“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now,” according to the Chinese proverb. We’re living in perilous times, with constant dire warnings of the planet’s future. In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation has been rampant in 2019, which will have knock-on consequences for the entire world. Closer to home, construction of the HS2 rail link threatens ancient woodland up and down the country; last month there was a temporary reprieve, but the risk is still there.
If not quite a magic tonic, trees aren’t far off. They’re crucial for wildlife and biodiversity (a recent report revealed a drastic decline in the UK’s animal populations); they provide mental health benefits to humans; they give us food and timber, mitigate against flooding and help cool us down by casting shade.
Oh, and they capture carbon dioxide – a major greenhouse gas – through photosynthesis, converting it into biomass: roots, leaves and wood. As long as they’re alive it’s stored and, if the tree dies naturally, contributes to regeneration. Peat bogs, grasslands and seagrasses store carbon, too, but trees are “probably the easiest way of controlling carbon capture,” says Prof Alex Antonelli, director of science at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
Which is why the Woodland Trust has announced a new campaign, the Big Climate Fightback, to get a million people to plant a tree on Nov 30. The two main reasons for this, says the trust’s project lead, Carol Honeybun-Kelly, are the need for carbon sequestration and the catastrophic loss of wildlife habitat.
The Woodland Trust promotes the planting of new woods and the preservation of threatened forests up and down the UK. Since 1972, the charity has planted 43 million trees; this year alone, it aims to offset 18,000 tons of carbon.
Yet more is needed. “This year we wanted to try a different mass-engagement project,” Honeybun-Kelly explains. “When the climate emergency was declared [in May], we saw individuals and communities reacting. We thought we could give people a way to join a positive action.”
Sceptics might consider planting a single tree tokenistic, yet the effect could be enormous. Planting a tree can offer a child an enjoyable, hands-on introduction to nature, for example. And the impact can be long-lasting. “As long as a tree is growing, it’ll be capturing carbon,” says Antonelli.
But he warns against resting on our laurels. “It’s fantastic there is public engagement and that everyone wants to contribute,” he says. “At the same time we have to look at our consumer habits, so we don’t buy things that contribute to deforestation in the Amazon, for instance. We are still buying beef fed with soybeans from Brazil, and palm oil.”
Nevertheless, a widespread public tree-planting campaign is one way of making a tangible contribution to problems surrounding the environment, biodiversity, a lack of green space and more.
“We’re looking for solutions to climate change,” says Honeybun-Kelly. “If the ‘next big thing’ is not going to be invented, if industry in some areas isn’t changing its ways, then planting trees is a really accessible activity, it’s visible and tangible, and possible to do throughout the nation.”
Right tree, right place
Whatever your reason for planting, you’ll want to do it properly. While the consensus is the more the better, Sharon Durdant-Hollamby, a chartered arboriculturalist and vice-president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters, says it’s all about “the right tree in the right place”.
The options are almost limitless, but there are caveats. If you’re planting in wet areas, alders do well; birch and crab apple like clay soils; and the English oak is fairly versatile, though doesn’t favour marshy, light or chalky soil. However, an oak can grow to 130ft tall – not ideal if you’re in a crowded city with a tiny garden.
A good way to establish what flourishes in a given area is to check the local trees. If you’re not confident identifying them, ask an expert or use the Woodland Trust’s free Tree ID app.
What do you want from your tree? While all sequester carbon, some, like the oak or horse chestnut, are particularly effective. Others, however, might provide a rich habitat for a certain animal or fungus. Apple and pear have gastronomic benefits.
Many non-natives flourish in the UK. Overall, however, the advice is buy British and, if in doubt, ask an expert: at a tree nursery, by speaking to an arboriculturalist, or by contacting a charity like the Woodland Trust.
Generally, you’re free to plant on your own land, Durdant-Hollamby explains, though there are rare restrictions; on public or someone else’s land, clearly, seek permission.
“Don’t plant a tree where it’s going to be a nuisance, in the legal sense,” says Durdant-Hollamby. “Think about how big it’s going to grow, is it going to be really unreasonable, next to somebody’s house or blocking their sun? If it’s going to block a highway, the authorities have certain rights.”
How to plant
Once you’ve decided on your tree there are some basic steps to follow. The tree-planting season lasts roughly from November to March, when trees are dormant. Clear any weeds and cut back grass around the immediate vicinity of where you’ll be planting.
It’s cheaper to plant a young tree, as a sapling (around a foot or two) or a whip, usually two or three feet tall. You won’t get instant reward, however, as, though trees grow at different speeds, it might take a decade before you reap the benefits. A half standard, roughly 4-6ft tall, is also doable. Planting an older, larger tree tends to be more expensive.
Before planting, “make sure your tree is in good condition, without any broken branches, and the main stem continues upwards, unless it’s a weeping tree,” says Durdant-Hollamby. “For the average gardener, I recommend container-grown trees, as they’ll have a really good, fibrous root system, and that will help the tree establish well.”
