Posted by: lialeendertz | April 12, 2010

Hazels and Amazons

Hazel coppiced, neat pile of sticks, job done

My first gardening job was got by pure chance, or rather – it would seem – by my ability to look chunky and capable at six in the morning. I was backpacking with my friend Jess around Australia, and when we (first) ran out of money we stopped at a town called Tully in Queensland, camped up, and joined the many backpackers that hauled themselves out of bed at an ungodly hour to stand outside the post office on the main street. The local farmers would rock up at 6am, look the prospective workers up and down with an unembarassedly Australian eye, and pick out suitable looking types for the day’s vacancies. Jess and I both got picked out by a banana farmer that first morning, but sylph-like Jess was earmarked for labelling and sorting duties in the packing room, while I was bundled into a jeep that took me to the heart of the banana plantation, a humid, close green world with that fetid but sexily tropical stench of voluptuous growth and rotting fruit.

The job was pruning, although that is too genteel a word for it. Extreme Pruning XXX! perhaps. We each had to work our way along a line of banana trees, hacking down the older fruited ones and then pruning out the offsets to leave one ‘daughter’ plant and one ‘granddaughter’ plant, pointing roughly the same direction so that the entire plantation was essentially taking a slow march. If I had sharpened my machete and gave it plenty of welly I could chop the big ones down with a few strokes, and then I would have to consider (but not for too long) which offsets to select and which to cull. It was the perfect job, in a way, the ideal combination of physical and mental. Like gardening, really. By the end of the few weeks that I worked there I felt invincible, hacking my way through the growth with a band of sturdy, tanned, be-vested women at my back, all toned biceps and no-nonsense chat. My hair got matted and my skin spattered with banana juice, but I felt like an Amazon, a horticultural Sarah Connor. I’m smelly and sweaty and I prune with a machete: hear me roar!

Now today there’s none o’ that biceps and tan business going on, but I still relish the opportunity to re-live the Amazonian fantasy every now and then, and it was to the banana plantation that my mind wandered as I set about coppicing one of the hazels on the allotment. I did it stupidly with a DIY saw, even though I have a perfectly sharp and lethal pruning saw at home, because (and I’m aware this is becoming a theme) it was done on a whim, in a break from making raised beds. But it felt like proper work, and it made my arms hurt nicely, and – speaking of tans (we sort of were? Right?) –  my soft blue skin tone took on delicate streaks of pink by that evening, although on the tanning scale I am still far closer to the Edinburghian end than the Amazonian. In addition to the sawing, I cleaned poles of twiggy growth, dragged them into piles, sorted and stacked like a good woodswoman. By the end of the day I had an aching back and a neat stack of hazel poles, another of large pea sticks, and another of small pea sticks.

I’ve considered coppicing these hazels since coming across Allotment Forestry, and their idea that we should all be growing our own plant supports. They argue that it is a nonsense that we import sticks from across the world up which to grow our plants, when it is actually very easy to simply grow sticks ourselves. My regular reader will already know already that I am trying to make my garden provide for itself in as many things as possible, and so this is almost too neat an idea to ignore, but it also appeals on a purely aesthetic level: bamboo canes look naff; hazel poles look cool.

I have planted one hazel in the garden, the apparently extra tasty cobnut ‘White Filbert’, but while it gets established I am lucky enough to have three to play with at the allotment. They took so long to bear nuts that I was going to lop them all this winter, but they must have heard and last autumn produced a bumper crop, so it’s one a year for the next couple of years, to see how long it takes them to start bearing again after hacking. I’m hoping my new cobnut will prove the ultimate self-sufficiency garden plant, providing myriad plant supports to fend off every possible kind of plant flopping emergency, extra tasty nuts, potential firewood, plus – most importantly – an opportunity to play at coppicing Amazonian every few years.

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Responses

  1. I think a lot of my gardening is unplanned. I start off with one intention and get completely distracted depending on my mood as opposed to what actually needs to be done. Was meant to the pricking out seedlings the other day and ended up digging a path but felt fab when it was done.

  2. I love using hazel or dogwood canes for propping up others during the growing season. Like most gardeners once you get going its very easy to get distracted as there are so many tasks to do and it is very dependent on your mood, isn’t it? I regularly go to weed, a task I don’t mind doing once I get into it, however this weekend, I ended up going through all the plants in pots and inspecting them for vine weevil and top dressing those that survived the Winter. An equally important task, don’t you think?

  3. That Allotment Forestry site’s brilliant isn’t it. I discovered them just at the right time a few years back when our allotment society shop closed, so cheap bamboo canes were no longer available.

