Tree planting

Tree planting guide

Some pointers to help you plan and carry out a simple small tree planting scheme.

Before you start

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you likely to have difficulty keeping your trees regularly weeded, tended and protected during their first few years of establishment?
  • Is your chosen site a valuable feature as it is, such as a wild flower meadow or wetland area, which would be best left unplanted?
  • Does your site conceal an important historical or archaeological feature such as an earthwork, leat or structure that would be damaged by trees?
  • Will the roots of the trees cause damage later to walls, drains or underground services?
  • Will the shade cast cause nuisance or block neighbours’ view when the trees mature?
  • Will overhead wires become entangled with the trees?
  • Is the site so exposed that no trees grow in the area nearby?
  • Is your site underneath the shade of existing mature trees?
  • Will it be impossible to keep livestock away from the young trees?
  • Is the site often waterlogged?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then think again!


So, if you are still going ahead, what is the time scale? Aim to plant your trees in the dormant winter period, early December to early March. Don’t leave it till the last minute though, the nurseries may run out of the planting stock you require.

Where to start

For deciduous trees and shrubs buy small, bare-rooted transplants, 60-90 cm in height (2’ - 3’) which are cheap, easy to transport and plant, and establish quickly. Evergreen trees and shrubs are available either bare-rooted or in small pots. 

Generally, you don’t need to spend money on large standard or pot-grown trees which are expensive, cumbersome and prone to die back under stress. Invest your resources in good site preparation and good aftercare instead.

Selecting the right species

For a countryside planting scheme, have a look at what is already growing well in your neighbourhood, as that gives a good guide to what suits the character and wildlife of the area and will stand a better chance of survival. 

The trees growing naturally and commonly in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) countryside include: Common Alder, Wild Cherry, Pedunculate Oak, Ash, Sweet Chestnut, Rowan (Mountain Ash), Beech, Crab Apple, Sycamore, Downy Birch, Field Maple, Grey Willow, Silver Birch, Sessile Oak.

Common local shrubs include: Alder Buckthorn, Gorse, Holly, Blackthorn, Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Dogwood, Hawthorn, Spindle, Elder, Hazel, Osier Willow

Trees and shrubs useful for special situations

For exposed coastal sites:
Oak, Beech, Sweet Chestnut, Monterey Pine*, Bishops pine*, Holm Oak (Evergreen Oak)*, Ash, Sycamore, Whitebeam, White Poplar, Grey Willow, Monterey Cypress*, Hawthorn (shrub), Gorse (shrub), Elder (shrub), Holly (shrub), Blackthorn (shrub).

*These foreign evergreen trees grow well, but can look out of place in very open countryside.

For very wet sites:
Alder, Willows, Aspen, Guelder Rose (shrub).

For hedging:
Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Field Maple, Holly, Hazel, Guelder Rose.

Where to buy them

Garden centres and general nurseries usually retail a range of trees and shrubs, often concentrating on larger and pot grown specimens and cultivars at higher prices. This is fine if you need a small number for the garden. However, the common range of native trees and shrubs can be purchased direct from the nurseries, which grow some or all of their stock themselves from seed. Examples in the area include:

  • Mammoth Willow, Totnes (01803 864866)
  • MGM Nurseries, South Brent Road, Loddiswell, Kingsbridge, TQ7 4DU (01548 550754)
  • Perrie Hale Forest Nursery, Northcote Hill, Honiton, EX14 8TH (01404 43344)
  • Kingsfield Conservation Nursery, Broadenham Lane, Winsham, Chard, Somerset, TA20 4JF (01460 30070)
  • Duchy of Cornwall Nursery, Penlyne Nursery, Cott Road, Lostwithiel, Cornwall (01208 872668)

You can send for a catalogue, order by post and have the trees delivered. If you want to visit the nursery to collect the trees yourself, phone first to check that it’s a convenient time.

How much will they cost?

When buying from a specialised nursery expect to pay between 50p and £1 for bare-rooted stock and £1 and £2 for container grown evergreen stock.

What about accessories?

