Andreas Späth

Planting 7001 trees in a day

2014-05-26 12:49

Andreas Wilson-Späth

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I went to fight aliens in the Southern Cape. Alien plants that is, of course.

The site of the battle: the Platbos Forest Reserve in the hills between Stanford and Gansbaai – Africa’s southernmost indigenous forest and an ancient community of trees, some of them estimated to be around 1000 years old, which is under threat from fires and invasive species like rooikrans (an Australian acacia) and Australian myrtle.

The occasion: Greenpop’s  Reforest Fest.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, the assembled crowd of somewhere between 300 and 400 tree planting volunteers were divided into colour-coded groups, assigned a Greenpop leader and marched to the reforestation site which had been cleared of alien vegetation previously. Everyone was assigned roles from digger or swale-builder to mulcher or planter.

That all sounds kind of military, doesn’t it. Well, it wasn’t. Greenpop have worked out a super efficient method for getting the job done that’s fun for everyone. The group leaders were bundles of joy and boundless enthusiasm, everyone was allowed to work at their own pace, making their own unique contribution to a team effort, and if you got bored of digging holes you could simply change to take on one of the other tasks.

We planted a variety of small indigenous trees saplings (hard pear, white pear, bladder nut, pock ironwood, milkwood, white stinkwood), all of which were raised from seed at the Platbos tree nursery to preserve local genetic diversity and propagate varieties that have evolved to cope with local conditions.

In the forest, different tree species tend to reseed themselves around fallen parent trees, using the rotting organic matter of the previous generation to kick-start the growth of the next.

The planting method we used was developed to mimic this natural succession. The seedlings were planted (by the planters) adjacent to mulch pits (created by the diggers) filled with the chipped and partially composted remains of the alien invaders (by the mulchers).

Rather than planting each tree separately, the seedlings were grouped in multi-species clusters of five trees around each mulch pit. The soil dug out of the holes was turned into semicircular mini walls or swales (by the swale-builders), aligned with the hill contours to trap rainwater. Judging by the efforts of previous years, this technique has yielded a tree survival rate of around 90%.

At first our task seemed daunting. How were a bunch of city slickers going to plant any trees at all, let alone enough to make an actual difference? But we soon gathered momentum and before long we were digging holes and planting trees like a well-oiled, many-headed forest-building machine.

By the end of the day we’d planted an incredible 7001 trees! (The 7001st tree was the last seedling ceremonially put into the ground right at the end.) Add to that a further 3001 trees planted on the weekend before by a slightly smaller Reforest Fest catering specifically for families with kids and a grand total of 10 002 trees were put in the ground.

The whole experience was amazing. Three days’ camping included three delicious hot meals a day, guided forest walks, yoga sessions, music and other entertainment. But the rewards were much bigger than just another nice weekend away.

The Reforest Fest is one of the few occasions that offer ordinary individuals the opportunity to make a tangible and lasting contribution to our country’s future environmental wellbeing.

It’s one of the most meaningful and fulfilling hands-on green experiences I can imagine. It lets you dig in the ground and plant trees that will hopefully mature into a vibrant, diverse and healthy forest ecosystem over many generations to come.

It provides participants with the opportunity to “pay it forward” and to leave a gift to our children’s children and theirs to come.

Above all, it illustrates the amazing power of community: the fact that working together a group of dedicated people can make a real difference the scale of which is hard to comprehend when considered from the perspective of the individual.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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