Discovering the wonders of the eucalyptus tree
Back in the early 1990s, while trying to learn more about the art of growing trees, I travelled to Ballycumber in Co Offaly where experimental plots of ash and Spanish chestnut were on show.
The forester in charge, John Brosnan, took groups around the trial plots which demonstrated beyond doubt the necessity of vegetation control.
I had heard John speak before at Crann and ITGA events and had always admired his approach to forestry, which went beyond the practices that were common at that time.
The huge difference in growth rates between the trees that had received vegetation control and those that had not was astonishing. It was one of the best lessons I ever learnt while establishing my own woodland.
Sadly, demonstration plots such as those seem to have disappeared, presumably due to a lack of funding.
These days, I find myself conducting limited trials in my own woods in order to see how different species perform.
Maybe the Forest Service should consider assisting farmers to establish working demonstration sites throughout Ireland and hold regular, on-farm field days.
It would be a very cost-effective means of sharing information and advancing our knowledge of what trees are best suited to our local soils and climate.
Another inspiring research forester was Ted Horgan of Coillte whose trials with broadleaves were invaluable. It is a great shame that the results of his work and that of John Brosnan are no longer easily accessible.
I wrote recently on how we have planted different species here at home to see how they will perform in the understory of thinned ash.
Since then my son, Peter, purchased another batch, this time of eucalyptus. It was made up of six different sub species from D Plant Horticulture near Enniscorthy in Co Wexford.
The trees were supplied as plugs and are already growing rapidly after only a few weeks in the ground.
This trial is to see which species of eucalyptus grows best in our soil conditions in Meath. Given its ability to grow faster than any other tree we know of, we want to see if it is viable to plant eucalyptus for the production of wood fuel.
It has been grown under trial in Ireland since the 1930s and numerous experiments have taken place to assess its viability for construction and other uses.
The wood is difficult to mill, however, and as it was not considered suitable for sawmilling, the timber industry lost interest.
But times have changed, and there is a huge demand for alternative crops for energy use, especially for home heating.
Many people in the wood energy business in Ireland are now taking a second look at this wonderful tree and its amazing growth rates.
When cut for logs or chipped, eucalyptus makes excellent fuel and can be harvested on an eight-year rotation.
Most varieties coppice well and the speed of regrowth is rapid, delivering the equivalent of 12-16t of dry timber annually per ha.
Brendan Doyle of D Plant Horticulture has been undertaking trials of differing species of eucalyptus for a number of years and he believes that it has a sound commercial future in Ireland.
Some varieties can survive frosts of minus 16 degrees and with their fast growth rates and ability to coppice they would appear ideal for growing for energy production.
I have grown other varieties of eucalyptus for more than 15 years as a foliage crop but due to their susceptibility to frost damage, I had not considered them for use as a wood fuel.Thanks to the work of D Plant, hardier varieties are now available that are suitable even for northern counties like Donegal.
Eucalyptus is best suited to free draining soil and reasonably fertile land. Frost pockets, cold sites, elevated sites and wet sites should all be avoided.
Planting density is usually 2m x 2m spacing for biomass or firewood and a late spring or early summer planting of small (20cm-30cm) container grown plants is recommended.
Vegetation control should be carried out pre-planting and for the following two years.
The leaf canopy will meet after this and further control is not usually necessary.
According to D Plant, eucalyptus can produce double the yield of willow.
Plots growing in the southern coastal counties of Wexford and Waterford especially have confirmed this claim. Whether this can be replicated in Meath remains to be seen.
Log on to www.dplant.ie, click on the eucalyptus link and you will see what this remarkable tree can achieve in the right conditions.
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