Buying and selling trees - Landscape Review

Tree suppliers tell how factors such as the public spending squeeze and the environment are affecting tree services.

Birch is among traditional favourites still sought by local authorities to line streets and avenues in parks - image: iStockphoto
Birch is among traditional favourites still sought by local authorities to line streets and avenues in parks - image: iStockphoto

Earlier this month, staff from Majestic Trees delivered a consignment of trees to the home of one of the members of an international supergroup, who happens to live in Hampstead - an extremely affluent suburb of north London.

"It was a huge order. We had lots of trees that were £2,000 each," says managing director Steve McCurdy. The trees included some 8m specimens, designed to make a big impact. They were mainly native species such as hornbeam and apple, but among the specimens were exotic types such as the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata.

"There are still a lot of people with a lot of money," adds McCurdy. "A few years ago we did scarcely any contracts of more than £50,000. Now we do them regularly. People still think that trees are important and want good quality."

Supplying trees is a major industry. Despite the recession and forthcoming cutbacks, there is a still a vast market. But, as most suppliers emphasise, it is vital to procure the right species for the very distinct sectors of the tree-buying market - namely, the domestic market, the commercial sector or the local authority market.

Local authorities are valuable clients

In recent years the public sector, and particularly local authorities, has been one of the largest buyers of trees. Local authorities were seen as valuable clients because they had large budgets and a commitment to the local environment.

Under the last Labour Government, large sums of money were made available for parks and street regeneration schemes run by local authorities or by publicly-funded bodies.

It is widely accepted that because of the current financial situation, the next few years could be tough. However, it seems that it will be some time before the extent of problem becomes clear. John Marsden, sales manager at Coblands Nurseries, explains: "We haven't seen any fall in sales yet. Things seem fairly healthy."

However he suggests that this might be because of "budget dumping". In many cases, pubic bodies are keen to dump their budgets, spending the money before it is clawed back in Government cuts.

But some suppliers believe that the cuts have already started to bite. Andy Moreham, sales manager at tree supplier Joseph Rochfords, says: "We have seen people ordering smaller trees to save money. Whereas a few months ago they might have been ordering trees with a girth of 20-25cm, they will now be ordering 16-18cm or even 14-16cm." They are unlikely to order anything smaller than 14cm because they are too likely to be vandalised.

James Coles, who owns James Coles nurseries, also believes that people are cutting back. "People are still buying the same traditional trees that they have always bought, but the numbers being sold are generally smaller," he explains.

Sales of street trees follow a traditional pattern. Barcham Trees, based in Cambridgeshire, is one of the best-known tree nurseries and has specialised in selling to local authorities. It currently has a stock of around 160,000 trees.

Sales manager Keith Sacre says most local authorities are still buying traditional favourites. "We still sell a lot of birch, oak and field maple," he reports. "Horse chestnut has declined sharply because of all the problems, but oak is still selling well." He points out that for street trees, most local authorities are still getting trees of 16-18cm girth and 12cm-14cm girth in areas where vandalism is less of a problem.

Smaller trees sold for use in streets

Barcham is selling more of the slightly smaller, ornamental varieties for street trees. "We're selling a lot of Sorbus, cherry, birth, hawthorn, field maple, and Malus (crab apple)." There is also strong demand for Amelanchier ovalis (snowy mespilus), which is relatively small - growing up to about 4m - and provides good colour at various times of the year.

Civic Trees says the variety specified often depends on the size of the street. Sales manager Deric Newman explains: "In small streets they might want something like birch, crab apple or Sorbus, so that the roots don't get too big. In larger avenues they might want traditional trees such as limes or London plane." He adds: "Planes are still popular because they will grow just about anywhere, aren't too aggressive and improve the price of property."

According to Civic Trees, local authorities often want an interesting mix of trees. At one scheme in south Kilburn, part of the London Borough of Brent, trees were used to close off a street that had been used as a sort of cut-through for traffic.

"We blocked off the street and created a series of pocket parks. We built out from the junctions with clumps of six or eight trees - usually cut leaf alder, Betula jacquemontii (white stemmed birch) and wild cherry as well as field maple. We put up about 200 trees. It was very effective," says Newman.

