Lessons from a tree planting disaster
Trees are one of the most rewarding long-term investments you can make, but getting it wrong can be heart-breaking.
The most amazing tree I’ve ever seen is on my brother’s block in a 1.6ha stand of old native trees that run down the steepest part of his property. Standing under these trees, inhaling the cold earth, looking up to sparkling specks of sunlight, is like being in a cathedral. It feels holy.
It is a puriri, and so massive it’s easily spotted on Google Maps, the canopy covering about 400 square metres. I am prone to exaggeration, but careful measurements on a satellite picture show it covers approximately 20m x 20m.
Several hundred years ago, what was then already a big, old puriri fell over, coming to rest with part of its root ball still in the soil. What had been side branches reached for the sky and are now massive trees in their own right, forming the huge canopy.
About a kilometre down the road is another amazing puriri. This one was in the garden of a childhood friend and it was everything to us: our hut, our secret hiding place, our fort. But over a couple of years it slowly died off. The owners were worried the rotten branches would fall and hurt someone, so they had most of it removed, leaving behind a rotting, 3m-high stump.
But the tree changed its mind. Within a few years it had restored itself to grandeur and decided to share itself with the world. Hundreds of seedlings started sprouting all through the garden and the owners allowed me to dig them up.
I gathered over 100 trees, potting them on several times over a couple of years until they stood more than 1.5m high. When the time was right, I spent weekend after aching weekend digging massive holes – the rootballs were 50-60cm across and just as deep – planting my very own puriri forest.
It lasted a week. I carefully covered all of them with cloth, but morning after morning, for 10 days in a row, there were devastating frosts. The leaves turned black, but worse, the trunks split open and days later, my years of work were all dead.
The remaining trees were donated to my brother and parents. Ten years later, those trees are magnificent, the biggest marking the grave of Freddy Bear the cat and standing well over 5m high.
6 TIPS FOR PLANTING TREES THIS WINTER
find out what suits your climate and plant to that; there is no protection in the world that would keep a puriri safe when you get hard frosts like the north Waikato does.
don’t plant big trees – small specimens are cheaper, easier on the body at planting time, and you can plant 5-6 of them for every large one.
buy in bulk; there are nurseries all over NZ that offer great transport deals and when you buy in bulk, the price per plant drops dramatically.
get your spacings right; walk through gardens or bush you like and measure the distance between the large trees and plant to that spacing.
don’t plant too close to power lines, driveways or buildings; it might look great when they’re small, but trees grow fast and branches spread for metres and then become a nuisance that must be hacked back, ruining the tree’s natural grandeur.
if you’re planting natives, nursery trees like manuka are your friend, growing quickly and offering protection to more delicate species (like puriri) that you can then inter-plant through them in the years to come.