Understanding pollarding with Pumpjack & Piddlewick

As we wax into winter my mind turns to pollarding. When I walk to the shops and take in the leaves on the ground my eyes inevitably rise up to the tree tops. And I wonder, will they be pollarded this year?

Pollarding is…

Pollarding is essentially pruning. Hard pruning. Very hard. I mean really, really hard. At a set height each time. In fact, it is done to keep the trees from growing too tall. And, by cutting the top branches back, it stimulates new and lush, leafy growth. What you end up with is something looking like very large poofy mushrooms. Only green. (Well, at least on top.)

Pollarded trees are mostly found around parking areas and along roads here in France. The parking area trees are pruned so that rather than grow high, they give the ultimate amount of shade. A wonderful thing come summer, as it can mean the difference between getting in a baking hot oven or a cool and comfortable car.

Along roads, they are pruned a little higher, though not much. Just enough to allow trucks to pass easily underneath. Again, the main aim is shade, though this time on the roads. Come the height of summer, one often sees cars pulled on the verge between the trees during lunch, making the most of the cooler spaces.

Only in France (?)

France has this thing about pollarding. They are seriously, seriously into it. I have never come across it anywhere else. At least not knowingly. (Do tell me if you have seen it elsewhere.) But then I only discovered about pollarding after moving to France.

Pollarding happens around every 3 to 5 years. The pruners, usually from the local council, come along in winter and cut off ALL the upper branches. What you are left with is a rather stunted looking hand, with nobbly bits at the end. Like someone cut the fingers off at the first knuckle. It’s not actually very pretty.

But come spring, these stunted digits will start to sprout slender branches, all over. And as there is no other canopy to compete with, they tend to grow long and straight. The first year is never as lush as ensuing years, but you still end up with a big puff ball of leaves, quite high and nicely wide.

But why?

Pollarding began around the medieval times. It was originally to garner wood, without having to cut down the tree. Can you say ‘sustainable’? Depending on how long between pollarding cycles, and thus the thickness of the wood it could be used for a multitude of things: weaving baskets, wattling fences and even feed for cows.

Pollarded trees often live longer too. Because they are kept shorter they are less prone to weather damage. With less high thick branches, the wind has less to grab hold of. The thinner, younger branches simply sway in the strong breezes.

Urban vs Country

Also, pollarding works really well in urban areas (whether medieval or today). Because the trees are kept stunted, areas that couldn’t normally house a large tree, could still grow trees. Courtyards, plazas, parks, and so on, all benefited and still do from being heavily pruned.

France in particular likes its pollarded trees in picnic areas, around parking (as mentioned) and along roads. And the odd French canal. Really, wherever there are telephone or power lines (e.g. villages) and/or a need to control the height and growth.

Origin of the Species

The most common types of trees to be pollarded are oak, ash, elm and maple to name a few. Hazel and Willow also, though they are more likely to be copsed than pollarded.

The term pollarding stems from ‘poll’, originally a name for the top of the head. ‘To Poll’ meant to crop one’s hair. (You can see where this is going if you look at the pictures, can’t you?). Oh, and by the way, it is pronounced ‘paul’ or ‘paul-larding’, though the origin of polling has a similar root.

Now the big question this winter… to poll or not to poll? What will be the answer?

More Garden Findings?

I have learnt a lot about gardening since my time in France, mainly due to my own garden being a complete restoration project. You will find a selection of gardening tips and tricks for your reading pleasure in my: Garden Findings.

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  1. Just thought you would like to know that I have seen pollarding in the lovely town of Roskilde Denmark whilst visiting. Not sure why? As I thought it was only a French art too. But as a lot of the streets restrict traffic I think they have done this to add shade for the parking areas, as your article suggests.

    1. Interesting. Thank you for sharing. It really does provide wonderful low level (for vehicles) and dense shade, so maybe someone in Denmark visited France and decided it was worth giving it a try 🙂

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