Coppice ash for firewood?

This shiny little bug is an Emerald Ash Borer. (*boo* *hiss*) It and its compatriots have killed approximately 25 million ash trees in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario. Basically, once this bug moves into the area, every single ash tree in the area will die. So, public service announcement: do not EVER move firewood from this part of the world elsewhere! It just might harbor these bastards (scuse my language) and kill every single ash tree in YOUR back yard.

I had two large and three small ash trees in my yard. Now I have one large dead ash tree. It was one of the most magnificent trees I’ve ever seen. Come to think of it, I should post its picture instead of it’s executioner’s pic…

But here’s my idea. All these ash trees, if left alone, appear to die. The main trunk becomes standing firewood after the beetles girdle it under the bark. However, the beetles only attack boles over a certain diameter – my guess is that smaller boles have a thinner section of cambium, which is the bit the beetles eat. On smaller trunks, they can’t fit between bark and wood. Or maybe it’s just not worth it. I’m not sure about the details, but it does seem to be the case that they only attack larger trees.

Once the main trunk dies, the tree sends of side shoots. The roots of the tree are fine, and they put their energy into these side shoots. We cut down a couple small ashes last year, figuring they were doomed, anyway, and this year, there are half a dozen “whips” about 4 feet long and an inch in diameter growing out of each stump. Which got me thinking…this is coppicing! Coppicing is essentially the art of growing wood – usually for firewood, but also for long, straight poles – from these side shoots of cut stumps, known as “stools.”

Ash is known as a very fine firewood, which even burns well when green. An acre of ash stools can produce a cord of wood every year, indefinitely – the trick is you only harvest 1/7th of the stand each year. By the time you get back around to the first section of the stand, it’s regrown to firewood size again.

Is there a new life for ash trees as coppice-wood? Oil prices are skyrocketing; we’ll need more firewood. And though we’ve usually just cut virgin timber in this country, the British have known for a long time that coppicing is a much more sustainable way to get firewood. As a bonus, no splitting is needed – just harvest when it’s 4-6″ in diameter!

Just for fun, I’ve ordered 10 baby ash trees. I’m going to plant a hedge, essentially, and see what happens. Oak apparently coppices well, too, so I’ll plant a few acorns this fall and include them in the experiment. I don’t know if this will save ash trees in this area – they won’t reach reproductive size, anyway – but maybe it will help until some kind of control comes along for the beetles. And maybe I’ll get some firewood out of it. Or maybe it won’t work at all. But you know me…I always need a project to be figuring out. :)

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23 Comments

  1. Ken said,

    April 13, 2008 at 11:36 am

    This sounds like a neat idea.

    Is the case that you’d harvest the wood before it ever gets big enough for the borers to get interested in it, so it poses no danger of encouraging their population?

    What are the long-range prospects for ash. Is there any “hope” that all the ash trees in the area will be killed off soon, and that 20 years from now the borer will have died out in this part of the world and we can plant ash trees again, or let our coppiced trees shoot up to be bulkier?

    You are full of the creative ideas. *love*

  2. Emily said,

    April 13, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Ken- Yes, the idea is to harvest the trees before the borers get to them. Realistically, we won’t ever get rid of the bug. I don’t think it’ll die out on its own due to lack of food and never come back; there will always be populations of trees just big enough to eat, I think, due to the prevalence of ash in this area (most of which is probably starting a natural coppice cycle right about now).

    The best hope, I think, is some kind of natural, self-sustaining control. Remember the gypsy moth, and how we thought it might kill all the oak trees? They found a parasitic wasp that only kills gyspy moth larvae, and now the population is kept in check by natural predators. They’re looking for something similar for ash borers. Now gypsy moths killed much more slowly, by eating the leaves year after year. They didn’t girdle trees. But still, it’s a hope…

  3. onestraw said,

    April 13, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Emily,

    Love the post on coppicing! My hope is to see millions of acres of non-arable land put into soft wood coppice for cellulose ethanol production in our generation. A guy can hope right?

