Innovate UK Forest Nursery
Increasing the supply of organic certified tree and hedging plants
To put the UK on the path to Net Zero by 2050, the Climate Change Committee recommends that the UK needs to plant around 30,000 hectares (90 to 120 million trees) of broad leaf and conifer woodland each year. The Soil Association’s own vision for agroecology and regenerative forestry is for the area of farm woodland to double by 2050 and for 50% of all farms to incorporate some form of agroforestry system.
Those goals represent a huge demand for tree and hedgerow plants, which will need to be met by plant nurseries. According to the Woodland Trust, there is a perception that importing trees can be more cost effective than growing them in the UK, however imports have bought with them at least 20 serious non-native pests and diseases, resulting in the loss of tens of millions of trees.
What does this mean for organic farms?
For organic farmland, the potential demand for tree plants greatly exceeds the supply, as currently there are very few UK nurseries supplying organically certified stock.
Organic Forest Nursery research project
To address these challenges, Woodhall Growers (Organic Hedging and Trees), ADAS, Harper Adams University and Soil Association are collaborating on a new research project, funded by DEFRA through their Farming Innovation Programme, in partnership with Innovate UK.
Aims of the project
- Demonstrate how tree and hedge plants can be established in an organic field system without the use of Plant Protection Products.
- Draw on innovation and expertise from field-scale horticulture. The trial will use a fully automated, solar powered robot (FarmDroid) to drill and weed the 1 ha nursery field.
- Assess the effect of different soil factors on germination, growth rate and survival.
- Better understand the market for organic tree plants in the UK.
- Make the findings transferrable (techniques, crop management, costs and yields) to other growers, so that they could incorporate a profitable tree nursery into their own enterprise.
How are Soil Association involved?
As part of the project our Farming and Land Use team will be involved in
- Conducting a market survey and consultation, to assess the needs of organic licensees and landowners for organic tree species.
- Setting up a working group of growers, in Summer 2023, who are interested in integrating a 2-year organic tree nursery into their rotation.
We’re underway- tree seed drilling is complete!
Richard Shropshire (Woodhall Growers)
After a few delays due to the wet and cold spring weather, the seed drilling of the trial plots was completed in the last week of April using the fully automated FarmDroid robot. Five species are being assessed: Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, Scots Pine, Rowan and Small-Leaved Lime in the 1 Ha trial field at Woodhall Growers. The trial plot is a demonstrator of the type of commercial-scale, in-field tree nursery that a farm could incorporate in their rotation, producing 2 year old bare-root trees for market. It will also demonstrate how this can be done in an organic certified system.
In parallel, Harper Adams University are conducting the laboratory and glasshouse control trials, sowing the same species in equivalent soil conditions to understand the factors affecting seed germination and growth.
The biggest challenge so far has been getting the drill to work reliably with tree seeds. The size variability and “dirtiness” of tree seeds can cause problems for an automated precision drill that was designed with uniform and pelleted vegetable seeds in mind. After many experiments with seed discs and some false starts, we’ve now got a good trial sowing in the ground. Unfortunately, the Small-Leaved Lime (Tillia) defeated all our attempts at drilling this year, but all the other four species have gone in well and are looking good for the trial.
The first seedlings are showing signs of emergence and the next stage will be to assess germination rates, monitor the growth progress and use the FarmDroid for precision weeding of the planting beds.