There’s a lot of information online about how to plant a tree, and how to plan a new woodland, but very little on the logistics of planting lots (>1000) of trees. This may seem like just a numbers game (to plant a woodland, just plant a tree, over and over again) – but get your process right and you’ll spend much less time planting and much more time, well, doing other stuff. Here, I’ll talk through how we went about planting 10ha (over 10,000 trees) of new woodland in the Avon Valley, near Loddiswell, Devon.
It all starts with a plan; in this case, a detailed spreadsheet showing how many of which species are to be planted in which compartments. This starts by working out how many trees you will be planting in your compartments (see image below). This will be based on a) the size of your compartment and b) your chosen planting density (1600/ha in our case).
Then you can work out the exact numbers of each tree species. Converting percentages to decimal (e.g. Oak = 10% to Oak = 0.1) makes it easier for excel to do the maths. The calculation for stem number is: =[proportion]*[total stems].
You may well be working to a plan (more information on planning a native broadleaf woodland here), where you plant slower-growing species like oak or beech in clusters to prevent out-competition, and plant faster-growing species (e.g. birch, crab apple, wild cherry) around the clusters. You many also have a belt of scrubby species (hawthorn, blackthorn, dogwood etc.) as a ‘woodland edge’. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but this is our process:
First, we count the correct number of stakes into a trailer/pickup and drive through the compartment depositing the packs of stakes roughly evenly (if they’re packs of 10 and you’re planting 1,600/ha, drop the packs at roughly 7.5m spacings… trust me!). This way no one has to carry the cumbersome stakes very far. Next, jab them into the ground by hand at roughly the correct spacing (gloves required to avoid inevitable splinters). This is one of the hardest tasks! You might do 50 then realise they’re too close, then do another 50 and wonder whether they’re too far apart. Fear not – it almost always sorts itself out in the end. They don’t (and shouldn’t) be perfectly uniform and if you’ve counted them into the field correctly, you will, by the magic of maths, have the correct stems per hectare by the end. If you do end up with stakes left over then you can go back and fill in the larger gaps and if you don’t quite cover the area, you’ll be glad you haven’t knocked them all in yet). Tip: if your compartment isn’t delineated by a boundary or fence it is very useful to mark it out before planting rather than guessing.
Once they are all spiked into the ground by hand, you can get bonking. We use these mini post knockers/rammers/bonkers/drivers, which makes this job a doddle. It’s not easy to work through your compartment systematically and it can be hard to see which stakes have been bonked, so missing the odd one-or-two is inevitable. Just make sure you have the bonker around when you’re planting. Using this method, a team of three can work through 1,000 stakes in a few hours.
Some people like to make the holes as they’re planting. This has the advantage of being able to tailer your hole to the size of your root, but it also means having to carry your trees and a spade, which can be fiddly and heavier than necessary. We prefer to make ‘hole-opening’ a task in its own right. Holes should be large enough to incorporate the largest of roots. There are many ways to make holes for slot planting, but I favour the Martin Method (pioneered by Martin Beat of Devon Wood Works). This is a hybrid of the standard slot method and the T-method, both of which are widely detailed online. The problem with the slot method is that you’re compressing the earth on both sides of the hole; this compressed earth is fairly hard to heel back snugly around the root. The T-method solves this problem by lifting two uncompressed clods of earth up, which then seat back perfectly around the root. The downside of this is that it can be a faff when you have thousands of trees to plant. The Martin Method uses brute-force to lift up a clod of earth with only one plunge of the spade, saving time on making the holes and heeling in the trees (occasionally, a single well-placed stomp does the trick). It does, however, require a dedicated tree planting spade with a narrow head and reinforced neck. Spear & Jackson and Bulldog both make such tools. Tip: The stakes may feel loose after making the slot, but become sturdy again after heeling in the tree.
The next step is getting the trees in the ground. This is where you need to consult your plan. If you are planting certain species in clusters, do this first. I recommend planting a cluster of 25 trees (our whips came in clusters of 25, which made this simpler), then putting the tubes onto those 25, before moving on to another cluster. This means you only have to worry about one species at a time and the guarding-as-you-go makes it easy to see which stakes have been planted (as with bonking the stakes, seeing where you’ve been makes it much easier. Once you’ve planted your clusters you can infill with your faster-growing matrix species (birch etc.), then plant your scrub belt/woodland edge, again, guarding every 25-or-so trees, so you can see where you’ve been. Attaching your guards is well-covered elsewhere so I won’t discuss it here.
I hope this has given anyone out there thinking about planting more than a few hundred trees an idea of how to go about this in the most efficient way possible. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out on twitter or by email.