Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coppicing the Privets

My grandparents had a beautiful 8 foot evergreen hedge of privets between their house and the neighboring yard. I noticed that the privet hedge grew profusely and had to be sheared frequently. Privet hedges are no longer popular. But, privets multiply rapidly in dense thickets and are now an invasive species.

Our mini-farm has thousands of wild privets. Left unattended they grow into a 15 foot multi-trunk tree. In early summer, wild privets are covered with bunches of white sweet smelling flowers. In the fall they bend low with loads of tiny blue berries. Wildlife, especially deer, love the berries and even the leaves. But, deer can’t reach the upper branches of the mature trees.

Coppicing is a medieval practice of periodically harvesting trees such as ash that grow back readily from their roots. The trees were cut on about 15 year intervals for firewood and charcoal production or when straight strong wood was needed. In America, redwood trees for lumber are coppiced, although on about a 150 year interval,

After clearing some privets on the banks of our pond, I cut the trunks into pieces for kindling. To our surprise, we discovered that seasoned privet burns like fatwood or resin soaked pine. Except, unlike pine, the privets leave a bed of hot coals. You can’t burn much privet at once, or the fire is too hot. But, short pieces make wonderful fire starters or mixed in with large pieces of oak make a beautiful blaze.

Therefore, we are now coppicing our privets. You usually don’t even need a chain saw. Heavy shears will do. And the privets grow back from the roots in only 4-5 years. Leaving the tops on the ground even helps to keep the deer out of our gardens. Privets are truly a renewable resource, a form of solar energy, plus wildlife friendly. I’m now experimenting with some free growth privet hedgerows on our property boundaries.

Family sustainability

“When they’re 25¢, call me to bring the truck.” I told Kit. The implication was that we’d buy a lot. Each year, our local Wal-Mart features sweet potatoes before Thanksgiving for only 25¢ a pound. This year they were only 10¢ a pound. We bought enough for the entire winter. They’ll keep in a cool dry place until early April. I eat them plain and cold in place of candy bars. Kit eats hers hot with butter. Every health book says that sweet potatoes are among the best vegetables for you.

This illustrates a principle we’ve learned about sustainability. In the past, I’ve raised sweet potatoes. Aside from keeping bunnies and deer from eating the leaves, they aren’t difficult. But, I can’t raise them for 25¢ a pound, let alone 10¢. And even on a mini-farm we always have plenty of other work to do. It makes no sense for me to spend many hours cultivating $20 of sweet potatoes, and then pay the plumber or mechanic $200 to fix something that I didn’t have time to do.

The principle is “Family sustainability comes first.” I read that the average “hobby farmer” has no debt and a guaranteed non-farm income of $70K a year. Maybe he can afford to raise a patch of wheat then harvest, thresh, and grind it into flour to make his own bread. He can keep a herd of alpacas, shear them, card and spin the fiber, then knit fully homemade clothes. While these sound fun, they aren’t truly sustainable for us or most families. For “family sustainability”, you must concentrate on the things that make the most sense in the family economy. Home gardening still makes sense. But, we’ll emphasize more expensive crops such as broccoli, tomatoes, and watermelons.

Drew’s Sweet Potato (yams to some) Recipe:

Put as many unpeeled potatoes as you can in the oven
Puncture each potato 2-3 times with a fork
Bake the potatoes at 325 degrees for 80 minutes
Turn the oven off. Let them cool inside.
Peel the potatoes and serve them hot or cold