Country & Garden: First the millennium tree, now the millennium avenue

Planting a tree for the next century is fine. But why not go a little further?
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The Independent Culture
THE MOMENT of truth has finally arrived. We have been talking for ages about planting a tree for the millennium, and now that the trees are losing their leaves and retreating into dormancy, the best time for putting a new one in the ground has come. For months, Independent readers have been treated to Anna Pavord's wise words on this page, designed to help them choose a suitable tree to plant. Now (well, some time in the next four months at least, when the soil is neither sodden nor frozen) it's time to act.

Sometime in the next two weeks, all being well, I shall be planting a small Tilia cordata `Winter Orange', which I bought in the spring in a 2-litre pot from Bluebell Nursery (01530 413700, catalogue cost pounds 1 plus two first-class stamps), and which I have nurtured ever since.

The "small-leaved lime" is a very handsome tree when mature, genuinely native, and of astonishing longevity; it is reputed to last 1,000 years, if left to itself (which it almost certainly won't be, the way things are going in the countryside at present). It has tiny scented yellow-green flowers in spring, which the bees love, and good orange-yellow autumn colour. The cultivar name `Winter Orange' refers to its choice orange young stems and twigs in the winter although, when in leaf, it is well- nigh indistinguishable from the "ordinary" one.

That is not the end of my efforts for, next spring, as soon as the soil begins to warm up, I shall be helping to plant a young yew (Taxus baccata) in the village churchyard. This yew was donated by the Conservation Foundation, as part of its admirable "Yews for the Millennium" initiative. This small, but sturdy, sapling in a pot has been propagated from one of the most ancient yews in the country, guaranteed more than 2,000 years old. That kind of longevity is truly humbling.

Once we have all planted specimen trees in our gardens, our churchyards, our urban community spaces, our pocket parks, our school playgrounds, will we assume that we have done our duty and marked the millennium properly? I rather hope not, for I cannot help thinking that this is an appropriate time for a bit of joined-up tree-planting, by which I mean creating an avenue, consisting of a number of trees of the same species.

The tree avenue has a long history in this country. It was already well- established as a feature of garden and park design by the early 17th century. In 1656, John Evelyn notes in his diary, with admiration, the early maturity of the avenues planted by the first Duke of Buckingham at New Hall in Essex, especially the quadruple avenue of lime trees which led up to the house. At least until the beginning of this century, the avenue has been seen as a way of aggrandising a drive or road up to a house of consequence, or to bound a woodland ride, or point to a far vista. Limes have always been the favourite, but sweet or horse chestnuts, beeches, weeping spruces, specimen Leyland cypresses, even monkey puzzle trees, have had their devotees. The only strict rule is that all the trees, whatever they are, should be the same.

I appreciate that the times are out-of-joint for planting grandiose avenues again, but I wonder if there is something so ridiculous about planting a small-scale one, comprising medium-sized or small trees. I have it in mind to plant, in my garden, a short avenue of Malus tschonoskii, with eight trees lining each side of a broad grass path (30m long by 10m across) that leads from the garden gate to the boundary, and is parallel to the low churchyard wall and, therefore, visible to churchgoers on Sundays. This form of ornamental crab apple from Japan is commonly planted with great effect in suburban streets, because it makes a naturally erect shape, with pink-flushed white flowers in spring, red and yellow fruits and brilliant, sumptuous leaf colour in autumn.

I may, however, plump for the slightly smaller, also narrowly upright Malus `John Downie', which has much the same virtues as M tschonoskii, but it is also a common denizen of the countryside, so will not fight with its surroundings in the way more exotic trees might do. Or perhaps I will go for that wonderful whitebeam, Sorbus thibetica `John Mitchell', whose intensely silver-haired young leaves unfurl from the vertical, and look at a distance like gleaming magnolia flowers, before they open out. If the space were broader, then it would be no contest: it would have to the upward-growing form of hornbeam, Carpinus betulus `Fastigiata', which naturally develops a "flame" shape, about 12m tall by 6m across at maturity. Whatever I choose, the plants must be genetically identical to each other, ie propagated vegetatively, rather than from seed - which might introduce a degree of variability. All that I need for the task, therefore, is a trustworthy nursery from which to buy them, a large tape- measure, some bamboo canes, a spade, some home-made compost - and plenty of millenarian zeal.