Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Saturday 26 May 2018

My tree love is unrequited because it's inconsistent

"Keep a tree green in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come," is an old Chinese proverb.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm where there were, and still are, lots of trees. They are not concentrated in any one area but dotted along the hedges in the wide earthen bank field boundaries. Mixed with hawthorn and fewer blackthorn, there is a lot of ash, smaller numbers of oak, sycamore, the occasional holly and several crab apples. The mature elms have been wiped out but there are currently plenty of younger ones.

I also have very happy summer childhood memories of regular escapades to a tiny spike of land nestled between two small rivers on a neighbour's farm which was home to a grove of densely packed mature lime trees. Naturally free of undergrowth, it was our treasure island hideaway.

Perhaps that partly explains why I came to love trees. There are some individual specimens that I cherish but really it's just trees in general. Parkland or woodland, mature or young, in a hedgerow or free-standing, perfectly shaped or not, preferably deciduous to coniferous.

"Keep a tree green in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come," is an old Chinese proverb.

The first time I realised just how much I care about trees was in my mid-twenties. I had returned home to live after spending several years away, at college and then travelling.

I had no job and was struggling to find something meaningful to do. Then, one morning, I was gazing out the bedroom window I had looked out since childhood, when I realised how trees in general enrich the landscape and how individual trees characterise it.

There was the young ash that I could remember as little more than a sapling, the bigger ash at the bottom of the paddock whose roots run close to the surface, and the turtle shell-shaped grove of beech on a distant hill. The mere pressence of all these trees always make me feel home.

Trees are navigation points for our eyes, anchors for our souls. A tree can live far longer than any of us. What things have happened in their sight? If only they could talk.

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When I shook myself from my contemplations, I realised that planting trees was something worth doing and something I could do.

The cultivation of trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling of man – J Sterling Morton

My pockets were shallow so I paid a visit to my grandmother's horse chestnut, collected a couple of hundred easy-to-handle conkers and shoved them into a shallow bank at the bottom of the garden.

I had no idea how many would grow but, would you believe it, almost every one of them did. Of course, the sensible thing to have done at that point would have been to thin them out.

I didn't, however. I let them grow on and they grew up very tall, very fast, with some intertwining of roots.

I sowed more the following few years except to put them further apart and, Murphy's Law, only a fraction of them took. A couple of years later I transplanted some of them out but it was on a bank which already had other trees and, while they survived, they didn't exactly thrive.

So, while I love trees, it is unrequited. That's because I'm inconsistent. I am not a good gardener because I want to do all the work in the one day. My dear husband, who tends to be flattering, or at least benign in his attitude towards my other attributes, suggests that anything other than the digging is best left to someone else. Actually, make that anyone else.

Meanwhile, my brother Gerry has done a fantastic job in turning these now 20-year-old plus horse chestnuts into something worthwhile. He has transplanted them on to a more receptive environment, and they are now doing really well.

The perennial source of inspiration of poets and sages, trees reach out to people in different ways. I have a friend who likes to touch a particular oak as we regularly walk past. I am not a big 'hugger' myself but there are particular trees that I love to salute like old friends as I pass by on foot or by car.

He who plants a tree plants hope – Lucy Larcom

REPS has made a difference to tree-planting in Ireland. But for a lot of farmers, including ourselves, trees do not get a lot of thought. This is probably not out of laziness or financial cost but competition for the space, time and effort required in already busy lives.

Every spring I continue to sow some conkers. I know that native trees would be better but they require more effort and skill. However, last year I collected some ash seedlings. They don't look like much at the moment but I'm hopeful.

Occasionally we get a notion to do something more substantial and, last spring, I planted 40 native trees, including oak and downy birch. Unfortunately, the severe summer drought meant that, despite Robin's best efforts, quite a few failed. Hopefully we will get back in and replace them, sooner rather than later.

Ann Fitzgerald can be contacted at annfitzgerald.farm@gmail.com

Let's get planting after storms

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now. (Anonymous)

An estimated 1pc of all Ireland's trees – numbering tens of thousands – fell in the recent storms. This is according to Éanna Ní Lamhna, president of the Tree Council of Ireland, in response to my question about the extent of the damage.

That figure is frightening. Especially in Ireland, where only 11pc of the country is afforested compared to a European average of almost 40pc. There can't be many farms which didn't lose a tree and perhaps this will be a salient kick up the backside to us all to get planting.

While a lot of trees went when field boundaries were removed and many of those in remaining hedges are trimmed back every year, Éanna says that it is never too late to let some of the deciduous trees which are still alive in those hedges to grow on.

Every time they have been cut, they will have thrown up another apical bud. So while they may not ever make a perfect specimen, they still have the potential to make a perfectly functional tree.

For anyone looking at planting anew, a corner of a field is ideal and Éanna advocates using native species, including the likes of holly, mountain ash, hawthorn, spindle, birch, oak, hazel, crab apple, alder and fast-growing willow.

Indo Farming