National Tree Week: 30 shades of green in Elephant & Castle

National Tree Week: 30 shades of green in Elephant & Castle

As well as bringing new homes, jobs and amenities to Elephant & Castle, Elephant Park has greatly improved the area’s green credentials, with the planting of hundreds of new trees.

A project of this scale requires precision planning and its origins stretch back 20 years, before Lendlease was even chosen as Southwark Council’s regeneration partner. That was when Hillier Nurseries planted the tiny buds that would grow into the beautiful trees that now flourish in and around Elephant & Castle.

Hillier Nurseries is a British grower with 150 years of experience in plant production. At any one time, the family-owned and run business has more than 750,000 trees growing across its 750-acre nursery in Hampshire. Elephant Park developer Lendlease chose the company to supply semi-mature trees to the Elephant & Castle regeneration – and tasked with supplying and transporting masses of huge trees to the central London address was Hillier’s major projects coordinator, Caroline Swann (pictured right).

“We’ve been working on the Elephant & Castle project for around four years,” says Swann. “Trees are very important generally, but they’re especially important in cities, where 80 per cent of the UK’s population live. Trees definitely make cities a more attractive place to live, but they also improve air quality, as they help to clean pollution from the atmosphere and produce oxygen.

Hillier supplied around 30 species of tree to the Elephant & Castle project, including Liquidamber, London Plane and Cherry, all of which were grown from tiny buds and expertly nurtured by a team of 50 growers. At the time of delivery, the largest trees were 40-45cm in girth and about 7-8m tall.

Pictured: a budding at Hillier Nurseries, when we take a bud which will grow into the new tree.

“When you plant a tree in an urban environment, the species need to be selected very carefully, so you get the right scale of tree,” explains Swann. “If you’re putting in a tree close to a residential area, where there’s a row of houses, you want to get in a smaller species – or a species in an upright form, something that is going to fit the space. Equally, if you’ve got a big space in an open area, you really want to get the biggest tree possible, something like an oak, which will last for hundreds of years and reach a fantastic size.”

Semi-mature trees, aged between 15 and 20 years, were chosen to be planted in Elephant & Castle, to give immediate impact to the regenerated area. Trees boasting striking spring flowers and others with rich autumn colours were selected to bring a touch of seasonality.

Pictured: Young trees (about five to six years old) growing at Hillier’s 750 acre tree nursery in Hampshire

Moving trees of up to 20 years old to their forever home is something of a science, and the production team prepare for the day of departure from Hillier’s nursery throughout the growing stage.

“Our trees are constantly transplanted; every three years, they are dug up and the roots are pruned, and so is the canopy,” says Swann. “As the trees grow, we put them into bigger spacings so the canopy has enough room to develop. You couldn’t leave a tree in one space for 15 years and then move it, because the tree simply wouldn’t be viable.”

The final process is transporting the trees to their destination in Hillier’s specialist lorries. Some of the trees going to Elephant & Castle were so big that the team could only fit three or four on a lorry at a time. After all those years of growing, however, great care was taken during transportation, to ensure no damage occurred.

Pictured: Semi mature trees, about 15 years old growing on the nursery, ready to be supplied to projects UK wide.

With 50 trees being lost in our cities every day, planting trees – particularly in urban areas – couldn’t be more important.

“Urban areas are the hardest places in which to plant because they’re built up and land is at a premium, but it’s really one of the most important things you can do,” stresses Swann. “As a country, we should be planting more trees – and Elephant & Castle is leading the way.”

For more information about National Tree Week, which runs until Sunday 2 December, visit