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Sitka Alder - any thoughts?

 
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Hello all,

I'm trying to develop a list of PNW (west coast portion) plants that are nitrogen fixing, either die back naturally each year or can take being chopped and dropped on a regular cycle. The plants also need to be ones that I can readily purchase and ideally grow myself. Plus if they are quick to establish on disturbed sites that is a big bonus. Also, the plants have to be native since this list is for state funded restoration work. The ultimate goal is to build soil quickly to support higher value trees (from the perspective of my funding sources) that will in turn support key wildlife species such as salmon.

Got a list going but I have been struggling to find a native shrub that fits the bill. Tried looking at ceanothus but the ones native to my area are fairly fire dependent for seed germination making them hard to order. Another option is a variety of soapberry that is native to my area but it prefers higher elevation than most of my sites. Also soapberry is not often grown by the nurseries in my area.

So that has led me to Sitka alder which sounds very promising. Relatively fast growing up to around 20ft, grows as a shrub, is available in bulk from the WA State Conservation District Association, fixes nitrogen and is known to re-sprout from the stump after fires. Sounds great but I'm having trouble finding any info about it in regards to how often it can be chopped and dropped and what people's experience has been growing it. I did a search here on permies and found a little info but most of it was older and just listing it as a possible plant to grow.

I'm also considering it as a support plant for my future fruit trees. In this situation I would chop and drop it fairly regularly and essentially use it as a living mulch source. Considered red alder for this role but I like the idea of growing a shrub more for this specific use.

Do any of you have any experience or thoughts on Sitka alder? Beyond soil building what have you used it for?
 
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I've never encountered sitka alder (that I know of), but I do have red alder. I've tried copising some of the red alder I have growing, but somewhere around 1/2 of them don't survive the copsing. Maybe Sitka alder's can handle it better? My husband has been pretty heavily pruning a red alder, and the tree seems to be doing fine. So, it might be that heavy pruning could work for chop and drop as well as nitrogen fixing?

Hopefully my reply will BUMP this up, and someone who knows about sitka alders might see it!

Have you thought of nitrogen-fixing groundcovers? Do we have any that are native here? I have in my lawn some trefoils and clover, but the trefoils are not native, and I'm assuming that the clover isn't, too. What about vetch? It looks like some might be native to north America, though I don't know if there are any native to our area of the US...


 
Daron Williams
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Nicole Alderman wrote:I've never encountered sitka alder (that I know of), but I do have red alder. I've tried copising some of the red alder I have growing, but somewhere around 1/2 of them don't survive the copsing. Maybe Sitka alder's can handle it better? My husband has been pretty heavily pruning a red alder, and the tree seems to be doing fine. So, it might be that heavy pruning could work for chop and drop as well as nitrogen fixing?

Hopefully my reply will BUMP this up, and someone who knows about sitka alders might see it!

Have you thought of nitrogen-fixing groundcovers? Do we have any that are native here? I have in my lawn some trefoils and clover, but the trefoils are not native, and I'm assuming that the clover isn't, too. What about vetch? It looks like some might be native to north America, though I don't know if there are any native to our area of the US...



Thanks Nicole! Ya, Sitka is interesting to me since in naturally grows as a shrub. It grows in a range of habits but is often found in avalanche shoots. Since it can take that type of regular disturbance and I read it will regrow from the stump after a fire I thought it might be a good Pacific northwest native support plant.

I'm really interested in learning more about it. Thinking about trying it out in a test area next year to see how well it grows. If it grows well then I will setup a coppice test area and try coppicing some after the 1st year, some at 2 years and some at 3 years. Be great to have a native woody support species to add to my list.

Speaking of the list I have been trying to find one or more native plants that fix nitrogen for each of the main forest layers. Lupins (at least 5 native species of lupins that might work) have been my main herbaceous plant. Testing out 3 species of lupine at one of my restoration sites and I have been collecting wild seed to try at my place.

For ground cover there is a native clover called spring bank clover. Tends to grow in wet areas and near tidal areas. Often found with silverweed. Spring bank clover used to be a major food source for native people's in this area since it produces a large amount of edible roots. Been interested in trying it out at my place once I get my ponds setup in a few years.

