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!! What is coppicing - Quick intro

 
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Are you familiar with coppicing? What about pollarding? Both of these ancient methods are amazing for managing the woodlands on your homestead. If you don't really know what these terms mean then this weeks blog post - What is Coppicing? (And Why It’s Amazing for Homesteaders) - is a great place to start.

This post is a fairly short post that focuses on getting you started by explaining what coppicing is and how it differs from pollarding. The post also dives into why coppicing is amazing for your homestead.

Do you use coppicing to manage your woodlands? What about pollarding? Leave a reply sharing if you use coppicing or pollarding on your homestead.

My Story - How I Learned About Coppicing



Back almost 9 years ago my wife and I got to live in England for a year. While there I got involved in a youth ranger program which was my first introduction to coppicing. I got to see first hand how the understory of a mature forest could be managed as a copse with the regular harvesting cycle resulting in a more diverse set of habitat than would normally exist.

I also got to see old trees that had been coppiced for over 1000 years--these trees had lived far longer than that type of tree normally would without being coppiced.

All of this was just amazing to me. I had grown up seeing logging as being something that was not compatible with a healthy natural environment (which to be fair modern logging approaches are often very damaging to the landscape) but coppicing was a method that could maintain a forest and repeatedly harvest it for generations without needing to replant. If done right you could even increase the diversity of wildlife that the landscape supported.

I also just love the look of wattle (woven) fences! Those fences were common place in England and I just fell in love with that type of fence and I can't wait to create some on my homestead.

But my homestead is lacking in trees. I have planted around a 1000 trees since buying my homestead almost 3 years ago but the trees are still too small for wattle fences. But once they are big enough I can't wait to start setting up wattle fences around my homestead!

While in England I learned how important having the proper tool for coppicing is. The bill hook makes removing the branches and twigs from the logs so much easier. For Father's Day this year my wife got me my own bill hook and I'm really looking forward to using it!

If you are going to do much coppicing I highly recommend getting 1 of your own (links in the blog post).

Using Coppicing on Your Homestead

There are a lot of ways to use coppicing on your homestead that go beyond getting firewood. I'm currently designing my food forests to have 1 to 3 coppiced trees for every 1 fruit or nut producing tree. At least 1 of these will be a nitrogen fixer and the other 2 will be picked for biomass production. The idea is to basically do chop-and-drop on a large scale to quickly build soil by adding leaves, twigs, branches and even logs to the ground each year on a rotating cycle.

Plus you can get wood for rocket ovens, rocket mass heaters, camp fires, trellises, etc. in addition to building soil! Coppicing is fantastic at providing this type of harvest on a regular cycle and makes it easy to stack functions.  

So what about you? What is your experience with coppicing?

And make sure to swing by the blog post and leave a comment! If you are the first to do so you will get a piece of pie! The pie will get you access to some special features on perimes, discounts at some vendors, and you can use it to purchase some products on the permies digital marketplace.

If you leave a comment on the blog post make sure to leave a post here on permies too so I can easily give you the slice of pie.
 
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Hi Daron, Its great to see a post on coppicing and the UK Forestry Commission video provides a good overview of the potential of coppice for woodland biodiversity and uses of the harvested material, largely based on traditional tree species and uses. We are developing further possibilities at Holt Wood in Devon, UK, where we have established a medicinal forest garden and are experimenting with ways of cultivating and harvesting medicinal trees and shrubs. It is a 2.5 acre site previously a conifer plantation that we cleared in 2005 and replanted with native and introduced species for medicine, some also for food and fuel. Coppicing is especially good for sustainably producing 2-3 year old branches ideal for medicinal bark harvesting. There is a link to a news item about our project with Permaculture Magazine https://www.permaculture.co.uk/news/learning-about-medicinal-trees
 
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Daron Williams wrote:Are you familiar with coppicing? What about pollarding? Both of these ancient methods are amazing for managing the woodlands on your homestead. If you don't really know what these terms mean then this weeks blog post - What is Coppicing? (And Why It’s Amazing for Homesteaders) - is a great place to start.

This post is a fairly short post that focuses on getting you started by explaining what coppicing is and how it differs from pollarding. The post also dives into why coppicing is amazing for your homestead....



Daron, thank you SO much for this post! I saw several pollarded mulberry trees at a recent aquaintance's house and asked her about the technique. She said "I don't know that there's a name for it. I just cut the tops off so the branches grow down low enough so I can pick the fruit." I said I thought there was a term for it, because I'd been reading about coppicing and comparing it to the other technique (which was, of course, pollarding), and I sent her the info. Now I'll send her this!

