Community Tree Nurseries

There is an emerging network of individuals and groups in Dorset planning to set up locally-led and not-for-profit tree nurseries based on propagating trees and shrubs from stock thought to be of local provenance. People in Bridport, Beaminster, Charmouth, Weymouth, Dorchester, Purbeck, Shaftesbury and Poole are currently putting their heads together to develop tree nurseries to meet their own needs.

Trees for Dorset, a charity with a long track record for its tree planting schemes and for its work with schools, manages two small scale nurseries and has kindly offered some initial guidance to the other groups as below.

We would love to build on this initial advice on setting up new tree nurseries so please add your comments below if you have any additional suggestions, experience or knowledge that will help us avoid too many mistakes. You can download a PDF of these initial ideas here. Thank you.

Establishing a Community Tree Nursery – some initial ideas

Selecting a suitable site for the nursery

  • A well drained soil is preferable, and remember that much of the nursery work will take place in autumn, winter and early spring ie. usually wet months
  • A water source needs to be available. Can rainwater be harvested and stored? Is borehole or spring water available? NB. it could be expensive if the nursery is dependent on metered water.
  • A sunny open site is preferable but best avoid one that is very exposed or windy.
  • Does the site have a suitable location for a covered growing space or shelter should this be needed?
  • Vehicular access and a turning circle will be needed nearby (if not to the nursery itself) eg. to deliver growing media, to collect up and dispatch the grown stock.
  • Consider if you want a one  nursery location or a more ‘dispersed’ nursery. With a dispersed nursery you might ask a variety of people to look after a small number of trees in pots or root-trainers during years 2 and 3, ie. by taking in seedlings and looking after them until they are ready to be planted in their permanent locations. 
  • Consider asking schools if they will host a tree nursery based on the care of saplings in pots/root-trainers or in open ground nursery beds.
  • Some community tree nurseries might choose to specialize in what they propagate depending on what they consider to be the most immediate or relevant need at the time. For example, some nurseries might choose to specialise in producing stock suitable for hedgerows, others for feeding bees in urban gardens. For example, Dorchester CTN is thinking of specializing in providing ‘trees for bees’ in gardens eg. Cherry Plum, Hawthorn, Crab Apple and Rowan.

Site security

  • Protection from pests, especially deer, rabbits, mice and squirrels needs to be considered at all stages of nursery production.
  • A secure building or lock-up for tools and equipment might be useful.

Collecting seeds and seedlings

  • Collect seed or seedlings locally whenever possible. 
  • Consider developing a ‘Register’ of suitable mother trees that are known to be good at producing viable seed and that originate from before c. 1840 (preferably). The First Edition of the Six Inch OS maps are a useful indication of heritage around this period. These maps were surveyed from c1880 onwards so probably show the hedgerows, woods, green lanes and droves from the mid 1800s onwards (ie. pre-dating more recent variants of native hardwood species). And, as a generalisation, hedgerows on parish boundaries tend to be older and may well, in some cases, date back to Saxon times. 
  • To improve biodiversity, collect seeds from as many sites as possible and ideally collect from veteran trees whose genetics predate modern plantations (see bullet 2 above).
  • Where possible, map and keep a record of the trees from which seeds are collected for future reference.
  • Be clear on what species you want to grow at the nursery (and be ready to decline seedlings that you will be unable to find suitable homes for). As an example, Note 1 below shows lists of species that the tree nurseries near Dorchester are thinking of growing.
  • If possible, think three to four years ahead. It will take at least three years to get the first saplings to a size that can be planted in their permanent location, and longer for the slower growing trees. Are you propagating trees and shrubs for planting in hedgerows, as pioneer trees or to establish a new woodland? Each will need a different suite of young trees to meet your needs.
  • Some trees and shrubs can be propagated from hardwood cuttings eg. Dogwood, Willow and Poplar. NB. when using this method, the genetics of the offspring will be identical to the parent so cuttings will need to be taken from a large number of parents to maintain genetic diversity.
  • Collect seeds in the autumn. Label and store seeds in the most appropriate way (NB. there is more than one way!) until you are ready to prepare them for sowing.
  • If you are offered seedlings from people’s gardens they are probably best left there until they become dormant in the winter when they can be moved to the tree nursery. When winter comes, what happens next will probably depend on (a) what species they are, (b) how big they are, and (c) if there is a permanent home available for them that winter. It might be worth asking if people can send you photographs of the seedlings so you know what might arrive at the nursery. 

The Tree Nursery year

  • Read up about the different techniques required to prepare the seeds you have collected and to break the seed dormancy (see Note 2). Each species requires their own conditions. Depending on the species, dormancy is generally broken in (a) ‘controlled’ circumstances eg. in a permeable bag left over winter in a cool damp location or (b) in a seedbed.
  • Sow seeds in autumn as some start germinating immediately whilst others need a period of cold to break dormancy. It’s critical at this stage to protect the seeds from mice and other rodents.
  • Having broken the dormancy of the seeds, there are generally two ways to proceed with the seedlings (a) via containers (pots or root-trainers) or (b) in the open ground. There are pros and cons of each method and you can move seedlings from pots/root-trainers to open ground at any stage (it is less easy to do the reverse).
  • In spring – pot seedlings into 9cm / 3 inch pots to create what are known as ‘liners’ or put the seedlings straight into an outdoor nursery bed.
  • Following autumn / winter – plant the young plants in pots into the open ground nursery beds in lines hence the term ‘lining out’. Plant about 12 to 18 inches apart.
  • Year 2 spring and summer – regularly hoe / weed to reduce competition. Water during dry spells. These plants are called ‘1 plus 1’s i.e. 1 year in a pot and one year in the ground
  • Year 3 spring and summer – regularly hoe / weed to reduce competition. Water during dry spells. These plants are called ‘1 plus 2’s i.e. 1 year in a pot and two years in the ground. 
  • Year 3 autumn – by now the most vigorous young trees should be the ideal size for using in tree planning projects. Slower growing trees will take at least another year to grow to a size suitable for transplanting to their permanent location.

Based on contributions from Trees for Dorset, Planet Purbeck, Transition Town Dorchester. Draft v2, 03/06/2021

Note 1 – Proposed list of seedlings the Dorchester CTN might hope to take in (or raise from seeds):

For hedgerows and pioneer planting:

For hedgerows and pioneer planting:
Acer campestre - Field Maple
Alnus glutinosa - Common Alder
Carpinus betulus - Hornbeam
Cornus sanguinea - Common Dogwood
Corylus avellana - Hazel
Crataegus monogyna - Hawthorn
Ilex aquifolium - Holly
Euonymus europaeus - Spindleberry
Malus sylvestris - Crab Apple
Populus tremula - Aspen (on the floodplains)
Prunus avium - Wild Cherry
Prunus cerasifera - Cherry Plum
Prunus spinosa - Blackthorn
Rosa canina - Dog Rose
Salix caprea - Goat Willow 
Salix cinerea - Grey Sallow
Sorbus aucuparia - Rowan
Viburnum opulus - Guelder Rose
Viburnum lantana - Wayfaring Tree

Add for woodland planting:

Acer platanoides - Norway Maple
Fagus sylvatica - Common Beech
Tilia cordata - Small-leaved Lime

Note 2 – Links to other useful sources of advice:

The Tree Council guide to raising trees from seeds:

The Woodland Trust guide to raising trees from seeds:

The Conservation Volunteers guide to raising trees from seed:

The Forest Research guide to raising trees from seeds:

A Tree Warden’s guide to raising trees from seeds:

A guide to raising trees from seeds published by community woodland groups in Wales:

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