There is also a native vetch called black vetch that I may try. So for the herbaceous layer I could use black vetch, spring bank clover, and 1 or more types of lupine. But I also like to have woody support plants which is where Sitka alder could fit.

I thought about trying red alder but since it struggles to survive being coppiced I'm not sure if it would fit for my needs. Plus for my restoration sites the funders prefer conifers and get nervous that red alder will outcompete them. I thought Sitka alder could be a good alternative since it tends to max out at around 20 ft and if it could be coppiced all the better for soil building.

Nicole - how old were your red alder when you coppiced them? Some things I have read said they do better if they are younger than 7 years but I have no first hand experience coppicing red alder.

Thanks!
 
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I think that sitka alder (alnus veridis or green alder) is likely an excellent choice for your project.  This is the local alder up here as well.  You will have to do some experimentation on coppicing as I haven't found any info on it myself.  That said, when the local ditch growth is smashed to bits by the highways crew with a brush hog attachment on an excavator, the alders grow back along with the willows, birches, poplars, and cottonwoods.    As far as chop and drop of branches, you have found a great shrub for your system, so long as you have good rooted specimens to start with.  It's natural function is to provide nitrogen; this is partly done by the bacterial association on the roots, but is also done by it's heavy leaf and twig drop.  I'm sure this could be enhanced and utilized to your advantage with proper pruning at a young age to encourage bushiness.   It is likely easier to kill than willow, but it may be better to not heavily coppice it anyway, as the ongoing nitrogen support might be worth keeping it as shrub nitrogen support amongst the higher value trees.  
 
Daron Williams
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:I think that sitka alder (alnus veridis or green alder) is likely an excellent choice for your project.  This is the local alder up here as well.  You will have to do some experimentation on coppicing as I haven't found any info on it myself.  That said, when the local ditch growth is smashed to bits by the highways crew with a brush hog attachment on an excavator, the alders grow back along with the willows, birches, poplars, and cottonwoods.    As far as chop and drop of branches, you have found a great shrub for your system, so long as you have good rooted specimens to start with.  It's natural function is to provide nitrogen; this is partly done by the bacterial association on the roots, but is also done by it's heavy leaf and twig drop.  I'm sure this could be enhanced and utilized to your advantage with proper pruning at a young age to encourage bushiness.   It is likely easier to kill than willow, but it may be better to not heavily coppice it anyway, as the ongoing nitrogen support might be worth keeping it as shrub nitrogen support amongst the higher value trees.  



Thank you for your thoughts and observations. That is good to know that it regrows after being cut by the highway crews. Since it tends to grow in sites with repeat disturbance I'm hopeful it will handle being chopped and dropped and potentially coppiced on a regular cycle.

But as you mentioned since it is a shrub it might just be better to cut it back but not all the way down to a stump. I guess since it naturally grows as a shrub this is an advantage over say red alder where the goal through coppicing is to promote a more scrubby growth pattern.

Just wish I could find some permaculture sites that are using Sitka alder so I could see how they use it. Well unless some info turns up indicating that it is not a good fit more my sites I'm going to give it a try a bit over a year from now. Already got my projects for this fall n winter lined up but I want to try this out the following year.

I'm thinking that Sitka alder combined with bigleaf maple could function as great chop and drop support plants in the Pacific Northwest. Chopping and dropping both together could result in great soil building.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I know the Bullock Brothers on Orcas Island were using alders in their food forest.  I'm not sure, but it's probably red alders.  You might want to try to contact them.  They are super amazing people who have a lot of experience and experimentation with local plants from what I could gather in my day on their farm/garden/site.  

One thing that you could do is a half hack chop, instead of an outright coppice.  You cut the stem half or more of the way through, careful to leave a sapwood path to the roots, and then tip the tree onto it's side, with the trunk pushed down near the ground.  Pin it there, if you can, and add soil on top.  The branches then go vertical--multiplying your single into many.  This is a great way to do living hugulkulture/ living hedges/create swale type structures.  I think that it would also produce rapid biomass, and encourage root growth, and leaf growth.  This sort of thing happens in avalanche shutes all the time.    
 
