I wonder if there's anyone who moves into a new house and does not find huge numbers of bricks and vast quantities of hardcore in their garden – all covered very prettily by a thin layer of topsoil and topped off by turf. The Woodland Trustees and volunteers share your pain!
When the Saxon Heath woodland was being developed, the area alongside Fairfax Avenue which had housed the builders' compound was greatly compacted and had a great deal of cement slurry and concrete spread across it. Trustees requested that this solid 'pan' should be at the very least broken up (and ideally, should have the rubbish removed) before the promised topsoil was spread. In the event, Taylor Wimpey's contractors either did not receive or chose to ignore the request and just spread the topsoil and then laid the (in our case, quite unnecessary) turf. Finally, in went all the 'specimen' trees. They were shallowly planted in the 12 inches of topsoil. Some of them have found their situation impossible and have died.
It is the Trustees plan that the area around the Fairfax Avenue kissing gate should remain relatively open, with splendid specimen trees to be admired. We clearly couldn't just take out the one tree and put in another – the hard 'pan' had to be broken through to allow decent drainage and give the roots a chance to get out into the surrounding soil. Equipped with spades, pickaxe and sledgehammer, a start was made and progress was good as we were going through the foot-depth of topsoil. However, the solidified concrete slurry that was met with next was nowhere so easy to remove and lack of access room meant that the pick could be of little assistance.
We discovered that Wickes sell a four-foot long, pointed and exceedingly heavy steel bar. Once equipped with this, the concrete gave way to the vigorous attack and was broken up, a bit at a time, until, after four hours of really hard work and with the hole now well over three-foot deep, the original field soil was rediscovered at the bottom. The earth at the bottom of the hole was itself broken up and then compost and good topsoil were used to fill the hole up again. We could plant the new tree, secure in the knowledge that its roots now have somewhere to go. And, unlike its predecessor, it will not drown because this one has not been planted just above a totally waterproof sink made of concrete slurry!
One of the outcomes of the year-long survey of the birds in Tarvin Woodland has been the recognition that, while the woodland serves as a haven for many varieties of birds, there are still certain birds which might reasonably be expected but which are not there at present. Robin Jones, one of our resident ornithologists, suggests that one of our problems is a lack of food for some birds and, in particular, that we don't have nearly enough trees that bear fruit or berries in the autumn. Therefore, we chose to plant a Crab Apple tree – Malus baccata "Street Parade".
This is an upright tree which produces an abundance of fragrant white flowers, opening from pink buds in May, and these are followed in autumn by shiny, purple-red fruits, which the birds love. This crab apple is also an attractive tree – its leaves unfolding pinkish-red, turning dark green in summer and becoming bright yellow in autumn. So, as well as providing food for birds, it should help to enhance the appearance of an area which we hope will become a focal point in the Saxon Heath Woodland.
There are a few of the Saxon Heath trees which have succumbed in the same way. They have been removed and, where the soil is workable and has not been rendered useless by the pan, they are being replaced. We have put in Rowans (Sorbus aucuparia), which will produce masses of autumn berries and hornbeams (Carpinus betulus) for the masses of insects that these beautiful trees will harbour. However, in the large, green area next to Fairfax Avenue, the magnitude of the task involved in dealing with the pan is such that this may be a slow process. We hope that Saxon Heath residents and the users of the woodland will bear with us.
We are working at it, we will get there – and it WILL be beautiful. Nature is on our side!