How was National Tree Week for you? Maybe you saw some of our “Meet the Trees” videos shot to the soundtrack of Dublin traffic at our nursery in The Digital Hub. Most of us can probably identify car logos more easily than we can tell a spindle from a hawthorn.
Irish trees and shrubs have long been a Cinderella ingredient in garden centres. As one nursery owner put it: “Laurel hedge, lawn, tarmac drive,” are the elements a lot of his customers want in their gardens.
We hope the dial is moving and we are beginning to better understand the benefits and beauty of native trees and shrubs. They require much less maintenance than a lawn and we have a deep connection to them.
A tree like a birch supports hundreds of species of insects and countless soil microbes, all of which have evolved to work in harmony with the tree which was one of the first to take root here after the last ice age.
Rowan trees, or the mountain ash as they’re known, were traditionally planted beside houses to ward off evil. Rowan berries are packed with vitamin C and arrive just in time for cold and flu season when our immune systems need a boost. They provide the tartness of a citrus fruit for rowanberry marmalade.
Foraging rowan berries is one thing but knitting trees into healthy large-scale food production is the ambitious and exciting aim of the Irish Agroforestry Forum. We pride ourselves on our ability to grow grass but given its choice Irish soil would move from grass to trees to forests, and combining the two makes for a far richer and more sustainable food system than monoculture dairy prairies.
Agroforestry is a no-brainer for Irish farming. Trees grow brilliantly on the island. Biodiversity loss can be halted, watercourses are protected as tree roots absorb excess nutrients that otherwise end up in groundwater. Carbon storage in the soils, crops and trees are a huge part of the system, and animal welfare is better. Cattle browsing on leaf material have fewer mineral deficiencies and reduced methane emissions.
Agroforestry can extend the growing season by up to 15 weeks, meaning animals are housed for less time, saving farmers money and reducing ammonia emissions.
“With carefully planned silvopasture all farms could integrate trees into their operations with minimal loss in pasture area and produce integrated harvests of timber or tree crops, all the while mitigating emissions, enhancing the environment and increasing farm resilience to climate challenges,” the IAF said last week as it launched its new website, irishagroforestry.ie.
As fertiliser costs spiral, there is no better time for farmers to spend time thinking about a new approach to trees.
Catherine Cleary is co-founder of Pocket Forests