Roberto pokachinni
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There is probably some ecologically minded forest people at Evergreen State College who you may be able to contact, since you are right in Olympia.
 
Nicole Alderman
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Nicole - how old were your red alder when you coppiced them? Some things I have read said they do better if they are younger than 7 years but I have no first hand experience coppicing red alder.  



I don't know exactly how old my alders were that I coppiced, as they came with the property. But, they're trunks weren't more than maybe 2.5 inches in diameter and they weren't more than 8 feet tall at the time. I'm thinking they were only maybe 5 years old. I'm pretty sure I cut them with my Felco hand pruners, so they couldn't have been that big....Come to think of it, that might have been part of the problem when I coppiced them, as I was more intent on just getting the things cut without having to try and grab a saw (and worrying my toddler getting the saw) that I probably cut some that were too big for a clean cut with the Felcos...

I also have to admit that I really didn't know what I was doing when I coppiced them. I was harvesting them for wattle fences and cut them about a foot from the ground. You might have better luck with coppicing them that I did!

Pretty sure that the red alder won't outcompete the conifers. Most native conifers like growing up with alders around them, as that's kind of the natural progression. Douglas firs might not do as well, as they need a bit more sun than hemlocks and cedars (I have Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock growing amongst my alder groves). What conifers are you growing?
 
Daron Williams
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Interesting idea about doing the half cut. When I lived in England I saw some farmers doing that to make hedgerows. It would be a quick way to establish hedges.

I was thinking about the Bullock brothers - I have always been impressed by their work. Good to know that they used alder at their site.

I actually graduated from Evergreen's environmental studies masters program about a year and a half ago. I can try reaching out to the people I know there. They have a great farm on the campus and use permaculture techniques. I will have to ask about alder.
 
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Not specific to this tree, but whar about pollarding instead of coppicing?
I have some box elder and mulberry I do this too and they seem to thrive.
The mulberry produces more and more useful wood.
I like that the trunk remains,getting thicker over time,handy as plant or fence support.
 
Daron Williams
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Nicole Alderman wrote:

I don't know exactly how old my alders were that I coppiced, as they came with the property. But, they're trunks weren't more than maybe 2.5 inches in diameter and they weren't more than 8 feet tall at the time. I'm thinking they were only maybe 5 years old. I'm pretty sure I cut them with my Felco hand pruners, so they couldn't have been that big....Come to think of it, that might have been part of the problem when I coppiced them, as I was more intent on just getting the things cut without having to try and grab a saw (and worrying my toddler getting the saw) that I probably cut some that were too big for a clean cut with the Felcos...

I also have to admit that I really didn't know what I was doing when I coppiced them. I was harvesting them for wattle fences and cut them about a foot from the ground. You might have better luck with coppicing them that I did!

Pretty sure that the red alder won't outcompete the conifers. Most native conifers like growing up with alders around them, as that's kind of the natural progression. Douglas firs might not do as well, as they need a bit more sun than hemlocks and cedars (I have Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock growing amongst my alder groves). What conifers are you growing?



Thanks for the info! I'm always interested in hearing about people's experience with red alder. Seems kinda so so in regards to coppicing it.

I agree that most would be fine but funders get nervous and many consider red alder to be a weed tree. For my restoration sites I tend to use a mix but often due to the degraded and sun exposed nature of my sites I plant Douglas fir, and shore pine. Often I will include Sitka spruce and grand fir if the site is a bit moist. Tend to avoid red cedar and western hemlock due to these two struggling at degraded sites but they often come in on their own once a canopy forms.

Douglas fir, shore pine and Sitka spruce both prefer the open sun but grand fir does fine under red alder. I'm trying to slowly shift more towards fast growing hardwoods such as the alders and maples with shade tolerant conifers planted with them. I think this better fits what I see happening naturally but I'm generally under a lot of pressure to prioritize conifers over the hardwoods.

But I'm slowly making progress with bringing in some permaculture practices to the restoration community. Overtime I plan on including more and more hardwoods, lupins, and other support species with conifers mixed in. Likely going to rely more on grand fir in the future and potentially red cedar in my restoration sites as I include more fast growing hardwoods. If I can get shade quickly established then red cedar can do well.
 
