Coppicing: The Endless Gift of Trees

A millennia-old arboricultural practice is alive and well at the SER-UW Native Plant Nursery: Coppicing. 

Humans have coppiced trees for 10,000 years, estimates esteemed arborist and author William Logan Bryant. His recent book, Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees, details this traditional practice with passion and reverence.

In the pre-Industrial era all over the globe, coppicing was the cutting back of a tree or shrub close to ground level in order to obtain a crucial, life-giving harvest: stems, canes and branches to be used for firewood, to build fences, furniture and bridges, and to produce baskets and rope, among many other essentials.

Typically done annually during the dormant season, coppicing stimulates vigorous new growth, which is then coppiced the following year. Or, if longer stems are desired, every few years. When done correctly and respectfully, it can indefinitely prolong the life of the original tree or shrub.

“The idea is a simple one,” writes Logan. “When you break, burn or cut low the trunks of almost any leafy tree or shrub, it will sprout again. New branches will emerge from behind the bases, either from buds that were dormant, waiting for their cue to grow, or from twiglets newly formed by the all-powerful cambium.”

At the SER-UW Native Plant Nursery at the Center for Urban Horticulture, coppiced stems are not used to create rope or fencing, but to efficiently and inexpensively propagate more plants from cuttings. Red osier dogwood, Pacific ninebark and black twinberry are grown in wood-framed coppicing beds next to the hoop house. These Puget Sound natives are prime candidates for coppicing, explains nursery manager Chloe May, as their cuttings root well when placed in soil. 

This year coppicing was done in February, after which the harvested stems were made into 6-8” cuttings and potted up in the greenhouse. In April, after growing enough roots to pass the “tug test”, they will be transplanted into individual pots and in Fall 2021 they will be ready for planting in the ground.

In short, coppicing is a sustainable form of plant stewardship–a win-win for both the coppicer and the coppiced.

Cuttings taken in February

Cuttings one month later in March have leafed out

To hear Bryant talk about coppicing, pollarding and our relationship with trees, listen to his conversation with Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden: