Putting down roots: new approaches to planting trees

There are many arboreal avenues open to estate owners. Tim Richardson explores approaches to tree planting that achieve pleasing results in next to no time.

A long avenue of oaks designed by Michael Lear in Buckinghamshire.
A long avenue of oaks designed by Michael Lear in Buckinghamshire. | Image: Michael Lear

A sudden and irresistible urge to plant trees is a syndrome that hits many a plutocratic male with acres as he enters his 60s. This appears to be a deep-seated, almost primal urge, which can manifest itself as an arboretum of rarities in what had once been a little-used paddock; avenues at every entrance so that guests are left in no doubt that they are entering a real demesne; or perhaps a deciduous woodland planted, with an altruistic flourish, for the benefit of generations to come.

But tree planting need not be considered a selfless act – nor, indeed, the sole preserve of men of a certain age. To begin with, the rewards of trees are far more immediate than is commonly supposed. It is nearly always assumed that the selfless planter of trees will not live long enough to be able to enjoy his or her young charges in their full majesty.

That may be true in the case of oaks and other forest trees, if all one craves is an ancient tree of massive aspect and gnarled complexion, but a lot of pleasure can be derived from trees that are between five and 25 years old. Trees grow and change very rapidly, year on year, as their natural characteristics come into their own, and the planter can see significant changes in a landscape even over a period of five to 10 years. It is by no means absurd, therefore, for a septuagenarian, or even octogenarian, to start a tree-planting campaign.

Indeed, as the greatest British tree expert of the 20th century, Alan Mitchell, once pointed out, there is more pleasure to be had from a young tree of up to 10 years old than from a mature specimen, because the youngster not only changes dramatically every year but can be observed at close quarters, on a more human scale, as it pops into leaf or establishes its shape.

Ancient trees, in contrast, remain the same to human eyes once fully mature. If a young person in arboricultural terms – that is to say, someone in reasonable health before their 60th year – starts thinking about planting trees, they can expect to see something substantial well within their lifetime.

As the National Trust’s first gardens adviser, Graham Stuart Thomas, once observed of a landscape shaped by trees: “Fifty years is a long time in anticipation, but short in retrospect.”

The Michael Lear-designed deer park at Marks Hall, Essex.
The Michael Lear-designed deer park at Marks Hall, Essex. | Image: Michael Lear

Tree planting is not necessarily about collecting different varieties, either; there is a great deal of aesthetic and creative gratification to be had from working with common native trees, specifically thinking about their placement. This is the aspect of tree husbandry that the most experienced arborists value above all. As Hugh Johnson, the noted tree (and wine) expert observes: “The spaces between the trees are even more important than the trees themselves – you’ve got to think of the context.”

Kim Wilkie, a landscape architect used to working on large estates, concurs with this view: “It’s all about framing and designing with blocks of woodland to accentuate the character of the estate. I planted 10 acres of new woodland nearly 20 years ago, and it looks fine now.”

Wilkie also emphasises the financial and ecological potential of planting native deciduous or coppiced woodland: “It’s the best kind of habitat you can get for wildlife,” he says. “It’s often very good for shooting purposes. And one of the most dramatic changes to estate management of the past few years has been using woodland as a renewable source of woodchip, which has become a viable alternative to oil. More and more people are heating the main house, the cottages and the glasshouses using woodchip. Ash and sweet chestnut are among the best species to use. Ash is the wonder tree of Britain at the moment. Sometimes it’s called a weed tree, but it’s one of my favourites. If you look at Gainsborough’s paintings, he uses it all the time.”

So what to plant, and where? Soil and climatic conditions are obviously important, but before one starts to worry about practical issues, the first thing to decide upon is an aesthetic objective. Most private individuals plant trees because they want to improve the look of their estate or large garden, and some thought needs to be given to the atmosphere one is looking to create.

If it’s a naturalistic, picturesque, traditionally English look, then it will be a matter of planting classic trees such as common oak, beech or sycamore, with nothing fancy in terms of colour, form or variegated leaf. Maples, which go bright red in autumn, copper beeches, or fastigiate or weeping forms should be eschewed.

As Johnson advises: “Shun the red tree or the golden tree; avoid the extraordinary. They are not necessary. It’s easy to forget that a copper beech just creates a great black hole in the garden all summer long. People are welcome to magnolias, but if you have a tree that’s an event once a year, it’s not an event the rest of the year. I have planted thousands of oaks over the past 40 years. One or two are already 15m high.”


Further advice is that one should look at key vistas critically. Is the scene too clear and therefore bland in the foreground? The foreground might benefit from being broken up with clumps, or trees that can lead the eye on into the distant landscape. Any drama, in terms of contour or water, should be accentuated. Are the lines of fences or walls too definite? Might they be taken out or softened by the addition of trees, or be resited so they at least follow the contours of the land?

In many cases, the more distant views might be blocked out by stands of trees that could be removed or thinned; or there might be anomalous tree species in sight – a lone scrawny Scots pine, perhaps – which could be removed.

The effect of shadows must be assessed, and reflections in water. Trees around rivers and lakes should not overcrowd the banks, but accentuate the shape of the watercourse or pond. Light-foliaged trees can be placed in the foreground; followed by the mid-greens of oaks, hornbeams, chestnuts, limes and ash; and then the dark tones of yew, pine, firs and turkey oaks, against which lighter trees such as willows can sing out. In short, the estate owner must try to think like the 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton, who filled his “Red Books” with before-and-after images of estates and gardens.

