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From the file

Trees: Saviours of the planet | Can the world’s wide open spaces deliver a solution to climate armageddon?

How can I help?

How can I help?

The planet needs more trees, and one of their strengths as a climate change solution is that everyone can plant them, or help others to. Whichever your preference, here’s the Tortoise guide to trees

The direct action option

Tree-planting isn’t rocket science, but it helps to get the basics right.

First, pick a site

If it’s your garden, you can plant whatever you like. For schools, hospital grounds or open countryside, you’ll need permission from the landowner.

Avoid archaeological sites, places with rare or protected species, wetlands and unploughed grassland. Rich in biodiversity, grasslands can lock up lots of carbon dioxide without the help of trees.

In the UK, unless you’re going all out and planting more than two hectares, you won’t need planning permission or an Environmental Impact Assessment from the Forestry Commission.

Next, look at the space

Check the ultimate height and spread of your tree before planting. Consider any underground drains, house foundations and overhead power lines. The tree needs to be in a space where it can grow.

For smaller spaces, hazel, blackthorn, crab apple and goat willow are safe choices. Medium-sized trees include elder, field maple, hawthorn, holly and yew. Long-living species native to the British Isles, such as oak and maple grow slowly, but become very large and are great long-term stores of CO2.

How to pick the right tree

If you want to encourage wildlife, pick a tree that will have flowers or grow berries. If you don’t fancy picking up leaves in the autumn, go for an evergreen.

The Crowther Lab’s interactive map recommends species according to where you live. The Tree Council suggests copying nature by planting trees that are already successful in your area.

Where do I find a tree to plant? 

One option is to find a seed from local trees. Acorns (oak), conkers (horse chestnut), hairy seeds (willow), samaras (maple) and many more can be planted in a pot before being replanted outside the following year.

Or visit a reputable nursery. It’s best to buy something sourced from your country of residence that has had all the right bio-security checks. The RHS Find a Plant site lists suppliers for each species.

What equipment do I need?

  • Bucket
  • Spade and fork
  • Watering can
  • Tree guard
  • Mulch (used to improve the soil, like chipped bark)
  • A tree, seed or seedling

The best time to plant in the UK is between October and April and the Royal Horticultural Society has a very helpful step-by-step guide on how to plant a tree, which was our inspiration for these lovely illustrations.

How to plant a tree

step 1

Dig a hole wide enough so the roots can spread, ideally three times the width of your pot and the same depth. Loosen the soil around the hole’s edges with a fork.

step 2

Give the root ball a thorough soaking before planting – standing it in a bucket of water works well.

step 3

Using your fingers, tease the roots out of the root ball to encourage expansion into the surrounding soil.

step 4

Place the root ball in the hole checking that the collar (point where the tree originally started to grow above ground) is level with the top of the soil. A piece of wood can help for checking the level.


Hold your tree upright and refill the hole, ensuring there are no air pockets around the roots. Firmly press the soil down onto the roots but make sure not to compact it.


If your garden or planting area is prone to wildlife visitors, use a tree guard or spiral to prevent the tree’s bark being nibbled.


Shower the planting patch with a generous amount of water and then add a 5–8cm layer of mulch, leaving a 10cm gap around the base of the stem.


Top heavy trees can be supported by staking. Firmly place the stake in at a 45 degree angle using a hammer to secure it. Next, attach a tie to your tree to support it in windy weather.

Source: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/how-to-plant-a-tree.
Illustrations by Zoë Barker

What else can I do?

The Tree Council has a national network of volunteer tree wardens who protect, plant and promote trees in their communities. This map shows where to find your nearest warden and tree planting scheme.

If you’re keen to set up your own group, the Woodland Trust offers free planting packs for community groups. Trees for Cities is another way to donate or volunteer.

The Crowther Lab’s map shows projects around the world. The UN’s Trillion Tree Campaign has a leaderboard showing which countries, organisations and companies have planted the most trees. China currently leads with 2,407,149,493 planted since the campaign started. The Plant for the Planet app is an easy way to find hand-picked projects to donate to.

What to look out for

Commercial plantations can be harvested as often as every ten years, meaning they are much less effective than natural regrowth at capturing carbon. Check that the reforestation project you choose has a long-term plan.

Reforestation projects can also set unrealistic targets that serve at best as aspirations rather than measuring survival rates.

A Sri Lankan study found that in more than half of 23 mangrove planting sites investigated, no mangroves survived.

In Thailand and the Philippines, 74 mangrove replanting sites were investigated where only 20 per cent survived.

Check points for choosing a reforestation project:

  • Are local communities involved?
  • Will they benefit?
  • Are the tree species native or imported from elsewhere?
  • Will there be aftercare once they’re planted to monitor and support their growth?

All photographs Getty Images

Next in this file

The Take: Let them grow

The Take: Let them grow

It is not the only thing, but planting trees is an obvious first step in tackling the climate crisis

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