Dig a hole, ideally square and quite wide; fairly deep, but not too much so. “If you plant it too deep, it will suffocate it,” says Durdant-Hollamby. When your root and part of the stem is in the hole, fill it in with the soil, making it fairly compact, but not excessively so. Durdant-Hollamby recommends adding something like biochar, a soil additive that aids growth and disease resistance.
Some things to consider: If it’s too stony, remove larger ones and add some new soil. If you dig a hole and it’s completely waterlogged, only very specialised trees will do.
If the tree is around 3ft high, it’ll need a stake, attached to the tree with a rubber or hessian tree tie. “The really important thing, which I bang on about all the time, is you need to leave an area around the tree free of grass and plants,” says Durdant-Hollamby. About a 3ft circle should suffice. This is because grass will compete for water and nutrients with the tree’s roots. Durdant-Hollamby recommends woodchips, or some compost, scattered around the base, though not touching the trunk. “Imagine a really fat doughnut, with the tree in the middle of that mulch.”
Make sure to water weekly during growing season, between March and October. “It’s better to soak than to give a little sprinkling every day.” In the countryside, you’ll also want to protect from mammals that love to feast on young shoots. Tree guards will thwart deer and rabbits from ruining your efforts. “The first three years are really critical. Once you’ve got through that, you’re pretty much home and dry.”
Avoid pruning too much. “We usually only prune trees to suit us,” says Durdant-Hollamby. “There are a few exceptions, but I wouldn’t prune it at all.” Again, if in doubt, seek expert advice.
And finally, what if you don’t have a garden yet want your own tree, rather than planting elsewhere? Will planting in a pot have a positive environmental impact? “I don’t see why not, anything actively growing is useful. Every little helps, and it’s not just about carbon, it’s also about the healing elements of gardening, which is good for you in so many ways.”
Planting my own tree
Before me stands Ivinghoe Beacon, the site of an Iron Age fort on the edge of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Beneath the hills’ grasslands, to my right, are acres of woodland, an autumnal mixture of sandy browns and dark greens against the grey sky. To my left, the ancient Stubbings Wood, at 600 years not quite as aged as the fort.
And behind me is a new patch of woodland, though it doesn’t look like much yet. In a large fenced-off enclosure are thousands of young saplings, each barely a foot tall, planted earlier this year by an army of volunteers. They will eventually contribute to a new 63-acre wood. A mix of oak, beech, field maple, yew and more, the nascent grove will become part of 264 acres of new woodland rising on this estate, owned by the Woodland Trust. On Nov 30, members of the public will contribute to another patch lining the majestic ancient wood – there are, after all, 13,500 trees still to plant. But, for now, I’m adding to a recent project with my own oak sapling. Every tree helps.
Here to assist me is Hannah Burgess, the trust’s visitor experience officer and a tree-planting veteran. With spade in hand and rain jacket on, I dig a hole, around a foot deep, half a foot square, a new home for my little oak. Ensuring the roots are well entrenched in the hole, we tightly pat down the earth around the young tree and protect it with a guard – as simple as that.
An individual among thousands, and I may never see it grow old. In fact, a number of the trees planted here won’t reach maturity – “it’s natural selection,” says Burgess. Yet some, planted in March, are thriving, doubling in size already. The fencing around the grove’s perimeter will protect them from deer and rabbits in the trees’ most vulnerable stage. In a decade they should reach head height – my oak, slower growing, could take longer.
The adjacent ancient woodland is centuries ahead in its development. Huge trees, scrubby open patches, dead wood, cracked old oaks; it’s a haven for wildlife, from bats and owls to invertebrates and fungi, all living in a vital yet dwindling habitat.
One day, the little wood I have helped to establish is likely to provide habitat for a new generation of animals, plants and fungi of its own, though I probably won’t live to see it. “Our wood, in 200 years, will come to look like its ancient neighbour,” says Burgess. It is an enchanting thought. If we all set aside a little time, we could help to secure the future of the British woodland.
It’s not just individuals. Businesses are becoming more aware of their climate responsibilities and green initiatives are common. But a more hands-on approach, where employees can get stuck in, is tree planting.
One such company is CoinCorner, a bitcoin exchange specialist on the Isle of Man. Globally, bitcoin mining is estimated to use as much energy as Ireland. Danny Scott, CoinCorner’s CEO and co-founder, says “there’s no argument about it,” but points out that much of it is through renewable electricity.
“The Isle of Man is trying to be as eco-friendly as possible,” explains Joanne Goldy, CoinCorner’s marketing specialist, who heads the campaign. She points to the Government’s five-year plan to plant 85,000 trees on the island by 2024 – one for every inhabitant. “We’re looking to set an example.”
Rather than just donate money, last Sunday the team joined planters near Glen Helen on the west of the island, helping the Woodland Trust with a further 1,500 native trees.