    The current Ash Borer treatment has me in fits. Currently they cut down ANY Ash within 30 miles of an infected tree. This has only slowed, but will never stop, the spread of the bug. My concern is that in those thousands of trees cut down there may very well be one sample that is naturally resistant to the buggers. And we cut it down and poured round up on it. Ugh.
    -Rob

  4. Emily said,

    April 14, 2008 at 8:47 am

    Rob- I hear you on the clearcut. They tried that here; but as we are at “ground-zero” of the infestation, they gave us up as a loss without really enforcing the mass mowing. Hopefully the woods in this area will survive enough to see a few resistant individuals.

    I’m sad i didn’t send off our last batch of seeds to the seed bank, too. I remember sweeping the walk and wondering if someone would want them…and found out later there is a place that’s taking seed to bank genetic diversity for later.

  5. Danielle said,

    April 17, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Great post! I think that coppicing is the concept that my husband read about recently. He was really excited about trying it. We’ll have to do further research. Good luck with your experiment!

  6. April 23, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    We now have the dreaded borer in West Virginia, too:

    http://www.wvagriculture.org/news_releases/2007/10-19-07.html

  7. Gina said,

    April 30, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Hi,

    Interesting post! I have worked with the dreaded EAB for many years in IN. First, eradication (tree removal) is no longer practiced in most states (although I can’t speak for all as they are continuing the practice in Maryland for one), mainly due to cost. Many of us biologists working on the program said the very same about natural resistance and it is believed by some to eventually reach a peak and the trees left standing (so-to-speak) will start to pass those resisitant traits along to their offspring. As an aside, ash trees in China are resistant. Scientists planted American ash trees over there and the insect attacked the trees readily, killing them 100%.

    I love the idea of coppicing ash trees. Ash trees are prolific at sending up epicormic shoots. It is a very good firewood (one of the best and it does burn green easily). Unfortunately, EAB does indeed attack young trees (generally above 1-2″ inches in diameter or the size of an adult thumb); I’ve seen very small trees infested with EAB larvae (the life stage that does the damage). However, in areas of heavy infestation (like MI, OH, or IN), this may be an excellent way of preserving the tree (as you said) until preventative measures catch-up. They have imported a parasitic wasp and are doing experiments in MI and a new chemical is going to be on the market soon (reported to be 99% effective against EAB; however I have no idea how environmentally friendly it is).

    Sadly, black ash (one of the major species in the Great Lake region) is used by the Potawatomi’s for making baskets. It is a tradition that is already endangered and now their material source is severely threatened. Your coppicing idea may be good for them as well!!!

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now as an advocate of “eating close to home” and was so surprised to see your mention of the problem of EAB (and other invasives).

  8. Emily said,

    May 1, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Gina-

    Thank you so much for weighing in! I’ve been looking all over for information about the diameter question – it’s one of those “I think I read this somewhere but need a source to be sure” things. I’m sad to hear that such small trees are affected, but that’s a lot of promising news for control measures.

    And don’t be surprised to hear me going off the topic of food. I’m a big fan of most things that grow. (Except ornamental stuff bores me.) And after all, what good is food if we don’t have fuel to cook it? *grin*

  9. Ben said,

    September 30, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Were all gonna die!!!

  10. Bill Canaday said,

    October 29, 2008 at 1:05 am

    Ben’s right and he’s next.

    Seriously, this is a huge loss. Other trees will eventually take the space vacated by the ash trees, but a lot of fully mature trees have simply been ‘lost’. Here in Michigan, I don’t see much evidence that they are being cut for their lumber, which is both strong and attractive. If you have one die on your property, look into getting a portable sawmill operator to come over and plank out the tree for you.

  11. Tracy said,

    November 2, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Thanks for this post – yes, coppicing is great and is very popular here in the uk. We are currently coppicing some ash trees- and have been warned that at first the ash tree might have appeared to die – it is in the second year that it will grow back. I am currently researching coppicing ash for our website, coppice.co.uk. Any help would be great!

