Planting trees in public places

It's one thing planting a tree near your back door that you will check on nearly every day, and another when you're planting one somewhere public, or in a location that isn't just outside in your garden*.

For example, sometimes a group of people want to plant a memorial tree in say, a field or established woodland.

There is a slightly different set of considerations in this case, as establishment and later success of the tree will depend on people taking responsibility for visiting and maintaining the tree during the crucial first years, and thereafter making sure it's doing well.

Here are some things to think about.

*There are also lots of schemes these days encouraging people to plant new mini-forests, but here we're talking about individual trees or small numbers.

Photo by George Bakos on Unsplash
Photo by George Bakos on Unsplash


Have you ever started digging somewhere, and found that the ground wasn't quite how you thought it would be? On Gardeners' World they always seem to be blessed with perfect, friable loam - the kind of organic-matter-rich soil in which most plants will thrive and that crumbles in your hands like a dark, moist cake.

In the real world, soils vary from nutrient poor sandy or stony stuff, to dense, sticky clay that gets sodden in the winter. And sometimes there are things hidden down there e.g. pipes, buried rubble or old hardstanding. So do check the soil in the place you're planning to plant. This will also inform your choice of species.

And think about ease of access. Yes, trees grow in the middle of fields, far away from roads and water sources. But that doesn't mean the young tree never needed watering, weeding or pruning! And if you're starting with a larger specimen, you'll have to get it there somehow in the first place. Later maintenance, for example to tidy up weather-induced damage, will also require access.

Other things to watch out for are:

  • overhead cables
  • nearby structures (walls, buildings)
  • paths that may be subject to shade, surface roots, dropping leaves and berries...
  • anything that might be overshadowed
  • any people & property that might be affected
  • shade or extreme weather conditions that might impede growth

Choice of tree

First and foremost, think about size. What height & spread can your chosen site accommodate? Yes, it might take 30 years until the tree reaches its full potential, but ideally you don't want to store up trouble in the form of a too-big, problem tree, even if it is down-the-line.

Next, think about seasonal interest, ornamental features and functions. Do you want flowers, fruits, autumn colour, summer shade, scent and/or wildlife value? Do you prefer an evergreen or deciduous tree? You can use filters on our website or ask our knowledgeable staff for advice. We also have some guides online for inspiration.

Once you've got an idea of the type of tree, you might narrow it down further taking into account the site, conditions (soil, sun level, exposure), ease of establishment and maintenance, as mentioned above. For example, some trees grow very fast (birch, willow), some have high water requirements or can't tolerate wet soils, some are more prone to pests and diseases than others (e.g. rabbits, mildew). A few trees tend to be brittle, so aren't suitable for exposed, windy sites.

What size tree to start with?

We supply trees in a range of sizes, from 40-60cm bare root whips through 15 litre and 30 litre pot sizes and large specimens in 200-300 litre airpots.

Smaller ones (up to 15 litre pot size or about 2m tall) are easier to establish!

They don't need as much water as larger ones, they don't need double or chunky stakes, and – heaven forbid – if you do lose it, for whatever reason, it hasn't cost so much.

If you are not confident about planting and are not too far from the nursery, we can do it for you, including the necessary sundries (except metal guards). This gives you a 1-year guarantee, too.

Protecting the tree

You will probably need to protect the tree from unwanted attention / strimmers & mowers / other pests.

After under- and over-watering, poor planting and weed control, the top reason that a new tree might fail is damage caused by pests or humans. A fresh young tree is a magnet for animals that like to nibble on the bark or branches, and for some reason also for the type of vandal that enjoys spoiling an easy target. Meanwhile, mower and strimmer operators often just don't realise that tree bark isn't diamond-hard.

No solution is perfect, but here are the options:

  • use rabbit guards and deer guards where appropriate. Unfortunately there isn't a guard to protect against squirrels, though there are some methods of control that can be practised
  • to keep out livestock and larger wild animals, erect a sturdy barrier around individual trees
  • strimmer guards are available from some suppliers, but the best course of action is training those who will be mowing nearby and keeping a metre-wide layer of mulch around the tree base, so there's no need to bring blades/cord near the trunk
  • metal tree guards (weld mesh guards) can be used to guard against accidental damage

Appoint tree monitors

To ensure good establishment, we recommend a tree is well watered about twice a week in the first few growing seasons, and monitored for any problems. For example, keeping the ground around the trunk free of grass and weeds is key to ensure that the growing tree roots get all that lovely water and aren't choked. When responsibility is divided between people, sometimes we think that someone else is dealing with it, and we don't have to do anything. If a group of you are planting a tree, remember to appoint monitors with a checklist of things to do (watering, weeding) and look out for (e.g. damage). Refer to our guides for detailed information!

Memorial trees in particular have sentimental meaning, so consider the siting and protection very carefully, as well as making sure they get regular check-ups in the first few years.

With the right care and attention, a tree situated where lots of people can enjoy it is a real asset that should thrive and endure for many years, often outliving us folks. So we definitely don't want to put anybody off, but it's worth recognising that planting a tree comes with an ongoing responsibility, mostly in the first year or two. Get this stage right and you can enjoy the fruits of your labour!


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