Honouring our trees

Nicole Vosper considers the magic and beauty of trees – and how to care for them – during the winter months

It has been a wet autumn in flooded Somerset and we are grateful for a resilient system at our 4-acre permaculture smallholding near Glastonbury. Our brook that runs around the land is channeling water away and our woodland and hedges are protecting the vegetable beds, themselves raised and withstanding the wet. Groundwater is still rising though, and wellies are a necessary companion to any work outside.

Travelling through the levels on the bus, the re-emerged wetlands remind me of a time long past and trigger thoughts for the future in an ecology that could be dramatically impacted by climate change. How we respond as a community is yet to become clear.

The beings holding up best in the water are the trees, and for anyone involved in land-based work, now is the time that trees get attention. Cold winter days lend themselves to pollarding, pruning, felling and crafting wood from these cornerstones of our ecosystems.

In the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, which I am studying, we are encouraged to access technical tutorials that can support us to develop new skills and knowledge that can be successfully applied in our design work.

This winter I was very fortunate to be financially supported by the Royal Bath & West Agricultural Society to undertake a course in sustainable woodland management. Leading the course was Ben Law, woodsman of Prickly Woods in Sussex. Ben is known by most for his beautiful woodland house on Channel 4‘s Grand Designs, but known by permaculture designers for his book, Woodland Way, on the permaculture approach to woodland management.

“Trees with all their multiple functions, whether it is stabilising soil, catching water or providing habitat, are the best example of permaculture in action”

For five days I learned all about patterns of management that support biodiversity, livelihoods and life in woodlands, exploring diverse ‘outputs’ from roundwood poles for house building to green woodcraft. Ben took us on a journey around identifying, classifying and surveying woodlands and assessing them for their potential uses and roles in supporting livelihoods, as well as community and social forestry approaches. I went away with a greater insight into these ecosystems and how they can be optimised by human interaction.

Tree work has already begun on our land, with a massive leylandii hedge that has dominated our growing areas being taken down to enable an amazing opportunity to make the space come alive again. Keeping us in wood for years ahead and brash piled in the woodland to create wildlife habitat and edges, the ‘waste’ often taken away by tree surgeons has become a useful resource.

Trees have also stolen my heart after a nut tree growing weekend course with Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust. Treated to tastings of diverse temperate nuts and shown around Martin’s forest garden and nuttery trial site, I was alive with wonder about the potential of cultivating nuts on a big scale in the UK. Diving into detail about chestnuts, cobnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, monkey puzzles and more, fantasies of polycultures of fruit and nut trees across Somerset’s levels filled my mind.

Trees with all their multiple functions, whether it is stabilising soil, catching water or providing habitat, are the best example of permaculture in action.

However, permaculturalists have long been accused of being ‘tree fetishists’, overlooking grasslands or other habitats. I openly admit my affection for trees and don’t wish to avoid the label at all. I recently met a client who, when showing me around her family’s land, said she wished she could grow trees as pets. I couldn’t help but completely understand, and as winter sinks in, I know I will be designing where best to plant these beautiful individuals that will succeed me and care for generations to come.

With ash dieback sweeping our country’s trees, now is the time to increase our resilience to disease by embracing diversity; nature’s way of supporting health on an ecosystem level. With role models like Ben Law, it’s time to encourage the management of woodlands to help them come alive through age-old techniques such as coppicing, combined with resource-wise approaches. By making buildings from roundwood poles rather than imported Russian timber, we may move one step closer to a culture that honours our trees and the role they play in the web of life.