Are you actually helping your tree (s)? Lessons from the Cote d’Azur.

I am currently working in the sylvan landscape of the Cote d’Azur, a region not particularly celebrated for its trees and forests but one which should be. This is one of the few places globally which have seen a huge increase in tree cover in parallel with large scale farm abandonment – which is still increasing ever further away from the coast.

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The increase in tree cover has led to a rise in native wildlife, including the growth of local wild boar populations and a return of Wolves (albeit occasional somewhat scraggy individuals), despite the fencing to secure the rich villas incongruous with the normal French landscape. Indeed it is difficult to consider this region as ‘France’ in regards landscape terms and more; and there are many problems created by the continued growth of a playground for the rich for its trees and nature.

And as so much of the ‘special’ landscapes of Europe are in the process of, or at risk of also becoming playgrounds for the richer then the importance of studying trees on the Cote d’Azur becomes essential.

Even to the casual observer it is apparent that many of the trees both in the forest and in the parks and gardens of the region are suffering. Travel towards the more rural areas adjacent to the Cote d’Azur and the difference in general tree health is startling.

The area has been and continues to be at the forefront of a battle against all threats to trees. The range of pests and pathogens is enormous and the problems are compounded by the search for the cheapest labour possible – a game played out in most ‘wealthy’ areas these days. Cheap labour = cutting corners, and just one contractor failing to wash their secateurs (and indeed any of their tools, their vehicles and themselves) can pass on pathogens more rapidly than any natural vector.

Every October sees almost a month of continual smog hanging heavy across the region as the ban for burning (due to forest fire risk) is lifted. The wastage of quality timber and firewood is unbelievable and the potential energy wasted is bizarre considering the generic ‘penny pinching’ attitude. At the same time insane amounts of money pass hands for the most basic of tree operations, which could be solved by a spray bottle of crushed garlic in water, or the use of decent mulch.

The money is quite extraordinary, even at the local Castorama (the French B&Q shop), trees are for sale with price tags in excess of €30,000 and the specialist nurseries will have many relocated trees (from Spain, Italy and Romania) with prices in excess of 100,000. The species choice is somewhat lacking and in general for all landscaping works there is an element of ‘but this is how we do it’ despite it often being completely incongruous with the wider landscape and being design and practice of less than 30 years old – and frankly more than a bit dull.

The traditional Restangue landscape has been usurped using retaining walls which are cemented block walls with a false stone façade. This has a major impact on the trees, principally Olives, which require decent drainage as proper dry stone walling provides. Add the obligatory automated irrigation systems and many trees are struggling to survive in what is to them a completely unnatural water saturated soil.

It is the soil, more than anything else, which has been wholly ignored. The shallow Mediterranean soils require a well balanced, healthy population of micro-fauna and mychorrizal fungi in order to provide the growing conditions required for virtually all tree species, be they commercial, ornamental or natural. The extreme water availability combined with all too easily consolidated clayey soils is surprisingly not as much of a constraint as many assume and certainly it is all too common to see excessive soil treatment prior to planting, which is not needed and actually harmful to the tree.

The root systems of Mediterranean trees are truly remarkable, almost every single tree has a unique adaption to its highly localised position. We have to understand this more, and work with it rather than forcing root development as per our ‘false’ image of how it should be.

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Virtually all fertiliser products, organic or not, are far too rich in Nitrogen. And testing the soil of containerised trees produces disturbing results. Many of the gardens are virtually hydroponic systems and a glitch in the maintenance regime leads to instant disastrous results.

French construction regulations are far from helpful also; the requirements to construct intensive underground systems for water and services greatly disturbs existing tree root systems.

Towards a solution for the trees of the Cote d’Azur requires collaboration, difficult in a region where many of the population are rich migrants. Trees belong to everyone due to their dominance in the landscape, but site specific management is vital. Working to produce growing mediums which help to restore and balance soil micro populations is showing some brilliant results, particularly in regards resilience to pests, pathogens as well as drought and is cheap – but together with other solutions including the use of highly effective garlic treatments – how can you take on those that have profited so much from trees’ misery?

As always, promoting good practice not just to the wider public but to practitioners as well is perhaps a hurdle too high to jump?

 

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