  12. Greyman said,

    November 9, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Well wadda ya know – us SWOGGERS get EveryWhere! Yep here in old blighty we know a little bit about coppicing and now there is a movement into owning yer own bit of woodland – Tracy above does a sterling job knocking our heads together and poking us with her sharpend chestnut poles. It would be nice to see some of you pop up on the SWOG site some time to let us know what’s going on across the pond:

    http://www.swog.org.uk/forum/

    Love and Bananas,
    Greyman

  13. Dave said,

    November 11, 2010 at 11:27 am

    This is an excellent idea. Of course, the ash tree will need to be cut for coppicing before it is ‘totally’ dead! I observed two mature ash trees which dwindled for several years (roughly 5 years) from the emerald ash borer before dying. Then the owner cut the trees down in the late Fall and – no sprouts. I had a mature ash tree about 200 feet away which dwindled for about 7 years at which point it had only a few leaves left – at the very top. I cut it down in the Fall but again, no sprouts. It did not have any borers at all, but the growth rings for the last 7 or 8 years showed almost no growth was occurring. A local forester said he has observed ash trees gradually dying off for no apparent reason over the past 25 to 30 years in northern Ohio.

    I am coppicing a couple of Chinese chestnut trees in my yard. After cutting a 13 year old tree, two years later I have 6 or 7 sprouts over 15 ft tall and over 1″ in diameter.

    I would be interested in hearing anyone’s experience with coppicing, including the best time to cut the tree down to get the coppice started, and when to thin and trim the ‘sprouts’. Has anyone coppiced any other tree species?

    • Emily said,

      November 11, 2010 at 11:33 am

      I’m starting with seedlings and I plan to give them their first cut when they’re 3-4″ in diameter. The 6-8″ ashes I cut that were showing little or no damage threw 6′ tall 1″ poles the first year; those are now up to 3+” See http://eatclosetohome.wordpress.com/2010/08/01/coppicing-ash-the-first-cutting/

      The big ash that was mostly dead-dead is not doing so well; only one puny sprout after a year. I wish I’d cut it sooner…

  14. Kyle said,

    February 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I work through the USDA Forest Service and have some grim news for you. We have several hundred survey plots between Ohio and Michigan and have experienced 99.9% ash tree mortality for all stems above 1 inch in areas where there is prolonged infestation (mainly around Detroit and Toledo). Another problem is that over 75% of these stands reached this near complete mortality within 6 years (unpublished data) so the fact that coppicing takes 7 years is just a little too long to get any results under increased stress of infestation.

    As you mentioned too in your last post, the big tree isn’t doing so well. That is because the EAB larva interrupt the flow of nutrients leaving a vast supply in the upper limits of the tree. The tree also trys to deffend the attack, increasing the depletion of nutrient supply within the roots and therefore depleating the remaing supply severely. We have measured basal sprouts for the past 5 years and found that after 3 years from the trees death only 3 out of the thousands of cases still have live basal sprouts. This mainly looks to be caused by deer herbivory though.

    • Emily said,

      February 19, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Wow. That is pretty much a terminal diagnosis.

      So…the fact that I have stools with four-year-old trunks about 3-4″ in diameter, and all apparently healthy, is an anomaly? And I’m pretty much at Ground Zero – 50 miles from Detroit and 75 miles from Toledo.

      Have your studies been looking at trees that were actually killed, or trees that were cut while still relatively healthy? I noticed a huge difference between these trees – which were about 6-8″ in diameter and just starting to show damage when they were cut – and the 2′ diameter tree that was actually mostly dead when we cut it down. That one hasn’t regrown more than one basal sprout, and that is in pretty bad condition.

  15. Dave said,

    February 19, 2011 at 11:53 am

    As an observation, the native chestnut trees in Eastern North America sprout from stumps and survive about 16 years until blight strikes them down. Many surviving native chestnuts of this type were observable along the Cass Railroad in WV about 35 years ago, and are probably still surviving.

