Circles of trees: an ‘arboretum’ in the making

​The idea of the arboretum came about in 2015, when I had the opportunity to take a long lease on the field adjacent to my home in Dumfriesshire. ​Having secured the arrangement, I began to ponder how to proceed. Almost two hectares in extent, the field had been set-aside for years as rough pasture. Long coveted, it now seemed a rather daunting responsibility.

Fortunately it did not daunt my ever practical friend Artur Nalepko, who assured me of his assistance and know-how. My principal idea was to plant trees, though I wasn’t sure which ones or in what groupings or pattern. The rather grand term ‘arboretum’ came a little later,

Over the years and with the turning of the seasons, various inspirations for the field have surfaced and evolved, though in no particular order. The ‘project’, if I can call it that, has grown in my head and also in the ground. In the former it emerges in fragments of new thinking, in the latter it appears in the living trees as they establish themselves and take their place in the landscape. The arboretum has emerged from the affordances of the topography, the weather, the soil, and the underlying geology. These interact in turn with my own imaginings, capabilities and feelings. It is a process that makes me as much as I make it.

Taking occupancy at Lammas, I spent the next few Autumn months pondering what to do. I began to learn about the aspects and contours of the field, which itself sits on a glacial moraine. The rising walk up from the garden. The sharp drop to the glen and the Pennyland Burn on the south east flank. The bank of blackthorn to the south and beyond it some ash trees, showing signs of age. The prevailing winds from the south west, broken to some extent by the Maryfield Wood beyond the boundary road. In the north west, the eye drawn up the open valley of the burn to stone-dyked fields dotted with cattle and sheep, with conifer forest beyond.  

On my walks round the field I noticed that in a couple of areas large circles of rosebay willow herb had formed – the fire weed. Why this had occurred, I am not sure. But on close examination the unfurling seed pods of the plant can also be seen to bend right back on themselves, forming thousands and thousands of delicate circles, so familiar, but until then unconsidered. The fire weed was to give me the central organising idea.

I resolved to plant different species of trees in circles of varying sizes. The first, and largest would be of beech, oak and hornbeam. Then on the field edge that drops to the burn, I decided to make a boundary of 100 silver birch trees. In the western corner and sunniest spot, Dr G suggested an orchard of a dozen fruit trees: apple, pear and plum, in equal number.  

My reading about trees planted in circles, landed me on the Irish legend of the well of wisdom, that was surrounded by nine hazels. A salmon in the well had once eaten a hazelnut from each tree and miraculously gained access to all the knowledge in the world.  I therefore determined to plant in circles of nine and for good measure, added Corylus avellana to my list. It seemed a good option for an academic.

Over the years I have planted several trees in the main garden, almost always from modestly priced young bare-rooted stock. Now I placed a large order with the supplier and the ‘whips’ duly arrived, tied in bundles and packed round with straw. On St Stephen’s Day 2016 we set about planting the first hardwoods. It was a satisfyingly repetitive job in the mid-winter cold, mainly done using a heavy pinch bar to make holes into the pebble rich ground. My six year old daughter laid out the supporting sticks and guards as we moved down the field edge. A couple of months later, in slightly warmer conditions, the fruit trees went in.

The success rate that year was remarkable. The oak and beech came into leaf quite late in the Spring, but seemed to settle immediately, the oaks with their distinctive red-coloured juvenile leaves. Ninety nine silver birch got away handsomely. As they grew and in time the bark developed its silvery appearance, I named this area Norwegian Wood, in honour of my friend the philosopher, Lars Johan Materstvedt. The hornbeams were less vigorous in their chosen spot, but seemed to do better elsewhere when I planted more a few years later.

With a certain amount of structure now laid out, I could think of further elaborations. The first of these, and a key decision, was to link together the tree circles with mown paths through the meadow grass.​ This simple measure produced remarkably pleasing effects and soon became popular with children and dogs at play, as well as adults who enjoyed the pleasant meanderings, twists and turns and the springy grass underfoot.

The paths suggested possible avenues. At Dr G’s request, we added an allée of poplars at the far side of the field and then planted green dogwoods in between them. A year later, further circles of red and black dogwoods were created. The first I underplanted with common snowdrops. In the centre of the second I placed a single specimen of Cornus Ilex, the holly oak, a tree I had recently come to know for the first time, in a courtyard at St Andrew’s University.

As the paths developed, they formed distinctive blocks of meadow, in varying shapes. The largest of these was blessed with huge swathes of stumpy wild daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Over the years these have flourished and spread. I have wondered if this is a consequence of the periodic mowing we do after flowering and die back, and again late in the season.

In several of the meadow patches I have planted other trees, in threes and fives: bird cherry, wild cherry, crab apple, rowan and different species of silver birch. In the far north west corner a Californian Pine is installed. It is growing at speed but I’m concerned about its stability. Nearer to the garden proper I’ve placed three weeping pears, more decorative in shape and with beautiful white flowers in Spring. I may add more in that area, perhaps ornamental cherries or small pine trees.

