I get asked gardening questions fairly regularly. Usually from friends who have cast me in the role of ‘go-to guy’ for any plant-related matter. It can be a bit awkward, because as a forester I often only know the most general things about anything without a woody stem. Forestry is usually a mixture of silviculture (the care of woodlands) project management and economics and it certainly has a very different perspective on the world from arboriculture (care of individual trees) and horticulture. Having said all that, a recent post from the self-confessed botany geek James Wong, about the lack of understanding in horticulture about how to plant trees left me thinking about whether gardeners in general might learn something from the world of forestry.
Forestry is about the worst industry imaginable for those with a short attention span. I have clear memories of graduating and thinking that I might just be alive to see my first tree plantings felled before I die. This means that any actions, while not necessarily being urgent, become very important – so forward planning is essential. It also means that if you believe that anything is going wrong, you have the time to check (in the absence of an actual chainsaw) thoroughly. Because of the extended period of time between investment (planting) and income (felling) conventional forestry is usually a low margin activity. This is ameliorated to some extent when rotation lengths get shorter (in coppicing for example) or if you are managing extensive areas; but typically foresters tend to take a somewhat hands-off approach to woodland management.
These time and economic constraints, mean that woodland interventions tend to be carefully planned, but significant when they do appear. Areas being left to their own devices for a long period, and then intensively managed when operations take place. However, foresters usually take great care to set up the system to avoid having to do additional work afterwards (it’s expensive). This means that when trees are planted, nobody wants to have to come back and repeat the activity because they all died; or when felling takes place, the site must not be left unsuitable for trees to regrow. From outside this must look quite odd, on one hand great care is taken to maintain and care for planting and site fertility, on the other hand felling operations can look catastrophic – this strange mixture of high and low intensity management requires a particular way of looking at the world Here then are my top tips for gardening like a forester:
In the words of Treebeard, ‘let us not be hasty‘. The garden will still be there when you’ve had a chance to look at it in all seasons, and if any of the plants die in the meantime, well, they were probably not right for the site anyway. What you can plant and expect to grow will depend on your overall plan for the site and your own micro-climate and soil-type etc. You can’t make good decisions without data. Look at what grows naturally in your area, and if you want to plant exotic species, look at climates similar to your own elsewhere. take time to think.
This form of management is all about encouraging the species you do want and suppressing (naturally) those that are less helpful. At first, this will not look tidy. You will need to adjust your perception of the world a little – look for joyful plants and bountiful harvests instead of order. I don’t know whether this tendency has always been in me, or whether it’s a result of my forestry training, but I’m now quite freaked out when I see manicured lawns, bedding plants, and topiary. It doesn’t feel right to cut a living thing to pieces purely for aesthetic appeal. There is a pattern in the natural ordering of things, it’s just far less simplistic than the one that we often apply in our gardens, the difference between a photo and a stick figure.
Within limits, let the plants do what they want. Apart from the obvious benefits for your local wildlife, this has a couple of other advantages: 1) you will need to do a lot less maintenance, and 2) plants will try and move towards their ideal habitats which will result in them being more healthy and less likely to just die. The quickest way to make a rod for your own back is to put the wrong plant in the wrong place. Plants that aren’t happy where they are will be more prone to disease and pests, suffer from the temperature, water regime and soil chemistry.
It’s kind of hard to come up with a list like this without mentioning trees. Perennial plants require less maintenance and care, and can (usually) be left to get on with it. Don’t be tempted to put in 6ft standards from the garden centre, mature and semi mature trees react really badly to being disturbed, and will typically take a few years to get over the shock. In this time, a 18 inch bare-rooted ‘whip’ will probably have overtaken them as well as being healthier. Planting is far easier, as you only need to cut a slot with your spade and drop it in, followed up by a good heel bashing to close the slot up again. No watering required (as long as it’s a moderately wet day) and certainly no fertiliser. You might need to keep the local wildlife off for a bit with fencing (though this isn’t usually a problem in gardens) and you might need to keep the weeds down, though mulching annually will probably be sufficient.
To summarise, forestry is a deeply pragmatic profession that is primarily concerned about that works given the constraints of time and resources, but it contains a certain wildness and love of the wilds that if applied by a gardener in a garden context, I think could result in something rather magical.
What do you think? Am I wasting my time or is this something worthwhile? Why not give me a shout and tell me!
Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. He gets interested in all sorts of other things which results in this kind of article.