Creating a native tree nursery at CECAS – by Chris Drake

This project was a perfect way for me to get started at CECAS. I have a native plant nursery at my home on Salt Spring Island on the we(s)t coast of Canada, and though the plant species are different the process is largely the same. Both Ireland and Canada are largely forest ecosystems, and being involved in the restoration of the ancient woodlands at Myross Woods is a fascinating project. Establishing the right native tree in the right place so it reaches maturity is also one of the most important and effective things that people can do to mitigate climate change and enhance habitat for biodiversity.

The new CECAS native tree nursery is located in the beautiful walled garden behind the main building. The first task was to prepare the site, and after weeding and levelling a very thick layer of wood chips was deposited, which will serve three purposes: suppress weeds, protect the soil, and allow the pots to be partially buried so the holes in the bottom are covered. This last aspect is especially important because then the soil will maintain a higher soil moisture and the roots at the bottom of the pots have some interaction with the substrate below.

The native trees came from an old pile of pots that had oak, hazel and some beech acorns placed in them two or three years ago. Some of the pots had up to four trees growing in them, plus willows had seeded in. The roots of these trees were carefully separated (the soil was first soaked in water) and stretched out so they reached straight down instead of spiralling. Both oaks and hazel have primary tap roots, one of the characteristics that make them such hardy tree species able to survive periodic summer drought. It is preferable to have deep pots, if possible as deep as the tree is tall. I made the soil from a mixture of old wood chips, garden/forest soil inoculated with native soil biota, and perhaps a quarter compost. Native plants are different from plants used in food gardens or landscaping – they don’t need rich imported soil, preferring something similar to what they would have evolved in.

The pots were bunched together as closely as possible, to reduce the plastic exposed to the sun. This system also allows more efficient watering. I prefer hand watering in the early morning, giving each plant only what it needs, and I always water each pot twice with a few minutes in between. The first watering is quite light, the purpose being to just increase the soil moisture, so when the pot is watered more heavily the second time more water sinks into the soil as opposed to draining down the side. I water heavily but infrequently – we want to create tough little trees with deep root systems that will be able to survive without maintenance. The final task was to stick cut bamboo around the pots to provide shade. There are nearly 300 trees in total, and lets hope this is just the beginning!

I always plant in the fall or winter when the soil is saturated and the trees are dormant. Dig a deep but not wide hole, and put organic material in the bottom. This material will hold moisture and encourage the roots to go down instead of sideways, helping them through their first year. On my island in BC, which is hotter and drier than West Cork, I have had survival rates over 95% using this system. Other important factors to having high survival is to only plant robust trees that can compete with aggressive non-native species, and putting a heavy mulch around them.

Consider creating your own backyard native plant nursery (you can propagate the plants from cuttings, weed them out of your garden, or scrounge them from ditches or other spots), and designating a portion of your land to become a nature zone that is solely for the critters. It will attract a wide array of wildlife, provide ecosystem services such as pollination and carbon and nutrient sequestration, and help store and filter water. The more landowners that take on such projects, the healthier and more resilient the landscape becomes. Environmental stewardship has wonderful benefits, and your non-human
neighbours will thank you!

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