Hazel coppicing  





Harbingers of spring

Taking the first catkins of the year to school for the nature table used to be a matter of childish pride-well, it was an innocent world in the 1950s! Do schools have nature tables any more? Probably not!

But, even now for us the tasselled flowers of hazels are still one of the earliest joys of spring. They are like jaunty, pale ochre lamb’s tails flicking around on the wicked winds of the New Year. And this brave display comes from a workaday native woodland and hedgerow plant. Corylus avellana is also an important part of our historic technique of landscape management and forestry which has been used for many thousands of years.

We have hazel coppices in several of the large gardens or small estates around Bristol which we manage. It makes sense. Get switched on to hazels and with infrequent and simple pruning you can cover large areas ecologically, productively and with the minimum amount of work

 Fire, feast and an eco-statement

A small matter of a pound buys a good, metre plus, bare root sapling. Aside from the nuts, obviously, this spindly twig can ultimately provide logs, kindling, bean poles, pea sticks and garden stakes. If you are at all creative you can go one step further and make baskets and wigwam supports for your climbers-there is a good range of sociable day courses to teach you the skills needed here.

Ok, so, given patience and perhaps a little initial cosseting, it will take….. yes, you are right…… some years to provide firewood but hey, gardeners do think of the future-it can’t all be immediate gratification.

And in the meantime there is also the inner glow derived from the knowledge that this productiveness will involve NO AIR MILES and will be from a SUSTAINABLE  RESOURCE. As of day one your copse is also of course a WILDLIFE HABITAT. All of a sudden your garden becomes an eco-boast!

Pruning: sounds complex? But is so simple!

As opposed to other more fiddly pruning techniques this consists of cutting to the ground every 5-10 years depending on the growth which depends on the seasons. Usually we never take more than a third of the growth off most shrubs, but in this case such drastic action actually improves the health of the clump.

And in fact greatest vigour is achieved if you cut in one fell swoop rather than in dribs and drabs. In good soil, established clumps will make 2 metres in the first year after pruning. After that it slows down a little, you will be pleased to hear. However, they really never get out of hand and are never beyond rescue.

In larger gardens pruning a section of woodland every year keeps a continuous supply of product and ensures everywhere doesn’t look bare for a while. As for timing, pruning fits into the gardening pattern very well since it is a good job to do in frosty or wet weather when you cannot get on your borders. Regard it as a rigorous post- Christmas-binge workout with a bow saw or a simple job for your local ‘man with a chainsaw’.

Flexible aesthetics

But, while hazel coppicing is rather earnestly productive and ecological our interest is more than just practical. But you knew that! Clumps of hazels can be used to make elegant curves, in larger and more rural landscapes, but you could equally well drift clusters informally through such a space.

However you use them, as natives they are suited to our climate and fit the geographic context. They therefore LOOK RIGHT. They can be a subtle interfacebetween main garden and woodland or between formal and informal. 

Of course if you chose you could drill them more formally like soldiers to focus on a simple statue as at Sissinghurst . Structure, contrast and repetition are key tools for the garden designer. And the vigorous pruning regime for hazels produces strong verticals which make good visual contrast with sheets of ground cover beneath.

In winter these ramrod straight trunks are silvered with shafts of wintery sunlight. Beautiful! The repeated clumps also achieve a rhythm in the garden, so hazels can be used to draw the eye and lead the feet.

A Walk for All Seasons

For one of our clients in the Mendips we have just designed a hazel avenue to cross an open hillside facing the Severn Estuary. By cutting into the slope of the hill, a broad walk 4 metres wide curves gently to follow the contours of the land. Some 50 metres long, the avenue slopes down to a level grassy plateau between two rocky escarpments, which we envisage as an idyllic picnic and drinks area.

It will be a beautiful cool stroll on a summer’s day-far enough away from the house to give a feeling of escape but not too far to carry the jug of Pimms! In Autumn there will be a fruitful walk to gather the harvest. In winter, brisk, sunlit exercise will give glimpses of the snowy Brecon Beacons. In Spring the path will be awash with primroses and wood anemones. What’s not to enjoy?

Life’s a microclimate

Of course this dappled deciduous shade we have created is exactly the growing environment loved by all keen gardeners. Here shade loving perennials will thrive, be it common or garden epimediums and hardy geraniums through to choice tricyrtis and trilliums. This niche is also perfect for spring flowers because they do their stuff and die down before the canopy thickens. Snowdrops, the simpler narcissi, primroses, wood anemones and bluebells are all perfectly in tune with this natural style of gardening.

However, if you are attracted to more sculptural foliage then this is the place for Harts tongue ferns, Euphorbia robbiae and bergenias.You can also let loose those potentially invasive but attractive perennials such as winter heliotrope, the dwarf yellow symphytum and Trachystemon orientale.

For sheer simplicity we particularly like sheets of glossy green ivy, the large leaved forms are best. Its rich depth contrasts perfectly with the lime green of the hazel leaves and the pale wood of the trunks. And in winter ivy captures and reflects all the lustre of the low shafts of winter sunlight which penetrate the copse.

 Thinking laterally  

Of course, all this seems to assume an impossibly large garden, but if your patch is more modest, hazels could still be the answer. Screening is always an issue in urban gardens and here they give verticality without the complex technique of pleaching, for all its designer appeal.

Two or three specimens (and here given the smaller number you could splash out on larger plants) would give the instant feel of a mini copse at the bottom of your garden. Place a simple rustic bench here to feel at one with nature.

Whatever your location, ring the changes and consider using different species. Sweet chestnut would work just as well and purple hazels have purple nuts! Ash, oak and lime, are other possibilities, but no nuts here alas. But if we are honest it was always going to be a battle between you and the wildlife for those!