Question: How many years should one wait after planting young trees to allow them to establish before attempting either of these methods?

 
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Diane Kistner wrote:Question: How many years should one wait after planting young trees to allow them to establish before attempting either of these methods?



That depends on the species and local conditions, as far as how fast the tree can regrow. If you cut down a tree when it's too small, there might not be enough energy stored in the smaller roots in the winter for it to generate new shoots the following year. Then the growth rate will determine how soon you can cut again. I've heard a minimum of 3-4" diameter trunks before cutting the first time. Under ideal circumstances I've heard black locust could take maybe 5-7 years from seed to reach the first cutting size, and regrow in 4-5 years for each successive cut. I believe I heard around 7-8 years for Hazel, and you could also harvest nuts for a couple of those years as well for multiple functions.

Say you had 20 hazel trees as part of the rotation, cutting down 3 each year, and having 10 big enough each year to produce nuts to eat/sell. I'm hoping to establish black locust, osage orange/hedge apple (as part of a hedge/fence), hazel, and maybe red maple which all should coppice well. A variety of species provides some redundancy in case one species is hit by a pest or disease, and while you take a production hit you aren't left with a total loss. Having around 2 acres with trees spaced pretty close like 10'x10' would give around 800 trees in that space and encourage straighter growth. Cutting 1/4 acre=100 trees each year with an 8 year rotation which should give all species enough time provided they get enough water and stay healthy, and those 2 acres would have a range of habitat ages for critters to use.

Just have to keep the deer out or you'd come to discover all those fresh tasty shoots getting eaten to the ground and the trees all being killed as they run out of juice to keep making new shoots. Thus my hope to plant osage orange as a hedge around the perimeter and grown high enough that deer can't see over/through it and thus won't try to jump it, while being short enough that I can use long handle pruners to harvest hundreds of branches each year. In my ideal fantasy world, I get several thousand osage orange planted around the entire 20 acres, and maintaining a hedge size gives thumb-thick cuttings which would add up to several thousand each year and that would be all I need for wood heat without using a saw. The black locusts could then be thinned out to larger standards and cut for posts or larger timbers on a longer schedule; hazels are mixed into the OO hedge and kept for nuts (I harvest the inside, deer can harvest the outside).

Edit: I forgot the downside for that though- osage orange has thorns (which is a plus for a protective hedge), so there might be thousands of ouchies in the process of pruning. So while it is one of the densest and hottest burning woods in north america there is a price!
 
Diane Kistner
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Mark Brunnr wrote:Just have to keep the deer out or you'd come to discover all those fresh tasty shoots getting eaten to the ground and the trees all being killed as they run out of juice to keep making new shoots.



Uh-oh. We have tons of deer here! Thanks for the warning!
 
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If anyone is interested in coppicing for regular firewood production, try this method.
Divide your designated plot into 5 sections and plant your whips in a grid across the whole area. At the end of the year, cut all growth to the height you want your stools. This is YEAR 0
At the end of year 1, cut only section 1
At the end of year 2, cut only section 2 (2 yrs growth)
At the end of year 3 cut only section 3 (3 yrs growth)
At the end of year 4 cut only section 4 (4 yrs growth)
At the end of year 5 cut only section 5 (5 yrs growth)

From then on repeat years 1 - 5 which will always give you 5 years groth from each section while giving 4/5th of your section over to production of wildflowers which can make a tidy little business, especially for children to become involved on your plot, homestead or farm, or giving space to run pigs through, fertilizing as they go.
This following clip is not about coppicing per se but does include the clip about a family whose children took advantage of growing wildflowers for sale.


We have volunteer chestnuts and sycamore springing up all over our land. We coppice and pollard depending where the plants are. We are finding that 2 years growth of both gives us poles of a) useable thickness and length for the garden) and b) just the right size to go through the chipper to give us a mulch which we are sorely lacking. It must be said that we live in the triffid sector of the World where everything grows ridiculously fast. A 5 year system for us would give us nut bearing trees instead of firewood or hurdle poles!

 
Mark Brunnr
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I heard that if you cut back to a stool at an early age the tree might not survive, so I’m growing a batch of trees from seed each year so they will grow with proper timing without an initial cut. Also limits me to say 100 trees per year to start as well.
 
