Coppicing: the art of getting more tree per trunk

An acquaintance of mine once cut down a vigorously growing tree because it shaded some nearby blueberry bushes. Two years later it was doing the same thing again, only this time five stems of up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter had replaced the single trunk originally cut down.

After this second cutting, the tree responded by growing still more new stems - and more again after they, in turn, were cut. So, adopting an ''if you can't beat 'em, join 'em'' approach, he now harvests some very useful garden stakes from the tree every few years.

Without realizing it, my friend was practicing the art of coppicing - a timber-harvesting and management system that was widespread in Britain and other parts of Europe by the time the Pilgrims landed on the shores of Massachusetts in 1620.

At that time, coppice wood was used for furniture, fencing, dowels, and baskets, as well as for fuel. Before coal came into its own, coppice wood provided the bulk of Britain's charcoal.

Now the practice of coppicing is being revived in much of Europe and is also surfacing here in the United States and Canada, particularly among small-wood-lot owners and even in some large home gardens. Its appeal lies in the exceptionally high productivity that is possible from a very small area.

A conventional wood lot produces a sustainable harvest of about one-third of a cord of hardwood to the acre each year. One acre of coppice wood, particularly if planted to hybrid poplars, will yield five cords a year. In other words, a family's fuel-wood needs can come from a much smaller wood lot when coppicing is undertaken.

Coppicing is based on the ability of deciduous hardwood trees to send up new growth from the old stump year after year.

New growth is particularly vigorous because the tree has an established root system. What is known as the wounding syndrome - trees reacting vigorously to reestablish themselves after damage - also comes into play. As a result, coppice production is up to 10 times greater than would be achieved by starting afresh with seedlings after each harvest.

Hickory is one hardwood that does not readily coppice. Oak and hard maple also do poorly, but all the rest send out new shoots readily. Among the top-quality hardwoods, only ash coppices well. Poplar, alder, cottonwood, willow , box elder, and locust coppice best of all.

If you plan to start a coppice plantation - even a tenth of an acre could meet your fuel-wood needs - you would presumably start with what is already there. Young trees (under 20 years) coppice best. Trees more than 30 years of age do not always sprout well again. Even so, I know of a much older apple tree that seemed to be completely rejuvenated by this treatment. Otherwise, grow a whole new plantation from scratch.

For harvesting within a few years, start with super poplars in the North or cottonwood in the South. Your local forester can advise you on the best species for your region.

After the tree is first cut, a number of sprouts will shoot up from the old stump. Allow these to grow through the summer but after leaf drop in the fall, prune out all but the three most vigorous stems. This concentrates all the tree's vigor into just three new trunks, and growth will be rapid and fairly uniform.

All pruning and, ideally, all harvesting should be done after a tree has gone dormant. This way, the bulk of the tree's energy is stored in its root system and very little is removed with the prunings.

Final harvesting takes place whenever the stems reach an appropriate thickness and height for fence posts, garden stakes, broom and ax handles, fuel wood, or for whatever purpose you have in mind.

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