It seems almost miraculous: you cut a tree down to its stump, and a couple years later it has grown several meters high once again. Like that mythical dragon who grows two heads for every one you cut off, there are dozens of different species of trees who have an incredible ability to regrow after severe cutting.
Coppice forestry, the practice of cutting certain species of trees down to their stump to harvest for firewood or wood for other purposes and then allowing these stumps to send up new growth has been practiced for thousands of years. Henry VIII, the king of England in the mid-1500´s, issued a statute that required woodsmen to fence in patches of woodland that had recently been cut down. This fence would prevent wild animals from feeding on the young shoots of the new growth of the recently cut trees until they had grown sufficiently strong.
The Possibilities of Coppice Forestry
While coppice forestry has mainly been used a sustainable form of woodland management that allows forests to naturally recover, there are several uses for coppice forestry practices. In the Mayan areas of Guatemala, several farmers practice a rotational planting system based on coppice forestry. Several endemic species of nitrogen fixing trees that regrow when cut down to their stump are planted throughout the cardamom plantations. Cardamom is the main cash crop destined for export. After close to a decade of production, however, the cardamom is removed, the quickly growing trees are cut down, and annual crops of corn, beans, yucca, and squash are planted for 2 to 3 years. Once the shade trees have grown sufficiently high to make annual crops unfeasible, cardamom is once again planted to begin the cycle once again.
This rotational crop cycle allows small farmers to maintain sufficient subsistence production for their own food needs while also maintaining a cash crop that brings in a healthy profit. At the same time, the continuous stand of nitrogen fixing coppice trees aids in the maintenance of the long term fertility of the lands. The soil that is depleted of nutrients after a couple seasons of annual crops quickly regains its vitality and resilience after close to a decade of leaf fall under the quickly growing forest.
In other parts of the world, coppice forestry allows farmers and woodsmen to develop and market unique wood products for niche markets. One small farmer I know harvests small shoots of black locust from his coppice forestry management system. Since the shoots of black locust generally grow straight from the stump, he harvests several of these small shoots, dries them, and sells them to a local hardware store as replacement handles for shovels, hoes, and other garden equipment.
Lastly, coppice forestry practices also offer an abundant source of organic matter for small farmers. On my own farm, we have planted several species of trees that respond well to coppice forestry practices throughout our farm. In many areas, where we don´t want excessive growth to shade out the orchards or other crops, we heavily prune these trees to maintain them about bush size. The cuttings from these trees are passed through a small wood chipper offering us an abundant source of mulch to encourage microbial and fungal growth at the base of our orchard trees.
The Best Species for Coppice Forestry
While there are dozens of different species that respond well to coppicing or pollarding (cutting the trees higher up on the trunk to allow for regrowth), the best species for you will depend on the climate and the specific conditions where you are located. Below we look at a few of the best tree species for coppice forestry practices.
Alder: The alder species is a quickly growing, nitrogen-fixing tree that offers quality wood for fuel. When interspaced throughout orchards, alder trees offer an abundant source of nitrogen to the system. Several species of alder can also be maintained as thick bushes to not shade out other crops. The coppiced wood that is harvested from alder trees makes for a great fuel source.
Black Locust: Another nitrogen fixing tree species, black locust is some of the hardest wood available which is excellent as a fuel source. The abundant flowers on black locust also attract several pollinating insects onto your land.
Elderberry: This is one of the few tree species that is both a food source and a good candidate for coppice forestry practices. The small berry clusters of the elderberry are extremely high in nutrients and vitamins and are known to strengthen the immune system. The wood is relatively soft and can easily be passed through a wood chipper for an abundant source of mulch.
Willow: Willow trees are known for their quick growth, especially in wet areas and along streams and rivers. When coppiced, willow branches can be used for artisan basket weaving or also as a source of mulch.
Chestnut: Chestnut trees have long been coppiced throughout the world. The wood is of high quality while also providing an edible nut.
Other tree species that adapt well to coppicing or pollarding include ash, elm, oaks, and several others. With the right management, coppice forestry can offer several different functions to your overall land design.