Coppicing trees in the garden and coppice woodlands

woodland, trees, management, coppice, hazel, wildflowers, biodiversity

Mature coppice in Herefordshire

Whilst I was working with the BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) a number of years ago (quite a number actually!), I completed a super training course in woodland crafts at the Greenwood Trust in Ironbridge, Shropshire.  Since then, I am in the habit of advocating coppicing not only as a useful and productive way of managing woodlands (of all sizes) but also as a method for controlling the size of trees  in small gardens, especially where space is at a premium but the owner still wants to have trees of some sort present.

woodland, trees, management, coppice, hazel, wildflowers, biodiversity

Recently cut coppice stool

Coppicing comes from the French word ‘couper’ meaning to cut.  It involves cutting a tree at as low a level as possible to create what is known as a coppice stool.  From the stool, multiple stems will re-shoot and these are then re-cut on a cycle lasting a few years for trees such as willow to much longer periods of time for slow growing trees (maybe 25 years).   The effective result is to create a shrubby tree with many branches.

coppice cycle, managing, trees, garden, woodland

Stems reshooting from the base of a cut stump

Coppicing is a traditional form of woodland management, popular since mediaeval times, especially in parts of England. Coppice woodlands often include standard trees, such as Oak, that are left to grow in to mature trees alongside the coppiced trees, such as hazel.  The coppiced trees and their produce, collectively known as the ‘underwood’, have traditionally supplied timber for firewood, charcoal-burning, fencing wattles and tool handles.  The mature trees were left to grow to provide structural timber for house building etc.  The coppicing cycle (typically between seven and up to twenty odd years) for the underwood creates different thicknesses of timber for the different uses.

woodland, trees, management, coppice, hazel, wildflowers, biodiversity, crafts, charcoal

Charcoal burning in a coppiced woodland

Coppicing should be undertaken between late October and early March when the trees are dormant, so good work for a cold January day!  For existing multi-branched trees, it might be easier to do the cutting in stages.  First remove the main stem(s) and then secondly cut all stems close to the stool.  Use a sharp bow-saw and/or loppers to create a slightly angled cut.  For a tree with a single existing stem, it might seem harsh but don’t be afraid to go for it.  Most common broad-leaved trees will coppice, although apparently Beech can be somewhat temperamental. Cherry, aspen and most elms will reshoot from suckers reforming as the main stump dies off.  Ash, Chestnut, Oak, Alder, Lime and Maple will coppice including exotic varieties.   Since coppicing often has the effect of increasing leaf size, trees such as Eucalyptus can look great when coppiced.  That is the tree that I am going to coppice this year, as my Eucalyptus niphophilia, although small in size, has outgrown its space and is leaning at an awkward angle.  I will post on my success, or otherwise, of this later.

coppice cycle, managing, trees, garden, woodland

Simple diagram of the coppice cycle

From a garden design perspective, multi-stemmed trees can look great as part of a given design and coppicing is one way of introducing this effect in to an existing garden without necessarily outlaying on new trees.  There may also be ecological benefits to the garden from a more diverse plant structure .

coppice, gardens, maintenance, gardening, multi-stemmed trees, design

Bushy, multi-stemmed trees used to the forefront of Adam Frost’s Land’s End show garden featured at Chelsea 2012

Finally, my course took place in old Shropshire woodland and there is nothing quite like walking through one of these woodlands in the spring, as they often have rich carpets of herbaceous vegetation.  This is because a well-developed coppicing regime may provide a complete gradation of habitats from open glade to closed canopy forest.  Richer plant biodiversity is found in the younger ‘coupes’ whilst bird-life will tend to prefer older coppice.   This means that coppice woodlands are excellent habitats for supporting biodiversity not only plants but also insects, butterflies and small mammals.

A happy dormouse nesting in a Hazel coppice!

