The next few months are the traditional tree planting season. Trees become dormant in winter and they effectively shut down, making this the optimal time of year for bare-root tree planting, or tree moving. During the spring and summer trees are busy using a significant amount of energy to sustain their health and growth so planting or moving would interrupt these processes and make it more difficult for the tree to establish successfully. However container-grown trees can – with maintenance - be planted year-round.
The loss of deciduous trees’ leaves during the dormant period is known as abscission. Fallen leaves can be an irritation – for example, blocking gutters and drains – and there is a tendency to want to sweep them up. However, if you leave them where they fall on the grass and allow them to break down, it will improve the soil structure and therefore the growing conditions for plants. If they are swept up, you should ideally add them to your compost bin rather than burning them.
There may of course be advantages to clearing fallen leaves where a parasite, such as chestnut leaf miner, may ‘overwinter’ in the leaf litter on the ground before attacking the tree once more in the spring. In these cases the leaves should be burned. (See our Pests & Diseases round-up http://www.jp-associates.co.uk/news/pests-and-diseases/)
Cutting and pruning
Winter is generally recognised as the best time to carry out tree pruning, in particular fruit trees. You should generally avoid cutting back during bud/leaf burst and leaf drop – in other words, spring and autumn. For good, clear guidance on how to best to prune fruit trees, see the BBC website (address at the end).
Coppicing is also traditionally carried out now. An ancient method of woodland management, it works by repeated cutting-back of the growth of particular types of tree – chestnut, hazel, ash and willow are common examples – to encourage new growth from the stump, known as the coppice stool. A coppiced woodland will have multiple-stemmed trees able to produce timber relatively quickly without a new tree having to establish itself after one is felled. Coppiced timber can be used for making fences, for thatching spars, firewood, furniture making and charcoal.
Japanese knotweed will die back after the first frost. If you know you have a patch of JK that will need to be sprayed, your aim should be to encourage the healthiest growth possible the following spring to give you the optimum surface area for treatment. You should therefore clear the canes once they have dried out and burn them on site.
Land and woodland management
If you manage a tract of land with public access you should use the winter months to carry out essential repairs to signs, stiles and pathways. A visual check of tree stock is advisable: again, any remedial work should be done when the trees are dormant. You should seek professional advice for large trees that show signs of decay or limb damage – see our latest Myth Buster, ‘Is that tree safe?’ on the Knowledge Hub section of our website.
Once the bird nesting season – March-September – ends you can get on with hedge cutting and laying. Hedge laying is good practice as it encourages strong regrowth, maintains habitat and helps form a dense barrier. There are many courses around the country if you want to learn this ancient art - check out the website at the end for a list. The colder months are also time to get invasive shrubs such as rhododendron under control.
Wildlife needs extra consideration during the cold months. Don’t forget to leave some food – and, importantly, water - out for birds. The RSPB website has all the information you need on the right foods to give. You could also think about putting up bird boxes over winter ready for nesting in the spring. If you want to feed hedgehogs, do not put out bread and milk as it may make them ill. Cat or dog food is good – for other suitable foods and further information see the RSPCA website.
Logs – how could we talk about the winter season and not mention logs. For a useful, warming read please check out our ‘Wood for good fires’ story.