From Plant To Post

In a recent post my colleague, Head Vegetable Gardener Helen Silver, talked about the process of delivering produce to the restaurant. She called it “From Plot to Plate” as it gave a detailed description, from sowing to harvesting, of how the restaurant’s requirements are met. Well we also have an end-to-end process in the Ranger Department where we plant trees, nurture them, fell the trees and turn the timber into fencing posts or whatever other products we require. So I hope Helen doesn’t mind as I’ve plagiarised her clever title and called it “From Plant to Post”! At Sissinghurst we have extensive woodland in which Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) was planted to supply the large demand for hop poles when the hop industry was booming in Kent. With that industry all but gone, we now use the Chestnut to satisfy our own fencing requirements. In this blog I would like to show the process that makes us totally self-sufficient in fencing material and planting stakes. I shall now fast-forward a bit (about 20 years), and the sapling planted then is now a mature tree in an area ready for coppicing. In a previous blog I have talked about the benefits of coppicing, so I shall go straight to the situation where the timber is on the ground. With the tree on the ground we can easily assess it. Is the timber in good condition (i.e. no previous squirrel damage)? Are there good straight lengths? Are there knots that would hamper splitting? With all that in mind we can start to mark out the timber for cutting. If we have a large fencing project we might concentrate on cutting out 5’6’’ lengths, but generally a practised eye will recognize a use for each length of wood. If a tree is particularly twisty or bendy then we can always use it for firewood, so nothing gets wasted.

The cut wood is now ready for peeling. Peeled fencing stakes will last longer than unpeeled because, as the bark decays, it will flake, catch and hold any rainwater that will hasten rotting. Once peeled the rainwater is far more likely just to run off. Firstly any small side shoots are removed using a billhook before being passed on to have the bark removed. We find that a well-maintained drawknife does a good job, but a billhook can be used if one is not available.

Quite often we can get multiple stakes from one length of wood should the thickness be great enough. This requires the skill of cleaving. Cleaving is the act of splitting wood along lines of natural weakness resulting in multiple stakes with even width. Starting at the end with the greatest diameter and looking for any natural splits, a froe is knocked in with a mallet to start the split.

By using downward force and rotating the wood if necessary, the froe is skillfully worked down the timber until it is split in two. If required the wood can be cleaved again to create smaller multiple stakes.

With the wood now peeled and split, the final task is to point the stakes. The smaller stakes can be hand pointed using a billhook, as Freya demonstrates;

But, it is far easier and less time-consuming to use a chainsaw to point the larger stakes.

Pointing now completed, the stakes are ready for use. Once in the ground fencing stakes can typically last 15 to 20 years and, knowing that there is a lasting and sustainable source available, means we do not have to look any further than our own estate. The whole process from beginning to end requires multiple skills from felling to measuring and from cleaving to pointing. These skills take training and time to learn well and indeed those woodmen with years of experience can make it look effortless. But once learned there is something deeply satisfying knowing you can turn a plant into a post.

Paul Freshwater Ranger