How and why we plant

Centre for nature and green living

How and why we plant

Hedge planting volunteers, by L. Outing
Hedge planting volunteers, by L. Outing

Our planting projects focus on creating and improving four particular types of habitat – hedgerows, woodlands, grasslands and streams. On this page you can find out  more about how we choose what and where to plant, and the wider context of our work. You can support our efforts by volunteering or buying our gift cards to help us create:

Species-rich hedgerows

Our aim is to provide a better habitat for birds and other wildlife species. Purchasing our £5 charity gift card will pay for the planting and care of one metre of a species-rich hedgerow either at St Nicks Nature Reserve or another site we work on in York.

Hedges have been disappearing from the landscape in the last century due to changes in farming practices but we’re very keen to keep the tradition alive. We have been expanding hedges on the reserve in the last few years, planting over 300 metres of species-rich hedgerows. These provide valuable refuge and safe passage for wildlife which makes them extremely important habitats, not to mention great foraging places.

Charity gift card (blue tit photo by Lewis Outing)Where possible we plant hedgerows with native or naturalised species at a minimum of 5 trees per metre, in double rows to create a thick hedge quickly. The species we plant could include classic native hedgerow trees such as hawthorn, holly, hazel, crab apple and field maple, or the wildlife friendly prunus species such as wild cherry and blackthorn along with the early flowering naturalised cherry plum. The species we choose for a hedge will depend on the wider environment such as the amount of sun it will get, whether it is exposed to wind, likely to get flooded, or if the soil is free draining. We’ll also look at what the nearby habitat is like. For example if planting near grassland with lots summer flowering wildflowers it would be beneficial for the wider environment to have a spring flowering interest for early pollinators such foraging queen bumblebees and brimstone butterflies. Or if planting a hedge near a young broadleaved woodland with limited flowering or fruiting species we would ensure the new hedgerow contained these species instead. On more urban sites run by community groups a hedgerow might be planted with foraging in mind to include species like crab apple, blackthorn and elder or perhaps more cultivated species such as plums and damsons.

Once planted the trees will need some maintenance for the first few years to ensure they are not outcompeted by plants such as bramble and bindweed. They will also be winter pruned in their early years to encourage bushy growth. If there is the opportunity to do so we will also look to improve the vegetation around the hedge to attract more wildlife. This could include introducing sprawling climbing plants such as honeysuckle or clematis, wildflowers such as red campion and hedge bedstraw. Once established the hedge will come under a low maintenance management regime to ensure its wildlife value long term.

Planting of hedgerows takes place between November and March.


woodland, by L Outing

St Nicks woodland lacking understory, photo by Lewis Outing

Woodland havens

Treating someone to one of our £20 charity gift cards will pay for the planting and care of a 2-3 year old, understory tree either at St Nicks Nature Reserve or another site we work on in York. Young or undermanaged woodlands often lack an understory layer. This means that the woodland is often one-dimensional by having a tall canopy layer which blocks any sunlight from helping to establish lower growing plants and shrubs. Tall mature trees are incredibly valuable to wildlife but so are the more densely growing shrubs such as holly, hawthorn and coppiced hazel. As with any habitat it is important to have a diverse range of size, age and structure so planting understory trees into thinned or coppiced woodland can quickly improve its value for wildlife.

Charity gift card (woodland photo by Lewis Outing)By planting trees of a minimum of 2 years old the understory forms much quicker and begins producing flowers and fruits sooner. Trees will be planted with some of our nature reserve made nutrient rich compost, and will have stakes and guards attached to ensure protection from nibbling rabbits. In the first few years the trees will be cleared around to ensure they are not outcompeted before they are big and tall enough to look after themselves. Once established the trees may be coppiced as part of our coppice with standards regime, which means they are cut low so they grow into a more valuable for wildlife multi-stemmed tree. As we are creating or enhancing the understory on St Nicks and other sites we will also look to develop the field or herb layer with woodland bulbs and plants such as snowdrops, wild garlic, woodland grasses and sedges.

Planting of trees takes place between November and March.


Scythers at the Millennium Bridge, by Lewis Outing

Scythers at the Millennium Bridge Scythe Fest, by Lewis Outing

Wildflower-rich grasslands

The plight of our pollinating insects has been well documented over the past decade as we have lost more and more valuable species-rich grassland habitat to development or other changes in land management, both around the country and locally. In recent years Buglife’s Urban Buzz and our own Meadow Keepers projects have started to reverse this trend in York by improving existing and creating new wildflower areas across the city.

