Selecting Species for Coppice Firewood

With all the snowstorms blanketing much of the US right now, I feel a bit guilty that I’m still visiting family in Florida, where I grew up and where it is a cool 72ºF/22ºC outside.  On top of that I’m hearing that in the Southwest, natural gas shortages are leaving many homes without heat. (One Twitterer complains that President Obama caused the shortage by blocking drilling for natural gas and oil; I think this person misses the point that the shortage is caused by the unaccustomed cold weather shutting down refining and distribution facilities.)

We can’t rely on fossil fuels for long—natural gas peak production may be a few years further off than the crude oil peak, which by all reasonable accounts is either here or imminent. With all the attention the generation of electricity gets in the media—and there’s no denying solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, and wind turbine electricity sells pageviews—one of the most crucial problems we will have to face in our transition off fossil fuels is heating our homes.

It is becoming more and more apparent to everyone with the sense and knowledge to see it that global warming climate change weirding doesn’t mean six fewer months of winter. It means more severe weather all around—worse storms, worse droughts, worse snows, and worse summers. So planning for heating our homes is still going to be a major challenge. We need solutions that will keep us as warm as we need to be, without making the pollution and climate change problems worse. And surprisingly I think a big part of that is going to be firewood.

But we’ll need to manage our firewood in ways that don’t just sustain the status quo but actually help regenerate the land we’re part of. And a big part of this, I believe, is going to be establishing coppice systems.

Coppice is the practice of cutting trees so that they resprout from the stumps. Famously, Europeans and Native Americans have practiced coppice silviculture for firewood, basketry, and building materials. Willow is an especially favored species for basketry and certain types of building—the wattle and daub houses of ancient Britain come to mind. But willow makes lousy firewood. So what species coppice well and make good firewood?

Alder, ash, and black locust are all good coppice trees, resprouting easily from stumps and growing quickly. Ash is very good firewood. Reports differ on alder and black locust, and I suspect the efficiency of one’s stove will have a lot to do with how completely these woods combust (on which more later). One species I’d like to highlight, especially for people in the southwestern US right now, is Parkinsonia aculeata, also known as horsebean, jerusalem thorn, and blue palo verde, among other common names.

What’s good about this tree? Well, for one thing, it’s drought tolerant. The effects of global climate change on local rainfall patterns is not yet known, but it’s possible that areas that already get very little rainfall will get even less, and some areas with moderate rainfall will become drier while others will become much wetter. For the desert southwest and arid parts of California, Parkinsonia aculeata could be very useful. It is partly cold hardy, tolerating temperatures down to 18ºF/-7ºC. It is also leguminous, with the potential to restore nitrogen to the soil, although I believe this has not been studied in this particular plant. And when cut it regrows from the stump. It is also good bee forage, attracting pollinators with its bright yellow flowers. Its main drawback is that it can be invasive—because it propagates readily from seed or from cuttings, it’s hard to control. Arid environments help to control its reproduction from seed; it shouldn’t be planted in areas where there is more water than it needs. And here’s where another benefit of this plant comes in handy—it makes excellent goat browse. Livestock eat its leaves and seed-containing pods, and the fresh pods have a sweet edible pulp.

How might you manage this plant, given its tendency to become invasive in areas where it gets more water than it needs?

Well, first, I’d avoid planting Parkinsonia aculeata in moist meadows, streambanks, or near ponds or irrigation. Dry upland slopes are a better place. Second, cut it back on a regular basis for wood, and don’t plant more than you can use. Don’t leave fresh cuttings lying around on top of fertile soil. Finally, graze goats through the planting on a rotating basis so they can browse back new growth and seedlings and eat some of the edible seed pods. Pigs might also enjoy the pods and would probably disturb the ground under established trees to discourage new seedlings, but be careful they don’t rip up the roots of the established trees you’re coppicing.

It’s also important to get back to wood stoves that can efficiently and cleanly burn small-diameter firewood. If we aggravate our air pollution woes with particulates from incomplete burning, we’ll make our situation much worse. If we exacerbate the problem of carbon release by burning up existing trees and releasing their carbon without planting enough new trees to store the carbon we’re releasing and then some, we’ll make our situation much worse.

We’re running out of the carbon trust fund we’ve inherited in the form of fossil fuels, and we need a wise plan to help us live within our ecological means.

m4s0n501

7 Responses to “Selecting Species for Coppice Firewood

  • I love your phrase “carbon trust fund”, puts the situation very well…

  • Thanks, Jess! I feel sure it’s not original to me.

  • We are using willow, cottonwood, ash and maple in this way on our little place and it does supplement the bought-in wood stream.

  • I’m really struggling to figure this out right now. I bought a small homestead, 10 acres – surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. I’m in Michigan, so Ash is out of the question. I’d like to create a firewood coppice hedgerow 660′ * 50′ along the north side, and I’d prefer to intermix 3-4 species for diversity and long-term viability (protection against the next Ash Borer or blight problem.) But understanding which trees form natural colonies together and share the same soil critters PLUS make good firewood PLUS coppice readily has me completely befuddled. My extension agent thinks me a fool for even asking. The soil in that field is sandy loam, about 2.5% organic matter, and flat. It was used as pasture for the former residents’ horses and milk cow (Amish, low impact but not ‘modern’ rotations – no deadened ‘barnyard’ areas). I have access to nearby mature woods for a spade-full of dirt per tree to help kick-start the bio-activity. The woods are soft and hard maple, soft and hard cherry, and walnut, so don’t even know if these colonies of soil critters will be helpful or not. Other than that I assume I’ll haul in wood chips to mulch and feed the proper soil.

