All posts by gs

Learning from my mistakes

Digging a pond using a mini-digger
Digging a deep pond

I get two or three emails each week from people who found this blog and have questions to ask. Somebody just asked me “what [I] would do differently” . Here’s my top answers:

  • Deer Guards
    I’d like to have been able to do without stakes and tree guards. I needed to protect against deer. The bigger the site is (and the more trees you’re planning to plant), the more economically viable it becomes to exclude deer by perimeter fencing rather than a guard on every tree. I haven’t found a viable compostable tree grard yet so the plastic guards I use have to be removed and (if they can’t be reused) taken off site and disposed.
    The Forestry Commission has lots of deer fencing advice, their recommendation would definitely do the job but it’s not cheap and it doesn’t look all that simple to install yourself. I might try various approaches, like a metre-high stock-proof fence (I learnt how to do that) alongside an existing or new hedge; hopefully the deer can’t push through the fence or jump over the hedge. Or where I have a gappy boundary with a few trees I might try attaching the fencing to the trees so save putting in posts.
  • Edibles
    I’d allocate more space for fruit and nut trees, either as an orchard or a forest garden (or some of each). I allowed about 1.5 acres of my total 10 acres for this purpose but I’ve now run out of that space and there’s lots more trees that I’d like to have there. If you’re not familiar with forest gardening then Martin Crawford’s books are a great place to start or you might find a local forest garden (here’s one that I’ve been meaning to visit).
  • Ponds
    I dug two deep ponds (having read that you should aim for 2m deep so the water stays colder in the summer, reducing evaporation). I had a lot of fun one weekend with a mini-digger but I wish I’d first checked the porosity of my subsoil. Neither pond holds water, the fill up in the Autumn but they’re both dry by late Spring. I could line them but that’s a big job and I would have dug them a different shape if I knew they would need liners.
  • Thinning
    I have an area of 20 year old woodland which was planted at 2m spacing and wasn’t thinned. It’s now very tall and thin as the trees compete for light and don;t have enough space to grow. I’m thinning gradually but you can’t take too much out in one year, they’re all likely to have weak root systems due to crowding so removing too many just leaves those remaining susceptible to windthrow. I wish I’d understood sooner what I needed to do, I could have started thinning 4 years earlier.
    The good thing is that I’m learning how I’ll need to manage the areas which I planted in 2015.
  • Finally
    The only other thing I can think of that I’d have done differently is that I’d have started it off years earlier.

How to select trees for new native woodland

This article contains some useful but hard-to-find information – although a lot of it is only relevant to Northern Ireland.


I had a lot of help from The Woodland Trust on choosing the overall selection and quantity of trees to plant but this kind of information would have helped me figure out how to arrange them. Some species work well alongside other species (and you often find them together ina natural environment). Others don’t, often because one grows faster than the other so would soon out-compete it or because they prefer different kinds of location to each other. The bit in the article about “planting in clumps” is useful knowledge.

By the way, TCV has an excellent series of handbooks, I own copies of several.

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.

Update Spring 2018

Upton Bottom Woods, March 2018

Everything grew well in 2017 but it still feels more like a field of plastic tubes than a woodland!

Sadly a few more trees adjacent to the footpath at Butcombe have been vandalised, but they are a tiny minority of the total.

We planted another 1800 trees and shrubs over the winter: replacements for a very few failures, improving hedges, filling a few gaps. There’s no space left.

I have a couple of acres of woodland which was planted densely about 18 years ago. Now it’s over-crowded and I need to think about some thinning so as to let the strongest trees grow and put down strong roots.

My biggest problem is grey squirrels which strip bark and are causing substantially damage to the 18 year old trees. Deer are damaging these trees and the recent plantings. Ants also continue to kill newly planted trees by building their ant nests in tree shelters, swamping the trees.

I’m gradually getting brambles under control and I’m adding bit-by-bit to the forest garden. Lots to do.

I’ve recently joined Small Woods, they seem to be a good source of advice and knowledge.

Meanwhile I’m working with a few others on plans for a collective land purchase and tree planting project somewhere near Bristol.

Tree planting 2017 is finished!

