September – for many the holidays are over; long sleeves are aired again for there’s just a hint of coolness on the skin. It’s often a welcome respite; our brains start to function again, lethargic limbs begin to twitch and our gardens come back to life after their summer slumber.
With worldwide talk of water shortages, this year, more than ever, it’s important to plant in autumn so that new plantings have the full benefit of winter rains to establish. Start planting this month and continue through the winter. Exceptions to this would be more tropical and semi-tropical plants which need real warmth to get them moving. For example, if you want palms, bananas, bougainvillea get them in over the next few weeks – once we hit colder weather they will make no root growth.
Spain used to be 95% virgin forest; nowadays we have some 25% tree cover, amounting to 5000 million trees. The Iberian Mediterranean area has 41 trees for every person – a very healthy and green position against the European average of 0.36 trees per person. We still have many wild areas and more mammals, birds and reptiles than any other European country - though several are severely threatened. It’s a great heritage, a huge responsibility and a position that we shouldn’t get complacent about. Environmentally, of course, trees are essential to help prevent land erosion, provide shade, food and shelter for wildlife and ourselves and to clean the air we breathe. One mature tree has the same cooling effect as ten room-size air conditioning units running for twenty hours per day! Anyone who has sat under our acacia tree at the garden centre this summer will vouch for that! They are also aesthetically important; they can improve the value of our homes and have recreational, health and spiritual value.
Whilst it’s true that trees need water, many become self-sufficient, once established, drawing only on the water table and, in exchange, they can provide lots of dense shade which, in turn, reduces water requirements for smaller plantings.
So, now is planting time and we’ve looked at some of the reasons to plant trees but it is also vital to select the right tree; an inappropriate choice will be a headache to you and, possibly, your neighbours, it can be maintenance-heavy and even hazardous.
Here are a few criteria to think about:
1. What sort of tree – what is its purpose? Is it simply a thing of beauty; is it to have some screening purpose (sights and sounds), or is it a cropping tree?
2. Choose one that is suitable for your area. For instance, the stunningly beautiful spathodea campanulata, or flame tree, would succumb to the colder temperatures up in the hills whilst, conversely, the sweet chestnut, castanea sativa, needs a slight winter chilling.
3. Ensure that your choice is environmentally sound. It may be argued that planting any tree is worthwhile but the eucalyptus, for example, is disliked by most wildlife – except koalas! – but is an excellent choice to prevent soil erosion.
4. Size – think above and below ground. It can be difficult to imagine how it will be in twenty years, but try - not only for yourself, but for your neighbours too. The root spread of a tree is, generally, two to four times greater than its canopy. So a canopy 4m wide could have roots with a spread of 16m. Some are very invasive – the carob, ceratonia siliqua, and false pepper, schinus molle, being two classic examples. Watch out for your septic tanks, swimming pools, paving etc.
5. Life expectancy – some will last for hundreds of years, others twenty to thirty. There is a place for both. Remember that low life expectancy nearly allows gives a quick growth rate.
6. Evergreen/deciduous. Evergreens give better screening but deciduous can let in much needed winter sunshine.
7. Ornamental value. Some have one glorious flowering, a pleasurable anticipation! Others may have a quieter charm but longer period of interest, maybe through leaves, bark or their shape.
8. Soil type. We are generally alkaline in this area, so no acid lovers! Think also of soil structure, clay or sandy, and match your tree to ground.
9. Disease problems. Avoid a monoculture – planting lots of one type – it’s an easy breeding ground for fungal disease and insect hopping! Think of the Dutch Elm disease in the UK several years back and, here, our current scourge – the palm beetle.
10. Toxicity. Found in various forms. There are poisonous seeds and sap; some emit huge amounts of pollen - torture for allergy sufferers.
Remember – a well-chosen tree will enhance and beautify your life. If you need some help in making specific choices, please do come and chat to me at the garden centre.
Lorraine Cavanagh has lived in Spain for 22 years; a mother, grandmother and hispanista, her passions are plants, the environment, food and drink, and travelling within Spain. She runs a small plant nursery near Cómpeta, is a landscape gardener and a writer. She also has a weekly spot on OCI radio.
Her book Lorraine Cavanagh’s Mediterranean Garden Plantshas been nicknamed ‘the bible’.
See also “There are No Flies ….. only Foreigners!” a social history of Andalusia and light hearted look at life in Spain.
Viveros Florena, Cómpeta.
Please note: As of 2nd September we will be back on winter hours, 10 – 4, Tuesday to Saturday inclusive.