Most of us have read the word coppice somewhere, but what does it mean? And how is it used in the garden? Let’s find out!
Similar to pollarding, in which the top branches of a tree are removed, coppicing refers to periodically cutting trees or shrubs back to ground level to stimulate new growth for firewood, basket weaving, or other building materials. Similar to the word ‘copse’, which refers to a small group of trees, to coppice means to strike ‘a blow’ - taken from the Latin colpus. Copse is a shortened version of coppice, probably because after you coppiced a group of trees, you ended up with a copse.
Coppicing in history
People have been coppicing since pre-historical times. Back in Medieval days, the Lord of the manor, or the king, would allocate a measure of wood to the local peasantry each year from the royal forest. This allotment was called an estover. The stalks left behind when growing fields of corn or cereal grain is called ‘stover’ for the same reason. Depending on the size at cutting time, the wood was often referred to as a “low forest”, middle forest, or high forest.
The biology of coppicing
Many trees and shrubs have the ability to put out new shoots, or suckers, from their roots or stump. This can be a royal pain, if you are trying to get rid of a plant. Otherwise, this ability leads to the growth of many thinner, straighter limbs that are well suited to woodworking, basket weaving, wattle and daube fencing, and more. The stump left behind after coppicing is called a stool. Growth rates vary by tree, so a birch tree may be coppiced every 3 or 4 years, for switches, while an oak tree may be coppiced every 50 years, for lumber or firewood. Did you know that cinnamon trees are coppiced for their bark? What’s really strange about coppiced trees is that they never get old. These plants never leave the juvenile stage. Because of that, the stump, or stool, just keeps getting larger in diameter, but the aboveground growth is always young. Some stools have been coppiced for centuries, reaching a diameter of up to 18 feet! Sometimes, it is decided that coppicing is no longer desired, but a mature tree is. In that case, a single stem is left uncut and all the others are removed. This is called singling. [A copse that has been abandoned to reach full height is said to be overstood.]
Coppicing as woodland management
Traditionally, areas that use coppicing as a management tool do so in sections, called coups. This allows one section to be freshly cut, another to be growing, and yet another to be nearly ready to cut, for a continuous supply of materials. Because of all these various stages of development, copses tend to have a lot of biodiversity. Back in 1544, Henry VIII (yeah, that guy) declared a statute that required coppiced trees be protected from browsers after cutting, and that 12 mature, uncut trees per acre be left in place. These mature trees were called standels. Nowadays, they are called standards. ‘Coppicing with standards’ is still commonly used as a woodland management tool.
Coppicing as permaculture
As long as the soil nutrients are maintained, these trees and shrubs can produce wood indefinitely. This makes them part of modern permaculture. [Permaculture refers to self-sufficient, sustainable agricultural practices.] Small wood harvested by coppicing can be used to create light fencing to keep out marauding hens, to support poles beans and other climbing plants, as building material, and as firewood.
Coppicing as pest and disease management
Coppicing can be used to interrupt common pest and disease triangles. Many insect pests overwinter in cracks in the the bark, at stem and twig joints, or in damaged wood. Diseases often lie dormant in the same places. This infested or infected wood is pruned out, along with the useful harvest.
Coppicing in the garden
Finally! Now that you understand the function, history and usefulness of coppicing, we can see how it is used in the garden. In late winter, before new shoots emerge, you can coppice a variety of trees or shrubs in your garden or landscape. Of course, this only works on plants that can handle heavy pruning. To coppice, simply cut off at or near ground level, while the plant is dormant.
In addition to willow and hazelnut, alder, ash, birch, dogwood, elm, hornbeam, oak, and sycamore handle coppicing well. Most of these are broad-leafed hardwoods. Most conifers should not be coppiced, yew being the exception. There are several reasons for coppicing in the garden or home landscape:
Trees with a trunk diameter greater than 6 inches may not respond well to coppicing. That’s alright because amateurs shouldn’t be trimming big trees, anyway. It’s dangerous. Seriously.
Coppicing can reduce problems associated with too much shade, clogged rain gutters, and shifting foundations. When the upper portion of a tree of shrub is coppiced, some of the underground roots die back. In spring, new roots emerge.
Shrubs that can be coppiced include:
Before you start chopping away at trees and shrubs, be sure to learn as much as you can about the species being coppiced, and the appropriate frequency for the species. Coppicing too frequently can kill a tree or shrub.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!