Last Sunday afternoon we planted the final tree at Upton Cheyney. This is the end of large scale tree planting, both fields are now full. Over three winters we’ve planted just under 11000 native trees and shrubs in two fields totalling 16 acres, about 140 individuals joined in (many of you on more than one occasion). Thank you all!

I recently spent a day planting trees with a new friend who is just starting on a similar endeavour, he has a 19 acre woodland to plant (over several winters) near to Chew Stoke. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! If you have similar aspirations, either by yourself or as a part of a group, do let me know: I can offer help and advice and quite possibly connect you with like-minded other people.
Love and trees, Gavin

Tree planting 2017

** Updated 13/3 ** – Butcombe is now fully planted, Upton Cheyney is well on the way. After this year both fields are more-or-less fully planted so no further mass planting sessions likely.

I have 1200 trees to plant in March 2017, filling gaps in the woodlands that we planted in 2015 (Upton Cheyney) and 2016 (Butcombe).  That’s a lot less than we planted in previous years, and these will all be planted with canes and spiral guards (much faster than hammering in stakes) – but tree planting season is coming to an end so they need to be in the ground soon.

There are four weekends in March, I’m aiming to plant trees on each of those eight days. Most of the planting will be at Upton Cheyney but enough for one or two days planting at Butcombe. March is the end of the planting season but it’s a great time for planting – warmer and sunnier.
My plan (subject to change and in case of bad weather cancellation):
  • Saturday 4th March – Upton Cheyney – completed
  • Sunday 5th March – Upton Cheyney – cancelled – too rainy
  • Saturday 11th March – Butcombe – done!
  • Sunday 12th March – Upton Cheyney – done!
  • Tues 14th March – Upton Cheyney
  • Thurs 16th March – Upton Cheyney (early finish)
  • Saturday 18th March – Upton Cheyney
  • Sunday 19th March – Upton Cheyney
  • Sat 25th March – contingency if not finished – Upton Cheyney
  • Sunday 26th March – contingency if not finished – Upton Cheyney (Mothers Day, you’re welcome to bring her with you!)
  • Weekdays – I’ll be planting trees at least one more day each week – if you want to join me please get in touch, dates are flexible
Here’s the trees for this 2017, they’re currently in neat temporarily heeled-in bundles in my vegetable patch:
Alder 20
Beech 50
Bird Cherry 50
Blackthorn 110
Crab Apple 40
Dogwood 110
Downy Birch 50
English Oak 50
Field Maple 40
Goat Willow 110
Green Willow 30
Grey Willow 10
Guelder Rose 110
Hawthorn 110
Hornbeam 50
Norway Maple 50
Rowan 90
Silver Birch 75
Small Leaf Lime 25
Wild Cherry 50

* plus a few extra which I’ve grown myself or bought from elsewhere

It will be much the same as previous years, but even better (two years’ experience of this I now, so what I’m doing now). Turn up, plant some trees, coffee break, plant some trees, lunch break, plant some trees, head home whenever you’re ready. Hot drinks and hot lunch provided, tent for shelter, all the usual facilities (and more parking space). No stakes and tree guards this year, only canes and spiral guards, this makes things faster and easier. The tree planting is optional, you’re welcome to come and just enjoy being there. As always the weather will be good on planting days, because in case of bad weather I’ll cancel/postpone.

You’re most welcome to bring friends, family, dogs, etc. It’s family-friendly and it’s a great day out but you’re responsible for looking after your own kids and dogs, I’ll be mostly focussed on looking after  adults and trees. Planting trees is 100% optional, if you have a great day out and don’t quite get round to any planting that’s fine!
I’ll have all the usual comforts – hot drinks and hot lunch on the rocket stove, an even bigger box tent if we need shelter, the compost loo, etc. I did a bit of earth moving last year so there’s more space for cars at Upton Cheyney this time.
If I’m not already emailing you about this please contact me if you want to come or for further info.

Planting a woodland – bullet points

This is for anybody who has some land and is planning to plants a woodland. If you’re still at the stage of finding  the land then my suggestions are here.

These are some of the things I wished I’d known before I started, readers are welcome to contact me if anything need explanation.

