80221thumbJust about any other arborist will say that pollarding and coppicing are wrong. These techniques ruin trees so that they can never develop into their natural form. Although restorative pruning after pollarding or coppicing is possible, it is usually more trouble than it is worth. However, no one can deny that properly pollarded and coppiced trees can live much longer than they would naturally.

Pollarding and coppicing are extreme pruning. Coppicing is literally cutting a tree down to a stump just above the ground. Pollarding is almost as severe, but allows the main trunk and main limbs to remain. It does not end there of course. It must be repeated annually to maintain the coppiced stump or pollarded trunk and limbs. Secondary growth gets pruned off, back to the previous cuts.

After this process is repeated for a few years, coppiced stumps and pollarded limbs develop distended ‘knuckles’. Cutting back to but not below these knuckles facilitates compartmentalization (healing) of pruning wounds. Because the secondary growth is only a year old when cut annually, the wounds are relatively small, so they get grown over by new growth during the following season.

English style pollarding leaves one or two stubs of any desired length on each knuckle annually. These stubs are generally but not necessarily selected from stems that are aimed upward and outward. This technique elongates knuckles so that the trees are more gnarly and sculptural. Otherwise, all other stems must be pruned away cleanly. Stubs interfere with compartmentalization.

Pollarding and coppicing are done while trees are dormant in winter, and only to the few specie of trees that are conducive to it. These techniques were historically used to generate firewood, wiry willow stems for weaving baskets, straight fence stakes, or lush foliage for livestock and silkworms. Nowadays, they are done to keep big trees small, enhance the size and color of leaves, enhance the color of bark (on twiggy secondary growth), maintain juvenile foliage, or to prevent the bloom of allergenic flowers.

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26 thoughts on “Pollarding And Coppicing Pruning Techniques

  1. I like the look of these trees when they are in their summer finery, but not in the winter. They look leprotic to me. It isn’t a practice much followed in Australia, although people are severely pruning standard robinias around here. It’s a recent fashion and the trees end up looking like a child’s drawing: ‘ice cream trees’.

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    1. Robinias probably should not be pollarded. They sometimes need aggressive pruning because they innately develop structural problems. However, secondary growth from pollarded knuckles would be too structurally deficient. Besides, pollarded robinias would not bloom.

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    1. Oh my! I can not think of an oak that should be pollarded. I know that our native coast live oak ‘can’ survive the process, but there is too much potential for problems. Besides, there would be no point to it. Although Brazilian peppers can be pollarded, there are better options, such as planting smaller trees.

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      1. Brazilian Pepper trees were originally used as roadside plantings because they are so tough but now they are a category of aliens that may not be planted anymore BUT they do get spread by birds who love the berries. Our neighbours were so terrified of our oak tree and so neurotic about the leaves falling in their garden that they basically forced my parents to cut it back and they cut off far more than they were entitled too – it just does not look elegant and graceful anymore 😦

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      2. That is a somewhat common problem with some of my clients. It usually happens when they are not home. They return to find that the part of a tree that extended into a neighboring property has been removed to the property line. However, within most municipalities, trees are protected by local ordinances, so those who damage them get fined.

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      3. These neighbours removed branches that were nowhere near the property line, right back to the trunk, about 15 feet or more from the boundary! My parents were too old and frail to object.

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      4. That happens often as well. Sometimes it is only because they want to remove the offending limbs properly, without leaving stubs. Sometimes, as you know, they merely use that as an excuse.

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      5. Hello! It’s a pleasure to find this page. Pollarding has been done here for centuries and yes oak can be pollarded. In our mountains is very common to see pollarded beech, oaks, ashes, chesnuts… There are so many pollarded trees here very high amount of local people think what they see is the natural growing scheme of those trees.

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      6. Ashes, chestnuts and beeches make sense. (Although beeches are rare here in the West. There are a few more on the East Coast.) Mulberries and sycamores are the most common candidates here. Oaks still surprise me. I know it can work for the coast live oak. I probably mentioned that earlier. I just would not want to be the arborist to do it to an oak. The techniques are still stigmatized anyway. It really could be more popular than it is.

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      7. Oh my! That is why it took so long to open! It is taken very seriously there! It is something that our arborists could learn more about. Thank you for sharing this.

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      8. Thank you. I am thousands of miles away, so can not attend. Here in California, I probably know more about pollarding and coppicing than most anyway, because I am one of the only arborists who does condones it. It is a topic that really could get more attention here, but no one wants to talk about it. Sadly, there are not many arborists who would do it properly anyway. However, the sycamore in the picture in my article is done very well annually. It is in Santa Cruz County, and I do not know who the arborist is.

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  2. I guess prior to our purchase in 2002, Pollarding is what was done to our half-acre yard’s Pin Oak and Yellow Maple trees here in Camp Hill, Pa. They were pruned as if lollipop trees. We moved in & I hated it, so we let them (just) grow out. New growth looked odd for years, Edward Scissorhands, we’d say. But past two years neighbors comment how great the trees look. This past fall I had some light thinning-out done in hopes to reduce the many broken limbs and branches in winter.

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    1. Someone else just commented on pollarded oaks. I really can not think of an oak that should be pollarded. Some of the maples can be pollarded, but only if pollarded correctly. I happen to like pollarded Norway maples, particularly the cultivars with dark foliage. Is a yellow maple a sugar maple?

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  3. Thanks, Tony, for the timely topic. I was reading about it yesterday with regard to willows. What I read suggested it was good for pussy willows—that it (coppicing) helped generate more catkins. Based on your photos, though, I don’t think I’ll do it.

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    1. Coppiced pussy willow does not look quite like that, and it does make nice long stems with fuzzy catkins. A pollarded trunk can be kept under six feet tall, with only three or four knuckles that are well within reach of the ground. Without coppicing or pollarding, pussy willow makes fewer and shorter ‘whips’ with smaller buds; and the trees can get quite large. The picture is of a Greek sycamore (a copy of the tree of Hippocatres from Kos in Greece, planted in 1968), pruned in the English style of pollard.

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      1. I would recommend cutting off all whips annually, back to the knuckles, with clean cuts. However, you might want to ask around. Others might say it is appropriate to ‘alternate canes’ which involves pruning out stems that are two years old, while leaving the smaller canes that developed that year. (Of course, for the first year of the procedure, you would need to cut back to stubs. The second year, you would prune out only half of the stems, leaving the smaller stems for another year.) The two years old stems would be bigger and branched. The one year old stems would be smaller unbranched whips. If you prefer the ‘alternating canes’ procedure, the one year old canes will be smaller, but that might be fine. Even small canes are rather long, and you might even prefer them to be a bit thinner.
        If you pollard or coppice a willow, but do not like the gnarly knuckles, you can obscure the stump (coppiced) or trunk (pollarded) with a big perennial. For example, you could plant common geraniums in front of a coppiced stump. You can plant Pittosporum tobira in front of a low cut pollarded trunk.

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  4. Thanks for this. I’ve read about coppicing and pollarding for years but no one ever described in such good detail how to do it. I’m going to have to deal with some pollarded crepe myrtle trees at the fairgrounds and it’s good to know. They are in my demonstration garden beds and were done that way for years before I came on the scene, so I guess I will have to continue the process.

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    1. Crape myrtles perform better after being pollarded. However, if you really dislike them pollarded, (and if they happen to have been pollarded back to the same knuckles annually rather than than to elongated knuckles in the English style), crape myrtles happen to be one of the few specie that can outgrow pollarding with only annually grooming to remove dead twigs for the first few years.

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