Best trees for coppicing

Coppicing trees to make firewood

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Coppicing trees to produce firewood

Many species of tree found in England can be coppiced. This involves regularly cutting the tree down to a stump called a stool. Multiple new shoots (known as poles) regrow from the stool. The cutting is done on cycle so to keep a consistent supply you need to plan ahead and have sets of trees which you cut each year. The interval between cutting depends on the species of tree. One of the advantages of coppicing is that you do not need to replant the trees every time you cut.
Many types of deciduous tree can be coppiced: Alder, Ash, Beech, Birch (3-4 year cycle), Hazel (7 year cycle), Hornbeam, Oak (50 year cycle), Sycamore Sweet Chestnut (15-20 year cycle), Willow but Sweet Chestnut, Hazel (7 year cycle), and Hornbeam are the most commonly coppiced tree species currently. The trees are cut during the winter before the sap has risen, and the branches are all cut low to the ground. By repeatedly cutting the trees their lifespan can be greatly increased.
The new growth that results usually curves out a little from the stool, is fairly straight and manageable, and can grow very fast. Because the wood from coppicing is relatively small it also takes less time than large logs to season and you should easily be able to season it over one summer. Coppiced firewood can be burnt in a wood stove and is ideal for use in gasification / batch boilers – these boilers have very larger fireboxes which can take long length logs. You fill up the firebox and the boiler burns the fuel transferring the heat to a heat storage or accumulator tank for use when needed.
Coppicing is a very old woodland management technique and you have probably seen coppiced sections of woodland on walks even if you were not aware of it. Not only is coppicing a good way to create sustainable firewood, it is also good for wildlife and biodiversity. In a coppiced woodland you will tend to have some standard trees (like Oak, Ash, Beech) which are left to grow as normal intermingled with coppiced trees at various stages of coppicing. This creates a patchwork of conditions in the woodland, each suitable for different sets of plants and animals.

 How to Coppice Trees for Sustainable Firewood

You can grow firewood in a fraction of the time it takes to raise a tree from seed.

February / March 2018
By Brett McLeod

Illustration courtesy Keith Ward

Of all the forestry techniques available to woodland owners, few methods are as underutilized as coppicing. Coppicing is a reproduction method wherein a tree is cut back periodically to stimulate new growth through dormant buds on the living stump, or “stool.” In turn, these buds develop into sprouts, also called “shoots,” capable of growing firewood in approximately half the time it would take to grow the same amount of wood from seed.

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Coppicing as a management technique dates back to the Neolithic period, when people used coppice wood for a variety of purposes, ranging from beanpoles and lath to firewood and fence posts. Even into the 16th century, the economic importance of wood obtained through coppicing was so significant in England that King Henry VIII mandated the construction of fences around coppice forests throughout the country to protect them from browsing animals.

Tree Growth Variables

As a forester, I’m often asked how long it will take a tree to grow to a specific size. If I know something about the site, I can make an educated guess. However, more often than not, too many factors are at play to make any sort of reasonable estimate because both environmental and genetic factors influence growth rates. Environmental factors include climatic conditions as well as soil quality. Primary genetic attributes include vigor, disease resistance, photosynthetic efficiency, and species. Almost without exception, some species will grow faster than others, even in a less suitable environment. Willows, for example, will almost always outpace oaks in terms of growth rate, while beech trees in a northern hardwood forest are notorious for out-competing maples and birches, creating thick, single-species stands.

The Growth Benefits of Coppicing

Because of this natural variation, it’s important to avoid broad generalizations regarding yield. However, despite the many variables, coppice systems offer two clear benefits over trees grown from seed. The first benefit is reduced establishment time, meaning that you won’t need to wait for a seed to germinate, establish itself, and develop a full root system. The second benefit is that because coppice trees form multiple stems as opposed to a single trunk, you’ll have the opportunity to grow significantly more wood.

The following example illustrates how coppice firewood production stacks up against trees of seed origin. The two trees in this simple case study came from the same site to minimize variability.

