Jill Hodge joined Trees for Life in 2002 to run its small nursery, which was at Plodda, near Glen Affric. After Trees for Life purchased Dundreggan in 2008, tree-growing operations moved there too. Continuously innovating and experimenting, Jill has run our tree nursery for 20 years. Under her expert supervision, we have grown around one million native trees from seed - many of them rare and under-researched. To celebrate this momentous achievement, we asked Jill to take some time to reflect on the last two decades.
Where did horticulture start for you?
I grew up on a nursery, which cultivated cut flowers and pot plants. From a young age, I loved growing things - as well as the atmosphere of a warm, humid greenhouse. The fascination for seeds germinating, or roots sprouting, has never left me. Trees have an extra appeal because they're challenging to grow. Many have a complex dormancy to break before the germination process begins.
What have you most enjoyed doing at Trees for Life?
My favourite part of the job has been learning about high altitude 'wee trees', such as montane willow. Before you begin to grow them on the nursery, first you have to find them in the wild. This means visiting hard-to-reach hillside locations, vulnerable to landslip, avalanche and deer browsing. There is the challenging art of identifying the different species - and understanding their genetic needs. Then you have to grow the trees, making sure they are healthy and create a viable population to survive in the future. Creating living collections of these rare trees, which are at risk in the wild, is some of the most important work we can do.
Over 20 years, you will have seen many changes at the charity. What has remained the same?
The main constant has been the enthusiasm of the amazing variety of volunteers who come to Trees for Life. While we have seen much fewer volunteers since the pandemic hit, we have seen a resurgence of local volunteering on the nursery this year. Their help with the nursery tasks and enthusiasm for our rewilding work is extremely motivating.
What has kept you at Trees for Life?
One of the many reasons I've stayed at Trees for Life is the fantastic satisfaction of seeing the whole process from beginning to end. From seed collection, to sapling propagation, and finally tree planting in places such as Glen Affric and Dundreggan. This is very rare in the commercial world of tree horticulture. Commercial nurseries need to operate on a vast scale to generate a profit. And most of the workers will not have opportunities to either collect seed, nor see the trees once they have been planted.
What has been a highlight of your career so far?
One highlight has been taking part in the UK National Tree Seed Project run by Kew Garden's Millennium Seedbank. I always remember reading Kew's magazine when I was younger and wanting to be one of the seed collectors writing from a distant land! Taking part in the Tree Seed Project sent us out to some new, far-flung locations in the Highlands to collect seeds and send them off to Kew. Okay, it was not quite the 'cloud forests of Peru' - but it still fulfilled my ambition to collect seeds for Kew.
What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Watching seeds germinate each spring is definitely the highlight. This is especially true for hazel, which we sow individually once we see that the seed is opening and germinating. Or aspen seeds, which you can watch germinate on the compost surface within 48 hours of sowing. But this is closely followed by getting out to see trees and montane plants in their wild habitat, to collect seeds and take cuttings. Sometimes this involved scaling steep cliffs in dramatic locations!
You have met many people over the years. Are there any individuals whose experience at the nursery has stayed with you?
There are many, but undoubtedly Fay Blackburn and her Findhorn' crew' have had a big impact on the nursery. Fay volunteered with Trees for Life from the very beginning. She came up with the idea of gentle 'Nursery Weeks' for those who wanted to volunteer, but may not manage a regular Conservation Week out at Glen Affric. Fay enthusiastically led Nursery Weeks with us every year up until her death in 2020. Her enthusiasm and energy, even when she became older, was inspiring. Her love of weeding and always working on the outdoor beds whatever the weather was legendary.