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I’ve found that Maple pollards extremely densely – cut down a 6” wide tree at 3’, and you will have dense shoots coming up all over the trunk and top.  I try to always cut in late winter.  Hinge-cutting smaller maples (about 4” wide) works great too.  However, a lot of my maples were rotted out (though they looked normal on the outside), and died after the pollard.  I think that may be because they were in wet/swampy ground.

Tulip Poplar regrows densely but in a much more upright/thin fashion, much like the tree’s regular growth.  I have several 3’ wide poplars I had to cut down based on their location, but am hoping they pollard back (it’s been 6 months and no luck so far, but hoping they eventually produce great pollinator habitat).  

A 4” wide hickory pollarded very densely at 6’, almost like a palm tree.  It’s one of my fence-posts!  Oak comes back pretty well too.  I have some real big hickories that may get pollarded someday to increase light for more productive trees.

As discussed elsewhere, Black Locust likes to pop up root suckers everywhere when you cut it back too much.  I’m trimming a smaller one back more conservatively (like a hedge), and will see if that stops it from suckering.

I planted a bunch of Hazel that are coming up nicely, doing much better than the baby fruit trees in my soil.  They are already growing pretty densely; not sure why I would want to ever trim them back.
 
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Josh Garbo wrote: Hinge-cutting smaller maples (about 4” wide) works great too.  However, a lot of my maples were rotted out (though they looked normal on the outside), and died after the pollard.


Can you please further describe what hinge cutting is? Or a picture? I think my transplanted maples are flirting with the power lines. It's about time to pollard,
 
Josh Garbo
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https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=hinge-cutting+maples&qpvt=hinge-cutting+maples&FORM=IGRE

Hunters do it to encourage bushy growth in the forest and provide cover for deer to bed down.  I normally pollard to keep an area more open, but have tried some hinge-cutting in dense forested areas which I'm not trying to modify into savannahs.  So far they're thriving and providing a lot of wildlife cover.
 
Daron Williams
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Great comments all!

Anne – Thank you for the comment and for sharing the link! That is really interesting about using coppicing for sustainable medicinal bark harvesting. I’m curious if it could be used for cascara here in Washington State… historically the tree was over harvested for medicine and its numbers are greatly reduced. I just don’t know if it can be coppiced… I will have to test it! Thanks again!

Diane – Good to hear that the post was helpful! 😊 Each tree species will be different in terms of the number of years to wait. I would base it on how big you want your harvested material to be and at least wait until the tree has gotten to that size. But if you are wanting to do really short cycle (1-3 years between cuts) I would wait 5 years before doing the first cut to let the tree get fully established.

By waiting you will give the tree the chance to get a good root system which will help it grow faster after you make the cut. If you cut too early it won’t have as good of a root system and may be slower to regrow.

But I’m not an expert on that and I’m experimenting with a number of trees on my homestead. Anyone got any additional thoughts on Diane’s question?

Rosie – You are welcome and thanks for your comment! And big thank you for the comment on the blog post too! Pie for you!

Mark – Thank you so much for providing the detailed response to Diane!

Diane – About the deer concern… pollarding is a way to deal with deer. You cut above the browse height so the deer can’t reach the new shoots.

Mandy – Thank you for sharing! Really appreciate it!

Mark – I think it also depends on the species. Some are much more resilient and don’t seem to mind being cut. But I do agree that giving the tree time to get established makes it much more likely for the tree to survive.

That being said there are some species like red alder here in Washington that actually coppice better if you cut it before 7 years. If you wait till it is older it is much less likely to regrow.

Josh – Thanks for sharing your experience with the different trees!

Jolynn and Josh – It is also very similar to the technique used to make traditional hedges in England with hawthorns. Though they tend to cut the trees when they are much smaller. I have even seen cases where they weave the cut hawthorn together. The result is a very thick and thorny hedge that not much can get through.


Thanks all for the great comments and discussion! Sorry for the delay in my responses… having a newborn and a toddler keeps me fairly busy these days. But I really appreciate you all commenting!
 
