Weed your woods

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

It may sound silly at first, but, if you want to make your woodland (more) productive, just treat it like a big vegetable garden. You will grow the best crop if you cut the weed trees, thin the thick spots, and harvest the crop trees before they get too "ripe" to use.

But, let's start where we always should start, namely at the beginning.

A wood, even a forest, is to the forester the same as a field is to the farmer or a garden to the gardener and all of them need management if they are to thrive. The only difference between a gardener or farmer and a forester is that the latter often does not, except in coppice management, ever sees the harvest. He harvests often what others, long before him, have planted, and he manages and plants for the future, for harvests that are carried out by others, often after he is long gone.

Alas all too often there are people about who believe that Mother Nature does a better job than we could ever do and there are time when that is true. If the woodland, however, is to be of use to us and to wildlife and be a thriving ecosystem then management by man is required and this even more so if the woods have been managed before by the hand of man for our use, and this even more so if the produce of such woods are also to benefit us.

Even when managing a coppice woodland weeding certain trees out and doing selective cutting here and there is required and in stands where large trees are to be the result then thinning is a must and it must be repeated every couple of years and, if permitted, over time those cut trees may actually turn into coppice stools and a so-called coppice with standards will result and a good result that is too.

Your goals will greatly affect your management decisions and your management decisions will greatly affect the outcome and the produce. Of course, the existing conditions of your woodland may have an equally great effect on your decisions and the outcome.

A mature stand of timber may dictate a heavy cut to stop further decline while a mixed-age or middle-aged stand of timber is a likely candidate for a selective cut. Any young stands can be like a recently sown bed of carrots, nothing will prosper without a little thinning. When it comes to a woodland of mixed-age or middle-age stands of timber then, if it is hardwood, or deciduous woods, which, hopefully it is, of native trees then one of the best options is to create a coppice with standards and if it is a coppice woodland that was previously managed as such then you may find many an overstood coppice stool that needs immediate attention.

Once you've decided your motives, you need to find out just how saleable your timber is. Become “wood-wise” and learn to recognize the potential in a tree or a stand of coppice. Also the species that you have growing and which are due for cutting and then research the market. The original task of the professional forester was that of recognizing what every tree or part of a tree could become by way of product and use and this “eye” you, as a woodsman, will also have to develop. Once you know all that research your potential market and not, necessarily, people such as sawmills and the like but look at what you, actually, could make out of the wood yourself that could be sold to end-users rather than processors.

Selling to a sawmill or any processor will greatly reduce your income from your woods. On the other hand if you go into production of wooden goods yourself you will have to have the time for doing so, the tools and then a way of marketing them to the end-users. It is all a case of horses for courses. A sawmill or other processor may give you x for the whole tree but processed by yourself into a variety of products, and the same is true for coppice stems, will give you x4 it is obvious that you can make more, in financial terms, from processing most of the wood yourself. But, as said, it requires time, effort, and tools to do so.

When it comes to the felling, especially of larger trees, and you have not used a chainsaw before and/or felled large trees then please do not do it without any training even if it is your land and in all theory you can use a chainsaw there to your heart's content. Chainsaw take no prisoners and are extremely dangerous, as are trees falling. We are talking several tons in weight coming crashing down at a rate of knots. So, I say it again, learn felling of trees or get an experienced lumberjack to do the work for you. Do not take any chances.

Now, what are the weeds and what are the crops?

Well, a crop tree is any reasonably mature tree worth harvesting, or one that has the potential to grow into such a tree. Weed trees may just be species of low value, or may be damaged by rot, fire, lightning, wind, insects, etc. They could also be trees excessively lean or that are rather crooked. Removing those, and those that otherwise interfere with the growth of the other trees, is called thinning, and is much like thinning out a bed of carrots.

In any woodland for trees to develop to the full potential it is important that each of them has enough space to grow and develop. It is a little different in a pure coppice as compared with coppice with standards and a lot different in a stand of timber where all are meant to be single stems growing to maturity.

Thinning (weeding) is a valuable exercise even in a pure coppice where I have begun to referring to it as selective coppicing for here we can do it in two ways. We can either remove stems that are already harvestable for a variety of products and leave other, smaller ones, to grow to a decent size or removing those small stems that are and never will be of any use but which interfere with the growth of those we want to harvest in a year or four, those that are spindly, deformed, or otherwise of no use.

Our main aim, with hardwood trees, is to create, when working to rejuvenate a woodland, a sustainable coppice woodland, either as a pure coppice or a a coppice with standards, and the former is easier to maintain than the latter, in all honesty.

But the latter will make for the production of timber in size that cannot be achieved in a pure coppice and thus often that is the one to go for.

In that case weeding, aka thinning, will be required on a regular basis especially also as you will want to bring on new growth, natural regeneration, and encourage those young trees to grow to mature standards to eventually replace those that you will cut in time.

In order to help them grow, however, the area around them in the woods will need not just thinning but also in this case really weeding. But unlike in the garden you don't have to remove dandelion and such like but brambles and bracken and such vegetation that might encroach and smother the saplings or otherwise impede their growth. Protection from grazers too may be required and some wire-mesh or the chicken-wire variety held by some stakes will, more often than not, suffice. And then there is more weeding and thinning.

© 2015

For more on coppicing and why, etc. see “Managing our Woods”, a small book that explains the whys and wherefores of managing our woods in this way and calls for us to return to that way.