From the moment we are born, we begin to learn and to the day we die we are surrounded by opportunities to continue learning and growing. Often these learning experiences come from our immediate surroundings, if we chose to see them.
As I walk around our garden I observe and consider… so what has it taught me lately?
Firstly, to act on my thoughts. So, when I see the white cabbage butterflies flitting beautifully amongst the plants the thought ‘I should net the brassica seedlings’ enters my brain. DO IT. Don’t procrastinate because The Other Half just tidied the shed and packed all the nets away (that I had left in handy disarray) somewhere behind the quad bike. Don’t get distracted by some other job, because there are always other jobs. Go and get that fine netting, no not the green one the holes are too big, the white one that’s it. Drape it over the greenhouse door way and secure it well. Because if you don’t those beautiful fluttering bastardflies will lay their noxious little eggs, EVERYWHERE. And even if you brush off those minuscule balls of future caterpillars you will still get caterpillars…
Then even if you search those poor little chewed brassicas and squish the green fleshy demon spawn there will be more next time you look! Growing fatter and hairier as those poor denuded future food crops languish under their voracious foraging. So, remember listen to your pop-up thoughts and act on them – unless it’s just snowflake rubbish, then ignore it.
Lesson number two. Don’t plant your Kamo Kamo anywhere near your cucumbers. Or for that matter anywhere near anything at all. In fact, I would say give them about 10 square metres all to themselves far away from any other garden. Then at least you will have other garden.
Also, when harvesting from said triffids wear long pants, long sleeves and gloves. Or even better send someone else to find them! We were harvesting tasty little cucs from the plants scrambling up the re-enforcing mesh frame, but then the Kamo Kamo came. Its trailing vine crept stealth like across the mulch, flowers popped their sunshine heads out from its leaves. But no fruit came forth. We had pumpkins growing round and fat, but no Kamo Kamo. So annoyed we turned our back on it, foolish mistake.
Its trailing tendrils crept over the corn, which was fine, you know ‘Three sisters’ and all that, minus the beans that is. It was in said corn that we finally started harvesting its fruits and found the first mammoth beast weighing down the vine. Then it crept past the cucumbers frame and out towards the lawn. We tossed it back off the herb garden and started harvesting the cuc’s from the back of the rusty support.
Then somewhere, somehow it breeched the cuc frame. I don’t even know when or how, it was just suddenly there, smothering all asunder. The cuc’s suffered, sunlight obscured and flattened by the overbearing weight of bullying creeping fingers of prickly green.
That was lesson number two plant the damn Kamo Kamo far, far away.
Lesson number three. Jerusalem artichokes. “I think we got them all, no those ones will be fine over there” foolish naive person…
Fartichokes are the gift that just keeps on giving. Don’t get me wrong here, I think they are great. You can eat the tubers (we don’t, low carb household here) They have pretty little sunflower like flowers for the bees and are in fact related to the sunflower. You can feed the plants to your stock, or just let them clamber up the fences like feral goats and let the blighters help themselves to the once towering stems. Or feed the tubers to your pigs so we can all experience why they have the nickname fartichokes. Plus, they are a great carbon crop for your composts.
However, if you at any time should choose to repurpose that particular area of garden, they will repel your every effort to remove them. Kind of like oxalis but two metres tall. Then they will even magically appear in other parts of the garden, spreading their wonderful bounty across the land.
So, lesson number three don’t plant near, in or around any area where there has been fartichokes, unless you will remember to constantly remove little sprouty gifts.
Lesson number four. COVER THE SOIL. (and learn how to make real good compost, but that’s a whole other story) Now this is very important, hence the caps… if you want to grow food which enhances your life you need to enhance the life of the soil it grows in. Covering the soil is the first step, it stops the sun from baking it, just like a hat stops the sun baking your bald spot. It helps to keep the moisture in, like putting a lid on the pot to stop evaporation. Ya get that? Whether you cover it with woodchip mulch, straw, leaf litter or living plants, it provides protection and food for your underground livestock.
You might need a microscope to see most of these little critters, but they are the lifeblood of your soil. Get these microorganisms in a prolific healthy state (this is where the REALLY GOOD living compost comes in) and your soil becomes a living, thriving farm under your feet. Hey you can even start calling yourself an underground farmer cause you know a healthy soil has apparently 100 billion microorganisms per handful of soil. Phew, that’s a high stocking rate. Bring the Soil Food Web (Google it!) back to life, be the spiderman hero for you garden, spinning the web of fungi.
Thats lesson number four and obviously the most important one here. Spread the organic love mulch throughout your garden, learn about and bring back the microorganisms, the fungal life and watch the magical invisible underground livestock do their thing!
Lucy has only ever had a ‘sheep herd’, ever since we picked her up as a tiny 6 day old lowline Angus/jersey cross dairy calf. The teeny bundle of cuteness turned out to be a menace in disguise as we struggled to get her to survive her first couple of weeks. Between the scours and the refusal to take bottle, to tubing the poor little beast it was a battle of poop and frustration. But we made it! Just….