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First, I cut down a 40-year-old American beech tree with a single trunk, likely established from seed. The tree measured 8 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH) and yielded one face cord. I then harvested an 18-year-old, coppice-grown American beech tree that had four stems. The coppiced American beech also produced one face cord. In other words, coppicing encouraged equal wood production in less than half the time.

Growth Rate vs. Energy Potential

If you’re establishing a coppice woodlot for firewood production, you can expect an inverse relationship between the rate of growth and the energy potential of coppice species. If we were to rank four common species in terms of estimated growth rates and compare those growth rates to their energy potential, we’d see that, as a general rule, the wood from slower-growing trees contains more British thermal units (Btu) for the same volume of wood. (See the table “Growth Rate vs. Energy Potential of Tree Species,” below.) Be aware of this time and energy trade-off when you’re trying to decide which species to coppice, or when you’re purchasing firewood and are faced with the question of which species will yield the most heat per dollar.

Table courtesy Brett McLeod

Step-by-Step Guide to Coppicing Firewood

Select trees with poor form that have little value as saw logs or other forest products to coppice. You can coppice at any time of year, but you’ll achieve the best results by coppicing trees when they’re dormant and leafless.

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Cut low stumps. A low stump encourages the establishment of new shoots at or below ground level. This promotes the development of roots and increases the tree’s stability. The ideal new coppice stool should be only 2 to 3 inches above the ground and should slope slightly to shed water (see left illustration below). If you’re harvesting a previously coppiced stool, cut along the same angle as your previous cut, just above the point at which the stool splits into multiple stems.

If you live in an area where animals are prone to browse, place branches around the stool as a deterrent. Another approach is to develop a coppice system that favors tree species that are less palatable to browsers. For example, animals are less likely to munch on beech and birch than on maple or oak.

Within 4 to 8 weeks, you’ll begin to see numerous sprouts emerging from the stump, forming J-shaped leaders (see middle illustration below). After leaf fall, clip off the smaller, less vigorous sprouts. On average, I leave 4 to 6 sprouts per stool (see right illustration below).

Illustration courtesy Keith Ward

The amount of time it will take you to produce your first firewood crop will vary depending on species, site, stool size, and desired firewood diameter. I tend to harvest most of my coppice firewood on an 8- to 12-year cycle. For my more productive trees, this will yield firewood that’s 3 to 4 inches in diameter — small enough to avoid splitting!

The beauty of coppice firewood production is that coppiced trees maintained in a juvenile stage will never die of old age. The benefits of coppice systems also extend beyond simply providing firewood. The dense cluster of shoots around a stool provides vital habitat for birds and small mammals. And because coppice forests depend on healthy root systems, sound management of these forests also prevents erosion in the surrounding landscape, thanks largely to the stability afforded by a healthy rhizosphere capable of developing into a well-anchored mat of latticed roots. As for other uses, you can consider coppicing for animal fodder, basket splints, stakes, bentwood furniture, tool handles, and more.

Brett McLeod is the author of The Woodland Homestead and is an associate professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York.

Coppiced Trees and Shrubs in Your Garden is a read-alone blog. But you may like to have a read of some of the related articles in Plews Potting Shed. The links are at the end.

Managed woodland is one of four sub-sections to woodland habitats in temperate climates. These Woodland habitats will be: –

  • Natural or unmanaged woodland
  • Managed woodland
  • Woodland edge
  • Hedgerows

Managed woodland has been an important part of rural life and economy for hundreds of years. And the concept of sustainable forest and woodland management has been recognised internationally for over twenty years. This sustainable management ensures good practices and greater benefits to the landowner and public both today and for the future.

The objectives may vary, for example: –

  • timber production
  • sporting uses
  • wood fuel
  • wildlife conservation
  • public recreation

The methods or practices for managing the woodland will be determined by these objectives.

Which is all very laudable, but you may be asking the question: And how does that relate to my garden?

Let us consider coppicing.

