Planting or Not Planting Woodland

A little while ago I was involved in a great nonsense about wildflower seeds. Plantlife, the wildflower charity, essentially said all wildflower seed mixes were cr@p and should be avoided. OK, perhaps it was a slightly more nuanced message, but you get the gist. The idea underlying this was to get people to be more aware of their local botany, and that trying to replace lost wildflower areas could be done more sensitively and cheaply in some instances by using locally sourced seed.

This is a message I’m enormously sympathetic to, and which we actually do our best to promote ourselves. What I wasn’t at all sympathetic to is having the seed we sell – including seed with specific provenance – lumped in with the rubbish that the unwary can buy. It’s hard enough for responsible producers without this kind of misinformation.

Blow me down if a similar thing hasn’t just happened with native trees.

You can buy native species trees and shrubs as “whips” – these are small plants, usually graded between 40-60cm or 60-90cm. They’re used either for hedges or for woodland planting schemes. People like the Woodland Trust have done a huge number of schemes using them.

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
This kind of new planting is usually blighted by plastic spiral guards or larger tubular guards for trees. Unless the new plants are fenced off these guards are vital. We have so many deer running around the countryside now we would lose most of our new planting schemes to them if they weren’t protected. The guards are often not removed, however, and just photodegrade – i.e. get brittle and just break into smaller and smaller pieces. The industry has failed miserably to come up with a biodegradable alternative, which does my head in.

There are other issues too. Species selection can be wrong for the site. The species mix might be inappropriate. Plants might be imported, so bringing the risk of disease or non-native variation. Planting densities might stop the development of a healthy understorey. And, of course, natural regeneration is much cheaper.

In short – despite the fact we sell the plants! – I’m very sympathetic to the “rewilding” view that in some instances the best way to reforest areas is not to plant them, but to let them naturally regenerate. Thorny scrub can protect emerging broadleaf trees, which means no guards. The new woodland self selects. The understorey develops entirely naturally.

Let’s not, however, exaggerate the evils of whips, which suddenly seems the thing to do.

Without knowing enough about the ecological arguments, I understand that this way of establishing woodland might not work all the time. I can think of lots of instances when it wouldn’t work for practical reasons either.

Many whips ARE imported. Many aren’t, however, and are painstakingly grown from seed in British nurseries – so there’s no biosecurity risk. Rather than not using them at all, customers should be informed about their provenance.

Planting schemes using good quality whips usually establish very well. If grass is kept clear from the base of the plants, they’re planted correctly and don’t get whacked by deer, we only usually see around 5% failures.

It seems daft that in order to promote one’s own agenda, alternatives have to be demonised. Planters and regenerators, both sides want the same thing – more of the right kind of woodland in the landscape.

Sackcloth and Ashes

There has been understandable anger about the government’s handling of the Ash tree crisis in the UK, but I wonder if it is partly misdirected. Trying to pull up a biosecurity drawbridge by banning plant imports seems to be at best a Canute-like reaction. We should do what we can, of course, but what we need is a better longer term pre-emptive strategy of prevention. We can at least slow the spread of disease by changing perception about the importance of the provenance of plants and seed and labelling them properly for consumers. This would buy time to formulate a more effective response to a problem which may then never even reach us.

We are much better at blaming each other for environmental disasters than we are at containing them. The size and complexity of these problems dwarfs the resources which government can throw at them. The scale of the tragic story of the American chestnut (Castanea dentate), for example, almost confounds understanding. A blight, probably originating from chestnut trees imported from Asia, spread like wildfire down the East Coast in the first half of the last century and killed up to an estimated 4 billion trees.

