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Tree Musketeers celebrate 20 years of planting - and more importantly watering - trees in Hackney

PUBLISHED: 10:47 27 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:27 27 December 2017

Children planting an oak on Downs with Bay 2006. Picture: Tree Musketeers

Children planting an oak on Downs with Bay 2006. Picture: Tree Musketeers

Tree Musketeers

Hackney’s Tree Musketeers tell Emma Bartholomew about the 20 years they spent transforming parks by planting hundreds of trees - and the logistics involved in watering them afterwards

Tree Musketeers Stephanie, Gemma, Russell, Eugene, Ita and Liz at the group's 20th anniversary Tree Musketeers Stephanie, Gemma, Russell, Eugene, Ita and Liz at the group's 20th anniversary

“There is a saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the next best time is now,” Russell Miller tells the Gazette.

“I have no idea who said it – it’s just a saying in the tree world.”

It’s serendipity, then, that the Tree Musketeers – of which he is one of the original volunteers – is celebrating its 20th year of planting and caring for trees in Hackney.

The tree wardens are mentioned in the Hackney Gazette in 1997 The tree wardens are mentioned in the Hackney Gazette in 1997

Since 1997, the group has planted 70 trees on Stoke Newington Common, 250 trees on Hackney Downs, and plenty of others in various parks, green spaces and orchards.

“One of the great things about doing tree planting is you go back and see your work and it’s bigger and it always gets better,” said Russell.

The Tree Musketeers stemmed from Hackney Council’s tree warden scheme which provided training and encouraged volunteers to plant and care for trees.

Eugene Clerkin and another tree warden planting a pine in Stoke Newington in November 2000. Eugene Clerkin and another tree warden planting a pine in Stoke Newington in November 2000. "I love that tree which is now semi-mature at the north end of Rectory Road," he said. Picture: Anne Woollette

Eugene Clerkin, 58, was there right from the start.

“It was good basic training at the beginning,” he said. “That’s why I got involved and why I carried on being part of it.

“We grew from within ourselves with energy, love and commitment.”
Russell joined in 1999. After a few years, he was so inspired he decided to jack in his job as a civil rights solicitor to work with trees full time.

Planting Hackney Downs orchard in 2008. Picture: Tree Musketeers Planting Hackney Downs orchard in 2008. Picture: Tree Musketeers

He is now an independent arboriculture consultant.

The group took on the name Tree Musketeers in 2002, to indicate its independence.

“We are self-directing because we know what we are doing, and we don’t need to wait to be asked to do something,” said Russell.

Tree Musketeer Russell Miller lugging 160 litres of water to a tree. Picture: Tree Musketeers Tree Musketeer Russell Miller lugging 160 litres of water to a tree. Picture: Tree Musketeers

“We have always worked with the council but we are a lot more active than most tree warden groups.”

Tree Musketeers put on tree walks and lessons in pruning and general tree maintenance. They have 500 volunteers on their mailing list.

They learned from their early days how to make sure their trees don’t die early – and water is key.

Mike, Eugene, Bay and Russell pick up an award in 2008 from the Mayor of London for being the best voluntary tree group in London. Picture: Tree Musketeers Mike, Eugene, Bay and Russell pick up an award in 2008 from the Mayor of London for being the best voluntary tree group in London. Picture: Tree Musketeers

“Stoke Newington Common was our testing ground. We learned big trees needed water, and that’s harder work than planting trees,” said Russell.

“A lot of big tree planting schemes fail when they try to do too much too quickly. If they put in 200 trees at once, the aftercare suffers because it’s a lot of work, and you have high loss rates. If you put in 23 trees a year it might take 10 years to look after them, but those trees then establish.”

Trees require watering once or twice a month for up to three years after planting. There are complicated logistics involved in where to source the water and how to get it there. They’ve come up with a method to lug 32 five-litre water bottles on a trolley to their recipients.

Eugene, Sheila and Mustafa mulching trees on Stoke Newington Common 2005. Picture: Tree Musketeers Eugene, Sheila and Mustafa mulching trees on Stoke Newington Common 2005. Picture: Tree Musketeers

“It’s a labour-intensive system, but it’s carbon-neutral and it’s also cheap,” said Russell.

They will be out from April to September at weekends and after work.

“It’s a big task but it’s also great fun,” said Russell. “It’s a very nurturing experience to water a tree. You engage with it on a long-term basis and watch it grow.”

Planting a stone pine on Hackney Downs 2011. Picture: Tree Musketeers Planting a stone pine on Hackney Downs 2011. Picture: Tree Musketeers

While their trees used to have an 80 per cent survival, it’s now more like 98pc, through planting slightly smaller trees that require less water.

They work with about 100 different species as a barrier against losing too many to the same diseases.

The Tree Musketeers planted a tree at Hackney Downs – one of the first places the group ever planted a tree – to celebrate their 20th birthday on Saturday last week.

Tree Musketeers Stephanie and Ita at the group's 20th anniversary Tree Musketeers Stephanie and Ita at the group's 20th anniversary

Russell thinks the Musketeers have had a big impact.

“I think it’s completely changed and transformed all of Hackney’s parks in multiple ways,” he said. “On Stoke Newington Common you not only have more tree cover but more hedges, which reduces traffic noise.

“The Stoke Newington Common user group now do things like open film clubs and games days on the common.

Eugene teaching the next generation of Tree Musketeers Eugene teaching the next generation of Tree Musketeers

“They’re nothing to do with trees but in a sense the whole thing is linked because bringing them out to do tree planting has inspired them to do other things.”

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