  • Tools we under-achieved for our first couple of planting days because we didn’t have the right quantity / quality / type of tools. Most spades will break easily if you abuse them by levering back and forth to open a planting notch. Long and narrow blade works well for notch planting, my personal favourite in the end was an all-steel Newcastle Drainer (I got them from Toolstation, see also cheaper B&Q  equivalent). Tools especially mallets are easily lost in a large field, especially if the grass is long.
  • Rootgrow your only chance to boost mycorrhizal fungi is when you’re planting the trees – it’s hard to retrofit afterwards. I used Rootgrow  (5Kg tubs from ebay) throughout. It’s hard to know how effective it has been but I’m very happy with the survival rates of my trees.
  • Layout figure out in advance what trees are going where. I laid out paths, clearings, etc first. We then planted in stands around 20m x  20m, with several species in each stand. Pick species which are compatible (eg. they grow at similar rates to similar sizes) and will grow well in the location (moisture, light, exposure, etc).
  • Positioning don’t rely on your planting team to put the right trees in the right places (or even to space the trees out as you want them). I scavenged loads of pots of paint and then painted the tops of stakes different colours for different species (need dry stakes, paint doesn’t stick to wet wood). Then I set the stakes out before each planting day.
  • Health and safety: have a first aid kit with you and don’t assume that everybody will know intuitively how to knock in a stake with a mallet safely.
  • Whips Have plenty of plastic sacks so you can distribute the whips (small trees) to your planting teams in bags – roots will dry out very quickly on a cold breezy winter day. If you give a large team of people one bag of trees, they take a few each and they can easily dry out or get lost in the grass.
  • Volunteers I persuaded over 100 people to get involved in planting in the first year, many of them came back several times and in subsequent years. Between us we planted many thousands of trees:
    • I started by emailing everybody I knew.
    • I wrote a blog and sent them all the link, so they could see what it was all about and what to expect (a few of them actually read it!)
    • I took photos of happy people planting trees on sunny days and then tagged them on my Facebook page (I used my personal page rather than setting up a group or page for the project, it depends how public you want to make it). Friends and friends-of-friends found out and joined in.
    • It was a lot of fun and I made some great new friends.
    • If you’re planting a wood near Bristol then let me know, I’ll volunteer to plant trees for you.
  • Catering Good to provide hot drinks, biscuits and ideally a hot lunch for tree-planting volunteers. If you’re using a camp-fire or a small camping stove then tea breaks and lunchtime will take up half your day. I built a rocket stove and had one person solely responsible all day for feeding and general welfare. Sausage and egg butties went down well but for feeding a large group my friend Bec showed me how to produce huge vegetable/bean stews with dumplings.
  • Shelter Don’t forget shelter for your volunteers (in my case a huge frame tent that somebody had abandoned after Glastonbury – the frame stayed there permanently, it only took a minute to throw the canvas over it and the first sign of rain). Also seating, thanks again Glastonbury for lots of abandoned camp chairs. Spare woolly hats went down well too. Toilet is essential. Volunteer parking was a bit of a nightmare, people want to arrive and leave when it suits them (fair enough) and don’t want to park somewhere if they might get blocked in.
  • Grass long matted grass is makes planting slower, ideally I’d get it mown in late summer prior to winter planting. Local farmers will pay you for this (they need to make silage).
  • Time It all takes a lot longer than you think. The BTCV Woodlands Handbook says (I think) that a volunteer can plant 100 trees in a day. That probably assumes the volunteer knows what they’re doing, has all the materials and tools to hand and works hard for a full 8 hour day. I my experience most of these things aren’t true most of the time. I can (now) plant 100+ trees with stakes and tree shelters in a day, or 150+ if I’m using spiral guards and canes, but it’s a long hard full-on day. A bit more than that if the materials are ready and in place in advance. If you push volunteers too hard it then becomes a race and quality of planting suffers. Better to plant well than plant many, if the trees aren’t planted to the right depth and well heeled in you will have far more losses.
  • Trees that we planted  came from:
    • The Woodland Trust‘s MoreTrees scheme (subsidised, with tree guards and stakes)
    • OVO Energy‘s idigtrees scheme (free, with spiral guards and stakes)
    •  home-grown: I set up a tree nursery in the corner of the field, protected from deer and rabbits using heras fencing and chicken wire. I planted seeds, some stuff grew well but it was a lot of effort to grow and transplant them; certain trees and shrubs can be reproduced from cuttings: willow, poplar, elder, holly, juniper, yew, dog rose, most fruit bushes; I also grafted a lot of fruit and nut trees with a reasonably good rate of success.
  • [to be continued? ask me a question]

