A Long Harvest

25th March 2019.

coppice 1
First Cut

Almost ten years to the day after planting them, I coppiced my first alders down by the river.  It was hard to do.  Moderately hard physically, but challenging mentally too.  Not so much the act of cutting the trees down; I have faith that the trees will grow back bigger and faster than before (see below).  More challenging was which trees to cut so as not to lose all the shelter, and whether to cut back fully, leave a longer stump, or just take out one trunk or more of a multi stemmed tree.  The bowsaw is a bit blunt, despite having a new blade not so long ago, so I actually used my folding pruning saw for much of the cutting.  I must look and see what small electric saws are available.  I think a rechargeable could save quite a bit of elbow grease and be kinder to the trees as well as me!

Tree to left of dog prematurely coppiced 5 years ago

I have to cut what I am going to this week.  Leaves are starting to open and buds to swell.  The trees will find it harder to recover if they put too much life back into what I am cutting back.  Also the wood would take longer to dry out ready for burning.

The alder wood is supposed to be useful in areas that are permanently damp – like the tree itself funnily enough.  They used to use the wood for clog soles and protective boot soles in foundries even after the second world war.  I don’t think my trees are quite big enough for that, although it would be amusing to make one’s own shoes.  It’s not excellent for firewood,  supposedly it tends to smoulder, but this is less of a problem in a stove.  It has the big advantage to us of being a fast growing, nitrogen fixing tree that likes damp soil.  I wish I had planted much more of it.  When first cut the wood surface is pale in colour, but it quickly goes an orange colour that then fades to brown over a few months.

alder rings
orange staining – alder growth rings

As well as larger trunks (some of which should be good for an ‘overnight burner’ or two) there is a vast amount of smaller branches.  These will still feed a growing fire and even the tiniest make good kindling.  What I have tended to do with the prunings I have gathered to date is leave it in piles down the field, roughly where it was cut.  Over six months to a year the twigs dry out, the grass dies back a bit underneath, and grows lush nearby where it is sheltered.  Every so often when taking the dog-boys down the hill for a run, I bring back an armful of kindling and put it in the woodshed to dry.   The more twiggy bits tend to break off and get left in the grass, but that adds to the soil biomass.

pruning paths
Lower branched pruned – top loop, prior to tidying into piles
twiggy piles
Summer time pruning pile

Taking the wood up an armful at a time isn’t going to be practical for the larger stuff.  We are intending to put up little shelters and pile up the branches cut to size near to where the trees were felled.  Hopefully we have enough pallets and fenceposts together with the old roof sheets off the byre to create shelters to keep the worst of the weather off.

S. has stripped out an old Land Rover Discovery vehicle and equipped it at the back with a framework to act as a saw bench.  This is also to be used to bring the dry cut wood up to the wood shed after it has dried for a year or so.  Although whether it will be worth keeping the vehicle mobile for many more years, remains to be seen.  The engine is sweet, but the electrics and chassis are rotten!

teuchter wagon
Teuchter wagon

Anyway, I definitely felt the first warmth of the firewood today.

first heat
First warmth

9 thoughts on “A Long Harvest

  1. I read (before I had a computer) that alders were good for drying out wet ground and have found that to be true, I had not thought about the nitrogen fixing properties, and that gives me an added reason for growing veg near the alders,
    interesting about the wood being used for clogs,
    one of my aunts who lived in a rural area took a carrier bag with her when she went for a walk so she could collect kindling to bring home, when dismanteling your log piles check for disturing wildlife, especially frogs in winter, I don’t know if Skye has hedgehogs but if they are around your property then those too,
    I included saws when I emailed this morning, I too wish I had planted more alders had I known then what I know now! Frances

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess the alder must dry out the ground – but not enough to notice!
      If we leave the wood piles for a year to dry out (none of it is big enough to need splitting), then we can bring it up next spring and put it in the shed near the house for final dry ready for use. I’ll remember to look out for frogs.
      Yes we do have hedgehogs on Skye. The dogs are very excited by them so I sometimes have to rescue them (the hedgehogs not the dogs!)
      If the soil is not disturbed apparently the soil roots and fungi form a network and transport nutrients for tens of metres, so the alder does not need to be near the veg. If you are digging then the network is disturbed and you are probably better off pruning off green branches, shredding them and using them as mulch or compost – more work.
      I’ll check my mail this evening – thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting and useful tree! I’m going to do some research if it will grow as a screen here. We have a small rechargeable battery saw that is good for branches up to about an inch and a half – saves a lot of labour. But the battery doesn’t last that long – maybe 2 hours duration max with on and off sawing, maybe even less – it wouldn’t have lasted for the job you’ve just done here. With the amount of wood you have isn’t a petrol chainsaw a useful investment?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Martin, I think alder probably wouldn’t be the best choice for you – at least not common alder (which mine is) since it really likes damp soil (wet!). I gather italian alder prefers it drier so that might be a better option. Luke of Mortal Tree (https://mortaltree.blog/) likes Amorpha fructicosa as a N2 fixer and mulch generator, but I think it would be too cool and damp for it here. There may be an Australian native that would be better, and have you considered siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens)? That has legume like seeds that your chooks would love. I have one that is just holding on – not really thriving. But I suspect it would do well for you.
      We do have a chainsaw (a big one – maybe 28inch bar) for cutting logs to length. S. blenches if he thinks I’m going anywhere near it – and I do think it would be a bit of a liability in delicate work. The small branches are not too much effort (although I do ache a bit today!) I want something that will cope with stuff up to about 6 inches, maybe a little more. I think a recipricating saw will be safer all round. I’ll do a bit of research over the year and see what might be available.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I did some research on the siberian pea shrub. Very scare in Australia, but one permaculture farm near here got some seeds from Tasmania and did a review of it – an amazingly useful plant that would cope with our conditions. They also mentioned nitrogen fixing and chicken fodder. I’m about to contact that seed company! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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