‘The largest in Europe’: 28,000 trees planted in Dagenham at Forest of Thanks for Covid-19 keyworkers

A Forest of Thanks has been planted with 28,000 trees in what has been described as the largest of its kind in Europe.

The forest, which is in Parsloes Park, in Ivyhouse Road, Dagenham, has been planted in tribute to keyworkers and to commemorate those who lost their lives in the pandemic.

On a chilly winter’s morning, those involved marked the end of the first stage of planting by gathering at the forest on Thursday, December 3.

Cllr Saima Ashraf said: “It has been a very difficult time for everybody. We wanted to do something to thank the NHS and our key workers. What a beautiful way to say thank you.”

Andy Johnson, lead commissioner of parks at the town hall, said: “The Covid pandemic really has highlighted the essential role our green spaces play in our daily lives.

“I’m confident this project will ensure that the renewed interest will be retained.”

The Forest of Thanks was masterminded on the ground by ranger service team leader, Gareth Winn.

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Gareth used a Japanese method of planting called miyawaki which allow trees to grow faster.

Volunteers spent three weeks preparing the ground by digging down a metre, turning over the soil before mixing in more than 150 tonnes of organic compost and soil improver to give the trees a good start.

Miyawaki differs to normal planting because usually a tree is about a metre and a half away from the next.

But the 40-year-old method sees denser planting, which mimics forest regeneration where lots of saplings sprout and compete for growth.

There are about four trees per square metre made up of ground, shrub, tree and canopy layer varieties. In total there are 24 different species including oak, beech, hawthorn, juniper and holly.

It took Gareth and a team of six professional tree planters and 12 volunteers just four days to plant 29,000 saplings using pottiputki tools which allowed them to plant almost 40 trees a minute.

A pottiputki creates a hole into which a plant is dropped through the tool’s tube. Another 4,000 trees are due to be planted in the spring.

Gareth, on the environmental benefits, said: “The 32,000 trees will help filter the air, getting impurities out of the air, it’s like a lung for the area. It helps deaden sound and is also very good for preventing flooding.

“And then there’s the biodiversity improvements with all the wildlife coming in. It will be fantastic.”

He added ancient forests are most important, but with climate change we need to plant more trees and the miyawaki method allows more planting on smaller areas.

Gareth said: “It’s very good for urban areas. We’ve got to combat climate change. This is the largest miyawaki forest in the whole of Europe.

“It looks like this is going to kickstart more of these types of forests across the UK.”

Miyaki forests are usually about the size of tennis courts, but Dagenham’s covers a hectare.

On how it feels to see it now, Gareth said: “I’m really pleased. It’s been an absolute struggle trying to get this done during the pandemic. It was touch and go but we’ve managed to get it in.”

Eventually, the forest will mature with wildflower meadows around it, including a garden or meadow of remembrance with wild flowers and grasses.

Cllr Ashraf explained how the forest forms part of the authority’s push to do its bit for the environment.

The town hall declared a climate emergency in the spring, vowing to make Barking and Dagenham the “green capital of London”.

Other plans include eliminating gas boilers from council housing stock and making sure developers meet a strict green code.

The council teamed up with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) and tree-planting organisation SUGi which has projects in Lebanon, Australia, Belgium, Pakistan and Cameroon. The trees were donated by Nat West.

SUGi founder, Elise Van Middelem, said: “This is a pilot project on many levels. It’s the largest miyawaki forest in the UK and in Europe. It’s an enormous amount of work, 32,000 trees.

“There are so many cities these days that have these green deserts – parks that have grass. But how can we bring back biodiversity to our neighbourhoods.

“How can we bring back people to nature? That’s what we’re hoping to do.”

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