Managed Woodland – Coppicing

Coppicing is where trees are coppiced, ie pruned, near the base of their main trunk. This encourages new growth of multiple trunks. It also allows more light to reach the woodland floor, enabling a wider selection of species to thrive. The coppiced wood is used for fencing, furniture, fuel.

Only deciduous trees are coppiced and pollarded. Generally speaking, conifers do not re-shoot when hard pruned so are not suitable for this technique.

It is possible to see traces of previously coppiced woodland when you’re out walking in the country. See those Beech trees and Sweet Chestnut trees, with many trunks coming from one base? They were coppiced in the past, they both naturally have a single trunk, not many.

You should be able to find rows of coppiced Beeches which mark old boundaries. This was a practical way to utilise the wood as a marker where a fence was not necessary and generate a useful product. Coppicing was also known at cutting the underwood. John Evelyn refers to the practise in “Sylva, or a Discourse on Trees” in the 1660s.

Managed correctly, coppicing can prolong the life of trees. There’s a lime tree at Westonbirt Arboretum which may be 2000 years old.

But why would you want coppiced trees and shrubs in your garden?

Coppicing is a system which would work well in your garden as part of: –

  • a small managed woodland
  • a winter garden or winter border
  • forest gardening
  • a wildlife friendly habitat
  • an ornamental planting scheme
  • a grow your own garden
  • a boundary
  • restoration of mature shrubs

Whether yours is a large country garden or a small town garden, coppiced trees and shrubs can add to your enjoyment. They enable smaller gardens to enjoy many of the benefits that trees bring. Even courtyard gardens can join in as it is possible to grow coppiced trees and shrubs in large pots and raised beds.

Larger gardens obviously have more scope to offer when designing. For example, they have the space to include a managed woodland habitat and a designated winter garden.

There are many design options that coppicing will work with and some are multi-tasking. From the above list, a winter border could be a separate area or the winter interest planting included as part of the overall planting design.

Planting idea for a winter border

A dark green Yew hedge planted in front with groups of brightly coloured Cornus is winter pleasure. Add Hellebores and Snowdrops to add another layer of interest without detracting from the vibrant stems.

You don’t have or don’t have room for a clipped Yew hedge? The Cornus will still look effective placed against a brick wall or fence. Remember to choose colours which will contrast with the backdrop.

Coppiced Trees and Shrubs – Grow your Own Gardens

If practicality and a productive garden are important, then coppiced trees and shrubs should be integral to the garden design. I will be writing about Forest Gardening and Permaculture in further blogs. For more help with coppicing and edible gardens in your own garden, do get in touch about Plews Gardening Courses.

Coppicing will provide you with cut wood. Depending on the tree or shrub, these give you: –

  • firewood,
  • supports for tall herbaceous perennials and flowering bulbs like dahlias,
  • a framework for runner beans, peas and other climbing vegetables in the kitchen garden,
  • juvenile foliage for flower arranging,
  • timber for garden fencing and trellis,
  • nuts for eating,
  • wind shelter for tender plants,
  • bee forage – you need pollinating insects,
  • hoops to protect young plants from rabbits and light frost

Coppiced Trees and Shrubs in Your Garden – which Species?

There are quite a few – you may be surprised! Some are native species and some are introduced non-natives. Although we’re discussing coppicing here, many of these trees and shrubs are also suited to pollarding. Some are suitable for decorative purposes, such as encouraging large, showy leaves on the Catalpa. Others have a more practical appeal.

Native species

  • Ash, Fraxinus excelsior
  • Beech, Fagus sylvatica
  • Birch, Betula
  • Dogwood, Cornus sanguinea
  • Hazel, Corylus avellana
  • Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus
  • Lime, Tilia cordata
  • Oak, Quercus
  • Willow, Salix

Naturalised and introduced non-native species

  • Catalpa bignoides
  • Dogwood, Cornus species
  • Eucalyptus species
  • Paulownia tomentosa
  • Sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa
  • Sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus

Coppiced Trees and Shrubs in Your Garden – inheriting, restoring, buying

Inheriting a garden full of mature shrubs can be a mixed blessing. First establish what is healthy enough or in the right place for you to keep. Devise a plan. Remove unwanted and sick shrubs. The rest will need a plan of restorative pruning. Remember not all shrubs can be successfully hard pruned or coppiced. And even those which can may take a while to recover. (A Plews Garden Consultancy visit and report can help you with all this).

