There is no blueprint to planting trees and there never could be. Every site, every piece of land, every ecosystem and all biodiversity needs a fine-tuned, well-researched approach even to begin thinking about a planting project. The execution of such projects requires as much care and thought as a marriage proposal. Essentially, planting projects are a big commitment, and for them to work, it cannot only be about the actual planting but about the preparation, maintenance and monitoring afterwards. Now, of course, we are not suggesting that marriage requires regular monitoring, data and statistics to work, but you get the picture. Planting trees is much more than simply putting a seedling in the ground and waiting for it to grow.
Although there cannot be one blueprint used for every tree planting project, there are some points that consistently apply and should be followed. Kew Gardens Research Centre originates from Kew Gardens in London and consists of over 350 scientists working collaboratively and globally, to understand and protect biodiversity. Through extensive research, they discover sustainable solutions to some of the biggest global challenges, consequently, they have developed the Kew Garden 10 golden rules for restoring forests.
As mentioned above, tree planting is sometimes framed as nature restoration’s easy-fix answer. Whilst there is a huge amount of power in a tree, the way that the tree is planted, where, and its aftercare is what harnesses that power. By devising the 10 golden rules, scientists create a template to ensure the benefits of tree planting for both people and the planet are as many and as far-reaching as possible. Their research launched just ahead of Kew’s global reforestation conference in February 2021, which gathered voices from all sectors; science, horticulture, environment, business and policy to discuss the most important dos and don’ts in tree planting.
Rule number one is: protect existing forests first. This should be a no-brainer but unfortunately, despite all of the efforts going into planting trees, millions of hectares of forest are destroyed each year. Even if we take away all of the issues this causes for biodiversity and ecosystems, the carbon dioxide emitted from this type of action can’t be offset by reforestation for years. As it can take over 100 years for forests to recover from such damages, forest protection, as well as tree planting, is vital, otherwise, we may as well be trying to empty the sea with a thimble.
Rule number two is: work with local people. One of the main reasons why so many reforestation projects fail is not including locals. Local knowledge holds huge value and should never be underestimated. Additionally, including people who live and breathe the land around them helps ensure a project lasts long after the seeds have been planted. It is often stated that planting trees have positive effects on locals by creating employment opportunities and benefiting the actual land health and biodiversity, which is very true as long locals are included in the reforestation process.
Rule number three is one that we bang on about all the time at Land Life Company, but to us, that underlines its importance: maximize biodiversity recovery to meet multiple goals. One that we bang on about all the time at Land Life Company, but to us, that underlines its importance. A reforestation project should always be about more than simply planting a tree or offsetting carbon emissions. Trees have a multitude of benefits and ensuring that projects consider all of them; conserving species, boosting ecosystems, soil conservation and water system stability to name but a few, will help ensure that projects achieve long-term restoration. Restoring nature and biodiversity is the ultimate goal, planting trees thoughtfully and consciously is a way to get there.
For rule number four, Kew states that it is essential to select the right area for reforestation. Areas of land that previously had forest cover are a yes; grasslands, wetlands, peatlands and other areas with no previous forest coverage are a no. The reason is that a lot of these areas capture a lot of carbon in the soil. Nature knows what it’s doing, humans don’t know better. If trees have never been there, it’s probably not a good place to plant.
Number five, stay alive! Or, as Kew says, use natural restoration wherever possible. Natural regeneration is ultimately the aim. We plant trees in areas where natural regeneration isn’t currently happening, but once the trees we grow are healthy forests, they will be able to look after themselves. Areas around forests can regenerate themselves if left alone for a while, and it can actually be more effective than planting trees. This works best on sites that are just slightly degraded with nearby trees to provide seed, heavily degraded land mostly needs a helping hand.
Rule six, pick the right mix, also known as select tree species that maximize biodiversity. As mentioned in the Tree Secrets Unveiled: Chapter 2, planting the right combination of species that complement each other and are native to the land is essential to conserving and boosting native biodiversity. This type of forest will ultimately be more resilient to extreme weather and healthier for all living organisms that exist there.
For rule number seven, Kew tells us to use resilient tree species that can adapt to a changing climate. Expanding on the point above, resilient and diverse trees planted together must also have good levels of genetic diversity so their chances of survival are higher. With global temperatures increasing, another important point to consider when planting is not only the current climate in which the tree needs to thrive, but also the projected climate conditions for that region for the future.
Rule eight and nine are classics, but both are very important: plan ahead and learn by doing. Planting projects are complex, they need perfectionist-style planning and a lot of wiggle room for little changes, however, if issues are foreseen and planned for, they can be dealt with. This leads on to rule nine, to plan you must learn from research and your own experience. At Land Life Company, we monitor our trees and collect data so each project we have a bit more knowledge and a bit more experience. These two rules feed each other, and make plan/execution adaptation that little bit easier every time.
The final rule is: make it pay. Again, to ensure the longevity and sustainability of projects, a commercial focus can be very important. Generating income around reforestation and nature restoration means that more time, effort and money is pumped in and ultimately ensures that planting trees benefits a multitude of different people. Carbon credits, sustainably produced forest products and ecotourism are three examples that Kew uses for rule ten.
As we mentioned in the opening paragraph, there is no blueprint for tree planting, but there are these golden rules. If each point that this piece of Kew’s research is taken into consideration before attempting any tree planting endeavors, then reforestation can be one of the most successful ways of restoring nature and tackling climate change. As Sir David Attenborough said in “A Life On Our Planet”:
“Forests are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon, if we reforest the land we no longer need, the return of the trees would absorb as much as two-thirds of the carbon emissions that are pumped into the atmosphere by our actions to date. Forests are centers for biodiversity, the wilder and more diverse the forests are, the more effective.”
If the world’s top scientists are saying it, and David is saying it, then this is the way to go. After all, as planting trees is such a big commitment and effort, we want to ensure they survive and thrive.