Purchasing our £15 charity gift card will pay for the planting or sowing of one square metre of wildflowers to improve grassland biodiversity either at St Nicks Nature Reserve or another site we work on in York. The species of wildflowers will depend on the local environment. We will assess what is already growing nearby, if the site is wet or dry and whether the soil ph is neutral, acidic or calcareous. We will also look at what plants are already growing nearby to understand what is flowering during which season to see if there are gaps in the season that need filling.

Charity gift card (photo by Andrew Cutts)The areas we improve will be sites which are currently either amenity grasslands with low wildlife value or undermanaged existing grassland habitat. Our method for doing this is by inversion. This involves digging and flipping approximately 1 foot depth of turf, burying the nutrient rich top soil and exposing the nutrient poor subsoil. This ensures the seeds and young plants are not instantly outcompeted by existing plants. Plants take longer to develop and flower from seed while plug plants are more expensive and require more maintenance to ensure they survive so we use a combination of plug plants and seeds where possible to increase our chances of success.

Once created the wildflower area will be managed by St Nicks or a partner green space group as required. This will often be by a yearly traditional cut by scythe with the cuttings removed to ensure the site doesn’t become nutrient enriched which leads to great competition from aggressive grasses and weedy species.

Sowing and planting of grassland wildflowers normally takes place in either spring or autumn.


Osbaldwick Beck, by Lewis Outing

Osbaldwick Beck, by Lewis Outing

Life-giving streams

Our aim is to improve the wildlife value of green spaces attached to the streams such as Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Beck to provide a better habitat for endangered water voles as well as other species. Purchasing our £10 charity gift card will pay for the planting or sowing of a patch of tasty aquatic and riverside plants along local streams either at St Nicks Nature Reserve or another site we work on in York.

Our rivers and streams are such valuable and also iconic habitats in York. We have been working to help conserve and enhance the wildlife value of the River Foss and its Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Beck tributaries for a number of years now. These rivers and becks are vital wildlife corridors which traverse the city. They consist of valuable riverside habitat as well as what can be found in the water so they have a huge value to both terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.

Currently our habitat improvement work is limited to urban reaches of Tang Hall and Osbaldwick which includes St Nicks and other sites such as Hemplands and Heworth Holme. In recent years we have worked with the River Foss Society to map and survey the main River Foss habitats and from 2020 we will begin to make habitat improvements here too.

Charity gift card: water vole, by Lewis Outing

Charity gift card (water vole by Lewis Outing)

Due to the fact these rivers and streams regularly flood, depositing nutrient rich silt from upstream onto the riverbanks, we will concentrate on improvements with a number of competitive species. These include wildflowers such as meadowsweet, purple loosestrife, gypsywort, tansy, hemp agrimony and angelica as well as grasses, rushes, and sedges which thrive in wet habitats. Where possible we will also introduce aquatic and marginal plants such as common reed, brooklime, water mint, yellow flag iris and watercress species.

Once planted we will ensure the plants are cared for in their first year until established. The type of plants we will introduce will survive with minimal management but would benefit from a cut every two years as a minimum. This longer term management will depend on the location and ours or related group’s resources at that time.

Planting of aquatic and riverside plants takes place in late spring to early summer or during autumn.


December 2015 flood at St Nicks

December 2015 flood at St Nicks

Climate value: carbon capture and natural flood management

In this climate emergency we currently live in the benefits of improved natural habitats aren’t just for wildlife but for all of us. It is widely reported the role trees can play in capturing carbon and natural grassland habitat can do the same.

As our weather continues to become more extreme the role of Natural Flood Management is becoming more important too. Rather than building ever more walls, the value of trees and plants in slowing down water flow, storing water, holding back rainwater run-off, stopping erosion of banks and filtering silt is becoming a more accepted alternative.

Our planting work contributes to both aims and helps make York more resilient to climate change and flooding.


Where we source our plants and trees

We are making positive strides to becoming more sustainable with our planting schemes by collecting seeds and cuttings to cultivate plants and trees at our small nursery at St Nicks. Due to its small size and the resources needed to manage a nursery we currently only grow a small range of species that are easy to germinate. We will hopefully continue to expand what we can grow each year. This means that we still need to buy in plants and trees too. We have two main suppliers with whom we have developed strong relationships and trust their working practices. For wildflowers and plants we go to British Wild Flower Plants who use peat free compost and natural pest controls. For trees we use locally based Thorpe Trees who also supply to the Woodland Trust.


Timing, species and location of planting

Planting will take place during the seasons identified in each section above. We keep a detailed record of what species will be planted with your donation and where each planting takes place. We can happily share this with you if you would like to know more, come and see what your donation has created, or even help us do the actual planting by joining our fantastic volunteers! Just get in touch.

This page was last updated 8 Jan 2020