This week I’m writing about an art so ancient that my spell checker doesn’t recognise it. It’s not the only one. “What are you writing about this week?”. The ancient art of coppicing and pollarding. “What do you want to write about Japanese sex for?” What!? “You know… when they curl around each other and wiggle up and down for hours”. I think you mean tantra, and that’s Indian.
Moving right along. You’ve all heard of cut and come again salad greens, but what about cut and come again firewood? Pollarding and coppicing are methods that create a continuous harvest of timber from a single tree. Plant once, harvest many times.
Pollarding is chopping the top off a mature tree at a certain height above ground level. This has the effect of making the tree regrow a new canopy of multiple branches from the cut trunk. We have a row of pollarded poplars that have been cut at a trunk length of 1m high. Every winter we thin out all the big branches and leave a head of little whippy branches to grow on for next winter. The harvested branches are perfect for the barbecue and kindling wood. You can also pollard trees for a source of standing stock feed in times of drought.
Coppicing is a similar technique but the trees are chopped off at ground level and the base of the trunk is called the “stool” from which new branches grow each year. Willow weaver Peter Greer does this with his basket willows each winter.
Some trees suit pollarding more than coppicing because they do like to have something of a main trunk so do some research before you start the chainsaw. You can coppice and pollard a wide range of trees including poplars, willows, chestnuts, hazelnuts, beech, oak and some gums. The new growth is vigorous because it is supported by the root system of a full-size tree.
These techniques have been employed for centuries to manage forests and grow timbers for weaving, fencing and ship building. A wander through any of the ancient royal hunting forests in England reveals beech and oak trees pollarded centuries ago to grow nice straight poles for ships masts.
I like the technique because it’s a way of keeping an otherwise massive tree to a manageable size and you get a rapid harvest every year for not much effort.
I also like the structural quality of a row of pollarded trunks, especially if they have pretty bark like these London Plane Trees that have been pollarded along Nile Street in Nelson.
The only other bit of maintenance our pollarded poplars get is an annual trim of any regrowth along the lower trunks. A bit like shaving your legs in Spring, it makes them all spruced up and svelte looking again and then they just get on with it. Maybe it is a bit like tantra after all!