Coppicing

Coppicing is a woodland management method in which the wood from a tree is harvested by cutting a suitable tree near ground level.  It subsequently regrows over a period of years without needing to be replanted.

When you google coppice, 7 of the first 10 hits are UK sites and the other 3 hits are Wiki and 2 dictionaries. Coppicing is very much a British and European endeavour.  There is evidence to suggest that coppicing in the UK is as old as the 39th century B.C.

In North America, there is little or no coppicing other than willow coppicing to supply the big box stores.  Dave Jacke & Mark Krawczyk speculate in their new book, Coppice Agroforestry: Perennial Silviculture for the 21st Century, that “in North America, coppicing was a casualty of European emigration from a culture of resource conservation (by necessity) to one of widespread overexploitation and industrialization.”  I would agree with their observation about coppicing in Europe.  There is evidence to suggest that Europe has suffered from over-forestation as far back as the Bronze Age.  Toby Hemenway argues that the charcoal used in bronze smelting was so great as to deforest Greece.

But I’m less convinced by Jacke & Krawczyk’s second observation about a culture of overexploitation and industrialization.  When the British first came to North America, they had no need to conserve forests.  Nor did they have time to spend on coppicing. Their greatest need was to clear forests in order to plant crops for food.  At the same time, they needed to put a roof over their heads.

Our interest in coppicing is not from any expectation that wood will be in short supply any time soon.  If it is, coppicing will not be a solution because of the lead times required to produce a steady supply of wood.  There is a saying: Q: When is the best time to plant an oak? A: 20 years ago.  Q: When is the second best time to plant an oak?  A: Now. To have a steady supply of coppiced wood in the future requires that you make a start now.

Coppicing results in new growth that is very straight.  This wood would be immediately useful in the garden for stakes.  Allowed to grow larger, it can be used for tool handles, especially if it is a hardwood such as black locust.

In anticipation of the orchard and to break the sight-line to the house on an adjoining property,  we checked out the catalogue of H. Richardson Tree Farms near us where we came across IMPERIAL CAROLINA POPLAR NE38 Fast growing tree, up to 3m a year. Good for firewood due to high yield and a higher BTU than other poplar. In the fall of 2007, we planted eighteen poplars which have since been totally neglected.  A few died but the majority survived, albeit growing slowly because of the competition from surrounding weeds. This past year saw a couple of feet of growth and I expect that now that their roots are established, they will grow quickly.

We wondered if there were other trees like the NE38 poplar and a bit of research led us to the USDA Plant Database and its advanced search capability.

We were interested in trees that could be coppiced, grew fast and could be used for firewood.  Any other qualities such as edible nuts or fruits, nitrogen fixing, and easy propagation would be bonuses.

The database scan identified a number of trees that would satisfy our requirements:

  • Black Locust
  • Honeylocust
  • Black Walnut
  • Black Cherry

We’ll probably start with Black Locusts because they grow wild here which means that we can dig up 8-10 foot trees at no cost.   And we’ve ordered a thornless honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis) because we can use it as a source for propagating cuttings.  I believe that there are black cherries along our road.  If there are, I’ll harvest seeds (if I can beat the birds to the fruit) and winter sow the seeds next winter.  We already have a couple of black walnuts growing for their nuts and we won’t add anymore because black walnuts contain a chemical called juglone which is toxic to many plants although there are also many plants for whom the black walnut is not toxic.

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