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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.

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.

Where?

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.

Planting

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.

Later

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.