Three years ago, we cut down some ash trees that were both under a power line and likely to be destroyed by emerald ash borers. The stumps resprouted vigorously, and I started to think seriously about the potential of coppiced ash to both provide firewood, and perhaps even to resist the ash borer.
Time for an update. There are many pictures in this post, so I’ve put them behind the break. The upshot: in three years, the 3″ diameter “stools” have each sprouted one or two shoots 3″ in diameter at the base and 12 feet tall. They also produced a dozen or so 1″ poles – very straight and useful as bean poles, fencing supports, etc.
Here’s the ash grove before I started trimming. There are three or four ashes in there, plus a bunch of goldenrod in front and wild black raspberries and thistles around the back.
Here are close-ups of what’s happening at ground level:
This one had one very strong sprout and several smaller ones. I assume that if you wanted firewood, you’d trim off all the small suckers, and if you wanted small poles, you’d let them grow (and possibly cut off the big sprout).
As I trimmed away the goldenrod and the smaller side shoots, an interesting change happened in my mind. It’s not often you watch yourself “get it” – but the the hour I was working with these trees, all the reading I’ve been doing about permaculture and food/fuel/compost moved from “hey, neat idea” to “whoa…this is it! Right here in front of me! I’m DOING this!”
Because I realized, I was not “clearing the weeds away from my potential firewood,” I was “harvesting the ash/goldenrod guild.” The goldenrod became compost fodder – some in the bin, and some as “chop-and-drop” composting in place. The leafy tops of the ashes went in, too. (Man, I want a chipper…)
I also harvested a nice collection of ash poles – very straight and up to seven feet long. Some were rigid enough to use as supports; others were flexible enough to bend into hoops.
Those immediately got put to use as bean poles (I could have used twice as many)…
…and as a frame to hold floating row cover over my fall crop of rutabagas.
Just putting together this little frame was an interesting mind shift. I realized that building with natural wood reuires a different approach than using dimensional lumber (duh). Instead of wanting each piece to be as free from knots and side shoots as possible, you actually want side branches to form Y shapes to balance the cross-pieces in. And I can tell that ash, unlike the siberian elm buried within the same grove, throws very straight, strong shoots with regular side branches…much easier to use in this fashion than the elm.
Heck, growing an ash coppice grove for harvesting sticks might be more useful than growing it for firewood! I always need bean poles, frameworks for bug screens, hoops for mini-hoophouses, and poles for lightweight fencing. And the best part? No saw needed! Just lop them off when they’re the right size. Talk about a time-saver!
So I’m sold. I definitely want to do more coppicing. I think I will give these big sprouts another year or two before I start cutting them for firewood (my understanding it that you want to leave stools the size of your finished log). We planted a dozen or so ash seedlings along our berm this spring, and they’re doing very well, so I hope in a couple years we will start coppicing that into an ash “hedge.” We also have quite a few black locust trees on the property, and I know they sucker like mad. They are also apparently really good firewood, and the best fence posts anywhere (rot resistant). You just have to watch out for the giant thorns. *wry* I’ll keep posting updates!