Gardening: Time to hug the trees

Ireland needs more trees and more people to love them, given the loss of so many to storms and profiteers

I am a tree hugger. In fact, I might as well nail my colours to the mast right now and say that I see nothing wrong – and an awful lot right – with hugging trees. After all, as life forms go, they are surely among the most beautiful, the most imposing and the most remarkable.

To wrap my arms around the sinewy, grey trunk of a centuries-old beech and place my cheek against its moss-covered bark is, for me, a form of devotion, an act of love, a gesture of supplication and something that I’ve done since I was a child.

Sometimes I imagine that I can almost hear the pulse of its flowing sap, the arboreal version of a heartbeat. Or I fancy that I feel the flicker of something even more profound, which I like to think approaches its own form of consciousness.

And often I think, with an enduring sense of wonder, of how scientists are exploring the ways in which trees are capable of communicating with each other through vast, spreading underground networks of mycorrhizal fungi, a kind of subterranean ‘internet’ that allows them to share nutrients and to warn each other of predators and pathogens, just as in the film Avatar.


All this, I reckon, is worthy of a hug. And Ireland needs more of us tree huggers, if only to try to stem the loss of so many wonderful trees from the landscape over recent years. These trees were lost not only to increasingly violent storms and a growing cast of deadly diseases and pests, but also as a result of poor laws that allow them to be felled without scruple and sometimes at considerable profit.

Sadly, not many of us own gardens big enough for a mighty beech, oak or lime, but if you do, then please consider planting them so that future generations can continue to enjoy their splendour. Arboreal giants like these aside, there are plenty of other trees that are eminently suitable for a small garden and which are prized for their beauty, versatility and long seasons of interest as well as their ability to foster biodiversity.

Most gardeners will already know of Betula utilis Jacquemontii, with its ghostly white limbs and airy canopy of twiggy branches, but another is Betula Fascination, a birch cultivar with highly decorative, creamy-pink bark that Helen Dillon has mass-planted, to great effect, in her Dublin garden.

Alternatively, if it’s ornamental flowers and fruit/berries you’re after, then consider planting a medlar or an apple, pear or plum tree, grown on a dwarfing rootstock. Or one of the many lovely, compact cultivars of the hardy flowering crab (Malus) that are also prized for their ability to tolerate air pollution, including the scarlet-fruiting red sentinel or golden hornet.

There are also many attractive varieties of rowan that are well suited to small gardens. All are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions and produce pale, pretty flowers in spring, followed by brightly coloured clusters of berries.

In the case of Sorbus hupehensis pink pagoda, those berries are rose-coloured and are held on the tree well into winter. But they can be yellow (S. Joseph Rock), or white (Sorbus cashmiriana), while in the case of the orange-berried Sorbus Chinese lace, the tree’s pinnate foliage is also finely cut, giving this unusual variety a particularly graceful appearance.

Or what about a well-tended specimen of our native hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, a greatly underrated, hardy, adaptable small tree, tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions and with many different seasons of interest, from its scented spring blossom to those jewel-like clusters of metallic-red berries in autumn. One of its close relations is the thorny Crataegus prunifolia, a compact, deciduous tree with pretty spring flowers , colourful autumn foliage and blood-red autumn berries.

Yet another excellent small deciduous tree with several seasons of interest is the snowy mespilus, Amelanchier lamarckii, whose pale spring blossoms and copper-tinted young leaves are followed later in the year by fiery autumn foliage.

Equally decorative, but evergreen, is the native strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, whose small, scented, bell-shaped white flowers are borne in summer and then followed by clusters of scarlet-red fruits. Also prized for its decorative bark, it likes a fertile, well-drained soil, preferably not alkaline, and a mild garden. And if fiery autumn colour is your thing, then you can't go wrong with the deciduous Acer palmatum Sango-kaku (synonym Senkaki), while even the teeniest of gardens, as long as it's sheltered, will have room for a specimen of the slow-growing Dissectum group of Japanese maples.

Now, while it’s still in a state of winter dormancy and the bare root/root-ball season (which runs from November until late March) is still in full swing, is a great time of the year to plant any tree. Before planting, always give careful consideration to its position within the garden as regards its preferred growing conditions and its ultimate height and spread. Prepare the ground properly by digging a generous hole and adding some homemade garden compost. Stake after planting, water generously and keep a circle of soil (1-1.5m in diameter) around the trunk weed-free until they get properly established.

And finally, don’t forget to give it an occasional hug . . .

This week in the garden  

March is a great time to give beds, borders and individual specimen plants a mulch (ideally between 5cm and 7.5cm thick), using well-rotted manure, homemade garden compost, leaf mould or a mixture of these. Before spreading it, make sure the ground is weed-free and clear of dead leaves and faded stems. Never spread mulch onto frozen ground and be careful to keep it out of direct contact with the stems/trunks of shrubs and specimen trees, where it could cause rot.

Like all garden machinery, lawnmowers benefit from an annual service. This helps to nip any mechanical problems in the bud, keeps the blades sharp and prolongs the machine's life. If your mower hasn't had a service in a while, now's the time to book it in, before the rush of another new growing season causes an inevitable backlog of customers. Even recently serviced lawnmowers will benefit from a good clean-down at this time of year. In this case, always start by disconnecting the spark plug; then use a stiff brush to remove dead grass clippings. Always raise the cutting height for the first cut of the year.

Spreading plastic sheeting over empty vegetable beds is a simple but efficient way of warming the soil up in preparation for sowing/planting later in the season, as just a few degrees make all the difference in terms of successful germination/plant establishment. Make sure to properly peg or weigh it down, using Mypex pegs, planks or heavy stones.