Chop and Drop in the Coppice

I first came across the term ‘Chop and Drop’ in Geoff Lawton’s Establishing a Food Forest DVD. I reviewed the DVD here. Chop and Drop describes the actions of cutting branch wood from fast growing trees ‘nurse’ trees, and then using that wood to feed soil fungi, in order to help the production trees, planted amongst them. Chop and Drop  is linked to the use of a more dense tree planting, often fast growing and nitrogen fixing, with many of these trees not destined to remain until maturity.

Chop and Drop at The Sustainable Smallholding

My Coppice was designed in 2008, and planted up in the Winter of 2009/2010. The design  for it can be read on the Coppice and Orchard page. Chop and Drop was one of the maintenance techniques that I had planned for, using a close spacing of trees, and the inclusion of Italian Alder for around half of the trees in the planting scheme, and lots of willow too. After four growing seasons the pioneeer trees have grown faster than the main production trees, with the effect being more pronounced in the trees along the Western hedge. Here the trees seem to be benefiting from the shelter of a mature hedge, and potentially from the mycorrhizal fungi here as well. The pioneer trees have been so successful that without cutting them back, the production trees would start to suffer from a lack of late. Time to Chop and Drop.

Potential Outcomes

One of  Bill Mollison’s permaculture principles is that very element should perform more than one function, and chop and drop as a technique is no different. The outcomes that I am aiming for are as follows:

  • Increase the light available to the slower growing trees.
  • Feed the soil fungi.
  • Create an instant ‘forest floor’ to provide insects for my chickens.
  • Identify whether Italian Alder will pollard.
  • Produce some firewood.

Increase Light Levels

The Italian Alder along the Western edge of the coppice has grown to between 12 and 20 feet tall. This is creating shade, wehich in turn has the potential to slow the growth of the other trees, primarily Hazel and Sweet Chestnut. By cutting the pioneer trees back hard, I will increase the light available to these slower growing trees.

Feeding Soil Fungi

One of the phrases that Geoff Lawton uses in his Food Forest DVD is that ‘a forest grows on a dying forest’, or something similar (it’s been a while since I’ve watched it). He’s referring to the fact that a forest has a fungally dominated soil fauna, producing food for trees by decomposing woody material, provided by the trees themselves. When establishing trees into grass, the soil fauna will have evolved to decompose cellulose from grass, and other herbaceous plants, and the decomposers will be a mixture of bacteria and fungi. In order in a natural succession, the woody material will come from pioneer shrubs and weed trees. These grow and deposit woody material which will gradually build up a soil community adapted to a wood/lignin food source. Using pioneer trees in my planting scheme mimics that natural succession, but the addition of chop and drop increases the amount of woody material in the soil, speeding up the succession of soil fauna.

Chicken Scavenging

In my Chicken Scavenging System design I describe how I intend to create food for my chickens by creating a woodland floor, providing insects for them to forage for. The trees in the coppice area are at least two years ahead of those in the chicken scavinging system area, so by putting more wood on the ground, I am going to provide a rich source of insects, and some of those insects will potentially help to colonise the chicken scavenging area, which is next to the coppice.

Research

I’m not sure if Italian Alder will coppice/pollard. I can’t remember if I’ve read that it doesn’t, or if lists of trees which will coppice haven’t included it. To be on the safe side, most of the alder has been cut above a branch with active buds, a kind of hard pruning. This has led to some of these trees being cut higher than I would have preferred, as the shade has resulted in the lower branches dying back. I have cut a few of the Italian alder back harder, to below active buds. If these regrow well then I will be able to pllard the remainder in future. If these trees die, then I can adjust my cutting method accordingly.

Firewood

Originally I had intended to use all of the wood for soil improvement, but a few of the trees have reached a girth worth using as firewood. So although most of the wood will remain in situ, I have put the larger wood aside to use in the house.

Chop and Drop (Before)

 

chop and drop coppice before

Chop and drop before

 

Chop and Drop (After)

 

 

coppice chop and drop

Coppice section after chop and drop

The picture above shows a section of the coppice area after chop and drop. There is a section behind this one that is yet to be cut, which shows the contrast in height between ‘before and after’. I would have preferred to cut these trees a bit lower down, but as explained earlier, most of these trees were cut to an active bud, just in case the italian alder doesn’t coppice or pollard.

woodland floor after chop and drop

woodland floor detail

This picture shows a section of coppice floor, and an idea of the quantity of wood added.

