Growing Wild

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With Nick Fox.
From Growing Green International 10.

Oak trees support a large community of native species, and planting them is a great contribution to maintaining our natural biodiversity. Don’t worry if space is limited, even the smallest of gardens could have at least one tree and an oak tree is as good a choice as any and better than most. A tree in the garden sends out the clear signal to any passing bird, bat and insect that a warm welcome awaits them with opportunities of food and shelter. The almost indestructible nature of most of our native trees and shrubs means they can be cut back and managed to suit any situation.

Coppicing is my preferred method of managing the mini woodland – use the prunings to build a twiggy long term compost heap and provide lots of hidey-holes for mammals and mini-beasts galore, also the opportunity for woodland fungi to flourish. Young trees regularly coppiced develop restricted root systems so you don’t have to worry about under-mining buildings. If you are especially concerned about foundations avoid planting poplars, willows and cherry trees.

Collect your acorns from the oldest trees nearest to your home to have the best chance of attracting as many as possible of the 284 species of insects associated with the oak tree. While you’re foraging, keep an eye out for seeds of hornbeam, hazel, ash, field maple and rowan; as all of these coppice well and grow beautifully under such a management regime.

The Small Leaved Lime (Tilia Cordata) makes a wonderful component of the mini woodland but can be tricky to identify and separate from other lime trees so it might be better to buy seeds or young trees from suppliers using only native stock. The stunning spring growth of Small Leaved Lime easily rivals that of any exotic Japanese Maple plus the young leaves can be added to salads; being one of the very few tree leaves that are tasty to eat.

All of these tree seeds are best sown outside soon after collection to allow sufficient winter chilling to break dormancy. A small area in the vegetable patch is ideal. Mark them well, protect them from mice and keep the area clear of all weeds. It is best to let them grow for a year and plant out the following autumn.

Acorns are non-dormant and must be sown immediately to avoid desiccation. Ideally, directly into the permanent position, where they will spend the winter months driving down a deep tap root before pushing up a strong shoot in the spring. Plant an inch or two deep and cover with re-used plastic drinks bottles as a marker and to protect the new shoot from frost damage. While young, oaks along with ash are susceptible to late frost attack, though they usually recover well enough.

Aim to plant your trees at 3ft-5ft spacings. Keeping the area weed free for a couple of years, enabling the trees to establish. Hand weeding allows for creative weeding by leaving desirable species to colonise naturally. Maybe you prefer the low maintenance option of laying cardboard on the soil surrounding the trees and mulching over this with about an inch thick of shreddings and chippings bought directly from your local tree surgeon. This method should give you a year free of most weeds and has the advantage of creating an instant forest floor effect. If necessary top up with further cardboard and shreddings.

Let the trees grow for at least three years and then decide on your preferred management cycle. Coppicing every other year or every ten years depending on the species, site and location. Inter plant with your favourite woodland flowers.(You can buy plants from the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers).

Once established your mini woodland will require very little work – no digging, fertilising, dead heading or tying up. Just an infrequent bash with a pair of loppers and small hand-saw. It will also help in a small but important way to repair some of the damage caused by the 200 aeroplanes used to carry the 60,000 earth summit delegates to Johannesburg for discussions on how to save the planet.

So have fun collecting your seeds and while you’re out and about keep an eye open for the Jay . These exquisite birds love acorns and are very busy this year with the bumper crop collecting and stashing their hoard for future feasts but you don’t have to miss the banquet, why not collect a few extra to eat yourself ? Recipe ideas and how to prepare acorns can be found in the MCL booklet “More Recipes from New Leaves”

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