If you’re planning a lot of new shrubs and trees for coppicing, purchasing bare-root plants is more cost effective. These are available over the winter months. Allow them to grow a strong root system before beginning your coppicing.

Choosing container grown plants for coppicing means you may find a specimen which has already been started for you. Cornus is easily found as a semi-coppiced container grown plant. Birch and Eucalyptus are available, but they won’t be cheap as large trees will have taken some years to develop the coppiced stool.

Maintaining Coppiced Trees and Shrubs in Your Garden

Once established, coppiced trees and shrubs are easy maintenance. An annual pruning is the main task, and this is easily done with the tools most gardeners have in their shed. Loppers generally cut a bigger diameter of stem than secateurs. A pruning saw is essential for clean cuts on larger stems.

Coppiced woodland is managed according to the use the wood and timber is going to be put to. In your garden, you can be more flexible. When you prune depends on why you’re coppicing. For decorative stems of dogwood and willow, prune in late March. If you’re growing ash for firewood, then coppice in the winter.

Cut to about 5-8cm from the ground, just above a bud. This will create the coppice stool from which the new shoots will grow. You may want to cut all the stems off if you only have one specimen and it takes more than a few months to grow shoots. In which case, take out a third of the shoots each year.

Although this whistle-stop tour about coppicing is from a garden perspective, coppiced trees and shrubs are an excellent productive addition to your allotment.

Do have a look through the links in the blog and suggestions below for more ideas and tips. Or contact us for the personal approach to your gardening needs with Gardening Lessons, Garden Consultancy and Garden Design. For landscaping go straight to Plews Garden Landscaping, our sibling company.

National Tree Week UK began in 1975 and is an annual celebration of our trees at the end of November / beginning December. It is timed for this point in the year as this coincides with the beginning of the bare root tree season. In 2017 National Tree Week UK runs from November 25th – December 3rd.

Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog

Introduction to Woodland Habitats in Your Garden
Bluebells
Celebrating Trees for National Tree Week
Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden

  • ‘Power & Water acknowledges that coppicing the trees would create greater effluent uptake as trees re-grow, but there has been no action on this front apparently for legal liability reasons.’
  • ‘We cleared through this banking last winter, taking out or coppicing overgrown shrubs and controlling the undergrowth of brambles and ferns.’
  • ‘The forest has been intensively coppiced, and multi-stemmed trees make up a large fraction of the present tree population.’
  • ‘If laying or coppicing a hedgerow it must be in good condition and not diseased.’
  • ‘A programme of rotation, similar to that used by farmers, is used to divide the wood into sections which are coppiced in turn, offering different habitats for different creatures while one area is left to its own devices.’
  • ‘Instead of the majestic oak woods the path now runs through an oak coppice, where the trees have been regularly cut to produce young, straight trees which, in former days, would have been regularly coppiced.’
  • ‘On inspection they were found to be in poor condition and needed to be coppiced under the council’s duty of care.’
  • ‘Consider rejuvenating a small length by laying or coppicing at ground level.’
  • ‘The leaflets also provide specific guidelines for laying or coppicing hedgerows which have grown up, lost their dense base and are in need of rejuvenation.’
  • ‘The coppice coppiced today is to be used to make a fence around the other caravan in the farmyard and I was looking for thicker branches no thinner than my skinny arms but definitely not as thick as Fred’s.’
  • ‘Woodland was no longer coppiced on the same scale to produce charcoal for fuel or timber for construction, so that land could be released for food.’
  • ‘They cleared some of the natural broadleaf woodland to make way for sheep pastures; they also coppiced or managed other parts of the woodland for timber and firewood.’
  • ‘Clearing woodland by coppicing involves cutting it to the ground, allowing woodland flora and fauna to flourish, while encouraging new shoots to appear from the plant stumps.’
  • ‘This tree is extremely tolerant of atmospheric pollution, and when coppiced in spring, will reach a height of eight feet, producing hairy, soft leaves up to two feet across, in just one season.’
  • ‘Previously, through coppicing and replanting, estates were able to sustain their timber supplies into the indefinite future.’
  • ‘For hundreds of years, woodsmen in Britain practiced coppicing, a method of harvesting timber.’
  • ‘Kennet District Council has since released a statement saying it took action to coppice four self seeded sycamore trees, or remove branches, after receiving complaints from residents.’
  • ‘Some farmers misunderstand what they are supposed to do such as, trimming a hedge when the plan said to coppice it.’
  • ‘Volunteers will be encouraged to help coppice a large hedge, which will enable the group to create a new play area at the centre.’
  • ‘I thought it was going to fell the odd tree and do some coppicing but this was drastic.’

