Nov 04 2020

Growing Trees for a Green Future

In a flurry of autumnal activity, the Fingle tree nursery started to grow last year. A deer proof fence went up and a set of raised beds was creatively constructed by the volunteers. A few seedlings were set out and then … how things have changed. It was intended to be a fun and interesting growing project for volunteers to join in with. A chance to learn about the merits of propagating trees and imagining the new wildlife friendly hedges and copses that could be started from seed. There would be opportunities to practice a blend of springtime horticultural skills with autumn seed collection and storage. But these good times have not faded away, they are just on hold, a brief period of woodland torpor.


The woodland tree nursery – ideal growing conditions                Wych elm seedling

So, a year has flown by and the seasons have changed, nature’s full cycle has passed, and we are entering the autumn once again. For many, ‘lockdown’ has been a struggle and a time of uncertainty so, to lift the gloom, I decided to brighten my days with a bit of tree growing. We know that horticulture has many benefits to our health and, helping the tiniest shoots of new life to emerge is a positive act. It is the start of something optimistic and it feels good.

Seed tray in the garden nursery


Through the spring and early summer my collection of overwintering tree seeds began to germinate, roots and shoots were popping out everywhere. Bursting with life, stored seeds from crab apple, hazel, guelder rose, alder buckthorn and my favourite, Devon whitebeam all defied the lockdown. In my garden, hundreds of seed trays lined with emerging seedlings brought a splash of fresh green life to the Spring days. Later in the summer, as lockdown was partially lifted, I found a few hours to get the seedlings in the ground, making way for the later germinators to fill the empty pots and trays once again.


Crab apple seedlings in the raised bed                                                      Squirrel proof mesh protected hazel seedlings

Small broadleaved shrubs are my main interest because of their habitat value but it’s great to grow a few big oaks as well. Many of these small flowering shrubs have been neglected at Fingle during the previous decades focused on producing softwood timber but now, it is time for a change. This nurturing nursery in the woods will follow nature’s patterns and reinstate some more diversity in the woodland structure. Seed collected from the area preserves local genetic variations and assures that Dartmoor trees and shrubs will maintain their provenance. This will support the life of our pollinating insects and feed the growing numbers of birds and mammals that Fingle now offers a secure home to.
Autumn is approaching again and the bulk of the seed collecting starts here. This year I’ll be collecting blackthorn seed from inside the fleshy but sour sloes. Fingle is a bit short on this very important shrub (neighbouring Mardon Down hedgerows are currently bulging with them) and it provides early nectar and, in a good year, the spiny bushes are loaded with fruit which is almost as sharp in flavour as the prickly bush itself. It’s good food for numerous birds and small mammals.


Spring – pollinating insects thrive on May blossom (hawthorn)      Sloes are a ‘tasty’ Autumn food source                                    Autumn – blackthorn seeds eaten by mice in a nest box

I’ve never really tried growing elder before, so I’ll collect a batch and, because Fingle is all about providing habitats for different species, I decided to try Scot’s pine too. Tom (the bird surveyor) advised me that the scarce and protected crossbill enjoy these trees as a food source. Their crossed bill is adapted to prising open the scales of the cone and picking out the seed to eat. Scot’s pine is one of those conifers that will have a valuable place in the diverse future of Fingle. Seed stored this autumn will, with green fingers crossed, mean we will welcome the new growth of roots and shoots next spring. That’s where I’m looking forward to – getting back together and sowing some seeds for the future.

by Matt Parkins

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