Often councils will consult with local people on the varieties that are going to be planted. JA Jones sales manager Dan Kings says: "Councils will often approach residents with pre-approved lists of trees that they can use." These are usually small ornamental types. Councils generally avoid Sorbus because they do not want any fruit fall. Popular are small beech trees such as Fagus Dawyck that come in various leaf colours including purple, green and gold.

Clients want trees to go in car parks

Matthias Anton is managing director at Deepdale Trees, which specialises in large private projects. In many cases buyers want trees for car parks, he notes. As a result, they need trees that have a clear stem - no protruding branches up to about 2.2m - so that cars can park beneath the trees.

Landscapers try to avoid trees such as limes, which attract aphids and result in a sticky sap, which car owners have to scrub off their windscreens. For the same reason, they avoid fruit fall.

Buyers also want a variety of sizes to prevent a look of dull uniformity. "Unless you want a formal avenue, you need a mix of small, medium and large trees. You need everything from a 20cm girth to a 50cm girth. The biggest trees we plant will be eight or nine metres high," says Anton.

Popular types include ornamental pear, hornbeam, field maple and Himalayan birth. Anton is also a fan of London plane: "They are virtually bulletproof, easy to establish and they make a site look more mature."

Prestige projects often require larger trees - usually native varieties. "We've just done one business park where £500,000 was spent just on trees. We put in beech, hornbeam, silver birch, limes and English oak," says Anton.

There is also increasing demand for large Mediterranean trees. "We sell a lot of 1,000-year-old olive trees," he adds. "They are very rugged and interesting. They've got a lot of character." Customers will spend up to £15,000 for a single tree and two or three thousands more to plant it.

Civic Trees was recently called on to create an arboretum featuring tulip trees and 12m-high cedars of Lebanon on a private estate in Oxfordshire. It seems that wealthy private buyers are still prepared to splash their cash on major tree-planting projects.

Trees still bought for screening

Private homeowners are still buying trees, often for screening. Many new-build homes are built on brownfield sites, such as old railways sidings or in large old gardens that have been infilled. In either case, there is a huge need for screening. The best way to do this is with trees.

Some customers go to extremes. Steve McCurdy at Majestic Trees says: "Some people are fanatical, even if the nearest neighbours are half-a-mile way. One customer in Harpenden bought a £1m plot next to his home and covered it with trees so he can't be seen. He now wants to put up a 4m hedge to ensure his privacy."

Another top-end customer has just spent £110,000 on trees. However, nurseries point out that even people with relatively modest incomes are prepared to spend thousands to ensure their privacy.

Among homeowners, there are some clear trends. There has been a distinct move towards shaped trees, such as pleached hornbeam or various types of topiary or espaliered trees. In some cases, buyers are asking for multi-stemmed specimens of trees such as limes.

Homeowners are also latching onto the grow your own trend. Not only are people buying fruit trees for their gardens, but developers have realised that traditional fruit trees can promote sales. Majestic Trees, for example, is selling apple varieties such as Gala, Starking, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith as well as plum trees such as Stanley, President and Victoria. It seems that homeowners like the idea of gathering baskets of lovely fresh fruit each autumn.


Many factors are affecting the trees that are being chosen. Environmental considerations are less important than they were - relatively few buyers are expressing fears about global warming.

In the past it was feared that the British climate would be too warm to allow native trees such as oaks to flourish in the wild. Mercifully, this has not happened yet, and landscapers are still requesting native trees including oaks.

Until a couple of years ago, local authorities were wary of planting large broadleaf trees. It was felt that because they had large root systems, they dried out the soil and caused problems of subsidence, particularly in clay soils.

However, this problem has now abated. This is partly because of the relatively wet summers of the past few years and partly because most councils have introduced programmes of pollarding and trimming trees, which has meant that fewer trees are growing out of control and causing problems.