coppice

English

A recently coppiced alder.

Etymology

Pronunciation

  • IPA(key): /ˈkɒpɪs/
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Noun

English Wikipedia has an article on: Wikipedia

coppice (plural coppices)

  1. A grove of small growth; a thicket of brushwood; a wood cut at certain times for fuel or other purposes, typically managed to promote growth and ensure a reliable supply of timber. See copse.
    • 1907, Harold Bindloss, chapter 1, in The Dust of Conflict‎: belts of thin white mist streaked the brown plough land in the hollow where Appleby could see the pale shine of a winding river. Across that in turn, meadow and coppice rolled away past the white walls of a village bowered in orchards,
    • 1957, Schubert, H.R. History of the British Iron and Steel Industry, p216: It was also enacted that all coppices or underwoods should be enclosed for periods from four to seven years after felling.

Synonyms

  • copse

Derived terms

  • copse

Translations

grove of small growth

Verb

coppice (third-person singular simple present coppices, present participle coppicing, simple past and past participle coppiced)

  1. (transitive) To manage (a wooded area) sustainably, as a coppice, by periodically cutting back woody plants to promote new growth. Her plan to coppice the woods should keep her self-sufficient in fuel indefinitely.
  2. (intransitive) To sprout from the stump. Few conifer species can coppice.
  • recoppice

manage a wooded area as a coppice

  • Czech: prořezat, prořezávat
  • Scottish Gaelic: dèan preasarlach

sprout from the stump

  • French: rejeter de souche (fr)

References

  • “coppice” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001–2020.

Coppicing: ancient techniques provide a cutting edge

The small size of timber produced makes it easy for us gardeners to cut and handle. I rarely use a chainsaw, but my Silky pruning saw (20cm/8in) blade gets through limbs 7.5cm (3in) in diameter – it has never been sharpened but slices through tough hardwood limbs almost like butter (you can sharpen them, but it’s easier to replace the blade). If I wanted to do really beefy stuff (12cm/5in diameter), I would get a Silky Zubat with a 38cm (15in) blade (Niwaki).

We gardeners coppice for other reasons, too. I regularly get asked about problems with overambitious eucalyptus trees that are twice the height of the house: these make perfect coppiced specimens. Admittedly, if you coppice it for the first time at a great age your chances of it bouncing back are slim. I have successfully done this with previously uncoppiced trees that have trunks a good 15cm (6in) in diameter, but if growing conditions are less favourable or the specimen is weak, it could let you down, so no money-back guarantees on this one.

My mother used to grow a few rows/hedges of various unusual coppiced eucalyptus at about one-metre (3ft) centres at the bottom of her garden. Every time she went to London, she would load her car with cut stems and would sell them to top city florists.

It is worth researching more-unusual foliage varieties for this: some varieties have highly decorative juvenile foliage and many weird ones can be grown from seed.

Other ornamentals I have stooled or coppiced to produce special effects are catalpas, cotinus and paulownias (their leaves increase phenomenally in size), whereas many willows and cornus plants are regularly coppiced to produce highly coloured new, young stems.

