This is the first installment of a multi-part series describing a diverse hedgerow I planted in the spring of 2013 that I plan to manage as a diverse, multi-functional coppice thicket. This initial post describes the site, planting goals, and the plant selection. There'll be more to come in future weeks. My hope is that this 'case study' offers readers intending to take on their own planting projects some food for thought.
In the spring/summer of 2012, I purchased property in Vermont's Champlain Valley. After more than 6 years 'on the market', I bought 2 separate lots comprising 52 acres (a hayfield comprising 11.5 acres and a 40+ acre woodlot) - a little over one half of an old Champlain Valley dairy farm on Route 7 - 3.5 miles north of the town of Middlebury.
With dreams of establishing a productive homestead consisting of multiple overlaid enterprises, my property search had been nearly 8 years in the making. I was drawn to this site because of the location, the price, the topography and aspect, a series of small tributaries running through it, the clay soils, the easy access, the diversity of woody species, and the frontage on a major Vermont highway. With plans to build a house in the very near future though, this frontage and convenient access also came with a significant privacy cost - a quality that drove a strong inner debate as to whether this would be the ideal place to make home. I decided that this challenge would offer an incredible opportunity to transform this frontage into a riot of production - a multi-layered, multi-row, multi-species hedgerow spanning nearly 1000' from north to south, encompassing just shy of 1/2 acre and including close to 800 trees and shrubs. The perfect opportunity to get to work establishing a diverse coppice-with-standards-style thicket in the spirit of the agroforestry model that Dave and I have been researching and writing about for the past 3 years. This project became my primary goal for the spring of 2013.
From the outset, this installation was to serve several interconnected functions. First and foremost, I wanted to establish a dense visual break between the property and the highway. The rolling, south facing hayfield offers great views to the south and east, but is also pitched in such a way that much of the lot lies fully on display to northbound traffic. Despite this, it won't take more than 6-8' of growth to completely screen passers-by views of the property - something that the planting should easily create within 5-10 years and a quality I could readily maintain by coppicing.
Because I also intend to develop several on-farm enterprises and maintain an active farm stand, I also hope that the hedgerow will act to draw attention to the property - a paradoxical quality given that the primary goal is to screen what lies behind it. A longtime lover of woody plant diversity, I wanted to include several dozen species, creating a dynamic, multi-layered woodland thicket with varying textures, sizes, colors and shapes - something of a mini-botanical garden. A living classroom where I can teach tree ID as well as coppice management. Given that the property lies along such a well-traveled thoroughfare, it seems only sensible that it create some visual interest for commuters, offering them an opportunity to watch the installation grow and evolve over time. As such, I've come to imagine it as something of a living billboard for lack of a better term.
Production - Of course production was and is a primary goal in establishing this system. With 45 different tree and shrub species represented, I seek to develop a system that yields polewood, shade, wind protection, fuelwood, fruit, nuts, and perhaps most importantly, information. I'll describe the layout and design of the planting a bit later on, but generally, my goal here was to start to create a rough framework to enable me to produce raw materials and some food, while learning about what species do best on my heavy soils in chilly, wet zone 5 Vermont.
When it came to pant selection, I used an approach I'd best describe as 'scattershot'. Because I am not relying on this hedgerow for food production, the tree lover in me instead chose to focus on functional diversity as I selected plants. Because of the sheer number of plants I'd intended to purchase, I looked to the wholesale nurseries I'm most familiar with - Lawyer's, Bailey, and Cold Stream Farm.
Moderately overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, I ultimately narrowed things down by searching a single nursery's catalog - the Michigan-located Cold Stream Farm. With a climate most analogous to ours here in Vermont, it seemed to me to be the best place to source plants adapted to this growing zone. That said, when I asked for provenance details (the origin of their seed stock) for several different species, I was told they collect from so many different suppliers that they do not have a definitive answer, meaning that the genetics they're maintaining may come from warmer, drier climate zones.
That said, I proceeded to create something of a 'wish list' of the species I was interested in trying. Most nurseries offer a multi-tiered bulk pricing system so it's often far cheaper to order 10, 25, 100, or 500 individuals. This was the general structure at Cold Stream, so I went ahead and built a spreadsheet with species names listed and the price per individual at the bulk tier that seemed best-suited to the scale of my planting. I proceeded to do this for their entire catalog, and several hours later, found the sum of my order in terms of both cost and total plants…. about $1700 for 2200 6-12" seedlings. I was surprised it was so affordable. Based on my very rough calculations, a 1000' long hedgerow, 25' wide, with individuals spaced 5' apart (very dense!! - intended to quickly form a tight wall of vegetation and create a solid coppice stand) would require about 1000 plants. I also wanted additional plants for a planned shelterbelt, in addition to 500 black locust seedlings destined for a dense 0.6 acre multi-species coppice-with-standards patch. I soon thereafter found a friend who was also planning a mass planting for his property, and we together developed a combined order that enabled us to finesse our numbers to best take advantage of the bulk pricing discount.
The attached images show a topo map of the 11.5 acre parcel (south is down) with the planting area encircled, as well as the list of plants I'd selected. Note that I purchased nearly 3 times as many plants as necessary for the hedgerow. I put close to 400 in pots and another 800 or so in a nursery bed for the season.
Soon enough, I intend to add posts describing the hedgerow design and layout, the site and planting prep I used, the planting process, predator protection, and successes and challenges during the 2013 season. I'll post the next installment in another week or so. Thanks for reading!