Gazette: Dr Laurel SpoonerDr Laurel Spooner

Column: Green campaigner Laurel Spooner reports on a hedge and tree-planting initiative to help green up Colchester

950 free hedging and tree saplings are looking for good homes this coming February in an initiative co-ordinated by the community group Eco-Colchester, which has obtained the plants from The Conservation Volunteers. This charity has handed out more than a million trees over the last five years. It has at least 100,000 members involved in a variety of conservation and community projects such as the very popular “Green Gym”. Do visit their website which is packed with ideas tempting us to spend more time in the natural world, improving its health while improving our own and creating happier healthier communities -

This is the second year Eco-Colchester has handed out plants especially aimed at smaller projects manageable in town and village settings rather than larger scale plantings requiring more space. For example, the Woodland Trust does excellent work in creating new woods and hedgerows while also preserving some of our most beautiful ancient woods, but its minimum orders are for 30 saplings for double planted hedges six to eight metres long or 30 trees for a copse requiring a site the size of a tennis court.

By contrast, there is no minimum order size with Eco-Colchester so a short length of hedging or three or four trees in a cluster, perhaps across several neighbouring gardens, would qualify. The only proviso is that you order in the name of an organisation rather than a private individual and the planting site must have a CO postcode, so that includes Colchester, Clacton and Harwich and all the villages in between. Clubs, churches, neighbourhood and community groups can apply so why not set up as the Foresters of such and such a road? Look around where you live for a space which could do with some greenery. For example, playgrounds, car parks, gardens of community buildings, churchyards, allotment sites…..perhaps land owned by the council whose permission you would need to obtain by contacting your local councillor.

Eco-Colchester is especially keen on involving children and young people through nurseries, schools and colleges so if you are reading this as parent of a schoolchild please contact the school and spread the word. There is always a patch for a few plants. A hedge (without thorns in this setting) could be grown alongside school railings or round playing fields or to screen off a quieter area of the playground and trees can be introduced along existing boundaries.

Some schools emphasise the environment in their teaching but many do not so Eco-Colchester hopes to use the tree handout as a tool to gain wider involvement. I feel this is crucial as we have left the coming generations with huge environmental and climatic problems and should do all we can to prepare them to cope with the mess. There is an excellent International Eco Schools programme for schools to join which you suggest to the headteacher. A shining example is the Camulos Academy, in Mile End, which has an active eco-committee and hosts an annual eco festival.

To order your plants you need to contact Grace Darke, co-ordinator, by email

On hearing from you she will send you the order form with the information she needs and will do her best to provide you with the right choice of plants for the site you have chosen.

She recommends visiting the conservation volunteers website for advice on planting and nurturing the young saplings which are known as whips. Useful links are provided when the plants are collected. Grown from seed in nurseries they are generally two or three years old and around 30cm in length. Good survival rates require good aftercare such as flattening down of competing grass and weeds and heavy mulching to keep them smothered. This will also hold moisture in for surviving hot dry spells when watering may also be required. If deer and rabbits are likely to eat them - not at all likely in built up areas - Grace supplies guidance on making your own plant guards from recycled materials. She is not in favour of purchasing new plastic guards, the sort which can choke the plants if not removed and eventually litter the ground for decades and pollute the soil and drain into water sources. The plants will arrive bare root and dormant and should be planted within a week or temporarily heeled in the ground, but they must go in by March to have the best chance of taking. Remember hedges will need clipping and trees should be planted where there is room for the mature tree to thrive.

Grace explained why Eco-Colchester is promoting hedging. It creates a different habitat from trees and she feels this may be overlooked. Not only does it provide shelter, a food supply and breeding site for insects, rodents and birds, but provides a green corridor, a safe passageway linking up other areas of vegetation which wildlife can migrate between. Hedges are much more eco-friendly than walls or fences, especially if you are a roaming hedgehog looking for an opening to squeeze through. Grace pointed out that hedges make great boundary markers because they reduce noise and pollution from traffic, create wind breaks and form excellent security barriers. She also knows that good intentions can have unintended consequences and warns against us focussing too much on trees as a means of capturing carbon. Too many trees will threaten other habitats needed for balanced biodiverse eco-systems, for example grassland and heathland which in themselves are useful for carbon capture. To rush in and smother the countryside in trees could do more harm than good.

It has been a privilege to talk to Grace and I have learnt much from her as you can tell from her words below.

“It’s very easy to think as an environment group that our only focus is on the environment, but humans are a part of the environment, we are not separate from it. When we have a healthy environment we have healthy humans. Everything we depend on comes from the environment. We see so much mental and physical illness resulting from our busy lifestyles and disconnection from nature. I therefore do what I do to improve the health of the environment and the health and wellbeing of people.”

Grace was a veterinary nurse until becoming the mother of two young children and the ardent environmentalist she is today.

Thank you both Grace and Eco-Colchester.