Trees are an important natural resource and have been valued by civilisations for centuries – the Romans were responsible for the introduction of many tree species to Britain that were planted in their villa gardens as a source of various fruits and nuts. They also provide fuel for cooking and heating, material for building, as well as shelter for wildlife. They have played a vital role in contemporary, and historic landscaping - they were famously used to great effect by the prolific 18th-century landscape architect, Capability Brown, at Chatsworth House in the Peak District some 300 years ago.
Trees provide a range of wide environmental benefits. They can reduce air pollution as they soak up pollutant gases (such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide), they also trap pollution particles on leaves and bark and so remove them from the air. Through photosynthesis, trees store carbon as they absorb CO2, so remove it from the atmosphere, and release the oxygen. To do this the cells in the tree convert carbon from carbon dioxide to form sugars (that is starch and carbohydrates) that are stored in the tree and support its growth. This carbon is stored as long as the wood stays in existence – that is until it is either burnt or decays. Trees can also reduce soil erosion and prevent flooding by slowing the runoff of water and holding soil in place with their roots.
In the UK there are ancient woodlands that have existed for centuries, which have complex and irreplaceable ecosystems. Clearly tree planting today will not replace such woodlands, but there are huge benefits to tree planting in other areas. For example, the movement to more intensive agriculture, with higher grazing levels, has resulted in fewer woodland coppices and hedgerows in farm landscapes. This means that the planting of trees elsewhere is important. The “elsewhere” includes tree planting in more domestic and urban areas, with gardens being a particularly important place. Trees, along with a range of shrubs and grasses, provide shelter for wildlife, particularly birds.
Planting a young tree in your garden is not a difficult or time-consuming process. But, care does need to be taken relating to the location, species type and aftercare.
What tree to plant?
In the UK we have a temperate climate and wide range of soil types, so an extensive variety of trees and shrubs can be planted. When deciding on a type of tree, you need to think about what will be well-matched to its location, but also what it needs to provide for the local wildlife. If this tree is going to be in your garden you also need to think about how it will look, and exactly where in your garden it is going to be planted. Considering how large the tree will grow is important, so as to avoid roots or branches interfering with the construction of your (or a neighbour's) house.
It is essential to assess if your garden is suitable for a tree and if so, what species of tree. The soil is an important starting point – is it clay-like or is there lots of rubble? This may limit the growth of the tree. Thinking about how exposed or shady your garden is may highlight potential challenges to tree growth. Some trees thrive best in particular soil types – for example, peaty or sandy. It is ideal to select trees that best suit the soil type you have. Have a look at the species that grow well locally to help guide your decision.
Once you have looked at your ‘site’ it is also important to think about what you want from the tree. Are you interested in trees to support wildlife in your garden, one that will provide you with a fruit harvest, or do you want a tree that has beautiful autumn colours?
The Woodland Trust provides information about British trees to plant in your garden and trees are also available to purchase from them.
It is ideal to plant trees when they are dormant, as at this time the tree can better cope with the stress of being moved. In the UK this is usually between the middle of November and late March. It is also important to avoid times of heavy frost and frozen ground.
You can buy a tree ready to plant or decide to grow a tree from seed. The Woodland Trust has information about tree planting and how to care for your tree in the short and longer term. This includes making sure that you provide some aftercare for your tree – enough water and protection (such as with a tree guard to protect from some animals). Also keep the area close to the tree weed-free to avoid competition during its start in your garden.
It takes time. Remember that trees are relatively slow growing and so it may take a while before you see the wildlife benefits. However, after a few years, you will begin to see birds making use of it and fruit growing.