The best time to plant a tree

Published on 20 Mar 2020
Sapling. Image credit: pixabay

by Ged Johnson

‘For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?' Luke 23:31

Recently I accompanied five retreatants on a midweek Individually Guided Retreat (IGR) at St Beuno’s.  The more observant of them may have noticed that I stood up rather stiffly after each session, but I hope they didn’t also notice the hot water bottle tucked in against my lower back.  The bad back, which was my accompaniment throughout the IGR, was the outcome of digging 1000 holes for 1000 trees in the week prior. 

For the past eight years the field had been home to a half dozen or so sheep bred for organic meat but, as a result of the Amazon rainforest burning last summer and the children becoming more vegetarian, we decided to sell them (the sheep not the children!) and fill the field with trees with help from the Woodland Trust.  The Trust wants to create a woodland border from East to West coast in the north of England comprising of millions of trees, but a mere drop in the ocean compared with what has been lost in the Australian fires this winter or with what is removed from the Amazon rainforests on a daily basis.  If all I was able to offer, though, was a drop in an ocean, surely I had to go ahead and provide that drop.  And if everyone offered a drop of their own then, together, even an ocean might be formed.

The Trust told us that if we were committed to planting the two-year old bare-root trees ourselves, they would cover two-thirds of the total cost, so we signed up and then recruited family, friends and neighbours, which included Sue (St Beuno’s House Manager) and her husband Red.  Reading, in the days after the planting, about Donald Trump calling climate change activists (of the Greta Thunberg type) ‘prophets of doom’, I was reminded of my then bishop drawing me aside, during a diocesan youth retreat I was leading, to ask me to soften what he thought was a potentially frightening approach to climate change.  He was probably right but, even then, 15 years ago, I thought we were at a rather urgent juncture.  Laudato Sí, the 2015 Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis on ‘care for our common home’, spells out the issue quite forcefully and takes the argument to a much deeper level.  The climate change crisis is, fundamentally, a symptom of a throwaway culture in which indifference to the destruction of the planet (as well as cultures and whole peoples) prevails in the pursuit of short-term, often economic, gains.

Planting trees is certainly not for those seeking short-term gains.  ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit’  says a Greek proverb.  There is also an old Chinese equivalent: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.’  And finally a Welsh one: ‘A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.’  So back to our newly planted trees.  They are all native (Oak, Beech, Birch, Rowan, Sweet Chestnut, Hazel, Quickthorn, Crab Apple, Wild Cherry) and mainly deciduous, with the exception of 50 Scots Pine.  They will create a perfect habitat for insect life which will, in turn, sustain life further up the food chain.  People instinctively know that native species support far more wildlife than non-native ones, but many possibly don’t realise how stark is the difference.  The Oak, for example, harbours 284 insect species in the UK and the Birch 266.  But the Sycamore, which comes from southern Europe, hosts a mere 15 species and the Horse Chestnut, introduced from the Balkans, only four.

While planting 1000 trees was most definitely a green action, the irony was not lost on us, and maybe will not be on you, either, as we finally surveyed a field full of plastic!  Without such guards, however, the young trees would not stand a chance against rabbits and field voles.  We just need someone to come up with a good way of recycling degraded tree-guard plastic in about ten years’ time.