Guerrilla Planting

I first came across the term Guerrilla planting from a fellow Arboriculturist while I was working as a Tree surgeon in London during the late 1990’s. It was a guy who was working as a Tree officer for Lambeth council, he had grown tired of officialdom and legal constraints in where he could plant Trees and how many he was allowed to plant and how many groups, departments and local people he had to canvas and the reports he needed to write up and the meetings he had to attend to convince council officials that he had covered every potential legal angle and spoken to every potential protagonist and smoothed every potential obstacle, just to plant a Tree in a grassed area, let alone on a street.

So what he was doing was growing his own Trees and then going out at night time and planting Trees in London Parks and replacing ‘official’ but dead Trees in London streets with his own 5ft grown Trees. He described it as Guerrilla planting, I told him about my campaign of planting Trees that produce fruit (fruit and nut Trees) in Forestry areas wherever I could and whenever I could and had been since the mid 1980’s, but my method was to plant Tree seeds and leave to nature to produce.

So let me describe a little about what I see as the original destruction of the British countryside for the sake of profit and how we have ended up with mono crop forests which are no longer required as the profit mongers can import wood cheaper from overseas than to harvest our own forests, without harvest the forests have become restricted minimum ecosystems with little natural support for the creation of environments for British wildlife.

So briefly, the patchwork of ancient woodland and worked woodlands by the peasant rural folk of Britain was upended when the wealthy passed the ‘enclosure laws’ which superseded any protection of common lands used for the survival of subsistence peasantry/farmers. The rich were legally allowed to fence of common land and claim it for themselves through the 16th and 17th century’s. These lands which once contained a wide diversity of producing Trees for wood as well as food in the form of fruits and nuts was then cleared by the new land owners in the pursuit of profit. Any areas that were planted with Trees, were generally planted with Oak for potential future sale to the British navy for ship building, these Trees provided a profit for a short while but then came iron ships and steamers and Oak Trees that were forest grown, (tall and straight for ship timbers) were no longer in demand and the price dropped out, but steamers needed coal and coal mines needed pit props to hold up the roofs of the mines. So the oaks were cleared and the faster growing Scot Pines were planted, again in mono crop plantations to maximise profits, again the British wildlife suffered with the loss of their mixed habitats, the forests became quieter. Later in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, (when mines started using concrete for supports) Scot pine was abandoned as the race was on to plant quicker growing spruce and larch mainly for MDF chipboard, this market again failed to materialise as is was still cheaper to import from Scandinavian country’s.

This isn’t a judgemental article that is for history and others to decide, but these are the basic facts that brought us to a shrinking wildlife and a fixed reduced bio-diversity.

Today we have various ‘action plans’ to rejuvenate the British countryside with woodlands been planted, usually with a minimum of diversity of native Trees (usually a mix of six species) which are still diversity poor and which are still at the mercy of been ravaged by disease. (see the current Ash disease and dieback) and the earlier Oak dieback of the early ‘00s’, these are caused by not planting a rich enough biodiversity of species with too many of the same species crowded together as like battery hens, and disease (which is a natural predator) gets a hold and decimate’s like a wildfire. Disease and disorders are natural predation in the world of nature and without given due consideration when creating ‘forests’ they will constantly strike, the vast majority of disease’s are species specific, the few that are not, prey on Tree’s that are in weakened states caused by environment degradation.

The answer is to understand that a ’natural wooded environment’ would contain upwards of ten or more species of Trees in any natural woodland area, each bolstering each other with nutrients, sharing their symbiotic fungi partners which extend their growing periods while providing healthy nutrients for all the species, yes there will be the odd Tree death due to been shaded out and the fungi (the lions of the forests) would bring down the weakened Tree and devour it, returning the nutrients back to the soil, while the new generation of Tree seedlings would be waiting patiently each year for a break in the forest canopy for light to reach down, so they can begin their own life cycles.

So where does Guerrilla planting come in to the equation and how can it help, the official planting schemes for recreation forestry are in the main planting a minimum range of species chosen to appease standardised ideas of what a natural woodland should consist of, perhaps three type of ‘Top canopy Trees’ Oak, Ash and Beech or Lime, with an equally small diversity of ‘under canopy Trees’.

What I am suggesting is that woodlands have always been shaped by people for a 100,000 years or more, people would encourage and plant Trees that were beneficial to themselves and in such, these Trees would provide a wider diversity of woodlands than is currently been considered.