Thoughts on acquiring land to plant trees

[this article is work in progress, needs some refinement to aid readability]

Finding some land anywhere near Bristol (or other urban centres) to plant a woodland is possibly the hardest and certainly the most expensive part of the journey. Here are some things to consider, based on my experience and learnings from doing it twice:

  • Consider whether you need to own the land or would you be satisfied with planting trees on land owned by someone else? Maybe if you have ongoing access to it? And if there’s some assurance that the trees will be there long-term? It could be privately owned land or owned by a local council, railways, water authority, a charity (eg. National Trust), a school, a company, etc.
  • Land might be an appropriate place to invest your long-term savings, it should be a fairly safe investment. It might even be possibly to invest your pension fund (by transferring it into a self-managed SIPP – see here and here and here – but get advice before you mess with your pension). Planting trees on it might reduce the agricultural value of the land but might also increase the recreational value (and when it’s time to thin the trees there should be value in the logs).
  • Land can be bought through estate agents (like David James) or at auction. I understand that most farmland is sold privately between farmers without being advertised on the open market.
  • Land that looks great on paper is often not be a pleasant place to be – maybe it’s under a flight path, next to a motorway or a pig farm.
  • Gradient and aspect matter.  Flat land may be poorly drained or liable to flooding. Too steep is difficult to work on (although if you’re planting trees one and not spending time there after that you may be prepared to put up with it). South facing gets more sun so can be drier but can mean faster growth.
  • Farm land is priced (around Bristol, at the time of writing) at around £8000 per acre, depending on:
    • the size of the plot (smaller plots tend to be more expensive per acre than large ones)
    • development potential (land with potential to get planning permission sells for far higher prices); any existing building will be seen as development/conversion/rebuilding potential.
    • quality of land (agricultural grade 1 land is more expensive then grade 3 – but grade 3 should be quite adequate for growing trees)
    • road accessibility – direct road access (rather than right of way over someone else’s farm) adds value; plots with no clear legal right of access by vehicle can be significantly less expensive, but this may not be a problem for planting trees
    • factors like “a nice view” or a footpath along the edge of the field aren’t relevant to agriculture and so tend not to influence the price, but they may be important if you want to create a woodland paradise
  • You may want to consider whether it’s land that could be used for something more important. For example it might feel uncomfortable to plant woodlands on top grade agricultural land which could be used for food production (maybe you should plant a forest garden there instead?)
  • Read up about how to assess the quality of the soil – you might want to take a spade and dig down a bit or collect a few soil samples to test in an analysis kit. Take a good look around first, if trees and hedges on or around the plot are growing well then that’s a good indicator. Consider how then land has been used in recent years, cattle and horses can compact the land and make it less easy to grow trees.
  • If you’re looking to buy a small plot of land (eg. less then 10 acres) your choice will be more limited, consider forming a consortium with like-minded friends to buy and sub-divide a larger plot. It could be easier and more fun to have others to share the endeavour.
  • Consider forming a larger consortium to buy a larger plot, which could be co-owned by consortium members. Some people might want to be actively involved, others might be philanthropists or investors who don’t want to get their hands dirty. You might need to form a company to own the land, the consortium members then own the company. If you’re doing this let me know, I might be interested. People can be very enthusiastic about planting trees – you might even be able to raise [some of the] funds through crowdfunding. I spotted an ideal bit of land for this in an auction a few months ago, but I only had 3 weeks until the auction day and it would have taken far to long to get a consortium together – consider forming the consortium and working out how you’ll proceed before you find the land to buy.
  • Agricultural land sometimes comes with an “uplift clause” – for example “in the event of the granting of planning permission for any change of use, excluding equestrian, the purchaser or their successors in title are liable to pay 35% of the uplift in value on the grant of planning permission for a period of 20 years from the date of completion”
  • To proceed with the purchase you’ll need a solicitor or conveyancer who deals with agricultural land. The big firms of solicitors in Bristol can do this (might be expensive?), I found a solicitor outside Bristol who did it all by phone/email/post (I never met him but we communicated a lot).
  • The purchase process is much like buying a house: your solicitor will obtain and check the title deeds, do searches (agricultural searched are different from residential), obtain details from the seller’s solicitor and eventually exchange contracts with an agreed completion date.
  • Think about whether you need any public liability insurance (or employers insurance), especially if you’re planning to have lots of volunteers to help plant the trees.
  • Planting trees costs money of course (trees, materials, tools, etc) but this cost is tiny in comparison to the cost of buying land and their may be grants or other support available to help.
  • If the land might turn into a business, you might consider forming a limited company (owned by yourself) and buying the land as a company instead. This might not be viable if you need to borrow money. There may be tax advantages (eg. the company could be VAT registered).

