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What is the best way to propagate trees?

  • What is the best way to propagate trees?
  • What is the best way to propagate trees?
  • What is the best way to propagate trees?

Answer: a shingle path.

You would think that a shingle path would be a barren desert, as far as seedlings are concerned, wouldn't you? However, nothing is further from the truth, as a shingle path seems to provide a perfect germination and nursery bed for many plants, including trees!

Above are three photos which I've taken in the last fortnight, each showing the large handful of tiny seedlings which have been weeded out from three different Clients and their shingle paths.

The first handful are Field Maple, from a shingled parking courtyard: the second are common Ash trees from a shingle path around the house, and the third are Lime seedlings, from a decorative shingle-and-rubble seating area (don't worry, it looks prettier than it sounds!) around the base of an old Cherry tree, and at least a hundred yards away from the Lime Walk, which presumably provided the seeds.

Each handful contains over fifty seedlings … ah, if only I had a couple of acres, what a wonderful tree nursery I could have.

Why are they so successful? Well, shingle paths are a matrix of small stones, which water clings between: even on a hot day, if you scrape back a couple of inches of shingle, you will find that the lower stones are damp. But at the same time, this matrix allows for really good drainage, so shingle virtually never becomes waterlogged. This combination provides just the right amount of water that the seeds need, plus protection from the hungry mouths of small mammals who would otherwise scoff the lot. Seeds bring along their own store of nutrients to get them started, of course, but even paths with good quality membranes below them will accumulate a surprising amount of organic material, from “bits” that drop down from above, from weeds that grow and die, from the dead bodies of worms, small invertebrates etc, and from the very dirt which is washed down with the rain.

This is enough to let a seedling get a good start in life, and it doesn't end when they are barely a couple of inches high: I have weeded out young trees well over a foot high, with roots which stretched to 18” or more through the shingle.

Removing them - for weeding, or for potting on - is very simple, all you have to do is to take a small hand tool (I use my daisy grubber, but a hand fork works just as well), push it into the shingle close to the seedlings, and wiggle it around to loosen the shingle, while you hold the plant by a leaf. As the shingle is loosened, the seedling will come free.

Last year I was walking past a local factory when I noticed a lot of tiny, dark red seedlings in the rough gravel path. Inside their compound was a rather lovely purple Norway Maple, so I carefully lifted every seedling I could find, brought them home and potted them up. Now I have a dozen small purple trees, free of charge.

So, if you want some trees for free, keep a close eye on your nearest shingle paths!

Comments (6)

  1. Grower

    Susie Edwards

    Rachel, I have no grass in my garden just gravel paths. I so agree about an ideal germination patch. I collect numerous seedlings every year of many different plants which an appearance between the stones...annuals, perennials,and trees.
    About 20 years ago I was given a silver birch seedling about a foot high which I planted in my garden, before the paths were even there. Last year I collected from the now well establish paths 4 tiny silver birch...seedlings from my original tree. Nature is a wonderful thing!

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    And yet when gardening books talk about propagation, they always drivel on about fine tilth, or vermiculite, or misting propagators at certain minimum temperatures... (laughs).. when all you need is some shingle or gravel!

    How lovely to hear that you now have silver birch seedlings: I have two silver birch in my tiny back garden (no grass, just shingle) and last year, for the first time, I had dozens of tiny seedlings. Now I have planted a new guerrilla hedge not far from my house, to screen a new building site - and it didn't cost me a penny!

  3. Grower


    I've found a huge number of seedlings growing in our gravel paths of all sorts of plants that struggled to survive (and in some cases disappeared entirely) from the beds - so much so that it's tempting to convert some of our driest beds into a gravel garden. In the stone border around our patio is another favourite area for harvesting seedlings - grasses, Violets, Alcamilla and Erigeron appear there annually along with the odd sapling. I'm more careful weeding the paths than I am with the beds for this very reason. Strangely we have other gravel paths where nothing has seeded in several years - no apparent reason why that I can see. Plants clearly pay no heed to our arbitrary designations of space!

  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Nick,

    I sometimes think that the underlayer of the path is what makes the difference: if they have a lot of concrete in them (from old hardcore) then they can be very alkaline, especially if it was old concrete that was broken up to form the hardcore, so there would have been a lot of dust and small particles. And as we all know, some plants just really don't enjoy a high ph!

    Or possibly the "other" gravel paths were sprayed with Pathclear some time? (laughs)

  5. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Ken, (waves) how about poplar? We go through a couple of weeks of being covered in white fluff from a pair of enormous trees at the end of the road. And then the willows start with their fluff!

    I know what you mean about the Silver Birch seed, though: I find them inside the window frames!

  6. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Thank you, Ken, you're very kind - I'm glad it was helpful. I'm sort of accidentally becoming the UK's expert on those dratted trees!

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