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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.