To Tree or not to Tree

The fiercest conservation battles seem always to centre on mature trees
HAZELLE JACKSON hears both sides.

Nothing arouses stronger emotions when it comes to garden restoration than what to do about mature trees. Local residents become very attached to mature trees for reasons of nostalgia, longevity or even decorative value. Planning rows frequently break out over the removal of trees, whether in the name of redevelopment or restoration.

Tree orders exist to protect venerable trees but many local authorities have ambiguous attitudes towards tree removal or are simply slow in sorting out problems. Claims that the trees concerned are weeds or diseased are treated with scepticism by residents. In Camden recently, Great Marlborough Estates removed four 40-foot trees of heaven from near St George's Gardens, to the outrage of local residents, who accused them of 'blatant vandalism.' The developers' claims that their 'tree expert' had advised that the trees were either diseased or exuding potentially dangerous acidic sap were dismissed with scorn. The developers also claimed they had verbal approval from the council and planned to replace them with mature native species; but the Council had failed to confirm this in writing.

The view through Terrace Gardens, Richmond Hill (Hazelle Jackson)
The view through Terrace Gardens, Richmond Hill

Terrace Gardens Richmond

Richmond Council is also having problems over the removal of trees from Terrace Gardens on Richmond Hill, as part of its plans to renovate the area. A high-profile campaign is being waged by local resident Ron McEwan against the felling of some trees on the site. There are currently around 480 trees, of which a survey commissioned by the council showed that 60-70 need attention, with around 23 earmarked for felling and another nine will be left as stumps, including two of the oldest English oaks. Former head gardener Ron, who is a member of Richmond Council's advisory group on the restoration, rejects these findings and insists that some trees should be saved by judicious cable bracing, to maintain the original character of the area.

Alistair David, Parks Manager with LB Richmond, concedes that "There are strong opinions about trees and Group members had differing views"; but he strongly defends the plans: "It is a fantastic project", he says, adding that there has been lots of consultation and that the project is supported by the Richmond Society. The tree survey was commissioned from Root Cause, an independent consultancy. Further advice has been sought from Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum at Kew.

Ron is also upset over the clearance and replanting of some shrubbery leading to the destruction of what he says are important 'internal' views. "The Terrace Gardens have always been noted for their internal views as much as for their views of the Thames," he says.

While Ron has many plans and views of the Gardens over the years, to support his case, identifying a single unifying historic design, is more difficult. Alistair David insists "There is no original design to the gardens and no registered views."

The issue of how to treat areas of overgrown shrubbery is a contentious one. Modern parks and green spaces are designed for a wide range of users, including the very old and the very young, and designers like to include elements such as low level planting and biodiversity features. This can sit ill with Victorian shrubbery and the undesirable elements this inevitably attracts in the absence of park keepers. Ron meanwhile reserves particular scorn for landscape architects, who, he says: "Generally do not like to work around existing features, they like an empty canvas."

Chiswick House Gardens

There is certainly no empty canvas in view at Chiswick House gardens, where 350 trees are to be felled as part of the restoration. Head gardener Fiona Crumley and project director Sarah Finch Crisp have been taking visitors on tours of the grounds and explaining that the trees that are being felled are mainly vigorous opportunists.

Three large trees will be removed from one of the most controversial areas this winter - the Western Lawn - including a silver birch and horse chestnut. Fiona Crumley says that this is needed because the lawn, which rolls down to the river, was the main feature of the original 18th-century garden.

An even bigger undertaking is the realignment of one of the yew-lined vistas. This will mean removing hundreds of metres of hedge and planting new yew trees just a metre to the side. "We've felled about a third of the trees we plan to so far and the comments from visitors have been favourable. 99 per cent of the trees in the camellia shrubbery were large hollies. Since cutting them down, people have said how much sunshine is coming in and have started sitting in there", Fiona recently told Horticulture Week.