Tree seeds and saplings

Oak seedlings potted up, Image by Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. November is a great month to collect acorns, holly, alder and hawthorn seeds as part of our Autumn Seed Search campaign. This week, find out more from Rowena about how she grows her own mini woodland in her garden.

It’s surprising how quickly a tiny oak sapling grows and makes a tap root. Looking like a very long, thin, hairy carrot, the root confidently squeezes its way straight down through leaf litter, topsoil and underlying rocky clay to ensure a safe anchorage in our garden. This young tree is just a few inches high above the root, but already bears two full-sized and two smaller oak leaves at the top of its twig-like trunk.

Our oak seedlings and saplings are garden ‘weeds’ in the sense that there is simply no room for tightly packed oak trees where they are growing. Fortunately, however, they can have a secure future by being transplanted to a nearby community woodland.

Standing at the edge of the pond collecting leaves and acorns

Standing at the edge of the pond collecting leaves and acorns, Image by Rowena Millar

Today, after digging and potting up a few of these little trees, I found a bigger one with over a dozen leaves growing up the stem in layers, with a bit of a whorl of three at the top. Due to the long tap root running between rocks, the trowel was ineffective and I had to pull hard to try and dislodge the sapling from the pond edge, but avoid damaging it – a tall order, but I think I did it. I also didn’t fall in the pond (this time), despite spending the morning teetering on the edge both collecting saplings and gathering fallen leaves.

After I managed to extract each sapling from the earth, preferably with plenty of soil still clinging to the roots, I immediately placed it in a flowerpot of shallow soil that stood ready, firmed it in with more garden soil, dunked it in a tub of rainwater and then left it to settle down on a patch of ground by the greenhouse before going to the community woodland. For the time being, I hope the little trees will flourish in their pots. With loamy, leaf-enriched soil, moisture and light they should be fine.

The taproot of that larger sapling was too long for a pot and so it is ‘heeled in’ in a vegetable bed. I must remember to remove it before it settles in and a mighty oak takes over the place where shallots, kale and runner beans are supposed to go.

Oak woodland supports more wildlife than any other type of woodland in the UK, and I love oak trees – the classic dense, rounded canopy and the bark, which changes from smooth and silvery to rugged and cracked with age. I love the birdlife in our garden-edge oaks, and the caterpillars, including those dangling ones hanging on silken threads – but a pond stacked full of rotting oak leaves leaching tannin is not a very healthy pond.

Leaves and acorns on the pond

Leaves and acorns on the pond, Image by Rowena Millar

Trees and ponds

Basically, our wildlife pond is too close to the Cornish hedge at the bottom of the garden. Since we dug the pond over 20 years ago, the small oaks standing on the neighbouring field’s hedge bank have been developing into greater oaks, which now overhang the part of the garden immediately behind the pond, despite the occasional trim by a local tree surgeon. The sou’-westerlies coming inland from the Atlantic blow the leaves straight onto the pond and across the whole lower garden.

I have taken action by making anti-leaf netting for the pond (fine garden netting spread over and attached to large-meshed fencing wire draped over long wooden poles, with room for hedgehogs, small birds, frogs, toads and newts to come and go underneath). As the oaks shut down for the winter, still largely green but their foliage changing colour bit by bit, the netting is already strewn with crispy brown lobed leaves, acorns and those endearing little acorn cups.

There are hundreds and hundreds of acorns lying around the pond this year. It must be a ‘mast year’ for trees, including our apple trees – a year in which they produce much larger amounts of fruit than usual.

Help grow more trees for the Forest for Cornwall

Mast years are a time for vigorous reproduction. Maybe the trees have passed around the news about Cornwall Council’s collaborative ‘Forest for Cornwall’ initiative (see the video above to learn more about the Forest for Cornwall), or perhaps it was this year’s weather patterns. One acorn, perched on the netting right in the middle of the pond with nothing but air, sun and rain to sustain it, has already split and is displaying a newborn pure white sprout, clearly determined to grow into a seedling before it even touches the earth.

Tree seeds and saplings in the woods

While walking in the local woods, I noticed some plumper-than-average sweet chestnut seeds lying on the ground below a canopy of those large, feather-shaped green, yellow and orange sweet leaves that almost glow in the autumn sun. The broadest, tallest and most majestic of these trees have recently been felled, as it’s a commercial woodland, but some smaller specimens remain around the paths and woodland edges.

Left alone, a sweet chestnut can grow to 2m wide and 700 years old, according to the Woodland Trust’s website, and a height of 35 metres according to The Wildlife Trusts. They are actually natives of southern Europe, probably brought to our shores a long time ago by the Romans. Apparently, the chestnuts are produced once the trees are about 25 years old, so the smaller ones are already young adults.

If you start looking for them, you will probably see that your local woodland floor is covered with young tree seedlings and saplings

If you start looking for them, you will probably see that your local woodland floor is covered with young tree seedlings and saplings of various species (although many won’t survive, depending on competition from other growth, human footfall and populations of mammals such as deer).

‘Doing our bit’

Always keen to cultivate things that feed us, especially if those foods are free, delicious, and full of nutrients for ourselves and for wildlife, I will pot up a couple of the sweet chestnuts and, if they grow, offer them to the community woodland too.

Growing themselves around my wildlife garden are baby holly, hazel and blackthorn trees, which might be allowed to stay behind the pond in a low thicket that’s periodically cut back to avoid it casting too much shade. Some could join the community woodland if still small enough to pot up.

Also available for potting are the seeds of other native trees in the hedge, such as hawthorn and hazel, along with the best of the acorns. By nurturing them, and by filling and surrounding our garden with fruiting and berrying trees, I am doing my small bit to repopulate a bit of the landscape with the trees it ought to have (in appropriate places – see the links below).

Left to its own devices, woodland will grow and spread itself naturally, as my ‘woodland-edge’ wildlife garden is proving so effectively. However, by planting new areas of woodland, we are learning about trees and getting back in touch with them (literally) so we can respect and value them. In our very human way, we are doing our bit to re-wild Cornwall, redressing the balance after our species de-wilded the land over centuries. We – or at least some of us – have come to a point where we realise that we love and need the wild.

Autumn Seed Search Poster

If you want to learn more about tree planting and how to grow trees from seeds, read the 'Seeing the wood for the trees' article in the Spring edition of Wild Cornwall magazine (written by Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Head of Nature Conservation Cheryl Marriott). Don't forget to download the Autumn Seed Search guide too for advice on what seeds you can collect at this time of year, how to grow them and where to plant them. 

Download the 'Grow More Trees: Autumn Seed Search' guide