EDITORIAL COMMENT: Tree growing involves more than just planting
At the beginning of the rains every year, people are urged to plant trees, the time chosen because that is when seeds germinate and small plants can use the rainy season to become established before the dry winter.
But as First Lady and environment patron Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa noted recently, planting a tree is just a starting point.
The hard work comes in looking after the new young tree and making sure it survives and grows and this can include everything from making sure a bucket of water is thrown over the planting point when needed to making sure people, animals and vehicles do not trample or vandalise the small plant.
We have seen a lot of seedlings, and even a fair number of saplings which are starting to approach the size where they can survive by themselves, die after a few weeks or months.
So we have the little tree-planting ceremony, and then we quietly pull up the dead twig stuck in the ground and our homes, farms, communities and country are still missing a needed tree.
One extra innovation this year is the use of seed balls, trying to recreate more natural forests, but while this looks simpler there is still a lot that needs to be done.
For a start we need to ensure that there are dead leaves and other organic matter on the ground, as this is how trees get started in the wild. Then when seeds germinate we need to pay particular attention to the tiny seedlings, as they are exceptionally vulnerable.
Once a bit more natural forest has been added the seed ball system will produce more survivable trees, now grouped in woodland, but until then we are trying to create woodland on deforested land, and so we need to pay attention to the instructions and to the need for special care at the beginning.
Another area more people need to look at is choosing the best species of tree for what they want.
Even the short-lived trees last several decades and long-lived trees can live for centuries, so they are not something you change as you follow fashion. You need to get it right from the beginning.
If you plant a baobab, for example, you need to make sure that such a large tree is definitely in the right place.
The Forestry Commission does choose for its main recommendations indigenous trees, and always includes species that have several functions and produce a variety of products sustainably, like fruit, for many years as well as species that improve the environment, generate mulches for modern farming practice and generally both look good, provide shade and earn their way.
The recommendations are largely suggestions, rather than laying down the law, since almost any tree is better than no trees, but over the years with the recommendations the Forestry Commission is, we all hope, helping to build up large indigenous multi-species woodlands, something that looks and acts natural, yet fits in with the communities that have put in the hard work.
Sometimes exotics, such as eucalyptus, are useful when we need a fast-growing tree that will provide poles and firewood, but we need to think about just how many of those exotics we need.
They are more like a crop for harvest, rather than an addition to our woodland and forest, or a permanent source of fruit and other products while the tree keeps growing and growing.
There have been problems in some countries with severe fires among plantations of exotic trees, and climate change is making these problems worse.
Almost always they occur when someone takes a tree suitable, in fact a number one choice, for a specific purpose and then basically abandons them and they turn into a menace.
This is why we need to accept the advice of the Forestry Commission, and for that matter the agriculture experts, when choosing trees and select the right tree for the right function.
A country like Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwean communities, will be able as environment and climate law progresses, be able to make money from carbon credits, planting trees to take carbon out of the atmosphere.
Here the correct choice will be crucial, and communities will need to remember that they are creating an income source for their great grandchildren as well as themselves. Indigenous woodland appears to be the smart choice, and then choose the right indigenous trees.
Besides building up the orchards, the modest woodland plantations, the timber and firewood plots, we also need to think about parks and road verges.
Although gaps are appearing, Harare’s Avenues show just how useful and attractive that can be, and that is the creation largely of a fanatical parks superintendent at the beginning of the last century who managed to get the authorities to come up with the shilling a day needed for a food-for-work scheme in the depression at the end of the Boer War.
His choices of flowering trees, usually exotics, while perhaps not ideal were a lot better than some who succeeded him and some of the amateurs who have interfered, and did make the little scrappy town far shadier and more attractive.
But the trees are coming to the end of their lives and we need to replace.
On some streets we can keep the ambiance with the same species; on others we need to find other trees that will last a century comfortably, do not have invasive roots, and whose branches rarely crack and smash cars parked underneath, at least for that first century.
The system needs to be extended, first back into the central business district where an ill-thought attempt a decade ago failed totally as drivers and touts combined to destroy the idea, and then into suburbs where householders along the roads must be involved, for precisely the reasons First Lady Dr Mnangagwa brought up, the trees need looking after when they are small.
We can reforest Zimbabwe, or at least create more woodland, more orchards, and more shady streets, and this will have many advantages for our environment, and even produce money from carbon credits, but we must choose the right trees, and we must look after them when they are young so we stop the waste of a nice ceremony when we plant, and a few months later we need to start again.