At an early stage, a small, rather makeshift cairn was built inside the circle of beeches. I also added there nine little holly plants, between the individual trees. Later I filled the circle with cammassia bulbs planted into the grass. One year I covered the cairn with grass strimmings, making it look like an old fashioned hay stack. It stayed like that for a few years and became home to voles and slow worms.

Centred on the cairn, I then made another path, this one flanked either side by Scots Pines, eight in all. These trees have proved the hardest to establish. Five are growing strong, but numbers of others have failed at various points over the years. Despite my best endeavours, they seem to dry out in hot weather. I have now settled for the five I have, despite the lack of symmetry in the walkway.

Similarly, right at the start I tried to make a fairly large circle of nine willow cuttings. It didn’t succeed. I tried again with nine yews. Only one survived – a more expensive failure. A third attempt has been more successful, using multiple hornbeams to form a screen. Inside this there is now a simple labyrinth. Its installation gave us some head scratching at first as we tried to fit a three circle unicursal path into the available space. Fortunately gardener Jules Gillam was able to figure out what was needed, fired up the mower and by the time I returned with coffee, a wonderful addition to the arboretum had been made. To my astonishment and delight, this small labyrinth, cut into the turf, provides daily opportunities for contemplation and deep thinking.

So pleased was I with the speed of growth in the nine oaks that I added an outer circle of nine more, thus creating the need for two concentric mown paths with a ring of rough grass in between. Into that, one Christmas holiday, my neighbour Colin Crosbie and I planted several large sackfuls of mixed narcissi, bought cheaply but bringing huge variety and a long period of interest.

In early 2021, I pruned away some of the low hanging branches in the first circle of oaks. This later became superb kindling. One morning that summer, I sat in the grass, face to the sunny breeze, my back against the strongest Quercus. I couldn’t quite believe that such a symbolic tree, so recently planted, was now giving me a place of shelter, musing and repose.

The double oak circle is by far the biggest in the field. From the start the central area seemed to have a lot of visual potential. Early in the creation of the arboretum, I was able to obtain five large pieces of Locharbriggs sandstone that had once been part of a railway bridge across the river Nith, about a mile away.  With the aid of machinery, we arranged these in an atmospheric group, easily visible from the unclassified road that runs by, just beyond the hedge. Later we covered this circle with a thick layer of pea gravel and I purchased a wooden hay rake made of ash: perfect for creating swirling patterns and ridges that look beautiful in low light or frost.

Passers-by were intrigued by the stones in the oak circle and by the whole arboretum, as it took shape. One day as Dr G strolled round the paths with the dog and I laboured with my first cairn, some walkers she knew passed by and asked what I was doing. ‘I haven’t a clue’ was her cheerful reply. Later, someone started calling my endeavours ‘the pagan garden’. I took that as a compliment.

In the summer of 2020 and not too long before returning to live in Poland, Artur found a large piece of whinstone that must have rumbled out of a drumlin at some point. It was carefully placed in a circle of viburnum I’d created a few years before, surrounded with small stones and then filled with gravel. On one side of the rock I placed a line of three more stones of diminishing size, that give a sense of planets in orbit. On the other side I planted two small ginkos. The viburnum flowered for the first time in late 2021. The whole circle is a modest homage to Japanese garden elements.

One Spring, making use of stone newly demolished from a wall near the house, I built a large and (for me) carefully constructed cairn, between the two smallest circles, and into each of which I then added some large balanced stones. When one group of these collapsed, I left it be, content to see the narrative unfold.

In total, the circles comprise, oak, dogwood, beech, holly, hornbeam, witch hazel, mahonia japonica, viburnum – and of course, the common hazel. The more decorative shrubs, in the smaller circles, are recent additions and are just beginning to establish, but in due course they will add variety and colour, especially in winter.​

Despite the thought that has gone into it, I have not really been describing an arboretum in the proper sense. This is not a collection of defined species or their variants, nor is it a place for educational and scientific pursuits. But somewhere along the line, the name has stuck. It sounds rather grandiose, male-oriented, and privileged. Intending to debunk these things, I use the word in ‘mental quote marks’ and always with an ironic twist.

Yet the arboretum field of today looks very different to the set-aside of 2015. It has created new habitats for small birds, reptiles and mammals. Acorns and cobnuts grow there to the benefit of the red squirrels. Wild daffodils and other Spring bulbs are flourishing. Providing interest to passers by, it’s even had visiting groups, ‘by arrangement’! Strolling round the arboretum with bemused friends and family provides huge enjoyment, laughter and warm appreciation. I walk through the ‘arboretum’ at least twice a day with our dog. It’s a place for exercise and for activity. Most of all though, I never tire of its diurnal and seasonal variations and the opportunities it provides, whatever the weather, to be outdoors – and, yes, deep in my own circling thoughts.

Featured image by Davie Lynch, taken in July 2020.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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