Daron Williams
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William Bronson wrote: Not specific to this tree, but whar about pollarding instead of coppicing?
I have some box elder and mulberry I do this too and they seem to thrive.
The mulberry produces more and more useful wood.
I like that the trunk remains,getting thicker over time,handy as plant or fence support.



I don't know - I'm familiar with pollarding but I don't know if trees that don't coppice well would do better as pollards. Wonder if pollarding above the lowest branches would help... anyone have any thoughts or experience with this?
 
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Hey Daron,
Sorry to bump an old thread but I just became interested in this topic. I sent you a message but figured I'd post in the thread as well. My family just bought 10 acres of recently clearcut land that was mostly replanted with doug fir on a ~12ft spacing. Been thinking about planting something more useful than the himalayan blackberry/ ilex aquifolium/ digitalis/ verbascus mixture that seems to fill most of the space in between. Red Alder (Alnus rubra) is a good tree but perhaps not the best for this application since it would probably suppress the doug fir and create an overly dense stand. I was looking into Sitka Alder (Alnus viridus spp. sinuata) as a shrubby alternative. Apparently it also has moderate shade tolerance unlike Alnus rubra. The thing is, it's normally found at higher elevations than most people do their thing. I do know that the tree seed transfer zones generally shrink in area the higher elevation you go. Then I came across a publication by the NRCS Plant Material Center out of Corvallis on a specific population of Sitka Alder they found growing at ~200ft elevation in the Columbia River Gorge. They performed trials on it and a few dozen other populations 20-30 years ago, selected this one for its good performance, and dubbed it the "Skamania Germplasm". Apparently for some time they maintained a seed orchard available to growers, intending the plant to be used mainly for habitat restoration projects and companion planting on tree plantations. My mind immediately jumped to permaculture and how we don't really have a lot of native N-fixing shrubs here in the lowland coastal northwest.  

webpage

A few weeks ago I called the WACD PMC in Bow, Fourth Corner Nurseries in Bellingham, and a handful of conservation districts. Nobody had heard of it. I emailed the NRCS asking if they knew anyone growing it. They didn't.They also don't maintain a collection of seed anymore. I plan on probing the esoteric history of this plant further and seeing if there are any forgotten experiments with it that we might learn from. They did offer to go out and collect some seed next October, asking how much I wanted. I think I'm gonna try and convince them to let me go out with them and put in some of the legwork since it's out near my family's place anyways. Would anyone else be interested in some seeds or seedlings of this and testing it out? It probably wouldn't be very much extra work to gather significantly more than what I need. If I'm gonna put in this much effort I'd like to share what I could and see what others can make of it. I do know the seeds don't store very well unless under very controlled conditions so this would have to be coordinated ahead of time.

You could probably get fine results from any Sitka Alder you brought down out of the hills, but I figure if I'm gonna germinate and transplant a few thousand by myself I might as well do my best to build on the heavy lifting evolution has already done. I'll probably make a standalone post about this in the plant breeding/ seed swapping forum too.
 
Daron Williams
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Hello and welcome to permies!

That is really interesting and thank you for sharing! I saw your PM but had not had time to respond. I'm still getting caught up on a bunch of stuff. I had a bunch of bareroot plants arrive at the end of last week (almost 200) that I spent the weekend planting. Most of the plants were from the WA Conservation District Association Plant Materials Center. The bundle of plants actually included 30 Sitka alder grown from an Oregon seed source.

I added them to my existing hugelkultur beds and a few to my front food forest. I'm going to try coppicing the ones in my front food forest in a couple years.

At this point I'm testing the Sitka alder to determine the following:
1. Can it handle the summer droughts down here.
2. How fast does it grow.
3. Can it be coppiced.
4. Does it spread and how does it grow in general in the lowlands.

Another native plant I'm also testing out is the Douglas maple (Rocky Mountain Maple) - Acer gladrum. Are you familiar with it? It is bigger than vine maples but much smaller than big leaf maples. Tends to be multi-trunk and is supposed to be much more drought resistant.