English ‘wild’ woodlands once would consist of  glens or small clearings where sun could reach down and fruit Trees could thrive on the edges of forest Trees (created by Boar and forest Bison and kept clear by Deer and Horse grazing, or human intervention near settlements), providing a reservoir of seeds through fruit and nuts that animals would disperse through eating and excreting the seeds, be it Deer with apples and larger fruit such as wild pear or various ‘Sorbus’ species (Checkers Trees, Service Trees, Rowan) while smaller animals dispersed the smaller fruits of Elder Trees, Sorbus species, Hazel nut etc, while the canopy Trees of Oak, Beech and Ash would be interspersed with, Whych Elm, Lime, Cherry, Pine and on certain soils you would also get Holly, Hornbeam, Yew etc. with specific Trees in wet areas such as Alder, Willows, Poplars etc.

English woodlands were in the main created by people bringing Trees from the continent when the Ice melted, (not withstanding pioneer Trees that spread their seeds by the wind, like Birch, Popular and Willow) Trees that had ‘uses for food, medicinal or a particular character of the actual wood that would be required in a wood based society/economy, there are a recognised 35 species of Trees that could be called ‘Native’ to England, whilst France has over a hundred recognised native Trees.

So back to Guerrilla planting, British ancient woodlands were man made with a decent diversity of Trees which supported each other and a larger wildlife of fauna and flora, but today are rather poor in species diversity. Current ‘official’ thinking is to retain this poor bio-diversity by only planting Trees that are from the recognised 35 species of native Trees and usually in small mixed quantity’s.

What I am suggesting is that by Guerrilla planting we can extend the bio-diversity of British Trees in Forestry plantations or planted ‘recreation’ areas, I am not advocating Trees or woody shrubs that are evasive, as I am mindful of rampaging ‘foreign’ species that out compete native species, what I am advocating is that we can broaden the species found in the commercial forests and ‘recreational woodlands’ by planting ‘fruiting’ Trees and introduce some more non-English but distinctly northern hemisphere Trees and more European Trees that never made it before the English channel was created when the ice melted 12 thousand years ago, if we were still a wood based economy the people would be introducing useful Trees to the natural environment for the benefit of all, so we should rekindle this tradition. The beauty of natural diversity is that it bolsters and enhances the environment where even more ‘life’ can live, be it moths, butterfly’s, Crickets and Beatles or the birds that would feed on them. Only one proviso, that the Trees provide additional food with either fruits or nuts that are not poisonous to wildlife or to humans.

Below is an list of additional species that could be planted out into Forestry or woodland areas, some of these are specific to certain environments, many are recognised native species, I have made suggestions of what and where they could best be planted, but do not be afraid of planting any of these out.

Trees to enhance the wild environment these produce edible fruits and nuts.

