The first five years of a tree’s life are the most important for ensuring its long-term survival. It is during this establishment period that you will need to spend the most time supporting the tree’s growth and health. If you have worked with volunteers to help you plant, they may also wish to be involved with looking after the trees during this phase. While young trees do need some care and attention to help them thrive, it really comes down to just a few steps. Here’s our quick guide to tree maintenance. 

1. Weeding 

Maintain a one-metre diameter weed- and grass-free ring around young trees. You need to do this for at least the first three years of their growth. This reduces competition for light, nutrients, and water, therefore enhancing the tree’s growth rate and chance of survival.  

It’s wise to avoid indiscriminate mowing of planted areas so as not to damage the trees. We also discourage using chemical herbicide. If needed, hand weeding is recommended, but regular mulching around young trees will do most of the work for you.  

2. Mulching 

Mulches are great for tree maintenance. They feed the soil, stop water evaporation, and encourage mycorrhizal activity. Mycorrhizae are beneficial fungi that grow alongside plant roots, supporting tree health, particularly in the roots. The best approach for weed suppression is a DIY sheet mulch made of natural fibre such as wool or coconut coir. You can add loose organic mulch, such as woodchip, bark, or compost on top of this. You will need a layer that is at least 10cm thick and substantial enough that it won’t be blown away by the wind. Ideally it should have a minimum particle size of around 10 mm – no wood shavings or sawdust! Be aware that fresh chippings can leach nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. As a result it is better to use partially decomposed material if possible (around the 6-month mark is perfect.

Keep the mulch away from tree stems to prevent rot. Aim for a doughnut shape around the tree, rather than a pile against the stem, avoiding any cavities within the mulch that might be attractive to wildlife. As mulch decomposes into the soil it will need topping up. It’s worth doing this a minimum of once a year.  

Ranger intern Daisy Tickner mulches a newly planted tree at Southmead Hospital.
Ranger intern Daisy Tickner mulches a newly planted tree at Southmead Hospital. Photo: Phoebe Webster / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Nature Recovery Rangers mulching saplings
Nature Recovery Rangers mulching saplings. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
A volunteer during a weekly woodland maintenance session at Aintree's bluebell woodland
A volunteer during a weekly woodland maintenance session at Aintree’s bluebell woodland. Photo: Fiona Megarrell / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

3. Watering 

Watering trees should be the exception not the rule. We want trees to adapt to the local conditions and put down deep roots towards the groundwater. However, drought is more commonly a problem than it used to be in the UK due to climate change. You may need to water trees during periods of extreme drought. Mulches can also help retain water in the soil. Observing which tree species establish and grow successfully in a drought year can inform your future planting designs. A rough guide for watering during droughts is a full watering can or five minutes with a hose, per 2.5cm of trunk diameter at knee height once a week. 

Tree planting event at Fairfields with Yorkshire Ambulance Service
Tree planting event at Fairfields with Yorkshire Ambulance Service. Photo: Alexis Percival / YAS. All rights reserved.

4. Protection 

Tree protection is also important for saplings, particularly in areas where animal browsing is a risk. The NHS Forest supplies all its saplings with biodegradable guards and stakes/canes to ensure young trees have adequate protection. Quarterly checks should be made to the trees to ensure that the guards are resting on the ground as this prevents damage from small animals and that the bamboo canes are still vertical. Going around with a rubber mallet to tap the bamboo poles in the ground can ensure the trees grow straight. Sometimes vandalism can be a problem. Local community involvement in tree planting fosters a sense of ownership and protection and reduces this risk. Reach out to your local community for support with tree maintenance. We know that planting trees is great fun, but their aftercare is just as important.  

As your trees establish, you can start to remove shelters as soon as the main stems – excluding branching – have reached three metres in height. Typically, this occurs around five years after planting, but it can take longer for slower-growing species. If in doubt, it is often better to err on the side of caution and leave shelters in place. Spiral guards will expand with the trunk without harming the tree, but traditional tubes should always be removed if they begin to split to avoid impeding the growth of the tree. 

5. Share knowledge

Avoid accidental damage by making sure everyone involved in tree maintenance (volunteers, contractors etc) knows where the trees are and how to look after them. Remind people mowing or strimming in the area to give the trees a wide berth – strimmers and tree stems are not a good combination! It may be worth tying hazard tape to some of the bamboo poles on the outer edge of the trees planted to draw attention to the saplings. 

Still have questions? Try our FAQs or join one of our drop-in sessions. 

Want to order trees? Fill out our expression of interest form.

We always love to hear about your planting projects, tag us on Twitter/X or send us pictures to info@nhsforest.org 

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