Trees may be planted primarily for practical reasons: to screen out unwanted buildings, neighbours, pylons or roads, for example (in the last case, also acting as a noise barrier). In terms of common trees, a good rule of thumb is: hornbeam and oak on heavy soils (although oak will grow on lighter soils, too); beech on chalk; sweet chestnut, birch and pine on sand (although pines thrive on brown earth and peat as well); sycamore and ash on windswept rocky uplands; and willows and poplars for moist ground. When it comes to planting shelter belts on high ground at the edges of the property, it is often a good idea to restrict their composition to just two kinds of tree, perhaps with a few poplars dotted here and there to break up any uniformity of height.

If, on the other hand, what one really wants is a collection of rare trees from the Himalayas, North America, southern Europe, Australia, the Brazilian rainforests and beyond, then prepare for a lifetime’s hobby – and the fact that not everyone will understand the urge to create a forest of 50 eucalyptus species in Surrey.

Having made this point, one has to admit that a really good arboretum made by a dedicated and knowledgeable owner – such as that at the Quinta in Swettenham, Cheshire, created by the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell and now owned by the Tatton Garden Trust – is an awe-inspiring and admirable sight.

A mix of native trees planted 20 years ago on Kim Wilkie’s Hampshire farm.
A mix of native trees planted 20 years ago on Kim Wilkie’s Hampshire farm. | Image: Kim Wilkie

Tree planting on a large scale can be a daunting prospect, however, in which case it can make sense to call in a professional. Michael Lear is probably the most respected tree expert working in Britain today, with a pragmatically global attitude to the arboreal tastes of his clients.

“I know of a few eucalyptus arboreta in southern England, and they look like New South Wales,” he says. “I transported eucalyptus to the Plas Newydd property on Anglesey, Wales, in the 1990s and then recorded their development over the next 10 years. The first arboretum I made was in 1990 in Essex on a 125-acre site. These things fit into the horticultural spectrum.”

Lear likes to use a mix of young and old trees, in two age ranges: some about three years’ old, and some 12 to 13 years’ old. “Five or six years on, the young stuff will have grown, sometimes incredibly well, and it will look completely different,” he says. “But we can include older stock – it depends on how much of a hurry the client is in. It’s a lot more expensive to plant semi-mature trees, partly because you are dealing with plants that are more than a ton in weight, which need transporting and planting.”

A specimen tree can start at around £250, rising to more than £1,000, and can cost almost as much again for planting services (although those costs go down if a number of trees are planted in one go). Bundles of knee-high “whips” will cost far less (from 50p to £3 each), but, of course, take longer to grow.

“A simple mix would be holly, thorn, oak, yew, hazel and field maple,” Lear explains. “You have different heights and longevity, and both evergreen and deciduous. That’s a really good matrix; and if you plant them irregularly it can look lovely after a few years, with just a bit of thinning. You can put in smaller shrubs, such as honeysuckle, to grow up the oaks, and think of it in terms of layering. I’m always mindful that if you just plant trees you can end up looking at a lot of stems.”

Above all, Lear loves to use oaks, including the common oak, sessile oak and Lucombe oak, a hybrid which he praises highly. “They grow very vigorously, and in the storms of 1987 and 1990 they proved to be one of the most wind-firm trees. If you want a bold statement in the landscape – and some of them are evergreen, as well – you can’t beat them.”

Michael Lear in a landscape park he designed at Oare in Wiltshire.
Michael Lear in a landscape park he designed at Oare in Wiltshire. | Image: Lena Fransson

Johnson agrees there is no reason to pay large sums for mature trees, for a quick result. “Plant small and plant thick,” he suggests. “Plant thick because it was Repton who told us that to dot a few starveling saplings on an open lawn is a recipe for ugliness and disaster. As for planting small, maidens [one-year-old whips] are ideal – nothing bigger, unless you are going for something that is absolutely mature. But there is such joy in the detail of young trees: the jewellery of new leaves, buds, twigs.”

Johnny Phibbs, of Debois Landscape Survey Group, is the country’s leading expert on the landscape design of “Capability” Brown, and as such one would expect him to be a promoter of the English landscape tradition.

“I think the English tradition is about moulding and sculpting shapes using the materials that lie to hand, so that the thing we make appears not to be made,” he explains. “It entails an element of modesty; the idea that it’s better to plant groups of beech as opposed to avenues of Wellingtonia. When I started I was constantly having to restrain people who wanted to buy copper beeches as opposed to common beeches.”

Phibbs’s advice is also to think about maintenance at an early stage, especially the spacing of trees so that machinery and maybe a lawnmower can get through. “I’m very keen on planting trees in small clumps, with guards around them so that livestock can do the grazing. With bigger plantations, it can be very pleasurable looking after the trees yourself.

“You can plant whips and prune early, after just a few years, by selecting a leader and pruning to that, and you don’t even have to clear up all the twigs as you go. You can leave them on the ground and call it brash.” He suggests planting whips at about knee height – birch, ash and alder are quick-growing – mixed in with older specimens. “You’ll have something to look at in less than 10 years,” he says.

One thing that unites all leading arborists in Britain is their enthusiasm for oaks, and especially the common oak, Quercus robur. As Phibbs says, “The oak is the tree most bound up with our national story, and it’s lucky that the oak is best for building purposes, for species and nature conservation, and the best looking. It’s not a fast grower, but it will grow just about anywhere.”


So, in essence, the core pieces of advice from the experts can be summarised as: plant oaks, and plant plenty of them. And: you’re never too old to start.

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