So you want to plant a woodland?

Here are some thoughts for anybody who wants to plant a small woodland, based on my experience of doing it twice (2015 and 2016). I considered buying an existing woodland but it’s more fun (and much less expensive) to grow your own.


You’ll need a bit of land. I wanted somewhere close enough to home that I could easily cycle there for a day.

If you own the land then you have certainty of a long-term relationship with your woodland. Land is bought and sold through agents (like houses), for example David James. Sometimes it’s sold at auction (don’t always believe the guide prices, bidding can go much higher especially if it is considered to have development potential). I’m told that a lot of land is bought and sold between neighbouring farmers without ever being advertised for sale – so maybe it’s worth knocking on doors and asking what’s available? And buildings on the land, whatever state they’re in, seem to inflate the price – presumably because of potential to rebuild or convert. I was finding prices of around £8000 per acre when I bought in 2013 (based on 5 – 10 acre fields; smaller plots tend to have slightly higher per-acre prices and larger ones slightly lower).

Look for some land that isn’t too boggy, too steep, too hard to get to. North-facing slopes will get less sun than south-facing, frosts will last longer and growing seasons will be shorter. Things which aren’t important for farming – like “nice views” – tend not to inflate the price of farm land. Consider access carefully, your own road access can be more practical then rights of access via farm tracks (especially if you want to get a car to the site, farm tracks may not be suitable for your car).

Having agreed a price you’ll need a solicitor to do searches and legal stuff – pick a solicitor who specialises in rural properties (I didn’t find one I liked in Bristol, I used Wollen Michelmore).

My understanding is that you don’t need planning permission to plant a woodland on a few acres of agricultural land (above a certain size it becomes classed as forestry and you’d need permission for change of use). You will need planning permission to build anything (eg. an agricultural building such as a shed or barn) unless you have a larger area of land which will give you limited permitted development rights.

Planning your woodland

So now you’ve got some land. The best way to plant trees is as “bare-root whips” – nursery-grown trees one or two years old, about 40cm high, supplied in bundles with no soil on the roots. They should be planted whilst dormant, typically December to March. I had whips delivered in December and “heeled them in” temporarily for planting in the new year. The Woodland Trust gave me lots of advice, sent an advisor to look at the field with me and supplied my trees, stakes, tree-shelters, etc (at a subsidised price through their MoreWoods scheme). I got some more trees free from OVO Energy’s i-dig-trees scheme and I bought some more online from specialist nursaries (ebay is a good place to start searching).  If there are deer in the area then each tree will need a wooden stake and a plastic tree shelter (1.2m plastic tubes which protect the tree); shrubs will need a cane and a spiral guard. At market rates you can expect to pay 25p to £1 for a tree, 60p for a stake and £1.50 for a tree shelter (much less for canes and spiral guards). I also used Rootgrow. Various grants are available from time-to-time to help with these costs. You’ll need to chose what to plant – The Woodland Trust offer great advice and recommends native broadleaved species (which are mostly deciduous; if you want some evergreens you might consider holly, yew, evergreen oaks).

