Monday, 2 March 2015

It's Pollarding time again!

Pollarding and coppicing are two versions of the same pruning technique, used to keep vigorous trees such as Hazel and Willow down to a reasonable size.

In "olden times" - ie the last two thousand years apart from the most recent 50 or so - this technique was used primarily to provide a product, ie long straight wands, which were then cut and used for weaving baskets, construction of hurdles for fencing, bundling into faggots for firewood and so on.

Coppicing involves chopping a tree at ankle height, then cutting the regrowth on a cycle of 5-7 years, depending on the species of tree, and the size of wands required. Pollarding is exactly the same, but higher up the trunk, and was used where grazing animals would eat off the fresh new shoots before they had a chance to grow. The height of the pollard would depend on what animals were in the area - horses have longer necks than cattle, so the main cut would need to be higher.

These days, pollarding is mostly seen on street trees, which have an annual chop to keep them under control, preventing them shading out street lights, overshadowing neighbouring properties etc.

In a garden setting, it's a good way to keep an otherwise boisterous tree under control, and here is a small Salix (Willow) that gets this treatment every year.

As you can see, not a huge tree, but only because I have been cutting it every year for the past 12 years or so.

This causes the top of the tree to grow into a "knob" instead of continuing to grow upwards, and this knob puts out new sprouts each year, which are easily pruned off.

All you do is take secateurs, or loppers, and cut off each individual branch as close as you can to the base.

Then catch them before they fall in the lake and get washed downstream to cause havoc at the weir...

Here's a close-up to show you that it's not rocket science: some of them are chopped off more closely than others, because the ones on the left as you look at this picture, are the ones overhanging the lake, so I have to stand in a fairly precarious position to get at them.

And the ones you have already cut tend to get in the way of the blades, making it hard to get them all cut really closely: but as with many gardening tasks, you do the best you can, and the plant generally rewards you by thriving.

Here's the final effect from a few feet back: two wheelbarrow loads of offcuts taken up to the bonfire heap, all I have to do is a quick rake up of the smaller debris, put away my big loppers, and job done.

In this case, the off cuts are never long or strong enough to be of any use in weaving, which annoys me every year. 

I think the cause is the heavy overhang of trees which put this side of the lake in deep shade for most of the summer, so I am gradually working my way along the lake path, chopping out the lowest overhanging greenery, in order to get more light on the path.

Mind you, I quite like keeping this particular tree small, as it is perfectly in scale when seen from the house. It also does duty as half of the hammock support on hot summer evenings!


  1. Hi Rachel, do you have a picture of what this tree looks like in summer? i'm considering getting one to pollard like this to keep the size down but am concerned that the new growth won't look very 'weepy' in summer.


    1. Hi Sam,

      This is not a weeping willow - it's a "normal" upright one, If you look at the first picture, you can see the branches are growing upwards and outwards.

      If you want a weeping willow, you have two choices: either get a "proper" weeping willow, Salix babylonica 'Pendula' comes to mind, and just let it grow - it will get weep beautifully, but it will get very big, in time. Or, if you don't have room for a proper full-sized one, get one of the top-worked grafted trees, Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock', which are very small, usually only 4-5' high. I've written about them a few times:

      And they will be weeping all year round, and small all year round, with just a bit of annual maintenance, which I will be writing about shortly. Honest.

      Hope this helps!


  2. Thanks Rachel

    I'm not a fan of the Kilmarnock willow, they always look a bit too unnatural to me and maybe a bit too small too. I just want a small weeping willow but perhaps its just not to be. Can a "proper" weeping willow not be pollarded like yours?

    Thanks again

  3. Hi Sam,

    I think it's fair to say that a "proper" weeping willow is always going to strive to be a "big" tree, and to some extent, pollarding it will spoil the lovely natural form.

    Having said that, yes, they will "weep" again after pollarding, just make sure you don't buy a grafted tree - ask when buying, and do a visual check for an ugly lump/join partway up the main stem/trunk.

    So, Sam, if you want a small weeping willow then yes, you can have one, but you will have to "manage" the tree by pollarding it, probably every other year. And of course the benefit of regular pollarding is that it keeps it small enough to make pollarding easy, without having to call in the tree surgeons!

    I would suggest buying a fairly big one, and choosing to keep four or five of the main branches. If you can "pollard" on the downward slope, as it were, then the weeping shape will be better than if you just chop off the main stem like a lampost.

    Good luck with it!



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