Should we be Planting Larger Trees?

 1st Oct 2018

Back in the late 1970s I remember being on a job in Byfleet.  The site was one of a row of houses in a typical street and all were open plan in the front.  In front of the house next door was a small Blue Atlas Cedar tree.  At one point the lady of that house came out to talk to us.  "Isn't my Cedar lovely?" she said proudly.  "I saw it in the garden centre and just fell in love with it!"    "Tell me - will the tips of the branches ever reach the front of the house?"   "Madam", I replied, "that is an Atlas Cedar, given half a chance they will reach the back!"

So here we are 40 odd years later laughing at the idea of putting a Blue Atalas Cedar into a small, suburban front garden.  But does it really matter? It is only gardening and, when it does become too big, prune it or take it out and put another one in.  What is the problem?

The problem is that the understanding that the vast majority of trees are a renewable resource has been forgotten.  We used to know that, and, for 5000 years, our woodland was managed on that basis.  You could coppice: cutting trees down to the ground and letting them re-grow, or you could pollard: cutting trees back to just a trunk and letting them re-grow, or you could remove them altogether and plant a new one in their place.

A tree and a piece of wood used to be one and the same thing.  Now they are not. Thanks to new technology, such as plastics, the influx of cheap imported timber and changes in building practices, we gradually lost the connection between the tree and the timber to the point where, if you put a piece of timber into the hand of your average 'Urban Spaceman', he would have no real concept of the growing tree it came from and how it arrived here.

For the above reasons (amongst others) how we perceive trees has changed. Trees have become an ornament, a symbol for particular environmental views and an item for political gain.  The lady in Byfleet would be in danger of finding that out, when the time came to remove the Cedar and replace it, she was served with a Tree Preservation Order making her keep it by somebody hell bent of 'saving the planet'.  The consequence of this is that people are far more cautious about planting trees than they used to be in the fear that the right to manage them will be taken away. The result is not more trees in our towns and villages but fewer.

We have a British Standard that tells us that new trees on development sites should have room to grow to full size; you cannot plant a potentially large trree with a view to pruning it in the future.  The consequences of this is that small trees, which tend to be shorter lived, instead of potentially large long-lived species are planted, which results in not more canopy cover in our towns and villages but less.

If we want people to plant more trees - and we really, really do!  We need to save Tree Preservation Orders for the very important ones and let people manage their own trees in their gardens.  In my view, we would not end up with any environmental disaster as a result!