I have been growing trees in pots since my children were small, when every autumn excursion to the woods brought home pockets full of acorns and other tree seeds. We discovered that if you leave the acorns indoors they loose their glorious colours, shrivel and dry, but if you leave them outside, in a dish by the door, they remain delightfully glossy and eventually send out a root.... then a shoot.... and by planting this you help a new tree begin it's journey into life.....
Trees produce thousands of seeds, which are mostly spread by birds and the wind, but we too can help spread them about, carrying them in our pockets, scattering them about and poking them in the earth where appropriate. The Man Who Planted Trees is a story by jean Giono about a man who did just this and changed a whole ecosystem and the lives of all the people who lived there. A very beautiful and inspiring piece of animation of this story can be found on U tube.
The best tree seeds to grow are the seeds of our native trees. They have grown here for thousands of years, since the ice retreated at the end of the last Ice Age and the land bridge between ourselves and continental Europe was flooded - about ten thousand years ago. They have many symbiotic relationships with our native insect, animal and bird populations. They are also the easiest to grow, especially Oak, Hawthorn, Alder, Beech, Hazel, Holly, Birch, Rowan, Ash, Wild Plum, Crab Apple, Bird Cherry or Elder.
September and October are the best months to go tree seed collecting. Look for seeds from the healthiest and strongest trees. It is always best to collect seeds from the native trees growing in your own area, as they have adapted to the local climate and soil as well as the insects that live there. Pick the seeds directly from the tree or when they are newly fallen, but don't collect the first seeds that fall as the later ones will be better quality. Only take what you know you will use as these nuts and fruits are food for the birds and wildlife. Put the seeds in labeled paper bags and when you get home, sort through them and pick out the healthiest. Return the rest to the wild edges for birds and other creatures to find or maybe they will grow.
Scatter the seeds in pots of garden soil, compost or a compost and sharp sand mix, water well and leave outside for the winter in a sunny place. Don't forget to write the tree name on the pot! This can be done easily with permanent marker or white correction pen, but decorating the pots with acrylic paint is always a nice activity to do with children. The seeds should be sprouting by the spring, although some take two years so don't give up on them. Next autumn plant each tree in a pot of it's own, with plenty of room for it to grow.
Making tree cuttings is an easy way to propagate new trees and works best for Elder, Hazel and Willow. Older children can be taught to handle sharp secateurs safely. Cuttings can be made from the autumn through to the early spring. Simply cut lengths of twig into 20 cm lengths, cutting just below a bud with the bottom cut horizontal to the twig just below a bud, and the top cut at an angle just above the top bud. Push them into labeled pots with about 5cms showing or poke straight into the ground.
By late spring the cuttings will be sprouting leaves. Keep the strongest shoot, and cut the rest off. Cut off any flowers in their first year so they put all their energy into establishing their roots. Put the pots where you can keep an eye on them and keep them watered in dry weather.
During the autumn re-pot any trees you grew last year into bigger pots if they need it, giving them some fresh compost and some attention and care. Make sure that the root collar - the point from which the roots grow - is just at the soil surface. I like to move my trees in pots to a sunny spot for the winter (moving them back into the shade in the summer to stop pots drying out too quickly). Remove the bowls from under them in the winter months as they dislike having their roots in cold or frozen water.
You can encourage young potted trees to take on shapes and features that will continue as they become mature trees. A young tree can be raised slightly with a slightly bigger stone put under the roots each time you repot it to create a hole under them and expose the root bole. Also consider planting two or three trees together in a pot and weaving their trunks together while they are still pliant and young. They always want to untie them selves so you will need to tie them gently at intervals.
Sprinkle native plant seeds or plant native bulbs in the pots with them. This creates special partnerships that continue when you finally plant them out.
Most native trees can also be coppiced (not Birch) while in their pots, by cutting them down to their base, so that each tree sends up many single shoots. These can be used for creating hedges for gardens and allotments, making wind-breaks and to provide the gardener with an endless supply of straight sticks for bean poles and tying up plants.
Trees need to be planted out or moved between November and March while the sap is down and roots are growing. This helps them to get established before the sap rises in the spring. When planting out trees remember the size that the tree will eventually become and consider if it has enough space to grow and if the type and size of the tree is appropriate there. Trees in more confined places will be more stunted, and grow more slowly.
Public places, such as schools, colleges, churchyards, parks, and hospitals, often have space for trees and would welcome you asking them if they would like a wild life garden. Plant native plants and bulbs alongside the trees and you will create a lasting haven for birds, bees and other creatures; replace garden fences with a mixed hedge that birds can nest in; organise a community tree planting project; or find people who have land and are wanting to thicken or increase their hedgerows. Elder, Hawthorn, Rowan, Crab Apple and Hazel are all small hedgerow trees will provide more foraging opportunities for the future.
It may also involve a bit of guerrilla gardening, by planting them out in places that would benefit from a tree or two such as playgrounds; along walkways and trails and footpaths; by rivers; along hedgerows; canal sides; along roadsides and verges; in villages and towns - on the edge of any forgotten or unused piece of land. Bang in a stake and protect with a tree guard and chances are they will be treated as if they are meant to be there.
Water the potted tree well before planting out. Add a bucket of compost at the bottom of the hole before planting the tree and water it well. Keep an eye on them for their first year, until their roots get established. Keep them free of strangling grasses and take bottles of water to water them if the weather is dry.
A semi circle of Willow and Hazel saplings can be planted to create living dens, hideaways and arbors. The young whips can be pulled over, bent into shape, woven and tied to create places for children to play in. Weave new shoots in regularly to create a good shape and keep it trimmed during the summer to encourage a dense foliage to keep out the rain.
Trees can be planted to commemorate a family or community event. When planting commemorative trees, take a moment to pause and say a few words before and after putting the tree in, dedicating the tree with due ceremony and fully honouring the reason for planting it.