    I quickly realised that we’d all been rather silly in buying our bamboo canes from half way across the world when we had a readily available supply to hand from the hazels in the ancient hedgerow bordering our site.

    I’ve been doing a bit of ‘light coppicing’ every spring ever since, together with a bit of supplementary guerrilla’d hazel in the odd gap I’ve found on the site 🙂

  4. And I was feeling all pleased because I have grown my own bamboo sticks as supports for runner beans living in pots until they are planted out.!

    I have a philbert but its mate has died so I suppose that’s the end of any hope even for a single nut.

    This post is the stuff of dreams though. I’ll go to sleep tonight imagining I’m strong enough to withstand heat and hack down a jungle.

    Esther

  5. And plants are very good at responding to any unspoken intentions re their imminent demise. The gooseberry bushes were most unproductive until I mentally told them they were for the chop but then got distracted by the other 101 jobs up at the plot. They responded by producing oodles of fruit 🙂

  6. I have two not-so-hunky builders in the garden demolishing the wall. I wish I could go out and do the Amazonian thing and swing the sledgehammer myself, I would feel so much happier trashing my own garden than letting them do it for me!

  7. “I’m smelly and sweaty and I prune with a machete: hear me roar!” – now this is the sort of thing I want to see more of – a perfect anecdote to the ‘Delicious Miss Dahl’ and her floating feyness. Get thee to a TV screen!

  8. Just my luck…no amazonian beauties round minee, just Trent in his vest, although if I ever feel like I want to drink from the other tap, he does have the appropriate Village People tache/beard arrangement. Oh, and a wife.

    I can confirm the loveliness of the white filbert – easily the best hazel/cobnut etc Ive ever come across

  9. Machete-wielding Amazon, eh. That’s ruined my image of a rather delicately feminine pen-wielded with a pretty blue hat. I’ll be less cheeky in future, now I know.
    We have a largely hazel wood to one side of us, plus probably 30 of our own, all wild and never coppiced until we arrived. That means as many stakes, bean-poles, pea sticks and as much firewood as we could possibly want – forever. That is such a good feeling. But as far as collecting nuts, forget it. What few there are the squirrels eat. Ah, well.
    Incidentally, it’s worth saying that hazel pea sticks are better than bamboo, not just because they are home grown, but because they are covered in little twigs for the peas to curl their tendrils around.

  10. Whoops: That should have said pen-wielder not pen wielded – that was silly, how could a blue hat wield a pen.

  11. Hoorah for hazels! Don’t give a wotsit about the nuts, use the stakes, burn the wood or anything.
    I coppice them and leave the wood to rot in neat piles for woodlice, wildlife etc. (Rare wood louse where I garden, and its not me!)
    What I love is the clusters of straight stems and the way the light catches them, especially in the winter.
    Best Wishes
    Robert

  12. Helen and Ena – Unplanned is good! Paths must be dug eventually after all, and vine weevils evicted.

    VP – well quite, and the ‘ready supply’ thing is right. The way they spring back is quite a marvel, actually.

    esther – I’m not sure that they need a mate. I think they might be self-pollinating. Anyone?
    And delighted to have transported you to the jungle so efficiently. Sweet dreams…

    Arabella – your wall is in all of our thoughts. Satisfying at first to wield the hammer oneself, but you’d soon get bored, I’d have thought. Leave it to the non-hunks.

    Dawn – Now you know my telly issues very well. The question is: would it work on the radio?

    Gilly – I fear I have misled you slightly. This was a good 15 years ago and my amazonian days are firmly behind me. I am now the delicately feminine pen-wielder of your imagination. Though you could be a bit less cheeky.

    MarkD – you’re missing a trick here. You’re a farmer in an area full of tourists. I’m sure you could arrange for backpacking ladies to queue up for work at your local post office of an early morning, if you really put your mind to it.

    Lesley/Robert – I know you’re of the flower side, but methinks you doth protest too much. They sound very beautiful done that way, but you may as well eat the bleedin’ nuts.

  13. Two posts running about sticks: I think perhaps a trend is emerging.
    I love stick gathering time: I sneak off into the woods and do guerilla coppicing when nobody is looking. What is very satisfactory is that this year I harvested from the same plants that I first cut back about six years ago. My borders now look like the woven nests of giant, untidy birds.
    Marvellous

    • Thanks SO much for pointing that out. No, really… *tries desperately to think up third stick-related post subject to make it look deliberate. Fails*


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