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03 January, 2010

Coppice Success(ion)

I think I read somewhere about there being European hazelnut coppices known to be 800 years old. Beyond Old French, I'm not sure where the etymology leads, but the practice of cutting back trees that could be counted on to re-sprout is at least as old as tales of the Hydra. (How many of the Hercules stories have to do with the heroism of farm labor? The stable-cleaning labor is not even metaphorical.)

Whether to reinvigorate an old berry bush or to generate a new supply of withe or wattle, cutting back the sprout-prone tree is an act of the wise, though the proliferation happens just as dependably for ignorant modern hackers. Of the few people who even know what a coppice is, only the lunatic fringe maintain one.

Never as exciting as a new field, but crucial for the self-sufficient farm, or even the urban homesteader, a coppice is one of those mundanities whose importance and interest flourish with a little attention.

I inherited a yard with over half a dozen clumps of native beaked hazelnut. A couple have been removed (and in this, I m optimistic--at least one will require repeated abuse for years before giving up). The others represent several life stages of hazel regrowth. Skinny little yearling whips remain flexible: weavable, knottable, plaitable. Another year or so and they make decent stakes. Then kindling and pea-poles, and later on the big tipi poles I use for beans and hops. Using various combinations, I can make hoops to support dahlias and peonies, woven fences or punji sticks to keep the dog out of seeded beds, and on and on, any function needing a straight pole, forked stick, flexible withe,...

The life cycle of a coppice, at least in my garden, is one of attrition. Rising up in resentment against a clear-cut, dozens of sports sprout the following spring, each vigorous and boldly set on reaching the sky. For a year to two, thinning to remove the erratics or to provide some flexible pieces removes enough to let the survivors become thicker than my fingers. Looking at each shoot, I then prune for the eventual shape of the clump: removing cross-branches, thinking about ease of future harvest, removing unwanted shade, and maintaining paths. The results will provide me with sturdy stakes and poles that will eventually return to the soil (for I am horder of my quarter acre's biomass).

As the trees age, the decision is whether to rotate within the clump, or between them. I can selectively take out the older trunks to keep a succession of new, nutful, and reachable ones rising. This will give me a steady supply of various-sized cuttings. Or I can let the whole thing grow to a ripe old age--until I am tired of feeding the squirrels who are the only ones that can get a the nuts, that is--and cut it all to the ground so that a proliferation of small shoots rises the next year. This will give me wood for cooking, and if done at the right time, a good harvest, followed by years of abundant cuttings.

Either way, the succession plays out over the years. Either way, the stubborn hazelnut roots send up their persistent pleas for sun. Either way, that non-descript bush off at the edge, making do in shade too thick for crops, is an important organ in the organism of this yard.

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