  1. Crataegus monogyna – Hawthorn once used as part of a stock hedge but becoming rare as hedges ripped up, now mainly garden ornament, edible flowers, leaves and fruits.
  2. Corylus avellana – Hazelnut, various versions including cob nuts good for wild life.
  3. Sambuscus nigra – Elder, great for wild life. (good Jams and jellys)
  4. Prunus Spinosa  – Blackthorn, once used as a stock hedge but becoming rare as hedges ripped out, Sloes, good for jams and pickles and on occasion for eating raw off the Tree as sometimes they are very sweet.
  5. Prunus Cerasifera  – Cherry plum found as a street tree, sweet fruit
  6. Prunus Avium – Wild cherry (any cherry will do, including those bought and eaten from shops)
  7. Prunus Padus – Bird cherry, great for wildlife, and can be used in preserves with vitamin C and other benefits.
  8. Sorbus aria – Whitebeam (various white beams about in gardens and street trees, any will do, all produce edible berries, although a bit sharp)
  9. Sorbus torminalis – Wild service Tree (any version will do including garden cultivars)
  10. Amelanchier laevis – June berry (North American tree that actually is already in the wild in places, it is a non-invasive small bushy Tree with sweet tasting berries) usually found in gardens. Birds love the berries and will spread the seeds.
  11. Castenea sativa – Sweet chestnut (use the ones bought in shops for their bigger nuts, the wild ones were introduced by the romans and so are ‘old’ species with small nuts)
  12. Carya laciniosa – Hickory nut  various versions a new one to introduce to the UK which does grow in gardens, Pecan nuts. (North American Tree)
  13. Juglans nigra – Walnut Tree non-existent in the wild as the wood is expensive due to high quality, all cut down long ago.
  14. Pinus Pinea – Stone pine (produces edible pine nuts, same as you buy in shops) produces big pine cones and also found in ornamental gardens and Arboretums . (wild on the continent)
  15. Malus sylvestris – Crab apple (any apple trees will do, including ornamental apple trees from the garden
  16. Arbutus unedo – Strawberry Tree (an evergreen but non-invasive, grows wild in ireland and is usually a garden shrub, seeds from the Tree.
  17. Morus nigra – Black mulberry (seeds well but seedlings fragile and may be wiped out by frosts)
  18. Whych Elm – Rare in England but a native Tree, no fruit to eat but worth planting the seeds out just because it is rare and is good for bio-diversity, seeds are edible once dehulled.
  19. Field Maple – almost went extinct and is one of the species of Trees on the native list to be planted, a good Tree to have in the woodland for bio-diversity
  20. Sorbus aucuparia – Rowan or Mountain ash, Berries are astringent to the taste but can be eaten when bleated or cooked in preserves, good for bio-diversity and rare in the country side, usually found in gardens or as street Trees in modern times.
  21. Tilia – Lime – Various species, small-leaved, large-leaved, native, brilliant for wild life and bio-diversity, a favourite Tree for wild bees, (lots of nectar on the flowers) especially old ones that have ‘holes’ and cavity’s which are usually plenty in Lime Trees as they can lose branches, a great Tree for ‘survivalist’s’ to make use of, once covered most of Britain, rare in the wild, and is on the list for recreational planting for native Trees. Gather the seeds from street Trees or parks.
  22. Pyrus – Pear – There are many pear varieties you can collect and plant, the wild pear is almost extinct in the UK, if you plant pear seeds from purchased pears, they usually revert back to an earlier type of non commercial pear once planted and will add more variety to the wild woods

If planting out in Forestry land you of course should also plant any broadleaved Tree like Oak, Ash, Lime, I would leave Sycamore, Holly and Beech off the list as they are all thuggish Trees spreading quickly and shading out other species. Now one thing to understand is that planting seeds means that as they sprout in the spring hungry slugs and snails and mice will go after them, so consider where you plant and trust in quantity of seeds you plant for a few to make it into the second year.

When collecting the small berries, you can collect the seeds by macerating the flesh (gently crushing in a rolling action) dump in to a bucket of water, the flesh usually floats and the seeds sink (although it could be the other way around, seeds may float), scoop off the flesh and discard (make a pickle with it) and collect the seeds through a strainer, dry them off and plant out, best in October or November as most Tree seeds need to go through a period of winter frosts before they will germinate. Or place in the fridge for a least 3 days if you want to grow at home in containers before planting out in spring.

Planting seeds in Spring is also a workable situation, and I have often gone planting in the spring, but big seeds do best planted in the autumn, and little seeds do best planted in the spring, although it has a lot to do with the environment, if you plant in hollows then you have frost traps, if you plant on slopes you have less frost, if you plant in areas that are likely to become water logged during winter the seeds can rot, so it can be a bit of pot luck, ideally you would plant in a pot in autumn in a cold glass house and plant out at the end of march or when the ground frosts have finished.

If you use Google Earth and look at forestry areas, you can usually find the areas that have gone through a clear felling process and so has a nice big area of virgin ground for you to go out and plant your seeds. Planting near the Tree line helps to give wind and frost protection for the seedlings when they sprout in the spring, or even on top of piles of soil to bring them off the ground frosts.

Oak 3 years old
Oak planted 3 years ago (2010)
Sweet Chestnut 3 years old
Sweet Chestnut planted 3 years ago (2010)
Rowan 3 years old
Rowan planted 3 years ago (2010)
Apple Tree Guerrilla planting
Apple Tree Guerrilla planted 26 years ago ((1987)

13 thoughts on “Guerrilla Planting

  1. This is a great piece and something I’ve been thinking of doing myself. I was wondering though – I’ve not got a great memory so if I planted a few saplings. What would be the best way of marking them (on a map or some such) to ensure I can monitor their success?

    1. Hi Sophie, you could always mark the planting spot on google maps or google Earth, and if you really want to be accurate, if you have a smart phone there are a few apps you can use that will save the the GPS location for you, But if you get in to Guerilla planting, when you go back after a few years, you will know your trees 🙂

  2. LOVE IT!
    I was directed here by someone from a local community, who spotted my question about planting trees in public areas…

    At least I know I’m not alone in this world.

