends – colour coded for each tree species. I put the stakes in place and then sent planters out with trees to find the right stakes.

Update March 2019

Everything has grown, again. The trees planted last year seem to have done fine. I’ve added a few this year, mostly hedging. Some of the faster growing 2015 trees, such as alder and silver birch, now need to have their tree shelters removed as they’re getting tight around the trunks.

I’ve spent a lot of time sorting out the hedges that surround Upton Bottom Woods, removing a few dead trees and a lot of brambles and planting suitable species of shrubs and trees to fill the gap.

At Upton Bottom there are about two acres of trees which were planted around 20 years ago. They’re quite close together and there’s some fast-growing species there (especially bird cherry and ash). They’ve grown quite tall and spindly as they compete for the light, consequently they have narrow canopies and narrow root systems, making them vulnerable to wind-throw. They are also out-competing some of the slower growing species such as oak. The solution to this is to thinh trees out gradually over the years, allowing their neighbours to expand and thrive. To this end I’ve learnt to use a chainsaw, I recently completed a weekend course at The Woodland Skills Centre. I’m currently using a battery chainsaw which is quite adequate and is quieter, cleaner, less smelly then a petrol equivalent (as well as easier to maintain with less to go wrong).

Some of my apple trees are old enough to be a little bit productive now, I harvested about 150 apples in the autumn from about 15 trees. There are many more trees but most of them aren’t old enough or big enough yet. I’m experimenting to find out which varieties of apple store well, some of them have lasted into March in reasonable condition. Pears, cherries, plums and various “exotics” have been very limited so far.

Nature continues around the man-made woodland. I see deer most times that I’m there, grey squirrels continue to strip bark from trees. Voles nest in tree shelters and occasionally gnaw through the base of young trees, killing them or at best coppicing them. No signs of bats using my bat boxes yet. It’s hard to tell whether the bird boxes are in use other than by squirrels which have been gnawing them. An owl regularly swoops low over the field at dusk. Fungi flourishes at this time of year – decay amongst the mature trees is welcome as a part of the natural cycle. Ants build hills and regularly build vertical nests in spiral guards which occasionally buries and kills small trees.