You might allow 20% of the land for paths and clearings. The rest you can plant with trees and shrubs (shrubs might be 20% of the total planting, they are helpful for providing cover for small mammals and for planting along woodland edges). You might plant one tree/shrub per 4 to 15 square meters, I planted about 500 per acre. The denser you plant them, the more effort and cost. Planting denser allows the trees to “close canopy” sooner, after which they will shade out the grass and undergrowth which competes with them. It also means that you can chose to thin the trees (maybe in 10-15 years time) which should provide a lot of firewood. You might expect up to 10% of your planting to fail in the first year or two (depending on how good the land is, how well they’re planted and the weather).

My tree planting plan consisted of a map (based on Google satellite photos) divided into a grid which I marked on the ground using numbered posts in the centre of each map grid square. I built a spreadsheet to allocate trees to each square. My aim was to plant trees in stands of species which have similar growth rates and sizes, so avoiding mixing fast-growing birch with slow-growing oak which would soon be over-shadowed. I planned clearings, footpaths, vehicle tracks, meadows, hedges and ponds.

I bought books (and spent time in libraries) learning what to do and how to do it. Youtube is great for learning how to plant whips and the Woodland Trust also provided very comprehensive guidance.

I left a large area for an orchard and a forest garden, which I will plan and implement in future years. I’m also planning to grow mushrooms, tap birch sap, keep bees and find other ways to produce woodland food.

I created a nursery area (using second-hand heras-style “temporary” fencing to exclude deer and chicken wire to exclude rabbits). Here the whips were initially heeled-in, I subsequently use it to grow various tree seeds and cuttings and grafted fruit trees.


I didn’t tell many people what I was planning for a long while, I assumed they’d think I was mad. When I owned up to my plans I was greeted by nothing but enthusiasm, which translated into over 100 individuals spending a day or more helping me plant. I wanted to make it a positive experience for everybody so I made sure there was always hot drinks and a hot lunch (I built a rocket-stove and cooked using fallen wood from adjacent trees).  An old box tent provided shelter, although I always cancelled in advance of the weather forecast was poor. I had to get lots of spades and mallets, camping chairs and a first-aid kit (which fortunately was never needed). I took lots of photos and used Facebook to recruit more friends (and friends-of-friends) to join in, planting days were very sociable and kids and dogs were always welcome. About five people was easy, when there was more we got more done but it was harder work for me (and I needed somebody else to look after catering and welfare while I focussed on the planting).  If progress seems slow when you start in December, remember that days in March are significantly warmer and longer, and by then you’ll be well versed in organising things and word will have spread that planing trees is fun. I can comfortably plant 100+ trees per day (including fetching the trees, stakes and tree shelters).  At least 150 if I’m using spiral guards and canes. Expect far less from inexperienced volunteers, and make sure they’re focussed on quality and safety not on planting as many trees as possible.

I usually put stakes and canes out in advance to mark planting positions. Sometimes I painted their tops to indicate the species to be planted, other times we only planted one species at a time.

We did most of our planting at weekends to suit volunteers, but it also took me a lot of time at home and in the field during the week to plan, put out stakes and organise people, tools and materials.


After the initial planting you’ll want to control grass around your newly planted trees, as it competed with them and reduced their chances of survival. Mulch-mats or bark chippings can be used but for a large area these are unlikely to be practical or affordable – the usual advice is to spray around each tree with glyphosate (tree shelters and spirals protect your trees from the spray). With a backpack sprayer it’s easy to cover several acres par day, the hard part is keeping track of where you’ve been, marking the tree shelters will help.

By the end of the first summer about a quarter of my trees were emerging from their tree shelters, which means they more than doubled in size. I’m not sure if this is normal, I had good weather and good soil in my favour.

You may have to deal with wildlife damage – deer will eat young trees and damage bark, grey squirrels can strip bark and kill trees.

I’m expecting to identify trees which have died at the end of each summer for at least a couple of years, then replace them in the winter.

I’m expecting to spend time keeping the brambles in the hedges in check so they don’t take over the field before the trees get big enough to shade them out.

Tree guards are removed after about 5 years, before the trees get too big for them.

Trees might need thinning after 10 – 15 years, you could log them for burning, leave them to decompose (great for fungi and insects), make mushroom logs or just ring-bark them and leave them to die and decompose in-situ (but beware of falling trees). Or you could leave then to compete, the fittest should  survive?

More questions?

If you’re thinking about doing this and you have more questions that I might be able to answer, please get in touch.