The trees that shape our lives

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

Trees enrich our lives, and National Tree Week is a chance to appreciate our leafy friends, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

THEY PROVIDE US with clean air, shelter, fuel and food, as well as medicinal resources, building materials and pulpwood for paper. They also play a vital role in promoting and conserving biodiversity, combating noise and soil pollution, and preventing soil erosion. But, their more practical uses aside, trees have long been a source of inspiration, ornamentation and celebration, beautifying the wilder landscape as well as our gardens and our cities, while deeply enriching all of our lives in the process.

A heartfelt and noisy hurrah, then, for National Tree Week, now in its 28th year, which officially begins tomorrow. For any of you wanting to join in the celebrations, here are some reasons to plant a tree this week.

1. For the future

When the Swedish architectural firm VisionDivision ( was invited recently by Italian university Politecnico di Milano to take part in a week-long workshop that played with the concept of “forests”, the result was The Patient Gardener, a living “building”/study retreat made from 10 Japanese cherry trees planted in a circle in the campus to form an hourglass-shaped structure that includes two living staircases made from grafted branches. The catch? It will take 60 years for the “building” to mature to the point where it is fully usable. But as the saying goes, “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”.

2. For food

Trees provide us with fruit, nuts and berries, while their tender young leaves can even be used to make wine (see Roger Phillips’ Wild Food, a photographic guide to finding, cooking and eating wild plants). You can technically plant bare-root apple, pear, plum and damson trees up until the end of this month – Future Forests ( still have plenty in stock, as well as nut trees such as walnuts, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and hickory which are available from Woodkerne Nurseries ( – but the sooner, the better.

3. For a hammockery

Okay, you do need a large-ish garden for this one, but I still love the idea, which comes courtesy of the British garden designer and multiple Chelsea Gold Medal winner, Tom Stuart-Smith. Set aside an area of the garden as a meadow, with some trees planted at a suitable distance apart so that you can sling several hammocks from them. The important thing is your choice of tree. Too slow-growing, and it might be a case of your grandchildren enjoying the hammocks rather than you.

4. To commemorate a significant event

Births, deaths, christenings, anniversaries, even graduations all are milestones that can be celebrated with a tree-planting ceremony. I recently read of a Dublin secondary school that marks each departing sixth year class by planting a tree and burying a time-capsule in the planting hole, with the capsule containing written recordings of their hopes for the future.

5. For fuel

While 96 per cent of all Europe’s renewable heat comes from wood, Ireland lags behind in this respect. But given the ever-rising price of oil and the increasing popularity of efficient wood-burning stoves, that’s quickly changing. As Kevin Hutchinson, vice-president of the Tree Council points out, just one hectare of forest will “grow” the equivalent of more than 100,000 litres of oil in its lifetime. For those wishing to grow their own firewood, fast-growing native ash and birch are both a good choice, particularly when coppiced.

6. To encourage wildlife

Even a young woodland will soon become colonised by an understorey of plants, and will attract insects, butterflies, bats and birds, while a single mature oak tree is capable of sustaining up to 500 different species of wildlife. For the best results, concentrate on mainly native trees such as Sorbus aucuparia or Arbutus unedo, but you can also try non-natives such as Amelanchier lamarckii.

7. For their beauty

Their many practical uses aside, trees are exquisite, magnificent and awe-inspiring – just think of the giant sequoias of California, the ancient baobabs of Madagascar, the banyan trees of Thailand, the Bodhi tree of Buddhist legend, and here in Ireland, our very own King Oak of Charleville. “The wonder,” said the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.” These giants aside, there are plenty of trees that are suitable for small Irish gardens, including the Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis, Magnolia x loebneri “Leonard Messel”), and many different varieties/cultivars of Crataegus, Acer, Prunus and Sorbus. Ask your local garden centre for advice, keeping in mind your garden’s soil type, aspect and the available space.

8. For shelter and screening

Trees are particularly valuable in exposed parts of the country, offering shelter from strong winds, while a well-sited tree can give privacy and screen out eyesores. But keep the eventual height and spread in mind, make sure that you use a suitable species (poplar, for example, should never be planted close to a house), and be neighbourly: if a tree is going to cast dense shade on an adjoining property, don’t plant it.

9. For fun

Try growing your own living chair, such as the one made by Australian designers Peter Cook and Becky Northey, who use the Pooktre method to shape trees into extraordinary shapes and structures. See pooktre.comand shapedtrees.comfor more details.

Something similar is being done in the Patient Gardener project, using plum trees. The result will be a seat that also bears fruit – how delicious is that?

Diary Date

A variety of events will take place around the country to mark National Tree Week (March 4th-10th), including lectures, tours, tree-planting ceremonies and a gala dinner. See

This week in the garden

Start off dahlias, begonias and cannas in pots of compost indoors

Divide and replant most ornamental grasses

Plant rhubarb, asparagus, globe artichokes, bare-root fruit and nut trees

Sow tomatoes, chillies, peppers in a heated propagator