We live (and work) at a time when even the planting of trees is a matter of facts, stats, contracts and targets. In order to curtail Development’s propensity to concrete over the green spaces we so gratefully occupy, we absolutely need intelligent, effective constraints exercised by Local Authorities, and so we’re inevitably mired in frameworks, guidelines, analyses and benchmarks-to-be-met. What a shame that planting and growing things isn’t really about any of that.
Replanting is the primary pillar of the compensatory requirement where development has resulted in tree loss. Forutnately for all of us, if they’ve been well-planted, in good environments, trees grow on quite happily by themselves, making them an extraordinarily useful and cost-effective element of the place-making tool-kit.
If I had the power though, to influence just one aspect of what we currently do and how we go about it, I would without hesitation wave my magic wand to drastically improve the standard of establishment maintenance for new planting. The best advice in the world can be encapsulated in a good Planting Specification – but who on earth reads it? And of course, no 2 sites are ever the same, so the relationship between written specs and successful, site-responsive implementation pivots crucially on the landscapers contracted to do the planting and provide the early maintenance. Sadly, these days the skills of the plantsman often have to come second to commercial imperatives.
Some vitally important basic elements of good planting can and do get sidelined. The soil, for instance. That’s the black stuff that get’s piled up on site as surplus to requirements, or shipped off-site and disposed of so that important things can be built. When it comes to planting time, soil quality is of critical importance – if it’s not well-structured, well aerated, conducive to the proliferation of microbial life, free-draining and a good many other things….well, anything planted is going to fail. But planting contracts often emphasize a replacement-of-failures clause as though that solves everything. It really doesn’t. If the soil is poor (and on many a post-construction site, for a number of reasons, this is the case) then failing trees/plants can be replaced as often as you like and they still won’t flourish. Eventually the time span of the contract expires and before long the final round of replacement planting does the same.
Of course, there are Landscaping outfits around who make a fantastic job of it, but staking can sometimes be very poorly done and/or poorly maintained. I can’t quite work it out, but it’s a bit as though the point of it is somehow questionable. New fibrous roots are delicate. They develop, they extend beyond the planted rootball, they start to do their very vital job – then the wind rocks the newly planted tree and they’re destroyed. When this happens continuously, the tree has little chance of establishment.
Managed thinning over time is not an uncommon specification though it very, very rarely happens. In fact, I don’t think I’ve witnessed it happening as part of an on-going maintenance requirement for screening planting, or grouped cover, in the entire of my career. Small trees planted close together do protect one another as they grow, they do gain in height quite quickly as they compete for light, the required screen or grouped tree-feature thickens well – and then the young trees need to be thinned. Otherwise we end up with weakly structured individuals, drawn up and possessing poor form. We get suppression, deformation and something which, to the trained eye at least, can be an overall ugly, unkempt presence. This is never what was envisaged when the trees were planted and it isn’t an inevitability.
Of course, it’s only my humble opinion but I think we could try harder to stop our replanting proposals becoming just a sticking plaster over tree loss. We could take another look at how our contracts work and structure them to emphasize more clearly the establishment maintenance needs of young planting. We could build-in incentives to plant well, nurture well and caretake well so that future generations reap the benefits of high quality, well-formed tree cover. More than that, we could aim to ensure that future generations, our children and grandchildren, have cause to thank their ancestors who, in an age of unparallelled access to information clearly knew what they were about, and who understood how to plant with imagination and maintain with care to deliver an impressive legacy.