Trees: A tree-planting guide

Anna Pavord provides a step-by-step guide to planting and caring for trees.

It is easy enough to plant a tree. Ensuring a future for it is a different matter. As babies in prams are irresistible, so winsome little larches, oaks, cherries and monkey puzzles look enticing in pots at the garden centre. But (though tempted) you don't chuck out your baby when it has grown into a large, unmanageable, demanding teenager. So it's unfair to chop down a tree when it has grown too big for the space that you should never have put it in anyway.

Before you plant, have very clearly in your head the eventual size of the tree you have in mind. Pace out 30ft on the ground and imagine that space filled with branches. Think too, what the tree is likely to do for your neighbours. Will it block out their sun for most of the day? Think about the habit of the tree. In small spaces, trees that go up rather than out are generally easier to manage. Flowering cherries are generally wider than they are high, so may not be a good choice.

Weeping willows are disastrous choices for small gardens, as are blue cedars. Both, unfortunately, look wonderful as babies, but the willow makes a tree 40ft high and wide underneath which nothing will grow and the cedar, if allowed to express its soul in its own way, will soar to 130ft. That's big.

Then there's the aftercare. Easy enough to plant, as the endless tree- planting schemes of recent years have shown: trees in new housing estates, trees along suburban roads, trees to humanize hideous industrial compounds. But who waters them in their first summer? Nobody, to judge from the death rate. The summer following planting is the most testing time for a new tree, and a failure rate of something like 80 per cent in the trees newly planted for instance on the approach road from London to the M3, shows that without TLC, at least for the first two years, planting is pointless.

Oh! doom and gloom! doom and gloom! But it matters to get these things in perspective. New starts are sexier than old difficulties and some commitments more effortless than others. We get an easy fix of concern for the environment when we trundle bottles to the bottle bank, recycle newspapers, use bio- friendly washing powder, sprout conkers in yoghourt pots. But the long- term commitment to bring the resulting seedling horse chestnut within sight of maturity, has to go hand-in-hand with the God- like buzz of creating it.

So, you have done your homework and selected the right tree for the right place. You have resisted the temptation to scoop up some container grown bargain at the local garden centre. You have either grown native trees from local beech mast, hazel-nuts, holly berries, wild cherry stones and acorns. Or you have sorted out a nursery where you can buy a "bare-root" tree; that is, one that has been grown in the open ground. These are lifted anytime after leaf fall. These are the most important things to get right in planting a tree.

The advantage of a bare root tree is its superior root system. A decent tree needs an underpinning as extensive as its top growth. A decent root system cannot develop in a pot. The roots, with nowhere to go, spiral like demented snakes. The trees never produce big strong, anchor roots. The exceptions are conifers, which have compact rootballs, and eucalyptus, liriodendron, nothofagus (Southern beech) and davidia, which all resent having their roots disturbed.

There's another reason why bare root trees establish better than container- grown ones. Growing in open ground, the same as the ground in which you are going to replant them, the roots have been used to pitching their wits against stones and impenetrable clay. Container-grown trees, usually raised in soft, emollient, loam-free compost, won't have had to work very hard for a living.

Plant in autumn or winter rather than in spring. In normal conditions in this country (though they get less normal all the time) roots go on growing until the turn of the year. It is a great advantage to a tree to be able to settle into its new surroundings, get its roots comfortably within reach of food and drink, before the branches on top start browsing and sluicing.

The actual planting is simple. Start by digging a hole twice as big as the one you first thought of. Settle the tree in the hole, checking that you have dug deep enough (a tide mark on the trunk usually gives a clue to the correct depth). Spread out the tree's roots so that they do not cross over each other. Gradually fill in the hole, using first some good compost into which you have added a couple of handfuls of bonemeal. Jiggle the tree up and down so that the compost works its way between the roots.

Firm this first layer of compost with your foot. Continue to backfill with the earth you dug out of the hole, firming as you go. Water the tree well and, to conserve moisture, spread a thick layer of mulch (rotted leaves, farmyard manure, mushroom compost) in a circle round the tree. Then - commit.