Pondering on trees

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Native tree saplings

Next Sunday - 31 July - is the 16th National Tree Day: a community tree-planting and nature-care event that encourages people (especially children) to improve our environment by planting and caring for native trees. Over the past 15 years, more than 15 million native trees and shrubs have been planted by 2 million volunteers. The event's aims include the increasing of the biodiversity of our environment and providing habitat for native wildlife, as well as encouraging children to get outdoors, involved with and aware of nature.

Trees planted at the farm, Southern Tablelands, NSW

People mainly participate in the event by attending a public planting site (visit this site to find out more) but it also made me start to think about planting trees by individuals in their own gardens and landholdings. Trees - more than any other type of plant - seem to arouse intense human emotions. We can feel a great awe when seeing ancient, towering behemoths (such as when walking through rainforests). Trees have been worshipped, hugged and idolised, to the point of people chaining themselves to them to stop them from being felled. Trees can be seen merely as a commodity to be harvested. Trees can also be hated. My 19th century ancestors who developed the family farm chopped down most of the original trees on the property, seeing them as being in the way of developing pastures for sheep - and thus set in train the eventual degradation of the land, harmful soil salinity and erosion, and a change in the water table. Replanting some of the indigenous tree species in the area over recent years has begun to change the landscape completely and started to rectify this damage.

Existing trees can certainly cause acrimony and angst between neighbours - something other plants rarely do - when the specimen causes unwanted shade or root invasion on the other side of the fence. Simply planting a tree in our own home gardens also seems to have much gravitas. After all, a tree may well outlive us, which can make us think morbidly of our own mortality. And the potential stature of trees, their sheer bulk and spread, can be quite frightening instead of awe-inspiring. When an enormous blue gum fell across our driveway from a neighbouring garden a few years ago, marooning us for a day or so, it was amazing to see the enormity of this object at close quarters, and terrifying to think what could have happened if anyone had been underneath it at the time. It gives pause for thought to realise how important it is to choose the right sort of tree to plant in our gardens.

Trees play a role in framing gardens

But I do think trees - whether native or exotic - are vital in our gardens, both functionally and decoratively. They can provide a welcome canopy of shade in our summer gardens, a place to sit in the heat of the day. If the tree is deciduous, this spot can double as a pleasant sunny place to be in winter, if it is sited to catch the sun at that time of year. It can also reduce the amount of hot afternoon sun entering a home in summer if placed near west-facing windows. Children's play areas also benefit from the protection provided by a nearby tree. A tree can also provide a suitable environment for a border of lush, shade-loving plants, which can be an oasis of coolness in the hotter months. Trees can provide privacy and screening for a garden.

Ulmus parvifolia, the Chinese elm, in winter

Trees also connect house and garden, by being a horticultural feature that is on the same scale as the building. They are an important structural frame for a garden. New housing estates always seem to me to look so naked until trees grow up to link the homes to the earth and give a sense of visual shelter. Planting such trees perhaps should be the first priority of anyone moving into a new home, for then the trees will have ample time to grow and develop into a useful garden feature. How I wish I had followed my own advice when we moved to our current home - but at the time I was far too obsessed with creating perennial borders. I was lucky to have inherited several major trees but I would like to add more. Trees can also have beautiful flowers, edible fruit, gorgeous autumn foliage, attractive bark and delicate new spring leaves! In winter, deciduous types can provide stunning silhouettes with the intricate networks of their bare branches.

I spent a morning recently at a nursery wandering among the tree saplings. It was hard to believe that these slim sticks, with their nametags fluttering in the breeze, would one day tower above us, firmly rooted in the ground, fulfilling their predestined shape that simply cannot be guessed at by the flimsy twig that stands before us that we could snap in half with our hands. Planting a young tree is certainly not for those who want instant gratification. One has to dream, imagine and hope.

Choice of tree and where to plant it need serious thought. Planting the chosen tree also requires care and time - digging of a hole as deep as the root ball and twice as wide as the root ball. We need to break up the soil, add some compost and maybe some well-rotted cow manure. The tree needs to be planted at the same level as it is in the pot and the soil firmed in well around it. We need to keep it mulched and well watered during its first season. Judicious staking may also be necessary in very windy areas. These efforts will be amply rewarded as the years roll by and our tree reaches its potential and becomes part of our life history.

Reader Comments

  • By Gillian 2073 Monday, 25 July 2011

    I am currently reading Thomas Pakenham's book, 'Meetings With Remarkable Trees' which is delightful. It makes me realize that we dont value our trees enough; especially our huge old ones which have so much history.

    Thanks, Gillian. It sounds a wonderful book, which I will try to find. Deirdre

  • By Maurice 0 Monday, 25 July 2011

    I definitely enjoy searching out our larger native trees here in the NZ bush.It certainly makes you consider your own mortality and insignificance when standing at the foot of a mighty giant that's 500 to 1000 yrs old. Maurice

    Thanks, Maurice. It is certainly a sobering thought! Deirdre

  • By Christine 2144 Monday, 15 August 2011

    Hi Deidre, Have just read your Pondering on Trees - very interesting reading! Do you have a short list of suitable trees for a good sized suburban garden about 1200 sq.mtrs. I need to plant a number of trees or lge shrubs to 5 mtrs. for privacy from two storey homes nearby. Regards, Christine.

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