The Triumph of Optimism over Experience – or – attempting to grow trees in Orkney!

By Bernie Bell

There aren’t a lot of trees in Orkney.  There are some woodlands which are open to the public, including Binscarth woods near Finstown, Happy Valley in Stenness, Olav’s Wood in South Ronaldsay, and Berriedale on Hoy.  Some folk, including Mike and I, are trying to grow trees here, which does need patience.  All aspects of gardening are with a long-term view, but the old saying that we don’t plant trees for ourselves, we plant trees for the future, is definitely true, especially here on Orkney.

Our ‘best’ tree, is a Birch, which is about 10 years old, and is just a bit taller than me – I’m 5ft 1.  It’s amazing what a bit of shelter can do.

Birch B Bell

Birch photo B Bell

There is an Alder, which was planted by the people who lived here before us – Fiona-Next-Door says it’s about 15/16 years old – and it’s only about 4 ft. high, but….it grows out sideways!  It’s planted in what must be the most windy, exposed bit of the garden, and, it shows – no need to ask what the prevailing wind direction is!

Alder B Bell

 Alder says – “I wants to grow sideways, so I shall”

We also have a couple of trees which we have planted in memory of those who have passed from this life – a living memory, in the form of a Bay willow and a Birch.  The Birch was grown from a seed from a tree on  Hoy – not by me – I don’t have the equipment! – it was grown  by Jenny Taylor, then we bought it at a plant sale in aid of Happy Valley.  This is very fitting for the person we’ve planted it in memory of, as she was Orcadian, through and through, herself, and worked tirelessly for all things Orkney.

Here’s a little tale ………..

A few  years ago, Mike and I were in the car park at the back of Bruce’s Stores, in Kirkwall.  There’s a big Sycamore there. I noticed that, just under a drain cover by the tree, there were some little, tiny seedlings growing.  The seeds must have fallen off the tree, and lodged in the muck under the drain cover.  They would have been cleared out, eventually,  and couldn’t grow there, successfully, anyway. So, Mike ( my hero!), carefully eased them out.  We put them in a plastic bag, and I potted them up, when I got home.  We called them ‘The Gutter-snipes’.  I nurtured them, in the cold frame, then I moved them out, to by the cold frame, to harden them off a bit, and then….we planted them out.

 So, the Gutter-snipes have finally been liberated, and are either enjoying being out in the soil, or are wondering what on earth has hit them, being out this wind!  They are still very small trees, but……..will grow.  When I said that they might be wondering what’s hit them, Mike said that they were born in a drain, so they should be grateful for what they’ve got!

And now, we’re all just waiting for Spring!

Related stories:

Bernie Bell’s Stories :Strays

Recording Bio Diversity in Happy Valley

Tale and a Tune: Happy Valley

Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (With Stories) – Happy Valley

Bio Blitz

Happy Valley, Orkney


3 replies »

  1. When you look at Kirkwall from above, there are a lot of mature trees. Even around hill sites like Highland Park House there are huge sycamores and other species including a big laburnum. Old photos show that there were no big trees around HPH a hundred years ago. I’m assuming that it is the presence of relatively high walls that gives the trees a chance to get established in their early years. I would say a number of the Highland Park House trees are self seeded rather than deliberately planted. So – if you want trees – build a wall first…

  2. I know – but – easier said than done. We does what we can.
    I wouldn’t really want a big wall round our garden – we wouldn’t be able to ….see!

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