The man who collects trees

IDYLLIC SCENE: More than 1000 species of trees cloak Robert Appleton's hillside property in Pig Valley near Wakefield.
IDYLLIC SCENE: More than 1000 species of trees cloak Robert Appleton's hillside property in Pig Valley near Wakefield.

Robert Appleton knows better than most that good things take time.

Take the arboretum he's been patiently planting at his Pig Valley property near Wakefield.

At 20 years old, it's still very much a work in progress, with many of the 1000 tree species cloaking the steep hillsides yet to reach maturity.

Still, it's a beautiful sight in the autumn sunshine, with the dramatic limestone landscape splashed with the yellows, golds and reds of exotics amid the sombre greens of pines, conifers and natives.

It's been a personal project for the 50-year-old joint owner of Appletons nursery, whose parents instilled in him a love of trees.

"As a child, I collected tree seed with them in places like Isel Park."

The idea for an arboretum germinated after he completed his studies at Lincoln College and returned from doing his OE, which included visits to some famous tree collections.

"The owner of a North Island arboretum, who was in his early 60s, said to me, `Robert, if you are going to plant trees and see them through to full size, you need to start planting before you are 30."

It sparked a search for a suitable property, which eventually led to the purchase of 150 hectares in Pig Valley, part of a larger farm.

There was already evidence it grew good trees. "Among the remnant trees here are 250-year-old totara, kahikatea and matai a metre thick in the trunk. You won't find that on the hungry Moutere clays.

"We looked at properties in the Waimea Basin, but I really wanted to be in the eastern hills, because it got me off the worst of the clay soils and meant I could grow the widest range of tree species possible."

So far he has planted 6000 to 7000 individual trees, ranging from acers to zelkovas.

"There's a tree for every letter of the alphabet."

They include a range of oaks and Californian redwoods brought in from the United States 15 years ago. There are also small plantations of farm forestry species, such as conifers and larch, grown as alternatives to pinus radiata on the sharper slopes.

His trees are grouped according to geographical zones, such as US, South America, Europe, Asia (China has the most tree species in the world) and Australia. "It's a good way of finding things and forces me not to use all my favourite trees on my favourite spots."

Then it's a matter of making sure trees within those zones are planted in the right soil and position where they will prosper.

It requires a lot of research and some trial and error. Mr Appleton likens it to working on a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"I don't always get it right. If it's done incorrectly, it can look quite crass, but if it is done sympathetically, you get wonderful contrasts between the evergreens and the deciduous."

Although he acknowledges the importance of planting natives, he enjoys the seasonality of exotics and the way they keep refreshing the landscape.

"In spring, the greens are entirely different. They are fresh and sharp, through to summer when the grass normally browns off and you get that contrast. In autumn, you have the colours and in winter a lot of these trees lose their leaves for four months and you can appreciate their form."

It's hard, physical work, though, tending so many trees.

"Most of my weekends are spent working on this property.

"It certainly keeps me fit. I don't need to go the the gym. I just need to walk up these hills."

Planting up to 200 trees every winter is the easy part of the job, with pruning and especially weed control taking the most time.

Barberry and old man's beard are the worst weeds, although close planting of conifers denies them the light to germinate and grow.

"If I don't keep up my weed management, they are double or triple in size the next year. Nelson is such a weedy place and it is a real battle for people taking land out of grazing, but it does mean trees also grow well."

He uses sheep – from his wife Linda's small suffolk flock and from farmer Ian Parkes – as "lawnmowers", but not cattle, as they are too hard on the trees.

The arboretum is not only for pleasure, but it is a way of helping future proof the family nursery he runs with his father, Eric, who established the business in 1968 and has seen it grow into a large operation producing about 5.5 million trees a year and employing 18 staff, which expand to 45 during the peak winter months when trees are lifted and dispatched.

It acts as a small but growing source for seeds, which is important when importing them has become so restrictive that even bringing in pinus species is now prohibited.

"Finding and propagating additional tree species has become increasingly difficult because of the lack of ability to import.

"We were planting trees in rows at our nursery at Wai-iti, but by the time they get to an age and a size large enough to start seeding, they were getting too crammed, so the ultimate thing to do was to plant trees on a property."

It will also cut down the time spent travelling around New Zealand collecting seed.

At present, he spends up to six weeks every autumn visiting people's properties and gardens to secure vital supplies.

"Over the next 20 to 30 years, in some cases the arboretum will replace the need to travel so widely. The beauty here is we can watch the seed week by week, instead of making a judgment call to go to Gisborne."

So far the arboretum has produced a handy supply of conifer seeds and he has plans to expand his collection of oaks into a seed orchard.

The arboretum also allows him to extensively trial trees and work out what grows best and together.

By taking a tree species from a number of different collections and allowing them to cross-pollinate, he can breed for desirable characteristics such as autumn colour, branch habit and form. Even within the same geographical zone, a tree species can vary enormously. "If you choose the wrong seed zone, they either get frosted or you won't get sufficient winter chilling and the tree won't thrive."

As a nurseryman, he can't resist experimenting and the arboretum gives him the space to do so.

"We've got 1000 species growing well to very well here and there are still a lot of trees I haven't got that I know will do well."

With still another 30ha or so to plant at Pig Valley, there is still plenty of work ahead.

Through either covenants or trusts, it will be there for his children and future generations to enjoy.

"It's a way of leaving a legacy – that's the great thing about trees."

Robert Appleton's top five arboretum performers

Sequoia sempervirens

coastal redwood Pinus canariensis 

Canary Islands pine Quercus ellipsoidalis

Northern US pin oak Quercus crispula

Japanese oak Abies verjari

Mexican silver fir