Trunk routes

Take your time, but do plant a tree, says Hephzibah Anderson

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


There often seems to be something oddly derisive, if not downright divisive, about national such-and-such days or this-and-that weeks, and the botanically themed of these calendrical interlopers are no exception.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for promoting green-fingered pursuits but really, Water a Flower Day? And as for Take Your Houseplant for a Walk Day…

National Tree Week, on the other hand, feels like one we might all get behind, now more so than ever. This year’s celebration straddles the end of November and the start of December, but don’t worry if it passes you by: we are still just at the beginning of tree-planting season here in the UK, and it extends all the way into March.

It’s a bit like choosing a dog in that you have to find out how large it’s going to grow and how easy it will be to tame

Take note of that leisurely window because while a tree can be found to suit almost any garden, this is not a decision to be rushed into. You need to consider, for instance, not only how a tree will look through the seasons but also down the years.

It’s a bit like choosing a dog in that you have to find out how large it’s going to grow and how easy it will be to tame — a dog with the life-span of a tortoise, that is. Position, too, is vital. Whereas a tree planted in the right spot provides pleasant shade, plant it in the wrong spot and you’re left with gloomy shadow. Choose well, and you’ll be rewarded with year-round charm. In grey midwinter, the copper glow of a Tibetan cherry tree’s trunk, for instance, is almost as uplifting as the clouds of white flowers that cover its branches come spring.

Similarly, the Acer griseum, commonly known as the paperbark maple, blazes crimson in autumn but continues to provide interest with its shaggy, cinnamon coloured bark, long after its last leaf has dropped.

That one’s slow-growing, too, making it a good choice for smaller spaces, but if you need something still more petite, there are plenty of trees that are happy to spend their lives in containers, including olives (don’t forget that they’ll need to be moved somewhere frost-free in colder months) and the pleasingly elegant Magnolia stellata.

Don’t be tempted to go for the largest pot you can find; instead, pot up as the tree grows. And while terracotta may be the tops aesthetically, remember that as well as being hard to heft around, it’s porous, so the soil will dry out quicker than in a plastic pot.

For those of us guided by our taste buds, fruit trees are hard to resist. Down at the allotment a couple of years back, we planted apple and quince trees, choosing old varieties named for local places and people, all grown by a latter-day Johnny Appleseed who came along on planting day to make sure we gave them the best start.

The quality of hole is important, as with any tree, but the basic equation is simple: make it as deep as the tree’s root ball and three times as wide. Be sure to loosen the soil around the hole or its roots will have a hard time growing (loosen the roots themselves, too, having first thoroughly soaked the root ball). Our nurseryman was full of tips, suggesting that we keep deer away by decorating our saplings’ branches with little nets of human hair clippings. Men’s works better than women’s apparently.

The pagan vibe is apt. Trees have long been held to provide habitats for spirits and elves, and though their footprint is radically diminished (Sherwood Forest is but a hundredth of the size it was in Robin Hood’s day) they remain woven into our folk songs and superstitions. Yew trees loom especially large, combining awesome longevity (the Fortingall yew in Perthshire is thought to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old) with danger (their needles as well as their berries are toxic). Even today, we’ll touch wood, rapping in the way our ancestors are believed to have done to stop tree spirits from thwarting their hopes.

Trees still furnish us with stories, too, whether it’s Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree or Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and the recent outcry over the felling of the 250-year-old Cubbington pear tree to make way for HS2 shows that tree worship has hasn’t left us, either.

True, we no longer need trees so much for shelter and fuel (the ubiquitous wood-burning stoves notwithstanding), but while our reduced material reliance has enabled us to become more sentimental about them, our dependence in other ways is only growing — they help reduce flooding and cleanse our urban air, lessening noise pollution and soothing our screen-frazzled minds with their fractal patterns.

Of course, it isn’t just we humans who benefit: a single oak can support as many as 500 species. While most of us aren’t going to have space to plant Zeus’s chosen tree, even more modestly-sized species will provide food and nesting spots for birds, who’ll hopefully linger to graze on our garden pests.

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