The History of Tree Planting

The art of tree planting has a rich and fascinating history. Throughout ancient civilizations, gardens and orchards were created where trees were carefully transplanted for their practical uses, aesthetic value, and shade. These trees weren’t just sourced from nearby forests but were also collected and traded over great distances.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were particularly skilled in the art of tree planting. The Romans, in particular, left behind extensive horticultural manuals that detailed their tree planting techniques. They emphasized the importance of avoiding damage to roots, digging proper holes, and marking trees for replanting with the same orientation. Transplanting with baskets and using containers for growing were also common practices.

The Romans brought various cultivated trees to Britain, including apples, mulberries, figs, and walnuts. They had designated tree tenders known as arborators and ornamental gardeners called topiarius, who expertly cared for evergreen trees and shrubs, as well as practiced the art of topiary. Native plants like boxwood, holly, ivy, and introduced species like laurel, cypress, and myrtle were commonly used for ornamental bed borders.

During times of peace and prosperity, the tradition of planting fruit, nut, and ornamental trees continued to flourish. As towns and settlements expanded beyond fortifications, more space became available for gardens and planting. Monasteries had intricate gardens with orchards, vegetable patches, and large-scale cultivation. Wealthy London citizens also had sizable gardens attached to their houses during the reign of Henry II.

The nursery practice of undercutting or transplanting to encourage the growth of fibrous roots was recommended as early as 1569 by Dutch writers. Special tools, such as split metal tubes, were developed for transplanting young plants.

As the wealth of landowners increased in the 16th century, large-scale tree planting for ornamental purposes became popular. In 1664, John Evelyn, a diarist, statesman, gardener, and arboriculturist, published “Sylva, A Discourse of Forest Trees.” This influential work provided details on the propagation, planting, and maintenance of native trees. It encouraged extensive planting by landowners, including King Charles II, who ordered substantial planting in the new Forest and the Forest of Dean for shipbuilding timber.

By the mid-18th century, landscape architects like Capability Brown began revolutionizing garden designs. They moved away from formal layouts and embraced curved lines and clumps of trees to create natural-looking English landscape gardens. These designers often moved large trees using ingenious contraptions. However, it was noted that these trees grew slowly for several years, resembling stricken deer.

Planting for Timber

From the 17th to the 19th century, the “plantation movement” focused on experimental species choice for practical purposes. Trees like oak, ash, beech, elm, and sweet chestnut were planted to meet the demand for items ranging from ships’ keels to coffins.

In Scotland, extensive planting took place, with Scots pine being a favored species. European larch also became popular during the late 18th century. In England and Wales, landowners extended existing parks and woods, using oak and beech with Scots pine as a “nurse” species.

Many of the plantations in England and Wales were never harvested due to changes in the 19th century. The influx of cheap timber imports from British colonies made private domestic timber planting economically unviable. Oak stands planted during the plantation movement remained unsaleable and formed the basis of traditional woodlands we see today.

Private planting nearly ceased by the late 19th century, and Britain became heavily reliant on imported timber and forestry products. The demands of World War I led to severe timber shortages, resulting in the felling of approximately 180,000 hectares (450,000 acres) of privately owned woodlands.

In 1919, the Forestry Commission was established to prevent such situations from arising again. They launched a massive tree planting campaign, focusing on conifers and fast-growing species. Around 145,000 hectares (359,000 acres) were planted, often in single-species or simple mixtures in straight lines, without much consideration for landscape variations. Unfortunately, much of this planting occurred on delicate heathland and moorland, causing damage to fragile ecosystems.

During World War II, the Forestry Commission’s plantations weren’t yet mature enough for harvesting. As a result, a second major felling of approximately 212,000 hectares (524,000 acres) of private woodland was necessary.

However, felling isn’t necessarily detrimental to woodland continuity. Trees can regrow from stumps, suckers, and seeds. As long as the ground isn’t cleared or repurposed, woodlands will regrow, albeit with different structures and species proportions.

The period between 1945 and 1975 was particularly damaging to woodlands. Food shortages during WWII led to the removal of many woods, copses, and hedgerows to increase agricultural production. Grants also incentivized the planting of conifers in ancient woodlands, further damaging these precious ecosystems. Fortunately, by the end of the 20th century, many of the original trees in these plantations began to regrow, suppressing the planted conifers.

Nowadays, planting introduced species in heathland and moorland has significantly reduced. Many post-war plantations have reached maturity and are being felled. Forest management increasingly prioritizes recreation and wildlife, creating multi-use forests. Interestingly, the removal of these beloved plantations to restore heathland can sometimes trigger public outcry.

Scotland has shown considerable growth in its native woodland resource, with an estimated 320,938 hectares (792,717 acres) of native woodland. The Forestry Commission has transitioned from clear-felling and replanting to more natural “continuous cover” systems, selectively felling trees within woodlands and allowing for natural regeneration and replanting. This approach requires more skill and a closer alignment with nature.

The Greening of Cities

In the late 19th century, Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” inspired a new approach to urban planning. These planned towns incorporated low-density housing, trees, and green spaces. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were built according to Howard’s design and are now richly endowed with trees. Howard’s ideas also influenced the establishment of New Towns, which successfully integrated urban forestry into their designs. However, older cities continued to develop without an overall landscaping plan, resulting in the loss of many trees and woodlands to make way for buildings and roads.

The desire to improve urban areas through “greening” persisted, leading to the emergence of urban ecology as a distinct discipline in the 1970s. Urban green spaces became a focal point for conservation, tree planting, and management. Various government agencies, NGOs, charities, local authorities, and other groups got involved directly or indirectly in tree planting initiatives. The Countryside Agency in England, alongside similar agencies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, is working towards doubling the woodland coverage.

The Community Forests

The Community Forests initiative emerged in the early 1990s through a partnership between the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Commission, local authorities, businesses, and voluntary groups. The program aims to increase woodland coverage, promote economic regeneration, manage woodlands sustainably, create habitats for wildlife, improve access for recreation, provide educational opportunities, encourage community participation, and reclaim derelict land.

Each Community Forest has a locally-based team that works with various stakeholders to implement agreed-upon plans. From 1991 to 1999, the initiative resulted in the planting of 6,220 hectares (15,370 acres) of new woodland and the management of 8,796 hectares (21,735 acres) of existing woodland. Access routes, hedgerows, and other habitats were also created or improved. The program is set to continue until at least 2030.

Tree planting has always been an essential practice throughout history, providing practical benefits, enhancing landscapes, and improving urban environments. By understanding our rich tree planting heritage and investing in community-led initiatives, we can continue to create a greener and more sustainable future.

For more tree planting tips and information, visit Tips Tree Planting.