A Woodland In The Back Garden

First published in Crann, Ireland's Tree Magazine, Summer 2009

For those of us who are fortunate to own large amounts of land or those who work in positions of influence within the forestry and horticulture professions our ability to make a difference in the future development of our environment is quite significant. So, what about everyone else? All of you reading this article have an obvious interest in the preservation and improvement of the natural world; otherwise you would not be holding this magazine in your hands right now. Perhaps you are already doing your bit to change things, but I am sure many of you would like to do more.

Like many other people, I’ve felt tremendous frustration in the past due to my lack of ability to make a significant and tangible difference ‘on the ground’ despite my good intentions. At times that frustration can be stultifying and lead people to give up their efforts altogether, something that I experienced myself. However, eventually despite these feelings of being ineffectual I decided I would persevere no matter how small my contribution happened to be.

I realized that even though I did not own any land or have any specialist knowledge I could still make a difference, for my own satisfaction and also for the future generations that will inherit our beleaguered environment. I believe that we all have a contribution to make if we are willing to try and not be disheartened by difficulties or failure to create a huge impact.

I started out very simply by planting trees one at a time in the drive and garden of my rented house in Camolin, Co. Wexford. At the time I had little spare cash and very little knowledge, but despite this, when I eventually moved to my first bought property I had made more progress than I expected. I had saved a dozen mature trees from being choked by ivy plus I had managed to plant over 30 trees, plus I also had the pleasure of seeing many of them grow from puny saplings to the size of standards and half standards that stood a fair chance of survival.

Four years later I am still at the house I bought, which sits on a mere half acre near Carnew, Co. Wicklow. I made a decision to buy native trees when I moved in and gave over approximately half of the garden to a woodland area. I was lucky enough to buy 300 bare root saplings from Coilte for a knockdown price, which I have used to create the woodland area and hedgerow on three sides of the garden. I initially planted around 250 trees – Sorbus accuparia (Rowan), Betula alba (Birch), Fraxinus excelsior (Ash), Acer platinoides (Sycamore), Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn) and Salix caprea (Willow) and rehabilitated the few existing trees that were chocked by brambles. I gave the remaining 50 trees to two friends who planted them in their own gardens.

I will eventually be harvesting most of the Sycamore and some of the Ash for firewood to run my heating system and the remainder of the trees will eventually form a beautiful native woodland. Since planting four years ago not only have I had the pleasure of seeing my efforts bear fruit but I have been inspired to retrain as a horticulturist, which has enabled me to transform what was a hobby into my work. I now have a much better understanding of trees and have seen what was just a pipe dream become a reality.

When I planted the first tree in Camolin several years ago I was not even sure what kind of tree it was! Who would have thought that I would be where I am now? I currently look after 180 acres of amenity lawns, gardens and woodland surrounding a hotel and golf course where I am able to have a direct influence on how the land is managed and I am currently involved in evaluating the viability of a tree planting programme together with a switch to woodchip heating.

Obviously not everyone is going to be as fortunate as I have been, however, from small beginnings we can all grow to eventually make a significant difference. If you don’t have 10 hectares to plant up, consider a small area in your own garden, perhaps join a local group that is involved in conservation, help plant at your school or workplace, or get involved as a volunteer in Friends of the Earth or Crann.

Recent news of environmental cutbacks at government level is depressing but when you think of the huge number of private gardens, local schools, parks etc that could be improved there is tremendous scope for redressing the balance. You don’t need to be a big landowner, farmer or an environmentalist to improve the situation - many small individual contributions will make a significant difference, and who knows you might inspire others to do the same!