Many years ago, I was fortunate to live and work for an extended period in Japan and lucky enough to be invited to join a traditional jujitsu dojo. There, the old master told me a proverb that has remained with me to this day:
“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
March has been an eventful month for Heb Veg with works continuing apace on the croft as we gear up for our first round of seeding at the end of April. The big news is that we have had some thousand trees arrive, courtesy of The Woodland Trust, and we are giving over nearly a third of the croft to planting them up. Given that our main focus is going to be the production of organic fruit and vegetables, it may seem strange to be giving up so much of our land. There are a number of reasons behind this decision and hopefully, they will help you consider the benefits of planting trees on your own plot.
The first reason is essentially a global one; trees help create a diverse ecosystem that helps provide habitat and food for birds and other animals. At school, we are often taught that our environment is a pyramid, with Man at the top. In truth, it is more of a circle with many animals and plants interdependent on each other and their surroundings.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gasses, such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, from the air and release oxygen. It is estimated that approximately fifteen billion trees are cut down every year, and we should be doing everything we can to replace this number, if not more. Our thousand trees may not seem like much compared to fifteen billion, but it is a start, and it estimated that a single large tree can provide a day’s worth of oxygen for up to four people.
Forests are among the most important repositories of biological diversity. Together, tropical, temperate and boreal forests offer very diverse habitats for plants, animals and micro-organisms. Biological diversity is the basis for a wide array of goods and services provided by forests. The variety of forest trees and shrubs play a vital role in the daily life of rural communities in many areas, as sources of wood and non-wood products, as contributors to soil and water conservation, and as repositories of aesthetic, ethical, cultural and religious values. Forest-based wildlife is a vital source of nutrition and has vital roles in ecology, such as pollination, seed dispersal and germination, and predation on potential pest species.
The Outer Hebrides used to be covered in the Ancient Hebridean Forest as late as some three hundred years ago, and this would have provided a habitat for a myriad of creatures, including insects that are crucial to pollinating fruit and vegetables. The Hebridean Ark project is being pioneered by the Horshader Community Development scheme in Shawbost and involves taking cuttings and seeds from surviving trees and growing 100,000 saplings to plant across Lewis and Harris in a bid to rewild a number of areas.
For all of the sound ecological and environmental reasons, there are good personal reasons to plant trees for those who wish to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Like many, our croft is both narrow and long, suffering from a prevailing south-westerly wind and zero shelterbelts. Windburn is a constant factor, and unprotected horticulture quickly withers because of this, with only couch-grass thriving.
To address these issues, Danda Gillies helped us by taking a two-inch top scrape and form earthen bunds from the spoil. The bunds are up to 2m in height and have been formed so as to protect the saplings from the majority of the wind. This has had the added benefit of taking care of the couch grass, and all of the trees have come with staves and guards to protect against rabbits.
The trees have then been divided into two categories. The first category is those that form the outer perimeter. These trees are a mix of Alder and Grey and Eared Willow and are intended to break up the wind and protect the trees within their protective boundary.
The second category forms an inner section, and these are fruiting varieties. They include Blackthorn, Bird Cherry, Crab Apple, Dog Rose, and Elder. Although it will be many years before these year-old saplings bear fruit when they do they will provide a useful addition to the range of chutneys that we hope to produce.
However, the uses of trees do not end there. For many, there is a profound positive effect on reducing stress levels and a boost to mental wellbeing. In January 2018 researchers at King’s College London, assessed the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing. They found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing and that the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.
Similarly, The Guardian newspaper reported in March 2017 that Middle-aged Scottish men with homes in deprived but verdant areas were found to have a death rate 16% lower than their more urban counterparts. Pregnant women also received a health boost from a greener environment, recording lower blood pressures and giving birth to larger babies.
In summary, planting trees on your croft have a myriad of benefits, from global pollution reduction, to promoting local biodiversity, and on to better mental wellbeing. And their fruit tastes good too.
Until next month, go green – go crofting.