Why plant a tree? Why keep a tree?

Outdoor Living

MIGHTY OAK Few trees are more beautiful than oaks, but if you’re planting one in your garden, positioning is paramount.

In the garden
Stewart Boles

Why plant a tree in your garden, or even in the wider landscape? What’s its purpose? Some of the usual answers include ‘to connect with beauty’, ‘to provide habitat’ and/or ‘to provide material resources’.
As a tree surgeon, my work involves altering trees, tree reductions and various forms of pruning. But I cannot improve nature. What I try to do is to prune so that when the tree regrows, nature’s design is left in place in how the tree responds.
When trees are simply topped, nature’s design is destroyed – and they’re also liable to be dangerous in the future. It is the apical (or terminal) buds that control growth – when you top these, four to six new branches will simply take their place.
Correct planting means thinking about the size of the mature tree, even if it’s only your great-grandkids who will enjoy the results. The real question to ask yourself when choosing a tree is, ‘Will this tree, when mature, be right for the aspect?’ Then you get to paint your picture, with the planting as your palette.
The multitude of variations in leaf shape, bark colour and texture all come in to play. And don’t forget to throw some autumn colour – and remember too, the trees you choose will decide what insects live in your garden. Other considerations include a tree’s life expectancy, speed of growth, their provenance (original region) and their preferred habitat.
All of this needs to be factored into your chosen location and and reason for planting the tree in the first place. When a new homeowner plants a ‘high’ tree (like an oak) southward of their new home, they could face a large future cost – paying an arborist large sums to regain sunlight or unblock a view. When the correct tree species is planted, the tree will need little to no care.

The bigger picture
Trees’ importance as the largest plant type should not be underestimated. Some see little more than firewood, sadly overlooking the interconnectivity of all life. People’s aims can conflict when it comes to tree management; getting the different stakeholders to speak the same vernacular for a shared purpose is not easy.
Trees should not be seen as storm hazards – left in the landscape, they reduce local wind speeds. They also slow the movement of flood waters. The salmon-spawning rivers in the highlands are being cleared of trees, to aid salmon life cycle, but this action has worsened low-land flooding events.
Councils’ road-side tree coppicing – cutting trees to ground level to reshoot – is not only unsightly, it can be disastrous. When Hurricane Ophelia sidestepped Mayo in 2017, it rampaged through Munster knocking every regrowth coppice across the road. In Mulranny, mature trees have been pollard at 20 metres roadside. In ten years, regrowth from these weakened, decaying stumps will be more unsafe than the original trees.
Roadside trees also provide linear wildlife habitats, and they are the first charming welcome to Mayo for the tourist. My favourite local roadside early-mature oak, which was healthy and safe, was razed in the Council’s recent clear felling and was removed for firewood. I have no doubt the community would be better served had been kept and the roadside selectively managed.
Selective management is already being embraced in commercial forestry, with a movement away from the blanket clear felling of monoculture, towards variation and selective management. This means selective felling within mixed-species forests. Just as there is a place for the Sitka spruce – a common plantation tree crop – there is a place for mixed native, longer-term planting, where habitat, carbon sequestration and the importance of human wellbeing are brought into the equation.
Interestingly, native planting is also shifting with climate change, as the fatal effects of Chalara Fraxinus (ash dieback) alter what is appropriate, just as Dutch elm disease did before it. There is room now for appropriate exotics. Mixed planting is the only real mitigating option, as ‘the times they are a changing’.
I’ll leave you to ponder the opening lines from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Way through the Woods’:

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.

Stewart Boles owns and runs Kilcasey Tree Services in Westport. He is also a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.