Another common problem is inheriting trees far too large for the garden. Shade, blocked gutters and shifting foundations are not always great to live with. Coppicing a fine oak or sweet chestnut might solve the problem.

The first year after coppicing, you may get up to 150 new young shoots, but due to natural competition they will self-thin and you could end up with around five or 15, depending on how long you leave them. Traditionally, hedgerow trees (oak, ash) were often cut on a 25 or 35-year cycle, sweet chestnut on a 15 and hazel on a seven to 10, all depending on what diameter timber was needed.

Create vibrant winter borders (MMGI/MARIANNE MAJERUS)

If you have nothing to coppice, consider planting some suitable trees. One hazel tree will yield timber, pea sticks and much pleasure. Many trees provide bee forage too, notably hazel, alder, lime and cherry. If you have room, a small plantation of hazel can be productive in seven years. It will shelter you from winds and screen you from neighbours. Plus it provides a beautiful and usable part of the garden. You can mix coppice trees with standard-size trees if you prefer.

Order bare-root plants now (Double Yew Nurseries), preferably 45cm-60cm (17in-23in) high and bare root, which cost a few pence each. Decide which species you want depending on your soil and your use. If it is mainly for your wood burner, Grow Your Own Firewood by Michael Littlewood (Ecodesignscape) goes into the pros and cons of many species. Large areas of wood are planted in serried lines, purely because it makes husbandry easier. On small plots I plant young trees randomly with centres between 1.2m and 3m (4ft and 10ft) per tree. Close centres produce more wood. Some plants will die before they establish anyway (assuming you are unable to water them in the first year), but even in unfavourable hot, dry first springs this will be unlikely to be more than 10 per cent.

Make sure there is no grass around the base of the young trees (moisture competition will slow growth by as much as 70 per cent or even kill in the first year). To remove grass, (carefully) use glyphosate or a tree mat on planting Acorn Planting and don’t forget your spiral tree guards if you have rabbits. If you have a big deer problem, mesh tree guards (also from Acorn) may be necessary, but otherwise no tree stakes are needed.

It will look scruffy and unremarkable for your first three or four years. Put in a hedge or smart chestnut fence if it worries you. In year five it will start to blossom as growth picks up speed and the scruffy grass and nettles below become less dominant. Your birdsong levels will start to soar as your winds wane and you will start to mark out paths through. You may wish to add bulbs, ferns and wild flower plugs, too. Then you will need to find a convenient place for your new wood store. Wood warms you up four times, on planting, on felling, on sawing and on burning.

Coppicing/Pollarding Explained

Dating back thousands of years in Europe, coppicing and pollarding were used to continually harvest juvenile shoots off the same trees for fuel and craft materials. The concept is simple: by cutting a deciduous tree when it is dormant, you allow it to send up fresh shoots in the spring. These are harvested again when they reach the desired size — anywhere from 4 to 25 years. The best trees for either technique are deciduous trees that don’t “bleed” too much (such as maple). Oak, hazel, ash, chestnut, and willow work well.

Pollard Trees

The main difference between the two methods is that coppicing occurs at ground level while pollarding is done 8-10 feet high to prevent browsing animals from eating the fresh shoots; typically, coppicing was done to manage woodlands and pollarding was done in a pasture system.

Coppicing a tree produces multiple stems growing out of the main trunk — suitable for firewood, fencing, tool handles, and many more woodland crafts. A properly coppiced woodland, harvested in rotational sections called coups, has trees and understory in every stage and is a highly effective method to grow a fast supply of naturally renewing timber. By working on a rotation we are assured of a crop somewhere in the woodland every year.

Pollarding (from the word “poll,” which originally meant “top of head”) has been used since the Middle Ages — in fact, there are still stands of continuously pollarded trees that date to that time. Today, it is a technique that can be used in very urban environments to prevent trees from invading utilities or sewers . . . but its historical use of a wooded pasture system also fits into a permaculture method very well — stacking functions to get more yield out of one area.

