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Garden Woodworking

Chopping Down

It’s mostly about making things from wood. Occasionally it’s about taking wood down.

We are fortunate to have a large, mature garden, that opens out onto a nature reserve. We are secluded, surrounded by trees, and generally lucky to have wood to shade under and look at.

It’s a dynamic situation though. The garden takes a lot of looking after. Bushes need pruning and trees need maintenance. Even given my great height, I need a scaffold tower to manage the larger tasks.

And occasionally, I have to cut things down, either because they’ve died, become unsafe, or problematic. It’s sad to have to do this, but it is all part of wood working.

The first tree to have to go was a Bay that grew outside our kitchen. I say grew. Towered is a better description. When you think of a bay tree you might imagine those small balls of leaves on a thin stick standing outside Italian restaurants. This one was probably like that once upon a time, but age had got the better of things. The previous owners had kept the garden very well until, I guess, the husband had died. This had been about 10 years before I moved in. The lady of the house looked after a lot, but confessed that some things had to be let go. In terms of the bay tree, this had become a ball of branches at about 6ft off the ground which was then hugely overshadowed by a line of thick trunks that soared up to the height of the house itself. It was taking the light, and its roots were threatening the building.

For this, I called in a Tree Surgeon, who was the husband of my wife’s friend. He came and took it down carefully, charged next to nothing and showed me what to do to manage future projects like this myself. All that remains of the bay is a succession of pictures…

…and another ball of leaves.

In our lawn we had a lovely Flowering Cherry tree that spread wide, gave great shade, and had excellent white blossom in the spring.

Unfortunately, cherry is not a long-lived species. It may last only a few decades. Ours had been planted when the house was first built, so was about 45 years old when it died. It was fine, then one year it failed to lose its leaves over winter. The spring after that, it failed to blossom or grow anything new. Poor thing.

So, out with the stepladder, bow saw and loppers.

I began by removing the outer branches and twigs, then gradually worked my way inwards to the larger branches. I kept everything over about 2cm in diameter, and cut to try and preserve long straight sections as much as possible. I didn’t have the skills to use any of this wood at the time but my Father-in-Law is a keen and capable carver and wood turner, so he had first choice of anything that might be usable. Several branches and limbs made their way north after this work, and several rather nice bowls and other carved pieces have come back in return.

I cut everything back to the trunk and the main limbs. The plan was that FiL would have this trunk once it had had a chance to season a little. Seasoning takes time, and cherry splits if it’s allowed to dry out too quickly, so the trunk was left intact and in place while I worked on the roots.

Cherry roots are a pain in the backside to be honest. The trees are nice, but the roots sit close to the surface and push the grass up into ridges that are hard to mow without cutting out great chunks of turf. I decided that, if we couldn’t have the tree, we wouldn’t have lumps of root messing up the lawn either, so I set about digging them out.

There were two main roots leading away from the trunk. Getting them out involved cutting the turf away, then digging around with a trowel to free up space to get a pruning saw in. I worked in sections, lifting out a half-metre or so at a time then filling the gap with soil and replacing the turf. It took a while to finish; mostly because it was hard and boring and hurt my back, so I only wanted to spent a few moments a week on it. Eventually I reached the point where one last little stump of root was all that held the trunk in place. I snipped through, and over it fell. I even got to shout Timber!

So now I had a beautiful section of cherry trunk, almost 2 metres long, waiting to be used. Only trouble was, I couldn’t lift it! FiL and I decided to cut it into two 1 metre sections that could be rolled out to his car. Now we wait for the seasoning process to be complete and we shall see what he can make.

In its place we have planted three Silver Birch trees. They’re small and thin, and need a little protection at the moment, but in time they will grow into a lovely grove.

Last summer we decided to get rid of one of the laurel bushes that had been planted in our borders. This bush stood next to The Den, about which I have written plenty. It provided a nice shade, but it also dominated everything else on that side of the garden, turning the grass brown and taking out ours and next door’s hedge.

Plus, it had grown too big. I couldn’t reach the top centre of the bush even when stood on the scaffold with a long-armed pruner in my outstretched hands. It was a monster of a bush!

As I’d learned from seeing the bay tree come down, I set about working my way around the tree, taking outer bits off first, disposing of the leaves and gradually bringing the branches in before taking out the main limbs and trunks. Slow and methodical seemed to be the key.

Slow and methodical is also important when dealing with wildlife. I had planned to take the tree down for a while, but knew it had several nests in it. I kept an eye over the spring and summer to see what activity there was, and eventually deduced they were empty. I think this one is a pigeon’s nest, though our friend Vikki mentioned that squirrels build nests too. So it could be either.

Something I didn’t realise about laurel until I started this work, was that it contains cyanide – prussic acid. Technically this makes it toxic to humans and animals. I discovered this when, following a bout of leaf pruning I got a faint whiff of marzipan. The bitter almond smell told me it was time to back away for a bit and go and check up.

An online search showed me that the main cause for worry would come as a result of reading tabloid newspapers. There are a few articles where CAPITAL LETTERS warn of DEADLY problems, but the more measured articles provided better reassurance. “Leaves and seeds may cause severe discomfort to humans if ingested”, you should avoid burning leaves, particularly in poorly ventilated areas, and the wood should be seasoned for as long as possible before burning. I had no plans to either eat or burn the leaves – they would be accepted by our local recycling centre – and I have enough wood stockpiled that it would be a good 3 years before I would need to burn any of this on our woodstove.

Interestingly, this spring, the Muntjac Deer that come into our garden stripped the bottom metre of leaves off another laurel in our garden, leaving a neat line of bare twigs. The deer are still coming back and attacking our veg plot, so I guess they haven’t suffered any ill effects from the laurel.

As with the cherry, I decided that I would dig the root ball out rather than bring in our friend’s stump grinder. (I was still a little worried about the cyanide, and thought the grinder would raise a more noticeable cloud of the gas.) So, a week or so was spent shovelling and digging around the roots, cutting sections of them out to release the main ball. Eventually I had a stump in a hole and three long trunks to deal with. A bit of heaving and huffing and the stump was out and the hole filled. No sign left of the laurel.

We did intend to plant a wild hedge in the space – quite fancied the idea of picking our own sloes to make sloe gin. Somehow or other though, the patch has been covered with potatoes. It looks like there will be a good crop at least.

In the next blog I shall talk about what I do with the cut logs and branches. So, back to making things soon…

By nickcnickcnickc

I spend my working life staring at computer screens, so in my spare time I look for things to do with my hands, preferably involving wood. It's a little ironic then that I've now starting writing a blog about my woodworking, and thus introducing computer screens to my main hobby..!

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