Ongoing Work

The other five sections of this area have not grown quite as quickly as this one, and so I shall leave those and cut them as and when they need it. There is stil a proportion of this coppice section to cut, but only a few hours of work. Some of the production trees haven’t survived here, possibly due to the shade, so I intend to do some gap filling using plants that I have available in pots. These are paulownia, amur cork trees, with a few others available for me to use.

 

15 thoughts on “Chop and Drop in the Coppice

    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Patrick
      Thank YOU for taking the time to read it and comment
      Have you seen examples of Chop and Drop being used on your travels?

      Reply
      1. Patrick Whitefield

        No, I haven’t but it share the same principal aim, that of changing the soil microfauna more towards fungi, with what they’re doing at Ragmans Farm. http://patrickwhitefield.co.uk/beyond-organics-holistic-orchard-management-2/ , where they’re mulching their orchard with woodchip made from young willow branches, coppiced on other parts of the farm. In this they’re following Michael Phillips http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_holistic_orchard:paperback – excellent book – have you read it? – It’s the most radical book about ecological orcharding I’ve ever seen – way beyond organics.

        Reply
        1. Deano Martin Post author

          Hi Patrick
          I have read it, some time ago. Thought that it was brilliant. Loved the sprays and the use of ramial wood.
          My copy has been away on loan for months, and I think that it’s time I git it back.
          Saw your new course advertised. Good Luck
          Deano

          Reply
  1. Anni Kelsey

    Hi Deano
    I have been doing something similar for years, but with both woody materials and soft herbaceous growth. I did it based on my principles of conserving energy and materials within the garden and keeping close to natural principles – after all anything that dies in nature drops to where it is growing. My reasoning is that it involves least personal effort and keeps the cut material just by where it was previously growing to provide food for decomposer organisms, both bacterial and fungal. Watching what has happened in the garden I believe it increases fertility, but have no specific proof of that.
    Best wishes and Happy New Year
    Anni

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Thanks Anni
      The chop and drop was part of the planting scheme, and the maintenance for this area. Planting stuff specificall to help build soil fertility. In many ways it is another version of planting comfrey in a vegetable area, and has a similar function.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Jan
      Thanks for that. I might have cut some of the trees back a bit harder if I had known that in advance. I’ll see how it works this year and modify accordingly.
      No area for direct comparison, and as each chunk of trees is sited at differing distances from the existing hedges, there probably isn’t a way to directly compare the results. I’m happy to just observe and use those observations for my own benefit. One of the chop and drop observations is going to be how much time the chooks spend scratching in this area compared to others, but again, as it’s more sheltered in this chunk, it’s difficult to separate what the underlying reasons are.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
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  3. Speedy

    Hi Deano,
    just found this blog a few hours ago, but don’t remember how i got here.
    great info, thanks

    Dave Jacke told me that Grey Alder (A.incana) was the species that
    the Ligurion Alnoculture System was based on several centuries ago.
    You may have heard of it, but here’s an article he wrote on it anyway.
    Dave is working on a book about coppicing… if it takes as long as
    his Edible Forest Gardening books, we may not see them for a few years yet….
    but they will be thorough and a wealth of info.
    Italian Alder (A.cordata) is a differnt species I know ,
    but close enough related I think that they should work ok.
    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Speedy
      Alder has been coppiced, but I’m not sure about Italian Alder. I have recently been told that it pollards OK, which is more like what I’m going to do, so looks like it will be fine.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
  4. Simon

    Hi Deano,
    I grow a lot of Italian alder for windbreak and was interested if you could hard coppice it too. Will certainly try it on my site. I have found its very easy to grow from hardwood cuttings. Just stick into good well drained soil or soil/compost mix and will root and transplant for following year.
    Could you let me know if any you cut back hard regrew.
    By the by we are only down the road in Gosberton.
    Cheers Simon

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Simon
      hard cutting seemed to check the growth of the tree so am sticking with a more gentle approach.
      Good call on the cuttings. Will give that a try.

      Reply

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