Hidden beauty: natural wood in the city

Sourcing materials to build your vertical allotment can be a headache in urban places. Big garden centres are often expensive or packed with mass produced products shipped thousands of miles. Skips can offer good pickings in more affluent cities if you have time to search them – but can’t be relied on to produce the right thing at the right time.

A ‘secret’ source

One source that is often hidden to many of us living in cities, is coppiced products (see below for how to track them down).  In the UK, the ancient craft of coppicing is being re-kindled by a new movement of young, dedicated artisans. Some of these people, like Mike Carswell in Manchester, work in or close to cities. They make natural allies for us urban growers.

A trellis from coppiced hazel, made by Mike Carswel

A trellis from coppiced ash, made by Mike Carswel.  Can’t wait to see it covered in climbing beans next year!

What is coppicing?

Coppicing is a highly skilled way of harvesting wood without chopping down the whole tree (which invariably kills it). Instead, part of the tree is cut, leaving the rest to regrow. Done correctly, regrowth is vigorous, and the same tree can be harvested again every five to ten years, often over hundreds of years.

Urban pioneer

Mike Carswell, coppice worker in Manchester, is one of those reviving this ancient art. He works independently but has forged a close working relationship with Manchester Council. In his clever and creative arrangement with the council, he coppices neglected woodland on council land. This produces a supply of coppiced wood for Mike’s craft products and charcoal. And it improves the woodland – at not cost – for the council. Nature benefits hugely, too: coppicing opens up the woodland canopy, letting in light so that a wider range of plants and wildlife can flourish.

Mike Carswell at work in his yard in Manchester. Most of his work is done using hand tools.

Mike Carswell at work in his yard in Manchester. Most of his work is done using hand tools.

Uses in the vertical garden

The products of coppicing can be used in a wide variety of ways, the following are particularly suited for the urban food grower:-

  • Bean poles – see below – so much prettier and more characterful than mass produced bamboo!
  • Pea sticks – a superior and more attractive alternative to netting.
  • Trellises – made in many styles, one example in photo above.
  • Sheep hurdles (can be used to hide unattractive containers or features).
  • Fencing and windbreaks
Bean poles made from hazel have so much more character than mass produced canes.

Bean poles made from hazel have so much more character than mass produced canes.

And biochar

Coppiced wood that is unsuitable for craft work, can be made into charcoal and biochar. Biochar, a fine grade of charcoal, can be added in small quantities to growing mixes to improve drainage and water retention. It’s also reputed to stimulate and support the microbial life that is vital for a healthy, living soil. I’ll be experimenting and writing more about it in 2013.

Biochar is a fine grade of charcoal that can be used to improve growing mediums. As a natural and sustainable product, the potential for biochar is significant.

Biochar is a fine grade of charcoal that can be used to improve growing mediums. As a natural and sustainable product, the potential for biochar is significant.

It’s a cliché but…. everyone wins!

By buying coppiced wood from a local coppice worker, you’ll help improve woodland, and increase biodiversity. You’ll support the re-emerging coppice craft, local jobs and a product that is a truly sustainable. Last, but by no means least, you’ll be getting something unique, more attractive and longer lasting than the mass produced products most commonly available.

Nothing is wasted. These wood shavings will be used as a mulch or dried and used as fire lighters.

Nothing is wasted. These wood shavings will be used as a mulch or dried and used as fire lighters.

 

How to find coppiced products

In the UK, the place to look for your local supplier is Coppice Products, a handy site where you can also read more about the benefits of coppicing. A few enlightened garden centres – like the wonderful Bud Garden Centre in Manchester – also stock coppiced products. If yours doesn’t, why not ask them if they can?

If you live outside the UK and know how to find coppiced products in your country, it’d be great if you could share this in the comments below.

You can read more about Mike Carswell’s work on his website, Urban Coppice. His products are not available mail order but if you live in or near Manchester, do go and support his great work.

2 comments… add one

  • Wood is very underrated a thing of beauty these days. I work from a small converted barn which I call “the shed” but quite often I find myself daydreaming as I have notice another piece of oak has moved. I need to get a proper job!

    Reply
  • Wood is more beautiful than people see. I like people like you! Making wood Manchester wide beautiful!

    Reply

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