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Time to plant a tree

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In ancient Britain, the new year was celebrated early in November, after the harvest was in.

The latest archaeological, linguistic and DNA research suggests that the people who lived in Britain in 1,000 and 2,000 BC, during the Bronze and Iron Ages, were the descendants of people who had lived in the isles for thousands of years. We call some of these people - especially those living in the west of Britain and in Ireland - Celts. They were distinguished by their language, art and religious beliefs. They traded with and shared their culture with Celts who lived and roamed as far away as Switzerland, Greece and Galatia in Turkey. At the time, great swathes of Britain were shadowy with trees, many of them oak trees, which the Celts revered, believing that the oak was the gateway between worlds and, more practically, feeding their pigs on acorns.

Magna Carta was written with the ink made from oak 'apples'. Robin Hood’s greenwood tree was the oak. Robert Kett fought against the land enclosures of the 16th century under the Oak of Reformation. In 1687, in Connecticut, the Colony’s Charter was hidden in the Charter Oak for safekeeping. In 1787 the three Williams - Wilberforce, Pitt and Grenville - swore to abolish the slave trade under an oak tree. The oak is the national tree of England, Wales and the United States, and we think that the structure of the English oak is a visual sketch of the organizing principles of the British and American Constitutions.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries hundreds of British explorers risked their lives to send the seeds of trees back to London from wildernesses all over the world, making Britain the richest conserver of plants in the world. Inspired by John Evelyn's book Sylva, published in 1664, Brits planted a million trees. Perhaps all this was a throw-back to tree-loving Celts?

Recent reports say that trees are not the best carbon offsets, but they are a source of oxygen and joy, and during the Celtic new year, before the ground grows too hard, is a good time to plant one. People sometimes think they will never see their tree grow tall, but Hugh Johnson writes,

On a piece of land which was completely cleared 15 years ago I have oaks 25 feet high, from acorns, presumably sown by jays the year the land was cleared.

A few years ago, I wrote about planting a tree with a friend -

We carried our stick of a tree - a white Oregon oak looking slightly disheveled with a few withered leaves still hanging from its twigs and its root ball wrapped in a burlap bag - into the field. We needed to find a place where the oak could spread out, and we walked round together, to see where the oak might like to grow. We found the place, not too close to the house and not too far from a beech tree, because in my opinion trees like company. My friend began to dig.

He was a good man with a shovel, and dug a hole three to four times the width of the root ball and deep enough so the trunk of the oak rose above the hole and the roots rested on a firm base of undisturbed earth that wouldn’t settle with time. Even young oaks have long tap roots so the hole had to be quite deep, and we tapered the hole since most new roots grow horizontally, near the surface.

We stood the oak in the hole, to see if we had the depth right and the roots had enough room to spread out. Not quite, but close. He used the fork to break up the bottom of the hole, and improve drainage. We roughed up the walls of earth to break up any glazing from the shovel that could block growing, and I teased the roots out from the root ball.

I used to think gravel at the bottom of the hole would improve drainage, but recent studies have shown it doesn't. Water puddles above the layer of gravel, and only slowly drains away, rotting the roots.

A tree is like a child - the early years are important. A newly planted oak likes plenty of water for two or three years, particularly in dry spells. A couple of buckets a week from a friendly hand makes a real difference, though the great oaks in a nearby field have grown on their own without help from man or woman.

I wondered how long I would be here to water the oak and watch it grow, but I thought, we'll give the young oak a good start, and it's better to plant a tree and never see it grow than never plant a tree at all.

We stood the oak in his place, and tied him to his stake, and spread the roots in their natural position. Then we began filling the hole, sifting soil we'd mixed with leafmold between all the roots and rootlets and packing them in. We were sparing with compost, because a tree sinks as compost decomposes, and the roots grow round and round seeking compost when they should be branching out into the soil. We put some compost close to the surface, where the bulk of feeder roots grow, and stepped hard around him, firming the earth.

When I saw the young oak standing there, looking small and intrepid and dear, I was happy. My friend was smiling.

We poured a couple of buckets of water over him, eliminating any air pockets and giving him a good drink. I like to think the bucket of water was a benediction for all three of us.

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