My favourite part of the estate I take care of is the coppice. The estate is made up of two properties with joining gardens. The coppice runs up the middle of the two, like a dividing line, or ‘spine’. It consists of a narrow strip of land, with a path up the middle, and around 20 or so old hazel stools dotted either side of the path.
The coppice connects my parking spot on a morning, to my shed in the shelter of the grand old oak at the back corner of the garden. This means the coppice is always my first introduction to the garden on a morning. It isn’t as glamorous as the herbaceous borders, as perfect as the lawn or as productive as the veg garden, but it has a charm all of its own.
The coppice is the closest thing we have to a nature reserve on site, with a diverse community of plants and insects. It is where I am most likely to encounter the foxes or rabbits that also inhabit the estate and provides a natural hide for watching the birds from. In the summer, the shade of the hazel is a pleasantly cool place to sit and read a book, and in the winter it has a uniquely sheltered and cosy feel.
It is the simplest area to maintain on the whole estate. At the end of summer, the long grass is cut and raked away to be composted, and in winter a few of the twenty or so hazel stands are cut to the ground.
It plays host to some of the most abundant life in the garden. The display starts early in the year. In January the hazels are covered in yellow catkins, hanging from their branches like furry caterpillars. The ground is carpeted with hundreds of smiling primroses. They are predominately cream and white, but the odd pink garden escapee creeps in to add a splash of colour here and there. The short grass soon reveals a stream of simple white snowdrops running under the trees, which will be followed by daffodils and eventually bluebells.
As the bulb display starts to fade the meadow comes alive with forget-me-nots, cow parsley and tall grasses mingling effortlessly. These are superseded by dramatic spikes of hundreds of martagon lilies which reach for the skies. The floral display starts to die down in the heat of July as the grasses start to mature and set seed. It is then time to cut the meadow. This year, immediately after cutting, I sowed a little yellow rattle, it is a parasitic plant which should add some colour to the meadow in midsummer and reduce the vigour of the grasses, allowing the establishment of a wider range of flowers.
As summer moves into autumn the hazelnuts start to ripen providing a delicious bounty for both myself and the squirrels and as winter approaches the work changes again. December is time to start cutting the stools. We have them on a short cycle, so about four of the twenty will be cut each year.
The long, straight wood is great to use in the garden. The longest poles are ideal for building structures for growing beans and sweet peas up in the veg and cut flower gardens. The brash from the side-shoots provides the ideal material for growing peas up, next spring. The most flexible material can be bent to form hoops that will prop up taller plants in the herbaceous border, stopping them from smothering their neighbours. Other sections will be used to form low hurdles along the edge of paths to stop the plants creeping their way out of the borders.
I have even started to use some of the wood for my own projects. Last winter I made myself a stool for my shed from some of the thicker stakes, and I have used some the offcuts to carve rudimentary spoons. I even replaced the indicator stem in my car with a lovely section of hazel when it broke. My ‘bodge’ makes me chuckle almost every time I need to turn.
The process of coppicing seems harsh. Cutting the trees stems down to just a couple of inches from the ground every few years would seem counter productive, but it seems to instil in them a renewed vigour. It is almost impossible to guess how old the trees might be. The wood they produce is never more than a few years old, but the stools themselves are probably hundreds of years old, possibly thousands. Yet every time they are cut they respond by throwing up strong fresh new shoots in the spring. This process is much more productive than trying to grow from old wood.
The coppice provides us with a good metaphor for our own lives as we head towards the new year. Sometimes we need to be prepared to cut back all the old wood, leaving just the roots, so that we are also be able to sprout forth with refreshed strength and vigour as spring comes.