“Trees are the most local project that we can get involved with and do ourselves, rather than sending the money somewhere and not being able to see the results,” says Goldy.
What about disease?
Trees can suffer from all manner of diseases. Ash dieback is currently threatening up to 95 per cent of the UK’s ash trees, according to the Woodland Trust, while Dutch elm disease has been a menace in the UK for decades. Planting a variety of trees prevents a single area being wiped out.
While ash trees remain under government restriction, there are ways of minimising the threat of disease when planting other species. Always opt for something sourced and grown in the UK by a responsible retailer (look for UKSG approved, for example).
Look out for infections on nearby trees and plants. A big one right now is honey fungus, an orangey-brown toadstool-like clump of mushrooms. Some trees are more disease-resistant than others (and some fungi and bacteria are beneficial to a tree’s ecosystem). If in doubt, ask an expert.
For every one of us who wishes to get out there and plant our own tree, for a whole range of reasons there is another who can’t. Luckily, one can help fund tree-planting projects across the country. Carbon offsetting schemes have surged in popularity recently, as we attempt to come to terms with the cost of our carbon emissions, both on an individual and national level.
“Individuals aren’t always able to reduce or avoid carbon emissions,” says Steve Prior, director of Forest Carbon. But you can contribute by paying someone to do it on your behalf. This can take several forms, such as funding solar panels, but one of the most popular is supporting the planting of trees.
Forest Carbon was set up in 2006, and has since planted around eight million trees in a number of projects across the UK and Ireland. There are another 1.5 million in the pipeline, which would take the total land covered to around 15,000 acres. Initially available only to companies, this year they opened up to individuals.
Forest Carbon run several projects averaging 70 to 80 acres in size. “That’s when you get those other big benefits to habitat and flood mitigation, connecting old fragments of woodland with new.”
Planting an orchard in Devon
When Rupert Brasier and Kate Fry were married in September, they didn’t really want traditional gifts – in fact, they didn’t really want any at all. But they knew friends and family would want to give something, so they chose to be creative. Instead of the usual presents – toasters, crockery – they decided to ask for an orchard.
An orchard, of course, requires land. Luckily, they had access to a fair amount, as Fry’s father is a beef and arable farmer across the River Dart from their own house.
“It’s a very beautiful location,” says Brasier, “but it’s not got a lot of trees on it. There are some great spaces where they could be, and we’d talked about it before. When we got married it seemed to make sense.”
So, in early December, the wedding guests (“who knows how many will turn up?” quips Brasier) will convene to establish the orchard on the farm where Fry was born and raised. A total of 18 trees, mostly apple with some pear and mulberry, will be planted.
The environment was one of several considerations. Planting an orchard neatly piggybacked on a no-waste, locally-sourced wedding. “We’re planting a mixture of native Devon species, mainly of eating apples, from a local nursery. They’re all natural pollinators and represented within the ecosystem locally. We wanted something productive, as a place where we could spend time, to enjoy the fruits of our labour, as it were.”
Though Brasier and Fry are food manufacturers, selling their own small-scale organic ghee, the orchard isn’t intended to be commercial. At around a third of an acre, it’s not that big, though it should produce a significant amount of fruit. “We’ll have to find creative ways to deal with it,” says Brasier.
A tree-filled cattle farm in Surrey
Angus Stovold’s family have been farming the Surrey Hills for “quite a few generations”. It’s a mixed arable-livestock farm, with a prize herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. Stovold started planting trees on the site in the late Eighties, before taking over the farm in the early Nineties.
Planting and tree care has not always been a high priority, Stovold admits. “In the past, they were functional farmers. In the drive for production, the trees weren’t maintained.”
But Stovold has always appreciated trees, and planting them became a key tenet of the farm’s ethos. “I would say it was mostly for aesthetic reasons,” he admits, “but we were putting in hedgerows at the same time, creating wildlife corridors.”
Planting a large number of trees is an evolving task. Some flourish, others die, and you never know what disease is around the corner. Yet Stovold has planted around “a thousand or two” trees in 30 years, covering 750 acres, including small-and large-leaved lime, field maple, beech, sweet chestnut and English oak. He has also created coppices, which will encourage shady spots for cattle in what was once arable field.
Planting large trees is labour intensive and costly. “You need to keep weeds away, and I don’t spray, so I need to pull them away.” Protecting newly-planted trees from deer is tricky, requiring considerable investment in tree guards.
But all the effort is having a positive effect on the farm’s biodiversity. “We’ve seen an increase in bird life, it’s as good as I’ve ever seen it.” Stovold says not all farmers could follow suit, particularly tenant farmers; he’s lucky to own the land he farms.
The full effects of the planting drive may not be felt for years. “I have a vision of what it’s going to look like, I have a 10-year plan. I’m in my early 50s now, and want to retire when I’m 65-ish. I would like to hand on something that is environmentally sustainable, pleasing to the eye, and is something to build on. A functional, profitable farm, but working in unison with nature.”