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Daron, I can't thank you enough, for this topic! I'd often wondered how words on islands could possibly be managed so well as to not simply die out, with generations of people constantly harvesting, and not replanting, lol. It feels like a very 'doh!' kind of thing, now! But, more importantly, at least to me, is that hubs and I now have a plan in front of us, for managing our land in an entirely sustainable way, that also will provide for the wildlife, on our land, and help ensure continued abundance. I'm an herbalist, and we want to hunt, here. We also heat with a combination of sources, including wood, and we have need of inexpensive fencing, that looks good, while still being functional. This information - which my family didn't know about, on our farm, as I grew up, will make all the difference, in the world, for us!!! Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!! (From ALL of us:🌳🌱🐦🕊🦅🦃🦉🦎🐝🐛🐜🐞🕷🦂🌲🌻🌼🌾🌿☘🍀🍁😁😎🦌🐹🐿)
 
Diane Kistner
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Daron Williams wrote:Diane – Good to hear that the post was helpful! 😊 Each tree species will be different in terms of the number of years to wait. I would base it on how big you want your harvested material to be and at least wait until the tree has gotten to that size. But if you are wanting to do really short cycle (1-3 years between cuts) I would wait 5 years before doing the first cut to let the tree get fully established.



Thanks, Daron. And this leads to another question I have, especially about sweetgum trees. I'm trying hard to kill the ones in my back yard. They send out water sprouts over and over and over again. Can you eventually kill the trees by removing the water sprouts religiously, and how long does it typically take? Or maybe there's a trick (that doesn't involve poison)?

 
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Coppicing was widely practiced by Native Californians. Though the Spanish and other immigrants often could not see the agricultural and horticultural practices of California natives, and then labeled Californians as "non-agricultural" (some of what the Spanish saw as fields of wild grass were in fact planted grain crops), in fact the California forests were managed to produce posts and poles, sagebrush and sage smudge, and other crops.

I practiced this on sagebrush plants in the southern Sierras, and did indeed find some very nice long sticks of sagebrush to be harvested the next year.

If I may digress, there was a yearly planting of piñón seeds around the periphery of existing piñón-juniper woodland for probably millennia. A Paiute elder whom I met in one such piñón grove agreed with what I'd learned from anthropologists, that his people had in fact planted much of the piñón there on those slopes on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

So there are many things including coppicing which can be done to manipulate forests, and even grasslands. We now know that much of both types of ecosystem in North America had long been manipulated by humans. Failing to do this for the past few centuries, we now have extensive forest fires and other problems.

And another forest manipulation which can be beneficial for cultivators: terra preta, soil created with fire.
 
Mark Brunnr
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Diane, yes just keep cutting back new shoots before they develop, so the plant spends more nutrients sending up shoots than it receives from them and it will eventually run out of juice. If you can cover up the spot to prevent light from reaching new shoots that will help too.
 
Diane Kistner
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Mark Brunnr wrote:Diane, yes just keep cutting back new shoots before they develop, so the plant spends more nutrients sending up shoots than it receives from them and it will eventually run out of juice. If you can cover up the spot to prevent light from reaching new shoots that will help too.



Oh! That reminds me of a friend's "can farm," which I had forgotten all about. She lives in a once-rural, turning-to-upscale suburb in Roswell, Georgia, where she has her entire front yard planted in market-garden veggies. When she first bought the house, she had to clear a lot of smaller sweetgum saplings and privet, and she said she just inverted various food cans on top of the little stumps to keep out the light so they'd die faster. One day a cop came by and told her he was getting complaints from the neighbors about trash in her yard and that she'd have to clean it up. She played innocent and batty-old-lady with him. "What trash? Where? Oh, you mean my can farm? That's my CAN FARM!" and proceeded to just talk crazy can-farm stuff to him until he gave up and left. We Southern women know how to do crazy... ;)

 
Mark Brunnr
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I guess we could get hollow garden gnomes to cover up the stumps, and also communicate with the nosy neighbors at the same time:
 
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Pollarding willows is standard basic tree care in the Himalayas. We don't coppice down at the ground level because local goats and cattle would devour the shoots, so we always pollard at approximately head height. We don't pollard at exactly the same location every time to a big lump as in France, though. In these pictures you can see different stages. If the willows are getting good water, we can harvest them every three years. The long straight sticks are useful for all sorts of things -- light tool handles, roofing sticks, fuel (we don't have much of harder/hotter wood than willows and poplars), and animals strip the bark off, or we stand them in water and then peel them. Or you can just replant the sticks right away if you want more trees.

Edited to add: Despite what it looks like, the guy in the bottom photo is not using an axe next his bare foot -- he's using a pruning saw, and has the axe stashed.
pollarded-willows-in-Ladakh-first-and-second-year.JPG
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pollarded-willows-in-stone-walls-in-Ladakh-third-year.jpg
[Thumbnail for pollarded-willows-in-stone-walls-in-Ladakh-third-year.jpg]
pollarding-willows-in-March-in-Ladakh.JPG
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