There is also recognition that trees have a value for the environment as a whole. Barcham Trees has been promoting American initiatives that ascribe an "ecosystem service value" to local trees. This initiative recognises that trees help with particulate absorption (taking up particles released by fuel), give shade, create a pleasant microclimate, help with storm water run-off and contribute to the economy. This sort of thinking means that public bodies are less wary of buying large trees.

The shape of trees is also important.

A recent meeting of London tree officers heard that there is an increased demand for small trees with tighter crowns that do not obstruct closed-circuit television cameras. Tall, thin trees are also desirable because they do not get in the way of buses or tall lorries.

There is increased interest in native species. John Marsden at Coblands points out that many organisations, including public bodies, are asking for plants that come from local UK seed collection zones laid out by the forestry commission. "Projects in the South East, for example, will ask for trees from area 405," he explains. As a result, trees such as hornbeam and oak are still in great demand.


A few years ago, local authorities were obsessed with potential problems caused by street trees. In 2001, Delaware Mansions - a block of flats - successfully sued Westminster City Council for damage caused by the roots of a street tree.

Because Westminster had been aware of the problem but had failed to act, it was considered liable for the complete cost of underpinning. The costs, including legal fees, came to more than £1m. After this, many councils took the decision to cut down large numbers of street trees to avoid any similar issues.

The problems were exacerbated by insurance companies, which urged people to cut down large trees within 30m of buildings. In practical terms, this meant that large trees in towns should all be removed.

The London Borough of Ealing decided to cut down 4,500 lime trees because of the cost of maintenance and insurance. Havering Council cut down trees that shed fruit because of fears of injury claims. By 2005, arborists were complaining of a "slaughter" of trees and accusing some consultants of "drive-by dendricide".

Since then, the attitude towards trees has changed. It has been widely recognised that trees have an asset value. There is no point chopping down a hugely valuable tree just because it has caused a couple of thousand pounds worth of damage. Many local authorities now have protocols in place to establish the value of a tree and to see whether it genuinely has to be cut down or whether remedial works can be done.

Many councils have completely shifted their policy. In October 2004, for example, Enfield in north London decided that, for insurance reasons, it wanted to rip out virtually every street tree in the borough. The Highways Tree Management Strategy suggested trees that had reached "the end of their useful life" should be removed and replaced.

It turned out that the council wanted to remove every tree over 50 years old, so almost all of the borough's London planes would have been replaced by smaller trees such as fastigiate maple, ornamental pears and Italian alder.

After a huge public outcry, the council spared the trees. Earlier this year, shortly before the election, the local authority ran a series of huge adverts in the local papers. Under the slogan "greener and cleaner", it trumpeted the borough's environmental achievements.

The adverts were illustrated with pictures of the large local trees - the very trees that the council had been trying to remove only five years earlier. Mercifully, it seems that large trees have gone from being a political liability to being a source of civic pride.


Horse chestnut trees have been badly affected by leaf miner and bleeding canker, which have attacked the foliage and threatened the health of the trees. This means that the demand for horse chestnut trees has virtually died away.

Oak processionary moth has mainly been confined to south London. The moth causes an allergic reaction. This is more likely to affect park workers than members of the public. Most tree nurseries report that demand for oak remains relatively stable.


According to Civic Trees, it is quite common to spend as much money on maintaining the tree for the first couple of years as on the initial planting. A tree will need to be watered regularly and fed. On top of this, most trees require a lot of initial care while their roots are becoming established.

Weeds are another problem. They grow rapidly around a newly-planted tree and can compete for water. Installers will often use a permeable resin-bonded gravel in a tree pit. This is expensive but makes it difficult for weeds to become established. Another method is to use bark mulch, which smothers weeds.

In the Civic Trees project in the London Borough of Brent, 70 of the larger trees were put in resin-bonded gravel and 130 were surrounded with bark mulch. In addition, regular spraying is needed. Once the trees are established, weeds are much less of a problem because the tree canopy will deprive them of light and water.

Nick Coslett, marketing and sales manager at Palmstead nurseries, points out that many young trees are poorly cared for. "They are just allowed to die. They are strimmed, neglected and strangled by ties. Sadly, they don't always get the aftercare they need," he says.

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