What makes these methods so appealing is that by keeping the tree in a perpetual juvenile state, they actually extend the life of the tree by hundreds or sometimes even thousands of years. Diseases rarely have time to take hold of the young growth and weather elements do not affect trees of short stature so they live much longer than their unpruned counterparts.

And, because permaculturists don’t like to do more work than we have to, these methods actually reduce work two ways: by harvesting wood that is already partially dry (during the dormant season), and by growing firewood to just the right size and no more — less need to split and stack wood for drying. Pre-industrial Europeans thought it was a waste of human energy to grow a tree to a huge size just to kill it, split it, and have to replant . . . I’m kinda liking their mindset.

What Makes This So Awesome?

Well, everything! Both methods provide a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source. Let me say that again: a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t energy kind of a big deal these days? What coppicing/pollarding experts are saying here is that we actually can have it all — a sustainable, clean energy source that will meet all of our needs . . . including fueling our vehicles.

Those things are grand, but these techniques supply a plethora of other benefits too. Like: improved soil and water quality, natural woodland protection (because these methods work so well, there will be less and less need to cut mature trees), labor reduction (replanting every year? so old-school), and regeneration and toxic clean up.

Hm. A lot of problems on our planet can be corrected and eliminated by just planting some trees.

A beautiful example of a coppiced woodland diversity. Note how the flowers and groundcover plants are able to flourish with the extra sunlight.

The Flora and Fauna and All That Jazz

Turns out, coppicing also fosters a huge jump in biodiversity because of the bursts of sunlight that hit the forest floor. Many kinds of woodland flowers, butterflies, and birds thrive in coppiced woodlands and are not found in other areas. In fact, some rare butterflies have a very close association with regularly coppiced areas. Also, the different stages of woodland vegetation in a coup provide a wide variety of habitat for wildlife.

How it Works

To perform either method, the tree must be pruned severely – either to the ground or just around the trunk. It’s highly recommended that these techniques are only performed on young trees since they are far more receptive to pruning and healing — and by keeping them young by cutting their fresh growth every few years, the trees will actually live longer by avoiding many of the diseases and other issues of old trees.

What makes these methods work so well is that the selected trees will already have a fully developed root system so their regrowth will be extremely fast. By performing regular pruning, the associated root die-back will also work to increase the humus content of the soil right around the tree to create a nutrient-rich environment . . . helping the tree even more.

Who’s Doing It?

While coppicing and pollarding are making a comeback in Europe for ecological, rather than economical, reasons, they’re starting to make an appearance in the United States for the first time as well; cities like San Francisco use pollarding to co-exist with their urban trees without interference in utility or sewer lines.

Several universities throughout the Midwest and Northeast recently worked (early 2012) with the State University of New York on a Willow Biomass Crop Feedstock Development project which looks promising for the future of perennial energy crops, and Cornell also started a separate study in July of 2012 about the bioenergy capablities of willow with one goal being to use the shrub to improve marginal lands and show farmers that it is a viable crop.

Notably, Permaculture guys Dave Jacke and Mark Krawczyk have collaborated on a forthcoming book that looks like it will change the nature of thought in the United States towards woodland management and possibilities. Here’s the link for their project: Coppice Agroforestry.

Pollarding allows the farmer to graze animals in the understory of their trees thus providing another yield (meat) while minimizing the work of mowing down grass and other understory plants. Digging cup swales into the hillside would support the holding of more water and soluble nutrients for even greater yields.

Creative Applications

We can even stack these functions and put the tree crops in a pasture system. Now we’re getting fuel and meat/fiber from one plot. It really doesn’t take that much space to be sustainable.

One of the most exciting aspects of these methods is producing a sustainable supply of timber for fuel! Willow is very receptive to either method and is also one of the trees of choice for biofuel . . . and gasification. We can heat our homes and run our vehicles on plants that want to grow!

