To celebrate National Gardening Week, the wonderful charity New Caledonian Woodlands, have put together some useful tree-related gardening tips. The charity run different types of projects aimed to cater for those that experience mental health problems, and projects which are open to the wider community.
If you are fortunate enough to have a big garden which has trees in it, or perhaps a friend or family member has such a garden, you may have wondered how best to look after it? Then again, you may not. In actual fact most people look at a tree and assume that it has been there forever and will continue to be there for a long time without doing anything. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we enjoy being in the company of trees so much; they seem to be fixed points in our lives, going through the seasons year after year, big, impressive living beings; strong, yet calm and reassuring.
All this can be true, except they haven’t been there forever and, like us, they are mortal. They start as a seed, germinate to form a seedling, grow into a young sapling, and continue to grow to their full size if they are lucky, before slowly dying back. They eventually fall and decompose, enriching the soil and supporting other plants – maybe even other trees which take their place.
Some trees, like silver birch, live for around 100 years. Oak trees can keep going for 800 years. There is a yew tree in Perthshire which is probably 2000 years old. Most of the trees in our gardens are young things, 20 to 50 years old.
When it comes to gardening with trees, they can either be a help or a hindrance. On the positive side they create great shelter from the wind and can help to dry out a wet soil. They create dappled shade which encourages some types of vegetable and soft fruit bushes. This is known as forest gardening, a form of permaculture. The best trees for this purpose are lightly foliaged, such as birch, rowan and well pruned fruit trees. It is best to let plenty of light in by pruning off the lower branches – this is called raising the crown.
On the down side, trees can cast a lot of shade and out-compete understorey plants. You just have to walk through a beech wood which is a very simple ecosystem- beech trees, a fern or two and drifts upon drifts of beech leaves.
As well as growing fruit, nuts and vegetables, garden trees can produce an unending supply of firewood. Initially, branches can be pruned off, forks removed and smaller, twisty trees thinned out. If the trees are more mature, they can be further thinned out. The ideal is to have trees of all ages in your wood or very large garden.
If you are really serious about utilising your trees to supply firewood, the best system is coppicing. This is where the trees are allowed to grow for around 15 years, and then a proportion are cut down every year, close to the ground in small groups. Felled hardwood trees don’t die, they produce new shoots from basal buds and these shoot away very quickly. In one year the shoots can have grown a couple of feet. After 3 years, they can be above your head and after 10 years they can be big enough for firewood again. It is estimated that a woodland of 5 acres (…or a very big garden!) would keep a home permanently going for heat and hot water. Most broadleaved trees will coppice but ash, sycamore and willow are particularly good at it.
New Caledonian Woodlands staff and volunteers have a lot of experience in looking after woodlands in Scotland (less in New Caledonia which is an island group in the south Pacific). We are currently thinning and pruning some of the Millennium Woodlands in Edinburgh, transforming them into beautiful well-managed woodlands; rich in wildlife, easy on the eye and providing valuable shelter. We take the arisings back to our yard at Inverleith where we process and season the timber. It is then sold to raise funds for our people projects. It’s a win/ win/ win/ win situation.
We also rescue items of wooden furniture from landfill and give them a new lease of life by repairing and upcycling them. This year we want to introduce new techniques such as turning handles and legs on the pole lathe and working with green and seasoned wood that we have sustainably harvested on our wood fuel days. We will be utilising the wood working skills that the Fruitful Woods guys have acquired in the last few of months. We want to create a strong New Caledonian Woodlands/Fruitful Woods aesthetic that fits with our sustainable woodland work and the other products that we create.
To find out more about New Caledonian Woodlands, you can visit their website newcaledonianwoodlands.org.