How to Patch Cut

Patch cutting is a restoration forestry technique used to mimic natural succession.

When a large tree falls in a healthy forest, it creates an opening in the canopy. Young trees compete for the light provided by the opening and grow to fill the gap. Over time this process creates a forest full of different tree species of various ages. Cutting a patch will mimic that opening in the canopy and create the ideal conditions for old-growth species to be planted and become established, which could take hundreds of years without human intervention.  

A forest provides shade, moisture and shelter regardless of its health. The restorative work of patch cutting takes advantage of these conditions and carefully manages sunlight to accelerate a forest’s natural processes. 

Principles of Patch Cutting

Patch Cutting aims to mimic the process of natural succession. Patches are made throughout a stand to open the forest, while still allowing for protection from wind damage and fragmentation. Felled trees can be turned into piles of logs and brush, which add nutrients to the soil, provide habitat for animals and become a nursery for seedlings to grow. Patch cutting can be adapted to all forest types. In an old growth forest, harvesting one large, high-quality tree can create a patch, whereas more cutting is required to create a patch in a young, dense forest. Patch cutting is simple and affordable, as the only necessary tool is a chainsaw. Once the patch is cut, it can be planted with a diversity of native plants to provide habitat for animals and establish sources for food and seed. It upholds the principles of restoration forestry while still achieving the personal goals for your woodlot. 

Planning a Patch

Before getting started, complete a thorough survey of the stand. This will tell you the height of the canopy, what species of flora and fauna are present, and what challenges the stand faces, such as invasive species. Try to gather as much information about the stand as you can before the cut. 

The size of the patch is determined by the height of the surrounding trees. For example, if the average height of the canopy is 15 meters, the patch should measure no more than 15 meters from edge to edge. When planning more than one patch in a stand, the rule is to space the patches no less than two tree lengths apart. For example, if the canopy is 15 meters, each patch should be located 30 meters apart. 

A patch cut can be used to enlarge an existing clearing. This is an efficient way to use this technique. Cutting a patch in the densest areas of a stand will quickly change its composition. Another option is to center a patch near a tree you would like to release to improve that tree’s individual health. 

Patch Maintenance

After cutting a patch, pruning is the last step before planting and it’s an essential part of ongoing maintenance. Prune trees that will reap the most benefit from your attention, especially large ones that will become legacy trees, those that have the most economic potential, and those of higher ecological value.

It’s important to remove dead branches because they are a highway for pathogens and rot to enter a tree. A top to bottom prune can extend the life of a tree significantly, and it would be worthwhile to invest this care into a few legacy trees. Smaller trees should be given attention as well, as they can often have multiple leaders. Trees that are pruned will live longer, grow taller and help push the canopy higher. 

Return to a patch each year to check on plants that were added and those that were pruned. You can also identify any problems, such as invasive species seedlings or disease. 


Additional Resources 

Read more patch cutting resources HERE.


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