Gardens Illustrated
Coppicing hazels
© Andrew Montgomery

Pruning and coppicing: should you cut back shrubs and trees

Discover when you need to prune, cut back and coppice shrubs and trees to encourage bright new stems and foliage. Words camilla phelps, photographs Andrew Montgomery

Coppicing trees requires a leap of faith for the average gardener. You have to be prepared to cut plants back hard – right to the ground. It seems like harsh treatment. So why do it?

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One of the key by-products is that your tree or shrub is guaranteed to respond with vigorous new growth. This allows you to manipulate its shape and size more easily. Depending on the plant, it may also stimulate vibrantly coloured new stems and dramatic foliage effects.

Coppiced trees also increase in breadth to provide good screening; and they can be treated like shrubs and used in borders with perennials and ground cover planting. Generally the advice is to coppice in late winter or early spring. But there's always time to learn about the art of coppicing and prepare for the moment you start.

Coppicing
© Andrew Montgomery

As well as the ornamental benefits, coppicing can be a practical solution for managing a large established tree in a small garden. For example, if you have a tree near a house on clay soil, coppicing will slow down root-growth and help to manage the threat of subsidence. Complete removal of a big tree could have far more serious consequences.

Tony Kirkham, head of arboriculture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, advises: “If a tree is in danger of becoming too big for its location, you are better off managing it rather than removing it completely. You can grow it to a size that fits in with your garden and that you can deal with.”

Coppicing exploits the natural growth pattern of trees: if the main stem has been cut or has fallen, it will send up shoots in a bid to survive. Essentially, if the root system has been used to feeding a large tree, it will put its energy into producing new growth and foliage.

Once an essential part of woodland management, coppiced trees were vital to the ancient economy, providing fuel, building and fencing materials. Today, conservationists are bringing back coppicing to increase biodiversity – cutting trees back opens up woodland, letting in light and encouraging a wider range of plants and wildlife.

In the past, sweet chestnut and hornbeam were the commonly grown for coppicing. But most trees will respond positively to a ‘brutal’ chop – as long as the tree is well established and has not been grafted.

The size and style of our gardens usually restricts our choice of trees. While plenty of smaller trees are prized for their bark, flowers and autumn foliage, larger-growing species are often left out of the equation. However, by managing trees and large shrubs as coppiced specimens, you can open up a whole new world of choice and ornamental potential.

Coppicing tool kit
© Andrew Montgomery

Coppicing tool kit

  • Felco No 2 secateurs (or No 9 if you are left-handed)
  • A sharp pruning saw
  • Short bladed Silky Fox saw
  • NOTE Don’t use long-handled loppers for the final cut. The blades can often squash the stems, causing bruising, which leads to die-back and subsequent rotting.

Coppicing: a brief guide by plant

1

Red oak

It’s rare to see now, but there was a tradition of coppicing oaks for boat building because the regrowth is often curved, and was much prized for making keels. The young foliage of Quercus rubra would make an unusual addition to an ornamental border.

2

Hornbeam

Carpinus betulus was once one of the most commonly coppiced trees, its dense wood prized as fuel. Coppiced for garden use, the hornbeam would offer a dense foliage backdrop or screen, as when used for hedging.

3

Birch

Betula species also produces spring catkins and delicate new foliage – coppicing encourages the much prized multi-stemmed growth that makes for a beautiful winter bark display.

4

Dogwoods

The new stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ are a much richer, dark maroon red than ‘Sibirica’, and this cultivar is also slower-growing. The acid green new stems of C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ look dazzling in the watery light of a clear spring day.

5

Willow

Coppiced willows such as Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’ also produce beautiful coloured young stems which make a fantastic winter display.

Cutting back hazel
© Andrew Montgomery
6

White mulberry

Morus alba is valued for its foliage and its fruit. In China it is traditionally coppiced so that it produces the large, fleshy leaves that are the preferred diet of the silk worm.

7

Small-leaved lime tree

Tilia cordata will produce bigger, heart-shaped leaves after coppicing and some nurseries will supply ready-coppiced specimens.

8

Eucalyptus

Gum trees such as Eucalyptus glaucescens are fast-growing and are often allowed to get out of proportion in gardens, but can be managed effectively as coppiced specimens. The added bonus is that the juvenile foliage is smaller, rounder and paler than the mature, finger-like leaves; these are the sprays often used by florists.

9

Holly

Coppice a mature holly (Ilex aquifolium) and it will produce extra-prickly young foliage which is much more dense and attractive and also makes an effective barrier plant.

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10

Judas tree

Coppicing Cercis siliquastrum will result in large, lustrous, heart-shaped leaves.

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