Trees, Diggers and Manure

‘We Made a Wildflower Meadow’ by Yvette Verner tells the story of a small patch of land transformed into a bountiful haven for nature, encouraging wildlife and helping to sustain a fragile ecosystem. Published in 2019

It’s time to consider planting trees the meadow, but first – rotovation! Yvette and Mike embark on the next stage, learning about tree types, rabbit collars and streamy manure nourishment.


Back in out little meadow in autumn 1991, Michael armed him self with a lethal-looking curved blade fixed to a substantial wooden handle—namely a ‘slasher’. For along the field’s southern edge flour ished a stand of brambles and thistles some twenty yards long. There was a better clump of (tastier) blackberries at the far end, but this straggling, thistly cluster had to go in order to make room for our beech hedge. I stood well back as he wielded this blade with mediæ val valour. Thorny stems fought back wildly and thistledown filled the air, but he eventually won through. There is an old saying about thistles: 

Cut in June, cut too soon; 

Cut in July, ’tis sure to die. 

An interesting discovery was that these brambles had been the only thing holding up the southern barbed wire fence; it promptly fell down. This left an antique chestnut paling fence between us and the school grounds, which we judged quite sufficient. So we rolled up the ancient barbed wire and stamped it flat, for disposal at the local tip. Like the brambles, this barbed wire didn’t give up without a fight, springing into ungainly and unmanageable shapes as soon as we turned our backs. In time, a wooden gate was inserted midway along this fence to connect the school grounds to our meadow, making schoolchildren’s visits much easier. 

In October we hired a five-horsepower digger to rotovate three sides for hedge planting in the following month, plus two rows for young trees to form a windbreak to the west, and a crescent for more trees near the eastern side. At first, the machine could barely scrape the grass off the surface, the clay beneath having been baked solid by recent sun, but after ploughing doggedly back and forth the earth became progressively easier to work. Long grass kept winding round the tines, though, as we had not thought to hire a strimmer to trim the edges first. It took two tiring Saturdays to plough the furrows we needed, but the result looked good, especially with twigs stuck in to mark where our new trees would go.

“Are you replanting the rain forest?” a neighbour called over the fence. “Small is beautiful,” I replied with a smile. With hindsight, it is always best to mow or mulch before rotovating — and to get the biggest rotovator you can for this kind of job (and make sure it has a reverse gear!). The job will then be much simpler.  

Some of the meadow trees

The choice of trees in the local tree nursery’s catalogue was as tempting as a freshly opened box of chocolates: native species of all shapes and sizes were available. Eventually we settled on fifty young tree whips, each about one yard (metre) high, to be protected by spirals of plastic known as rabbit collars, and bamboo canes (the for mer to help stop rabbits chewing the tree bark, the latter to help to support the tree initially and eventually to prevent the rabbit collar from strangling the tree as its trunk thickens). 

We chose species that we could see growing in neighbouring woods and fields, including oak, chestnut, hornbeam and wild cherry, plus a few that we couldn’t resist, like crab apple and copper beech. Most were to be planted some three yards (metres) apart along the Eastern and Western sides, with the remainder placed at irregular intervals along the planned hedgerows. Then we sat back and awaited delivery the following month. 

When the trees and hedges arrived they looked surprisingly compact, bundled together as they were in strong plastic sacks to prevent their roots drying out. However, each time a fresh bag needed to be opened the contents seemed to expand, as tree after tiny tree was removed when a freshly-dug hole was ready to receive it. At last the final tree was planted. We straightened our aching backs and staggered down the lane for home and a hot bath.

Trees, like wildlife gardeners, need nourishment. Being wary of chemical fertilizers and keen to develop a ‘back to nature’ aura, we decided on horse manure for our trees — which has an indisputable aura of its own. We had transported dozens of sacks to form two heaps in good time before the trees were to be delivered, since manure apparently needs to be ‘mature’ (about six months old) in order not to burn the tree roots. 

These heaps steamed fragrantly, nurturing a good crop of attrac tive but unfortunately inedible toadstools, and generally becoming part of the landscape. In fact they merged too well, going beyond normal shrinkage to total disappearance, which was the result of the work of badgers. Early autumn being a slack time for finding worms, their favourite food, they would scrape away at the manure heaps’ edges to reveal succulent brandling worms, tiny but evidently tasty. Eventually only a central pillar of manure was left in each heap; in time this subsided totally, taking with it our planned treat for the trees. At least the badgers benefited. 


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