Of course plant pathogens and parasites have always spread and over time plant populations often recover from them, but their consequences can be so severe we should do everything we can to lengthen the odds of accidentally importing them ourselves. The Ash tree disease might have been blown here from across the Channel rather than relying on human agency like the American chestnut blight, but it might not. Trees and their diseases travel all around the globe and have done since the Romans started planting reminders of home around their Empire and importing exotic fruit into Italy. Horse Chestnuts, introduced here in the late 16th century from the Balkans, are now quietly bleeding to death in leafy London suburbs from a combination of a canker from the Himalayas and a leaf mining moth from Macedonia. Many pathogens and parasites migrate between species; Ramorum disease, currently killing larch here, is also found in rhododendrons. Even for the Australians, with their natural advantages of geography and population, controlling plant imports is difficult.

Bizarrely for such a common tree, enormous numbers of our native ash are imported into Britain. We want them cheaply and instantly available. Much planting is grant aided, and usually comes with the expectation that trees must be bought immediately and at the lowest price available. This is in keeping with the general attitude consumers have towards buying plants or seed. Unfortunately, as a consequence, plants and seeds have to be sourced from abroard. We need bigger and more profitable nurseries here, producing native trees, wildflowers, fruit trees and hedge plants. How can they be nurtured? Consumers have to be encouraged to think about tree planting as something which gives slow pleasure rather than instant gratification. If they are ordering a large number of plants or volume of seed they could be encouraged to do so a year in advance to give smaller growers a better chance of bidding for the business.

No-one buying plants or seed online or at a garden centre currently knows where they’re from or even, if online, who they’re from. There is a “specialist” site I know selling fruit trees, run by a firm of web designers. Most countries have provenance certification schemes for trees and wildflower seed from local producers, but unless you were a professional you wouldn’t know – or know to ask for a certificate.

When a prospective buyer searches for “native wildflower seeds”, “woodland trees”, or “conservation hedging” they might reasonably expect that the plants and seeds that they find are actually native (like the ones we sell!). The question of what constitutes “native” vexes ecologists all over the world and its answer varies, but however you define it, the “native” plants or seed the online buyer stumbles across are probably not. “Wildflower” seed mixes often even include species from the other side of the world; around the corner from us is a lovely spot which the owner thinks is a traditional English meadow as it’s full of wildflowers. They’re North American wildflowers. Is that a problem? It is if there’s anything invasive or diseased there, or if you’re trying to encourage butterflies, for example, whose larvae typically only eat indigenous plants.

This is where we can usefully educate and regulate. Oblige online resellers and nurseries to label the origin of their plants, in the same way that supermarkets do with food. Educate consumers to value locally produced seeds or plants and pay a decent amount for them. The precarious and unrewarding lot of local growers might then be improved enough for them to earn a decent living.
Globalism and biodiversity are unhappy bedfellows, but consumerism and biodiversity could get along very well. People will always buy native trees or wildflower seeds rather than collect them themselves, so we should make sure they know how to buy the right stuff.

Better Wildflower Seeds

We’re starting a programme of random germination testing of the seeds in our wildflower mixes. So far as I can make out we’ll be the only reseller in the UK doing this. We’re also offering a testing service for our commercial customers buying bespoke mixes. Native Seed Technology in Scotland are doing the scientific stuff for us at their lab in Scotia Seeds.
It’s odd no-one else does it – the service is reasonably priced and freely available. We’re keen to show our seed is top quality as well as coming from the UK; when people buy wildflower seed they should know it’s viable as well as British. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a kitemark assuring them it was? Seed needs to be fresh and properly harvested and stored. It should be easy to grow wildflowers, but poor quality of seed from dodgy suppliers seems to be a recurring problem people have when they try. We want to do everything we can to improve their chances of success and to promote our suppliers.
It might also help consumers to understand that provenance is an issue, which most people don’t get. Last year I was startled to find the RHS cheerfully selling wildflower seeds from France at Wisley, for example – and not just because they weren’t supporting British growers.
You might want a lovely “pictorial meadow” effect in your garden, including all sorts of colourful non-natives. You might not though – in which case you don’t want anything odd cropping up in the mix, particularly if it’s a bully. There are also subtle genetic variations in our own flora which are worth trying to hold on to; a Bulgarian cornflower will be different to one from Berkshire.
If you think you are buying British wildflowers to grow you should be buying British wildflowers which will grow.