I'm hoping that Douglas maple can be coppiced and that it grows well here. Assuming it does my plan is to use Douglas maple and Sitka alder together as support trees/shrubs for my fruit trees in my food forests. Both should contribute a fair bit of biomass each year from leaf litter and if I coppice them on a short cycle that could be a significant source of biomass. Plus of course the Sitka alder would be adding nitrogen to the system.

That plant order that showed up last week and had the 30 Sitka alder also had 50 Douglas maple. They are all planted so now I just need to wait and see how they do and then try coppicing them in say 3 years. But that gives me time to get my zone 1 setup in the meantime

I run a restoration program for a local land trust and I'm also testing Douglas maple at one of my restoration sites (planted over 700) and I hope to start testing Sitka alder at another site this fall.

I would be interested in getting some of the seeds from the Sitka alder you mentioned. I wonder if I could talk the local native plant nursery in my area into growing them for me... lol, anyways thanks again for sharing! That is really interesting information and please do share on here if you make progress with the seeds! Hope to see you around on permies!
 
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Daron, have you tried propagating ceanothus? If you can get some seed, soaking them in smoke water might break dormancy. This works for several fire-dependent species. I might give this a go with the quench water from my kontiki kiln.
 
Daron Williams
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Phil Stevens wrote:Daron, have you tried propagating ceanothus? If you can get some seed, soaking them in smoke water might break dormancy. This works for several fire-dependent species. I might give this a go with the quench water from my kontiki kiln.



Interesting... thanks for the tip! I have not tried propagating ceanothus yet but it is on my list. That would be a lot cheaper than buying the plants. Can you please explain the term smoke water to me? I think I understand it but I just want to make sure
 
Phil Stevens
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As I understand it, it's just water that has had smoke bubbled through it (like in a hookah), or had partially burnt wood soaked in it. Evidently there are chemicals that trigger germination which come from rainfall or snowmelt leaching through the ash and charcoal left after a fire. Several sources say that you can use the liquid smoke sold as a flavouring.

Some links:

http://depts.washington.edu/propplnt/2003guidelines/group1/Smoke%20Infusion.htm

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140228140134.htm

https://www.researchgate.net/post/Can_anyone_tell_me_how_to_produce_smoke_water_which_is_used_to_promote_seed_germination
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Sitka Alder


1. Can it handle the summer droughts down here.
2. How fast does it grow.
3. Can it be coppiced.
4. Does it spread and how does it grow in general in the lowlands.



I just wanted to update a few of my own observations over the last year.  

My property, and particularly the mountain that extends North beyond my property, has sitka alder growing naturally on it.  It tends to grow most often on open semi disturbed steeper slopes, but is not at all confined to slopes or open ground.  I have seen it growing amongst 100-year-old trees on flatter land, but generally, this is rare, and most often, when it does occur, the spacing of the larger trees is wide enough to allow space for sunlight.  But it should be noted in relation to this that I am at 53 N latitude and The Pacific Northwest  (Washington) has a considerably longer growing season, sun cycle, climate.  We do have intense long summer days that try to make up for the shorter season.  My climate though interior based has a strong west-coastal influence because of the Rocky Mountains that begin in the back yard, but is definitetly much more of a prime location for Sitka Alder than the Pacific North West.
 

a specific population of Sitka Alder they found growing at ~200ft elevation in the Columbia River Gorge.  

Sitka Alder also grows in disturbed ground on the North Coast of B.C (I grew up in the Skeena watershed of the Coast Mountains)., but is generally confined to slide zones; all other disturbed locals are dominated by Red Alder rather than Sitka Alder.  This far in the interior, where I presently live, there are no red alder.

This last summer, the local road crew finally brushed my ditch down, after about 7 years of growth.  The ditch species list was mainly comprised of various species of willows, with some birch, red dogwood, and sitka alders.  All of these managed to regrow from brutally smashed stumps in the previous brushing.  This creates a dense shrubby ditch 'hedge' that actually bows out over into the roadway and is about 20 feet tall.  I will try to update in this thread as I watch the regrowth, although they are harder to identify when they are small and the bush comes in dense, I can do so from leaf shape if I take the time.

