Tony Kirkham MBE has recently retired as Head of Arboretum at Kew Gardens where he and his team were responsible for managing 14,000 trees. His Talk, entitled ‘Trees: a cut above the rest’ was a fascinating insight into the world of tree conservation.
Tony’s love of trees began as a child collecting conkers and encouraged by a classroom lesson on the Horse Chestnut tree. He moved South at the age of 16 to take up an apprenticeship in forestry, then a Diploma in Horticulture and, following graduation, joined Kew Gardens in 1978. He became Head of Arboretum in 2001.
He has travelled extensively, making expeditions to Taiwan, Russia, China and Japan, often in hostile terrain, in order to look at trees in their natural habitat and to collect seed for propagation back at Kew. This became essential work after the great storm of 1987 destroyed hundreds of mature specimens in the park.
His observations on poor tree management in the UK, often by local authorities and owners of retail parks, has led him to write a number of books encouraging best practice. He co-authored The Haynes Workshop Manual on Trees - cars have become too complex for the Haynes Manuals, so they have branched out (pun intended!) into other areas – which is a practical guide to planting and caring for trees.
Throughout his time at Kew, Tony has overseen an evolution in the way that trees are managed. The many thousands of visitors to the park cause ground compaction around the trees resulting in root damage, so they have devised a machine that can blow air into the soil around the roots to aerate the ground and give the roots room to breathe. They have perfected a method for pruning branches which allows the tree to self-heal without the need for manmade sealant. They have devised a methodology for planting trees that largely avoids the need for staking (which Tony does not approve of). They no longer collect fallen leaves to make leaf mould but instead use a machine to chop up the leaves which are left on the ground and are slowly absorbed by worms and insects which gradually improves the soil.
This fascinating Talk covered so many different aspect of tree horticulture that there was inevitably an extensive Q & A session at the end. Tony Kirkham kept his audience engaged from start to finish and it is hoped that he will make a return visit to talk to the Society in person at some time in the future.