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The Art of Natural Forest Practice
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iliff at oak tree

Nature’s planting thriving in a field in spite of cattle grazing, ponies and rabbits.  Bramble and thorn are acting as nature’s plastic tree guard protecting the seedling trees from grazing.  Ash and sycamore are becoming trees, bluebells are appearing in the ground cover.  A woodland is thriving without any intervention by us!

Why is nature so successful planting new woodland?

Real natural woodland in Britian is flourishing in spite of our best endevous to stop it.  And it’s frequently in places we would not consider feasible, urban and rural- heavily grazed meadows, abandoned land, polluted ground, intensive agricuture and even astonishingly regenerating woodland!  So successful is this that if nature were given a free hand woodland would soon cover all the land!  How is this?

Woodland incorportes all the colours of the rainbow, not just a single colour.  Our efforts to cereate woodland all too often resemble a quick make-over, at a stroke bare land to plantation forest.  No wonder it’s a single colour!  Natural woodland takes time; trees are never in straight lines at regular spacing, or lacking in diversity.  This shows a real lack of imagination on our part, a failure to observe natural systems.  Our efforts are little more than tree farming compared to nature, that will be discernable for a hundred years and more.  How come nature frequently out-grows our planting, even though it has to start from seed and ours is rooted in a nursery!  The reason, unlike gardening, is that our planting is done with too little understanding.  Whether for timber (silvicultural) or conservation (speceis focused), both disregard the complex community that is a natural woodland.  We would greatly benfit by observing how nature establishes such diverse, rich and self-sustaining natural woodland.


Nature starts by planting a diversity of pioner species, typically birch (Betula), willow(Salix), ash(Fraxinus), alder(Alnus).  Once these become established nature will then do the long term planting, such as oak(Quercus), elm(Ulmus), holly(Ilex).  As these grow and begin to spread, the grasses and meadow plants die back and ground flora begins to establish.  Amazingly nature has its own eqivalent of plastic tree guards, with such as bramble(Rubus) and thorn (Crataegus) to prevent grazing by cattle, rabbits, ponies, etc and will even adapt to take advantage of changes in mamagement (eg land set-a-side and machinery).  As the leaf litter developes, diverse woodland ground plants establish, such as as bluebell(Hyacinthoides) and woodanemone (Anemone).  In town amazingly nature will use exotic garden escapees (photo)!  As with all good community work, it’s important not tobe in a hurry and give natual processes a chance to take over and lead the way.

Guide to creating natural woodland -
* Break-up the sub-soil- especially where there is an agricultural pan;
* Soil compaction- prevents aeration of the soil and causes water logging;
* Transplant local genetic stock- using pioneer species (above).  Select from nearby woods, waste land, etc with similar geography, eg- altitude, aspect, rainfall, soil, etc, if possible with mycorrhizal fungi.  Seedlings from a nursery, must be certified of local seed origin;
* Plant random wide spacing, nature will plant in between over time.  Plant 3 in 1 hole- eg tree, shrub and a variety of local ground flora, such as bluebell, dogs mercury, ivy, ferns, honeysuckle and stitchwort as appropriate.  Try copying nature and plant bramble in this way as protection- nature’s plastic tree guard.  As canopy spreads nature will take over and plant other woodland species.  A helping-hand may be required to favour the stronger trees, as standard 1.2M spacing may disrupt nature’s process of natural selection providing strong trees with space to develop and become dominant;
* Try mimicking seed dispersal by eg birds (jays) and mammals (squirrels).
* Plant under open sky, not in shade (you would not plant flowers under a tree);
¬ Try scything seedling trees tight to ground for 2, 3, 4 years until established and abruptly stop.  Seedlings should then have strong root system and grow strong and fast.  Works for nature!
* Rabbits ring barking have tendancy to go first for our planting and not nature’s.  Why?  Rabbits are selctive of species, so some species may need a guard.  Try surrounding with twigs- works with nature;
* Crucial to maintain planting to ensure that small plants are not swampt by competing vegetation.  Continue for 3 or 4 years- not with chemicals or mulch-mats but by simply treading down competing plants.  Helps if seedling roots are planted under the grass roots.  Seek out, mark and care for nature’s seedlings.  Mark planting with something distinctive so that it can be located.

urban trees









Seedling trees

Millenium Wood

Observation and experimentation continues.
I am seeking opportunity to try out these ideas of creating woodland in harmony with nature. 
Offers to accommodate field trials would be greatly appreciated.

Urban woodland on waste land established by nature without any intervention by us.  Although all exotic garden species, nature has formed a perfect woodland structure of trees, shrubs and ground cover.




A clump of natural ash seedlings that will I suspect favour natural selection favouring the strongest trees.  Bramble ground cover acting as rabbit protection from ring barking.



New woodland tree planting in straight lines without regard for the soil or ground cover plants, that will be recognisable as a tree plantation for centuries.  After nine years, not a scrap of ground flora- ivy, fern or bluebell, etc.