Coppicing Hazel – the how, the why, the where

Lamb’s Tails (as country children call them), the pale-yellow catkins of the hazel, are a familiar sight at this time of year.  A traditional component of our hedgerows, they are perhaps seen in more glory when growing unchecked along roadside verges where they can achieve a much greater height.  There, up to 15 metres tall in favoured conditions, the soft golden shimmer of hundreds of catkins really is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.

Lamb’s tails: their pollen is released by the wind

Catkins begin to form early in the winter, small, stubby and dull in colour where they wait until, quite suddenly, they are as we see them now.  The transition always goes unnoticed.  Even less noticed are the female flowers – for catkins are male.  Whereas the majority of plants are self-fertile, Hazel, Corylus avellana, is one of a number that carry both male and female flowers.  Wind-pollinated, the breeze carries the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise.  However, the pollen has to reach a different plant for it to be successful.  The tiny, female flowers can be discovered by careful searching along the branches a few days after the catkins have fully formed.

The short, stubby embryo catkins form in early winter
The minute, female flowers take a bit of finding…

For gardeners, hazel is one of the most traditional and useful of plants and it is worth growing one or two in an odd corner if you have the room.  There they will quickly create a multi-stemmed shrub.  Visually, as a garden plant, when left to its own devices, it is of limited value (wildlife love it, of course).  However, by coppicing the plant there will be a regular supply of poles for runner beans to climb and the twiggy top-growth is the perfect support for garden peas, mange-tout and the headily-scented sweet peas.  They are also useful for supporting taller herbaceous plants, saving them from collapse and look so much more attractive than canes and string or wire netting.  It’s far quicker to do, too!

A good crop of runner bean poles

So, what is coppicing and how do you do it?  Well, for a start, it’s a dead easy and very uncomplicated form of pruning!  All that has to be done is to cut with secateurs or garden loppers the stems to a few inches above ground level during the winter.  If you do this over three years by removing only a third of the stems each year you will have stems of varying heights and diameters without losing any screening effect.  Although coppicing may seem a drastic form of pruning they quickly regrow and it also prolongs the life of the plant considerably. 

Coppiced hazel can make a good summer screen in the garden

Many years ago, coppicing of hazel (and, sometimes, ash and field maple too) was standard practice in many of our woodlands.  These days it is still carried out as a conservation tool to encourage the breeding of our now endangered dormouse and other wildlife.  Hazel is the food plant of many moths and the autumn supply of nuts are great favourites with jays, squirrels and wood mice – and, of course, humans. In the photo below of long-neglected woodland, the hazel is naturally regenerating as coppice as the old and heavy branches collapse onto the forest floor.

Neglected storm-damaged hazel naturally regenerating as coppice

Hazel can be useful, along with willow, to create living structures such as pergolas, arches, fencing and tunnels.  They all involve regular pruning in much the same way as coppicing although in most instances the number of upright growths is reduced to one or two.  The prunings make excellent kindling for wood burners and, if you’re feeling really creative, rustic furniture.  Why not have a go?  From just one native species we can have fun projects that are ideal for people of all ages.  It can be used as an educational tool too: nature study and conservation, rural history and artistry make it the perfect resource for lockdown and home learning.

This living hazel tunnel makes a fine garden feature and is also good for wildlife
An imaginative and practical way of using hazel branches

A Secret Garden

I have noticed that even those that don’t show the slightest interest in things horticultural love exploring walled gardens, especially if they are overgrown and forgotten.  Perhaps it stirs memories of the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911 in which she shows that when something unloved is cherished and cared for it can become beautiful and healthy, be it a plant or the human spirit.

Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

Photo Credit: AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

I have been fortunate over the years in caring for a number of walled gardens in different stages of development yet, regardless of their state, there is something magical in placing the key in the lock and pushing open the door – as nasty, little Mary Lennox discovered in the novel.  As she returned the garden to its former glory so, she too, grew into a loving and loveable child.

Garden Border (4) watermark

Perhaps even more so than the plants and trees within, the beauty of a walled garden comes from the walls themselves.  The brickwork over time has mellowed and seems to release the warmth of a hundred or more summers, even on the greyest of days.  Search the walls and they reveal secrets – a date scratched into a stone, old lead labels revealing the varieties of long-disappeared fruit trees or, occasionally, the name of a much-loved pet buried at its feet.

Walled Garden watermark

The walls in this deserted garden date back to the late 17th/early 18th centuries

Old Plant Tag watermark

Recorded for posterity: the trees may have disappeared but the record of the varieties remain

One of the most rewarding to explore yet emptiest of walled gardens has to be that of Dunmore Park.  The house no longer stands but the garden walls remain crowned by that most eccentric of British garden room follies, the Pineapple.  Here the walls are hollow, fires were lit at its feet and the walls warmed to promote early growth.  Sliding stone blocks could be opened to release the smoke which, filling the garden at night helped to keep frosts at bay.  Clever, those early gardeners.

The Pineapple (11) watermarkThe Pineapple (31) watermarkThe Pineapple (34) watermark

Walled gardens when not open to visitors are more often a place of silence, the only sound to accompany the gardener is that of birdsong and the hum of insects.  It can be a place where your mind can be free from the everyday cares of the outside world.  It can also be a place where your design ideas can run riot either in your head or, if lucky enough, in reality.  The images below show before and after photos of a border I created many years ago, the idea for the colour palette coming from an Imari plate belonging to the owner of the garden.  The border is living proof of an imagination run riot!

Blue & White Border - before watermarkImari Plate   watermark.jpgBlue & White Border - after watermark