  3. Great article!

    I think the idea of planting hardy native trees is fine, but for the lazier of us, there are cut price apples pairs cherries and plumbs available each spring cheaper than £10 from poundstretcher, asda (who don’t mention it on their web site), sometimes lidle, aldi, and garden centre branches of bmstores. Places like Homebase have trees for a tenner. Most, I hope can go un-noticed and survive without a stake when planted on some forgotten verge or corner of a park. If any of these survive long enough to produce fruit, it will easily usable fruit. If any become healthy, it might be possible to graft more unusual fruits onto them. I just suggest this in case it appeals to someone who isn’t so keen on the list of trees in the main post.

    One thing I haven’t been able to google is where to get tiny fruit trees that nobody would notice, cheap enough to plant in larger quantities. If anybody knows the answer I hope they write something.

    1. When you gather seeds or stones to plant out, due to the variety and verstility of sexual reproduction some of those seeds/stones will be hardy and some will not be, those that survive and grow have the ‘hardy’ temperment to survive. But more importantly they will provide seeds/stones in the future through their fruit and it enourages dispersal in the natural way, birds, deer, squirrels etc

      Perhaps planting out mini grafted fruit tree’s which are likely to be bred to produce little or no seeds in the fruit may not be the best way forward if your aim to to increase diversity in the wild. But yes, plant anything that is not a pest… but make sure it is beneficial in diversity and food for the natural world.

    2. grow them! We have had great success planting the pips of apples we’ve eaten. We plan to plant a load more in toilet roll inners so that we can then plant the whole thing without disturbing the roots.

  4. Love the idea of guerrilla planting but I’ve just bought some Juglans nigra seeds and have found out they’re toxic to other plants! I’m gonna pot them for my own garden but I’m worried about planting them in the wild.

    1. Hi James
      The Juglans ‘toxicity’ is incorporated in the leaves and the shells of the ‘nut’ although Juglans Nigra ‘varieties’ normally do not produce a ‘nut’ in the UK, (try planting Juglans regia, the european walnut tree) As the Juglans nigra does not bring any benefit to the UK (no nuts) I would suggest not to plant in the wild. As for the toxic compounds in the leaves, this is just a survival tactic by the Tree to prevent plants growing too close and competing for moisture and nutrients. The toxicity is mild and only affects the ground under the tree canopy and breaks down over the following two years.
      http://extension.psu.edu/plants/gardening/fact-sheets/trees-shrubs/landscaping-and-gardening-around-walnuts-and-other-juglone-producing-plants

  5. Just found the site,
    my son and I have been collecting acorns and growing and then planting them out for the last 4 years . we live on the bottom edge of the Yorkshire dales where the hills and moorland behind our house is bleak and barren as it was cleared for sheep farmers many years ago, so we decided we would rather like a forest , we have planted 80 oak saplings and small 10 ash trees. the next 10 oak and 5 ash are nearly ready for planting out. I would like some tips if anyone can help on growing hazel from seed as I would like to add it to the list.
    great site thought I was the only one addicted to planting trees guerrilla style!!

    1. Hi
      Growing Hazel from nuts is as simple as growing Oaks from acorns, a loose warm soil containing moisture and leaf mold. But quite often Hazel nuts are compromised by a little beatle which bores in to the nut and destroys it viability (if you are collecting nuts of the ground from around the Hazel tree’s, look for a tiny hole in them) Hazel nuts need to go through a ‘frost’ or winter before they usually become viable to grow. You can place them in the fridge for 3-4 days which should do the trick at minus 2 degrees) or plant in a cold glass house over the winter and they should sprout in the spring.

    2. Hey John, I love that you are proactively reversing the effects of the farmers! I am also a bit of a tree-cycler, collecting a small sample of native seeds and berries and giving them a helping hand over the winter, freeing them when I think they’ve got enough strength to go it alone! I also rescue and re-plant trees and self-seeders from building sites or wasteland which is earmarked for flattening. I’ve got a few donations that I could add to your little project, win back a few more yards of farmland! I reckon I’m localish to you as well, I’m in North Leeds, would be happy to drive over a few saplings!

  6. Sorry, forgot to compliment the author of the post! Great little article! Very inspiring, informative and a really worthwhile pursuit! This kind of thing is without immediate reward, which is something that we have become so accustomed to! So it really is a selfless act of trying to create a habitat for wildlife of the distant future!

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