 

 

12 Responses to Coppicing trees in the garden and coppice woodlands
  1. Anne Nidecker
    April 28, 2013 | 3:21 pm

    Hi Tim,

    Great blog. I always wanted to start coppicing a plot as, besides loving trees, I also want to have some ways of producing fire wood for my own use. You mention that some trees can be cut sooner that others. I was thinking of planting ash and am wondering how many years I need to wait before cutting. Reading your blog makes me wonder if it would be better to plant a variety of trees rather than just the one kind. Thanks in advance for your advice.
    Anne

    • timausten
      April 29, 2013 | 10:16 am

      Hi Anne,

      So glad you like my blog and thank you for commenting on my blog post about coppicing. I am a huge fan of this approach to tree management because it provides so many useful benefits as well as creating interesting looking plants and being great for wildlife.

      Ash may be ready to receive its first cut within ten years but will probably need at least 7 before it is ready – that would be from planting small whips (90-120cm height at planting).

      It would be great to plant a variety of trees. This would be interesting and provide you with a variety of firewoods. You should select the types dependent on how soon you want to harvest: willow and poplar would be very rapid growers; hazel, birch, alder medium paced with oak, beech slower.

      I look forward ot hearing what you decide to do.

      Very best,
      Tim

  2. Barry Kemp
    September 25, 2013 | 11:07 am

    Hello Tim,
    Great blog on coppicing! I think all gardeners and garden advisers should be doing more to promote this wonderful ancient tradition. I would even go as far as asking every local authority to allow groups to manage local woodlands as coppices. The benefits are amazing.
    On a financial side, anybody lucky enough to have 2 or 3 spare acres would be able to grow all their own fuel, hurdles, charcoal, posts, wattles etc, and have a beautiful wildlife garden.
    Thanks – Barry.

    • timausten
      September 25, 2013 | 5:22 pm

      Hi Barry,

      Thanks for your comments and great idea regarding management of local woodlands. I wholly agree with you in regard to the benefits of coppicing for self-sustenance and wildlife. Hope you might revisit my blog sometime soon.

      Best Regards,
      Tim

  3. David
    November 25, 2013 | 2:14 pm

    I have a 30ft eucalyptus tree in my garden which want to reduce to a manageable height for future pruning. Can you advise please

    • timausten
      November 26, 2013 | 9:53 am

      Hi David,

      There should be no problem pruning some branches off to lower the height of the tree. My advice would be to get a competent tree surgeon with experience. The tree should not be simply lopped at a height but the limbs removed in an orderly way around the main stem of the tree so that the shape of the crown is not lost. Your other option is to pollard the tree to a height e.g. just above head height. This invovles cutting the main stem. It will reshoot from the cut point – this is a traditional way of managing trees (like coppicing) also to produce brushwood – often found along rivers e.g. willow. Lime trees in urban areas are often managed in this way also. Repeat cutting after a few years will be necessary. Makes for quite an interesting looking tree in the right context.

      Regards,
      Tim

      • David
        November 30, 2013 | 12:57 pm

        Tim
        Thank you for your response ,when is best time of year to prune to reduce the heigth or pollard the tree
        David

  4. gerry cavander
    January 5, 2014 | 2:56 pm

    Hi there, thanks for the post – I learned a lot, very interesting.

    We have a mature bird cherry – its about 1.5 feet in diameter and 25 ft high. What do you thibk the % chance of coppicing it successfully?

    Cambridge – clayey soil.

    ATB Gerry Cavander

    • timausten
      January 7, 2014 | 11:16 am

      Hi Gerry,

      I would say that there is a very high% chance of coppicing this tree successfully, just ensure that the cut to create the stool is gently sloping to avoid water resting on the top of the stump.

      If your Cherry is growing well the type of soil should not affect the success of the coppice.

      Go for it!

      Best wishes,
      Tim

  5. Sylvia
    April 16, 2014 | 6:35 am

    I will be planting a hazel this year and I was wondering how long I would have to wait before I can coppice the tree?

    • timausten
      April 18, 2014 | 5:30 pm

      Approximately 7 or 8 years will probably be about right but no harm will be done by carrying it out sooner or even later

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