    It may be of interest that in Europe coppicing is used for small diameter wood as well as for larger diameter firewood. The smaller diameter wood is used for woven fences, baskets, handles, etc., depending on the type of wood being coppiced. There is a whole industry around use of small diameter coppiced wood in Britain, as I recall reading about.

    Ash is a great material for walking sticks and handles, so it may be useful to coppice on a shorter rotation, and might have the benefit of keeping the trees alive for future genetic diversity in case a suitable disease resistant variety is found, as is the case with native chesnuts and elms.

  16. Dave said,

    February 19, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I meant to mention also that there is an ash tree in our area that appears healthy and was located not more than 150 feet from two ash trees that succumbed to the emerald ash borer several years ago (which I mentioned in an earlier post here). Perhaps it is resistant to the borers???

  17. Mark T said,

    May 21, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Interesting discussion. I’m not sure we have EAB here in Maine, but I do know that the Ash trees we cut down last Spring have coppiced vigorously. I need to cut back most of the sprouts from each bole. I actually cut them down as they are rather weedy and I have plans of converting a 1/4 acre area into a food forest gradually. I only have about 8 or 10 large enough stumps that are coppicing. I suspect Spring is a better time to coppice Ash trees, at least that worked well for me…all that stored energy just raring to grow.

  18. Nick said,

    December 29, 2011 at 4:34 am

    I am in the United States, Pennsylvania at the moment, but looking to move. I would prefer northern California to Oregon.

    I would like to coppice for fire wood and building material. I understand that there is a rather long waiting period for this venture to become truly sustainable.

    Here are my questions:

    What kinds of trees are best?

    My assumption after doing much research is Ash, Hazel, Sweet Chestnut and Sycamore. Yes, No? Ideas?

    Where can I find a chart with distances for successful growth?

    I have also read many accounts that say you should plant long rows of seeds and let them decide which will remain by culling the stragglers and approximate distances. Yes, No?

    My intent is having 30 acres or more of just coppiced trees that I would cut and plant in a 7 year cycle:

    ie

    year 1 – plant rows A, H, O, V & 3
    year 2 – plant rows B, I, P, W & 4
    year 3 – plant rows C, J, Q, X & 5
    year 4 – plant rows D, K, R, Y & 6
    year 5 – plant rows E, L, S, Z & 7
    year 6 – plant rows F, M, T, 1 & 8
    year 7 – plant rows G, N, U, 2 & 9
    year 8 – coppice rows A, H, O, V & 3
    year 9 – coppice rows B, I, P, W & 4
    year 10 – coppice rows C, J, Q, X & 5
    year 11 – coppice rows D, K, R, Y & 6
    year 12 – coppice rows E, L, S, Z & 7
    year 13 – coppice rows F, M, T, 1 & 8
    year 14 – coppice rows G, N, U, 2 & 9

    and continue til I die :)

    I plan on purchasing a minimum of 100 acres and having a horse & dog rescue with my fiance. She of course handles the animal side and I handle the upkeep, repairs and finances.

    Thanks for any help!

    Nick

    • Dave said,

      December 29, 2011 at 6:42 am

      I suggest you Google “shrub willow”. There is a lot of research on it for a coppiced fuel source in New York State. This is not to say willow would be any better than your ideas for the West Coast.

    • Emily said,

      December 29, 2011 at 11:32 am

      Hi, Nick – I’m really not an expert…just musing. If you don’t know about http://www.coppiceagroforestry.com/ and Mark and Dave’s forthcoming book, go check it out!

  19. July 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Your language is more then excused, rather, its approved, as these SOB’s have already murdered and taken down too many trees in New York and its a rather unsettling feeling knowing their out crawling around, climbing up trees and not offering anything back to the community after they’ve feasted and killed.

    -Carlos Hernandez


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