Two 15-year-old coppiced gray birches and one 18-year-old coppiced American beech add up to a face-cord on the author's porch.
Of all the silvicultural techniques available to forest owners, perhaps no method is more underused than coppicing. Coppicing is a reproduction method where a tree is cut back periodically to stimulate new growth through dormant buds on the stump, or stool. In turn, these buds develop into sprouts or shoots, capable of growing firewood in just a few years, instead of the decades it takes to grow a tree from a seed.
Coppicing dates back to the Neolithic period when coppice wood was used for a variety of purposes, ranging from bean poles and laths to firewood and fence posts. In fact, the economic importance of coppice firewood was so significant that Henry VIII mandated that fences be built to protect coppice forests throughout England.
The most obvious advantage of coppicing is rapid growth, thanks to the already established rootstock. Larger stumps will produce more sprouts, so choose trees that are at least four inches in diameter. We’re fortunate in the northeast that our most desirable firewood species (maple, beech, birch, oak, cherry, and hophornbeam) coppice relatively easily, using a five-step system:
1. While coppicing can be done any time of the year, best results are achieved from late fall to early spring. Select trees with poor form that have little value as sawlogs or other forest products.
2. Cut low stumps, which will encourage the establishment of new shoots at or below ground level. This promotes the development of roots and increases the tree’s stability. The ideal coppice stool should only be two to three inches above the ground, and should slope slightly to shed water. If you’re harvesting a previously coppiced stump, make the same angled cut just above the point at which the stool splits into multiple stems.
3. If you live in an area that is prone to animal browse, I recommend placing branches around the stool as a deterrent. Another approach is to favor species that are less palatable to browsers. Beech and birch, for example, are less attractive to animals than maple or oak.
4. By late spring, you’ll begin to see numerous sprouts emerge from the stump, each with a J-shaped leader. After leaf fall, clip off the smaller, less vigorous sprouts. I usually leave four to six vigorous sprouts per stool.
5. The amount of time it takes to produce your first firewood crop will vary depending on species, site, stool size, and desired firewood diameter. I tend to harvest most of my coppice firewood on an eight- to twelve-year cycle. From my more productive trees, this will yield firewood that’s three to four inches in diameter – small enough to avoid splitting.
Because coppiced trees are kept in a juvenile stage, they will never die of old age. It is also worth noting that the benefits of coppice systems extend beyond simply providing firewood. The dense cluster of shoots around a stool provides important habitat for birds and small mammals. As for other uses, consider basket splints, stakes, bentwood furniture, and tool handles.
Brett R. McLeod is an Associate Professor of Forestry & Natural Resources at Paul Smith’s College.