    Any recommendations? I’m stuck.

  • Hayden, I’m no expert on the Michigan biomes but from a little research I know that American Beech is a keystone species of some Michigan hardwood forest communities, and beech has been coppiced for firewood and timber in the UK. Poplar is a good fast-growing tree that should do well in your region, and I know coppicing has been tried with it but I don’t know how well it did offhand. It used to be thought poorly of as firewood but people are recently beginning to think better of it. Even maple can be coppiced and makes fair to excellent firewood, depending on variety; don’t plant in association with hemlock though, as they inhibit each other. The other tree species researched in Michigan forest communities seem to show a neutral effect on one another according to the research I was able to find, so as long as you’re not planting hemlocks (no good for firewood anyway), I wouldn’t worry overly that the trees you plant will be antagonistic. Red and white oaks are also good firewood trees and oaks are among the most common coppice trees in the UK, although they have one of the longest management cycles—from the first cut you may be looking at 50 years until the next harvest. You may be overlooking the firewood capabilities of some of the trees you’ve already mentioned. Cherry and Walnut, if you can’t use the wood for cabinetry or furniture, are both rated “good” in the firewood department. Some sources say cherries take to coppicing well and some say otherwise; specific variety probably has something to do with it. I haven’t heard of anyone trying to coppice Walnut. In any case all broadleaved trees have some potential for coppicing given the right conditions.

    Without knowing your land, I’m thinking you might explore a community of Northern Red or White Oak, American Beech, poplar, and maple. I would suggest trying to coppice a few individuals of each species to see how well they resprout, and then proceeding based on the information you’re able to gather—a valuable experiment if you have the patience for it! With a variety of species you will have some in short rotation (the beeches and poplars) and some in long rotation (certainly the oaks, possibly the maples). Any firewood coppice hedgerow will be a long-term investment in any case; you’re looking at making a plan for 12-20 year management (and longer if you’re using oaks).

    You might try addressing your question to the folks at Oikos Tree Crops in Kalamazoo, as well; I’m sure they could tell you what trees do well as coppice firewood in your area and even what to bring in to the herb layer to support them.

    As for the soil microcommunity, my first hit is that you will want to look into your local fungi populations and identify and transplant some of the soil-growing fungi that grow in your local hardwood communities. For the West Coast the book Mushrooms Demystified has been my go-to resource, but it’s less helpful for the northern Plains states and I don’t know if there’s a similarly in-depth resource for your area. I personally think provided the soil was never sterilized (for example, by extreme chemical use or severe forest fire with high temperatures penetrating deep into the soil) in the hardwood forest you have access to, there will be some microorganisms of the type that will support the forest community you’re trying to establish; it just may take a few seasons of building up leaf litter before the population balances shift in favor of the species that do best at supporting your trees.

    I hope this is a little bit helpful; I look forward to hearing more about what you end up doing and how it works. Renewing these old practices and updating them for our local conditions is a huge project—there’s a lot to learn and rediscover.

  • Hi Kerrick

    Great post. We have formed a group in Souther Vermont to all start Coppice Firewood cutting. We will be having farm visits on each property to select the best sites/trees available for this type of cutting. I have a few questions. I had harvested about 1 acre of white birch for craft wood production about 8 years ago. This all has regrown well and is ready for harvest for firewood. What would be the best time for harvesting as far as the re-sprouting is concerned? Should I cut/thin out, clear cut what I need? I need sugar wood for making maple syrup and also fire wood for the heating. Around 5-6 cords a year. I plan to cut and let the wood dry for two years so it is extra dry and hope will be a zero footprint. And more info on this topic would be very helpful for out group!

    Regards,
    Robert
    Taft Hill Farm

  • http://dnr.wi.gov/forestry/publications/Handbooks/24315/43.pdf

    Hayden,

    I just became interested in sustainable living and ran across this page because I was interested in learning what species are good for coppicing in Michigan. Where I currently live, there is a small stand of Balsam Poplar on the back of the property. I kept looking and finally found the above link which states that Balsam Poplar (very common across Northern Michigan) can be simple coppiced indefinitely. It sounds reasonable as I have seen entire acres of Balsam stands clear-cut and thousands of six feet tall suckers grow the following year. The article states that typically 10,000-30,000 suckers regenerate per acre. From what I have personally seen, I would recommend you transplant some Balsam Poplar.

    As far as the others go:
    Beech – very very very, I mean very slow growing. American is the slowest growing hardwood in the area I can think of, probably not the best candidate.
    Maples and Oaks would be middle to long term
    Sand Cherry and Black Cherry would probably make good candidates from what I know of them.
    Walnut probably falls under the same category as Beech.
    That’s about all I know. Try contacting some local tree nurseries or foresters, even firewood delivery and ask them what species rejuvenate quickly after harvest and make “usable” firewood.

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