For a creative detour, we’ll explore the possibilities with just one plant, the willow. Why is this one species so exciting? From a growing standpoint, willow is:

  • easily propagated
  • fast growing
  • able to resprout rapidly after pruning
  • similar to hardwood in its heating capability
  • tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions

Plus, environmentally it:

  • increases biodiversity since it is grown on open land
  • is an excellent riparian buffer to prevent chemicals (from neighboring fields, of course) from reaching waterways
  • cleans toxins
  • filters water when planted near the site

And it can be used for:

  • heating in several different ways from a rocket stove to gasifier
  • biofuel
  • biodegradable plastics
  • ancient craft work

As you can see, woody crops can provide an annual harvest of poles and biomass for wood gasification and home heating rocket stoves.

But rather than just growing or mono-cropping one species, diverse systems can be developed that provide a multitude of yielding crops while also building topsoil for generations to come…ie…”leaving the planet in better condition than we found it.”

It’s important to note that the willow example is not intended to become another industrial monoculture and an excuse to clear-cut more land, but rather to show that we have options as we transition bare-open-erodible farm land to a more permanent-agricultural system. In a permaculture designed system, perhaps hazelnut could be grown-in with the willow and only a partial harvesting of nuts, wood, and basket weaving material would be harvested each year. If ducks were rotated through to provide nutrients and keep the grass down there would be another crop from the same property. The possibilities are endless . . .

It’s obvious that with our modern technology and knowledge we have a wide array of choices for sustainability at our fingertips now!

Bringing It Home

Hopefully you can see why we are so excited to implement these methods on our CSC property! Our linear food forests, hedgerows, orchard conversion, and the willows that will hold our chinampas in place, all will have some sort of coppicing and/or pollarding applied to the system.

The beauty of permaculture is that it supplies hope in a world that so often seems frantic and out of control. With all the worry over rising fuel costs and the implications that carries, we can rest easy knowing that it really is possible to take care of ourselves and our families — as long as we continue to respect the wisdom of the earth.

What Is Coppicing: Tips On Coppicing Trees

The word ‘coppice’ comes from the French word ‘couper’ which means ‘to cut.’ What is coppicing? Coppicing pruning is trimming trees or shrubs in a way that encourages them to sprout back from the roots, suckers or stumps. It is often done to create renewable wood harvests. The tree is cut and shoots grow. The shoots are left to grow for a certain number of years and then are cut, starting the entire cycle again. Read on for more information about coppicing trees and coppicing techniques.

What is Coppicing?

Coppicing pruning has been around since Neolithic times, according to archaeologists. The practice of coppicing pruning was particularly important before humans had machinery for cutting and transporting large trees. Coppicing trees provided a constant supply of logs of a size that could be easily handled.

Essentially, coppicing is a way of providing a sustainable harvest of tree shoots. First, a tree is felled. Sprouts grow from dormant buds on the cut stump, known as a stool. The sprouts that arise are allowed to grow until they are of the correct size, then are harvested and the stools allowed to grow again. This can be carried out over and over again over several hundred years.

Plants Suitable for Coppicing

Not all trees are plants suitable for coppicing. Generally, broadleaf trees coppice well but most conifers do not. The strongest broad leaves to coppice are:

  • Ash
  • Hazel
  • Oak
  • Sweet chestnut
  • Lime
  • Willow

The weakest are beech, wild cherry and poplar. Oak and lime grow sprouts that reach three feet in their first year, while the best coppicing trees – ash and willow – grow much more. Usually, the coppiced trees grow more the second year, then growth slows dramatically the third.

Coppice products used to include ship planking. The smaller wood pieces were also used for firewood, charcoal, furniture, fencing, tool handles and brooms.

Coppicing Techniques

The procedure for coppicing first requires you to clear out foliage around the base of the stool. The next step in coppicing techniques is to prune away dead or damaged shoots. Then, you work from one side of the stool to the center, cutting the most accessible poles.

Make one cut about 2 inches above the point the branch grows out of the stool. Angle the cut 15 to 20 degrees from the horizontal, with the low point facing out from the stool center. Sometimes, you may find it necessary to cut higher first, then trim back.

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