I am building a trail up the mountain from my place.  The growth pattern of various shrubs as the lower to middle elevation is probably the most difficult aspect of the project.  Sitka Alder, and false azalea (menziesia feruginea) are the most common, but Douglas maples are also common.  All of these grow in an explosion of stems, spilling outward like a fountain (which makes me think that coppicing will not be a problem for any of them **).  The azalea is a many-stemmed (like maybe50 to 100) beast that is tricky to plan a trail through or near.  They, particularly, grow also in dense colonies, making them further challenging to deal with.  The alders and the maples however are generally confined to less than 10 stems, and often only 6 or 7.  The stems of the alders tend to bow down with snow loads, whereas the maples tend to stand tall in spite of the snow.  They are stronger in this regard.  What I have been doing is building the trail on the high side of alder clusters (which also happens to be the North side) with the idea that if I do have to cut them to enable walking space on the trail, that the shrub will be allowed to spring it's growth up on all other sides where the stems still exist.  Although I suspect they will also be sprouting up some new fresh first year growth near the stem base that was cut, I think that (hope that)  it channels the vast majority of it's energy into the existing larger stems which are bowed away from the trail; I think that this may be aided by the fact that the exisitng stems will be facing South, SW or SE.    

My thinking (from my observations), is that S Alder will take well to coppicing, but that the plants need a chance to get established first.  As I mentioned earlier in this thread, the alders get smashed down and sometimes buried in avalanches and debris flows/rock slides and recover prolifically.  These alders are small trees, with the longest stems maybe reaching 25 feet.  Red Alders on the coast are a much larger tree and tend to have vertical, rather than sprawling growth.

Apparently it also has moderate shade tolerance unlike Alnus rubra.  

When I lived on Haida Gwaii (previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), I did see red alder growing in heavily shaded old growth cedar/hemlock/spruce forests.  In this case, I think it is likely that the seeds germinated after one of the larger specimines tipped over, which not only exposed bare soil at the root mass but also opened up sunlight temporarily.  Over a relatively short time the over arching canopy from the dominant species closes the main sun out again, but not before the alder gets going.  In the end, the alder tends to be a shrub with an apple tree-like shape, not the 50-foot tall tree that it can become in the open.  It is indeed true that Sitka Alder is more likely to grow in the shade than red alder, but it is probably truer to indicate that all alders tend to enjoy/prefer growing in open-ground, and that shade tolerance exists more so with the Sitka variety.  Just trying to clarify what's rattling around in my head from observations over the years.  

As for maples: they tend to have the same sprawling nature, but as I mentioned, tend to be more vertical.  I think that once established they would take well to being coppiced down for regrowth.  I have heard, but I have not seen the practice that local people around who have selectively left one large most vertical stem out of the cluster growth of Douglas Maples that are otherwise heavily prunned of shoots every year in order to have one much larger stem to tap for maple syrup production.  The roots might compete with your fruit trees for space and thus I would limit there proximity to crop trees.  I would consider, in the minimum, that if maples are to be used, that Alders be placed between them and the fruit trees, and that all of these support species be considered potentially (but not necessarily) as temporary support that will eventually be chopped out.   Maple are harder wood than alders and might lend themselves well or better to rocket fuel.

**From my understanding: Coppicing is done at specific times of the year.  Generally it is done either in really early spring, or mid-to-late fall.  This is so that winter moisture can be put to advantage in the regrowth/recovery strategy.  Some climates would place the ideal time as just before the rainy season.  Coppicing at the wrong time of the year can have a detrimental effect on the plant's ability to recover from the damage, and thus limit the potential of the coppicing being worth while.  

I have several infrastructure projects on the go this year, but if I can allow the time (plan), I will go to the logging roads on the other side of mythe Upper Fraser) valley on the Caribou Mountains side, and gather young Sitka Alder for transplanting in my orchard and future planting zones.  These may require a few waterings to get properly transplant established, but it would be very worth the effort.  Once established I can not see a reason why they would not flourish and be very useful for biochar, biomass, rocket fuel and other purposes.    


 



 
 
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