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Planting trees to last

By Keith Sacre
The new British Standard for young trees aims to cut the current appalling rate of losses, not by being prescriptive but by encouraging an intelligent, thoughtful approach to planting.

It seems a lifetime ago that I was approached at an Arboricultural Association conference and asked whether I would be interested in joining a group revisiting an existing British Standard relating to the planting of rootballed trees. The standard was apparently due for revision. Both I and the person asking the question had had a couple of drinks and I foolishly replied, ‘Of course but what is really needed is a whole new standard.’

Some four years later, in February 2014, the new standard, BS 8545, was published.

So what prompted my drunken comments to be subsequently adopted and endorsed by the British Standards Institute? There is one overwhelming answer and a great many subsidiary ones, but there really was a need for a whole new standard.

The last major report into tree management by local authorities in England, published in 2008 and commissioned by DEFRA, and called Trees in Towns II, concluded that approximately 25% of all newly planted young trees failed. While the report focused on the public sector, my own observations and those of other colleagues suggested that the 25% failure figure could be applied more widely. Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew, has commented, ‘It is really easy to photograph badly planted and failing trees but really difficult to photograph really well planted trees, which are succeeding in the landscape’.

It is the element of succeeding in the landscape that is critical. The word ‘established’, which is often used to specify the condition of newly planted trees, in reality has come to mean that the trees have come into leaf for two or three successive years, are therefore established, and can be left to their own devices. Failure may or may not be immediate and may be protracted over several or more years but how many trees, particularly in the harsh urban environment, have forgotten what it is to grow and just exist year after year until exhaustion causes them to give up?

Hence the title of the new standard, ‘Trees: From Nursery to Independence in the Landscape’ which implies that successfully achieving healthy longevity in the landscape for newly planted trees is a process and that independence is a condition achieved when the tree is growing actively and well without any extraneous human intervention. I ask the questions ‘how often is this actually achieved and how often is tree planting carried out and the vision of the drawing achieved?’

BS 8545 is a new standard and is intended for use by people involved in the processes of resourcing, designing with, producing, planting and managing young trees from the nursery into the landscape.

The purpose of the standard is to disseminate information and good practice. Its intention is to ensure, as far as is possible with living material, that transplanted trees are able to grow and flourish, thereby making a long-term contribution to the landscape. It aims to identify and consolidate the planting of young trees as a continuous process from policy and design, to tree nursery, through to independence in the landscape.

The standard does not seek to be prescriptive or to provide a simple solution to cover all eventualities, recognising that there is no single route to achieve its ends; instead it traces a series of good practice options, providing guidance and enabling an optimal route to be planned, defined by individual site constraint. It is for those involved in the process of achieving independence in the landscape for young trees to decide on which of the options outlined in the body of this standard are appropriate to their own particular circumstances and which of the numerous optional routes to follow. These options will be conditioned by design and strategic intentions, individual site constraints and requirements, nursery availability and quality of tree stock, budget size and maintenance schedules.

BS 8545 recognises that each site will be different, and that successful use of the standard will depend on the depth and integrity of individual site assessment and the expertise of the team making that site assessment. It emerges that young trees is a specialism which encompasses all elements of the process.

So to the document itself and how it can be used to, at least partially, address the situation outlined above. Firstly, it is set out in a different way from previous standards.

The contents are divided into seven sections which represent the whole process covered by the scope of the standard. These sections are:

• Policy and strategy
• Site evaluation and constraints
• Species selection
• Nursery production
• Despatch, transportation and storage
• Planting
• Post planting and maintenance.

Each section is represented by a flow chart. The first 17 pages of the standard are set out under the above headings and consist of a series of recommendations. No informative or explanatory information is included in this part of the standard. Each numbered paragraph is designed so that it can be used in the drafting of specifications, the preparation of contract documents, the writing of planning conditions or any other document related to young tree management. The emphasis is on the user constructing, from the recommendations, individual documents related to unique site conditions and their own desired outcomes.

As I said above, the standard does not attempt to be prescriptive and it cannot be used successfully by simply quoting its number and title. The standard attempts to reinforce the concept that the process surrounding the planting of young trees in the landscape is an intellectual one and that there is no single recipe that can be picked from the shelf and applied to all situations.

The evidential base for the recommendations made in the first 17 pages is then explained in the annexes. These combine the experience and knowledge of the drafting panel with the latest research and opinion. This section provides an extensive reference source which is supplemented by a full bibliography, allowing users of the document to consult original research papers, books and source material if required.

The annexes are regularly punctuated by a series of original drawings which illustrate best practice and some of the problems associated with young trees, particularly those associated with tree nursery practice. These drawings have been produced with a view to them being used to clarify statements made in text.

Unlike with other standards the drafting panel was chosen for cross-professional expertise rather than to ensure that prominent professional bodies had a representative on the panel. The emphasis was on professional expertise and knowledge. The members of the drafting panel are shown in the box.

Members of the drafting panel for the new British Standard for trees.

Jeremy Barrell
Principal consultant and owner of Barrell Treecare based in Hampshire

Rupert Bentley Walls
Local authority trees officer specialising in the management of young trees

Mick Boddy
Arboricultural consultant

Dave Brown
Garden designer, landscape contractor

Brian Crane
Arboricultural consultant and former college lecturer in arboriculture

Tony Kirkham
Arboricultural manager at Kew Gardens

Glynn Percival
Plant pathologist and head of Bartlett Research UK.

Ian Phillips
Landscape architect and private consultant. He has represented the Landscape Institute on the Trees and Design Action Group and other bodies

Keith Sacre
Arboriculturalist and sales director of Barcham Trees

Peter Thurman
Garden designer and arboriculturist who runs his own practice, The Thurman Consultancy, in Sussex

Andy Tipping
Member of the executive committe of the London Tree Officers Association and a London tree officer

Mike Volp
Local authority tree officer in the planning department of Norwich City Council

Pete Wells
Nurseryman and founder of Barcham Trees

So the standard has been published and feedback so far has been largely positive. This may however be a false position. We will not actually know how successful it has been and how well it meets the requirements for which it was designed until it is adopted by the widest possible user groups and feedback is received. I am sure there are things which have been missed and things which could be explained or outlined in an improved fashion. Your comments will be well received and I can be contacted at [email protected]

I am also willing to conduct CPD sessions at individual practices to examine the standard more fully and explain in greater detail the reason behind it.

It is for you the reader to decide whether a 25% failure rate is acceptable, whether such a failure rate would be acceptable in any other industry and how successfully BS8545 can be used to improve the situation.

Keith Sacre has more than 20 years experience in local government as nursery, parks and operations manager. He spent eleven years with Notcutt’s Nurseries with responsibility for tree sales to local authorities and other trade outlets. Currently he is sales director of Barcham Trees.

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