Guards, shelters, stakes, etc can also be obtained from nurseries and tree suppliers, but only use these if you really need to.

You must protect the trees from rabbits (which will gnaw the bark off within days and kill the lot). So if you have rabbits, use a spiral plastic rabbit guard held in place with a small bamboo cane. They cost about 60p. Or use a tree shelter (the plastic boxes which fit over trees) with a small stake for rabbit protection and added growth enhancement. They cost about £1 a set (but are not advised for exposed coastal sites).

Generally, don’t stake your trees. It only encourages them to grow weak and spindly. And don’t bother with fertilisers and bonemeal, infertility is seldom a problem when planting trees in the area.

Moving and storing trees

Treat your trees gently. Don’t let them get overheated in the back of the car and don’t let the frost get at the roots. Above all, don’t let the root hairs dry out, even for a short time, keep the trees well wrapped during transport and storage. If you cannot plant them within a week of receiving them, heel them in by standing the trees in a trench in your garden and covering the roots with soil.

Common mistakes: leaving the trees hanging around in bags so that they dry out; leaving the roots out in the wind and sun at planting time.

Site preparation

Clear brambles, nettles and other weeds from the planting site. Erect fencing to keep livestock well away, if appropriate. If the soil has been compacted (by vehicle parking in the past, for example), then it will need ripping or cultivating to allow the passage of air, water and roots.

Layout and spacing

Small trees are usually planted at 2 - 3 metre spacings. Why so dense? Allowing for some dying or failing to flourish, you are still left with a good choice of fine trees to grow on. The denser planting also encourages upward competition between the trees, leading them to gain height rather than just spreading outwards.

When planning the layout remember not to plant under the shade of existing trees as most trees need full daylight overhead to thrive. Also, don’t plant right up against paths, fences and walls as the trees will bush out as they grow.

An informal layout, avoiding straight lines, is usually the most appropriate. Where you are planting a mixture of species, aim to plant trees of each species in a small group. For example, 4 - 5 of species A, then 4 - 5 of species B, then 4 - 5 of species C, then  4 - 5 of species A again.

Planting the trees

Dig a hole big enough for the roots to spread out. Loosen the soil at the bottom. Bash in a cane or stake in the middle of the hole if you are going to use a guard or shelter. Hold the tree upright with one hand, with the root collar at ground level, and backfill the hole with crumbled soil with the other hand. Gently shake the roots as you backfill to settle the soil around them. Finally, firm the soil down really hard with your boot so that the tree doesn’t work loose later. Do backfill up to ground level, don’t leave the tree standing in a dip that will collect water. Fit the guard or shelter if you are using one.

Common mistakes: trees planted too deep (stem will rot) or too shallow (roots showing) or not vertical (will grow in a curve) or not firmed down enough; rabbit guards or shelters flopping around loose or pulling the tree over.

Aftercare - the important bit!

There are three key things which will determine whether your tree planting will be a success or failure:

1. Weed control - especially grass which competes for soil moisture.

2. Weed control - and that doesn’t mean just cutting the grass which only makes matters worse.

3. Weed control - it means removing, suppressing or killing the weeds completely in a metre diameter circle around each tree.

Why? Because the main threat to tree survival and growth is drought stress in our dry springs and summers, when weeds actively transpire the moisture out of the soil. Simply cutting grass only encourages it to grow and transpire more vigorously, at the trees’ expense.

Mulching is fine. Use straw, grass cuttings, old carpet or black polythene, but don’t pile stuff up against the tree stem.

Hoeing or cultivating is fine, but labour intensive.

Cutting taller weeds is fine, if it stops bracken, nettles, brambles, etc overtopping or smothering the trees.

Herbicide use (with care) is fine. A spot treatment of “tumbleweed” or similar glyphosate based herbicide applied in April or May, but read and follow the instructions carefully and don’t let the herbicide touch the trees!

Common mistakes:  allowing trees to become neglected and overgrown with weeds; mowing and strimming around the base of trees; damaging the bark with strimmer cord or mowing machinery.


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