How to plant a forest

A few years ago the assistant gardeners and I had an obsession with growing things from pips and seeds. We started with acorns – planting them in compost and then waiting for them to grow.  That was back in 2000 so we called them the millennium oaks.  I’ve still got three of them.  Two are in pots in the front garden, now fourteen years old.  They make very nice container plants which keeps them fairly small.

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I planted one out in the garden a couple of years ago though and it is shooting upwards, about eight feet tall now.

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It should last for several hundred years if the people who inherit this house look after it.

We moved onto lemons and then we had some loquats – they were pretty exotic – and some apples which were less exotic and less successful.  The lemons and loquats are still sitting in pots in the house, providing us with rather lovely house plants.  But after the success of these I said to the assistant gardeners that we should really get some land and plant a forest.  Taking me seriously, they came back from a holiday with their grandparents, bearing 200 horse chestnut seeds (conkers).  ‘If we’re going to plant a forest, we’ll need all of these’.

This time I looked up my faithful Pip Book for advice on how best to grow them.  Keith Mossman advised us that the forest seeds need to be ‘stratified’, which basically means leaving them out in the cold over the winter to encourage them to grow in the spring.  But you can’t just leave them outside as they would rot or get eaten by mice or worse.  The trick is to put them in a plastic container with holes pierced in the bottom and in the lid and cover them with damp sand or compost.  So we took all 200 conkers and put them in small plastic buckets with lids with holes pierced in them and left them outside for the winter.  In the spring we went to open up the buckets. ‘Maybe a few will have survived’, I thought, but I was so wrong:

bucketsprouted conkers

We had 200 sprouted conkers on our hands.  Any sensible person would have put 196 in the compost bin and potted up a few for fun but my assistants could not bear to see a tree wasted, so we potted them all up, using every plastic container we could find.

conker pots

A few months later we had nearly 200 baby horse chestnut trees:

baby trees

What on earth to do with these?  We had no room in the garden for even one forest tree, let alone 200 and my ‘plan’ to buy some land and plant a forest was always only a fantasy.  So we e-mailed round all the local wildlife and conservation groups to offer them 200 free trees.  They were very sniffy in their replies ‘The horse chestnut is not a native plant to Scotland’, they said and so apparently not suitable for their needs.  According to Richard Mabey (Weeds, 2010), horse chestnuts were ‘introduced from the Balkans no more than four centuries ago’ , and therefore, are not native. In the end we sold some at car boot sales and gave them away to friends and family.  It took a while, and I’ve still got four in pots in the garden.

The lesson from this exercise is – go ahead and grow trees from seed.  It is really the most exciting thing to do, especially with small people – but stick to 3 or 4 (to allow for  a few failures), not 200.  But I’m not good at following my own advice.  Last autumn the assistant gardeners presented me with 50 acorns.  Out came the plastic buckets and the sand again … and ten months on I have about 50 baby oak trees.

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.. Oh and the answer to the question ‘how to plant a forest?’, is, first get some land, add a few hundred forest seeds, a couple of enthusiastic assistants and some plastic buckets with lids and you’re half way there.  The only problem is that land…

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