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Good Trees/Bad Trees (or) The Problem with Poplars

Question. What is your opinion of hybrid poplars? I've read that they grow very fast, can provide firewood in four to five years, and that if you cut the tree and leave the stump in the ground, it will grow another tree that will provide more firewood in another four to five years. Thanks.

    --- Steve in Beavercreek, Ohio

Answer. The technique of cutting and recutting the same tree for firewood is an essential element of the "Alley Cropping" system that the late Bob Rodale championed as a way to help combat soil erosion in the Third World. Plant trees that regrow after cutting, he explained, and there would always be working roots in the ground to hold soil in place and manage storm water. The growing trees would also function as windbreaks; and if you choose members of the legume family, their nitrogen-rich leaves and branches can be used as an excellent plant feeding mulch or compost ingredient.

(For lots more details on Bob's excellent ideas on fighting world hunger, pick up a copy of "Save Three Lives" (Sierra Club Books; 1991). I had the honor to work with Bob on this wonderful book, which is sadly out of print—but used copies are readily available on the Internet. Check it out; you'll enjoy it.)

But while the basic idea of Alley Cropping is sound, the choice of tree here is not. All poplars produce a fairly soft wood that is far from ideal for heating. You can tell just by splitting it that it's more like paper than a true hardwood. (I have an 'emergency' wood stove and lots of poplars on my property, but learned early on that the wood is just no good.)

And hybrid poplars have the added non-distinction of being named "One of the Eleven Trees You Should Never Plant" in a list that was just released by the National Association of Realtors. Bred to be cheap and fast growing, these brittle trees are incredibly short lived. (Here's a link to the complete list of losers.)

Instead, I'm going to suggest one of Bob Rodale's favorite Alley Cropping trees for growers in the US—the black locust. It grows quickly, regrows from stumps, and sends up suckers that grow into full sized trees. Its hard, dense, wood is prized for home heating, and its natural rot-resistance also makes it a great choice for wooden structures that come into ground contact, like compost bins, raised bed frames, fence posts and trellises. Because it's a legume, the leaves and small branches are rich in plant-feeding Nitrogen, and it blooms brilliantly in the Spring, producing flower clusters that smell like orange blossoms. (Honeybees love the flowers, and the honey they produce after visiting a black locust in bloom is prized for its rich flavor.)

A little Internet hopping also suggests that the hornbeam would be another excellent choice as a regenerative firewood tree. It's very attractive, regrows from cut stumps and produces a hard, strong wood that's said to burn especially slow and hot.

Just be aware that these are not trees for close quarters; any tree that regrows from a stump and/or sends up shoots and suckers can become an invasive problem. But if well sited and well managed, a tree like the black locust can provide wood for fires and structures, excellent erosion and wind control and food for plants and bees. Not too shabby.


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