At 18 months we brought the vet out to AI (Artificially Inseminate) our wee girl. She was ready, the timing was right but at 50/50 odds our chances weren’t great. Sure enough we were out of luck. Her next cycle she was mooing down the neighbourhood and making amorous moves on poor Sooty the pet sheep. We were out of luck, left with a vet bill and no calf.
Time rolls on, we are busy, then moving property. No time to think of AI again or finding a little bull. But luck was on our side, the farmer down the road at our new property has some Highland cattle and a wee bull… a deal was reached and the small herd moved down the road to a paddock opposite our house.
Lucy was fascinated! Half Pint was a gorgeous strapping short legged lad of Highland /Hereford ancestry. And in true Scottish form he let his presence be known in the mountainous regions. But it wasn’t the bagpipes that echoed over the steep wooded slopes. It was a tremendous bellows of a different sort that could have emerged from a bull twice his size. He stomped the fence line and outside our gate let rip with his courting of our dainty wee lass. Day and night.
Cautious we were, allowing Lucy some time to get used to the beastie from the space of two fences and a quiet gravel road. She stood at the gate with her long lush Lucille Ball lashes (her namesake you see) bating them over her large soft brown eyes. What bull could resist such a stunning sleek black barrel of a cow.
So as evening drew on the third day we opened the gate to let lucy out. A sheep herd stampede to the wide-open spaces hastened us up, their excitement of fresh grass crushed by the click shut of the gate. But Lucy set free had trotted off down the road. With grass on her mind, she grazed the long acre, nibbling her way along the verge of the road. We opened the gate to her destiny and ushered her through. Her mind still on grazing she ambled straight in, short knee deep in the lotus and clovers that grew.
But Half Pint saw us shut the gate and move away, his senses alert and eyes on Lucy he was off at a trot. Lucys ears pricked up, her nostrils flared and promptly turned on her heels and shot off the opposite way! “hell no!” she said as he lumbered on up and zipped round the paddock, Half Pint hot on her heels.
We left them to it, to sort themselves out. At least he was finally quiet the noisy little prick.
That night poor Lucy stood opposite our gate, her whiny moo floating across the road and down the quiet drive. Out to see her I went and found her wide eyed and flustered while Half pint nuzzled her bull goobered side. I want to come home to my sheepie herd her low mooing told me, or so I heard. But no, it’s a calf you want and this is the way, poor Lucy my girl, it’s here, I’m afraid where you have to stay. Lucy turned from the fence and tried to get away but he dogged her and moped with his big shaggy head a giant lovesick puppy mooching behind.
The next morning we woke to his bellows again, a grumpy Half pint was having his say! Oh bloody hell is it worth it we thought and went out to see what the racket was about. Lucy it seems was nowhere to be seen and Half Pint was shitty and not in the mood. So off up the track and round the big hill, he grumbled and moaned to find where his other girls and offspring had got too. Meanwhile in the growing quiet we called out for Lucy, who slowing emerged from under the old woolshed in which’s darkness she stood. Her short little legs had allowed her to hide in a spot where the bullock couldn’t quite get, small as he was old boofhead wouldn’t fit. Smart thinking my girl but I’m sorry to say, if you want a calf this really is not the way.
This harassment and hiding continued for two days, Half Pint bellowing, complaining and stomping off to sulk. But funny enough on the next day we came home from town to find both in the paddock, grazing and quiet. It seems that the roles had reversed with Lucy docile and meek following along behind the hairy great beast. Phew we all said what a relief now we just have to wait a few more weeks. Hopefully she will take and a calf we will have, this drawn-out rowdy saga will mean milk, butter and cheese!
Managed coppice woodlands were once the source of a vast number of materials needed for everyday life. The wood produced from them was used for tools, kitchenware, furniture, fencing, building, charcoal and fuelwood. They were an integral part of rural life right up until the second world war. After this the woodland harvesting became more industrial with the need to rebuild so many damaged cities. Monoculture plantings of coniferous trees became common place and the old woodlots were either left to wild or were over taken by these single species forests.
But in the past 30 years or so there has been a resurgence in restoring these ancient woodlands and a renewed interest in woodland crafts, green woodworking (using fresh cut wood) and roundwood building. This has spread to other countries with many people embracing the concept of perpetual and sustainable timber woodlots. By coppicing or pollarding specific trees at staggered times, materials are gathered for many uses while the tree itself remains living and the soil and ecosystem only temporarily disrupted.
The planting of a woodlot is best done in winter with bare rooted trees, these trees are often more affordable and it allows for root development before dry weather sets in. Spacings should be approximately two metres square and can be done in rows or random placement, nitrogen fixers should be planted in the midst of this spacing to give maximum benefit. Some protection may be necessary from rabbit damage and mulch will help give the trees a head start against the grass and weeds.
Coppicing is the cutting of broadleaf woodland trees to low stumps, during their dormancy in winter. The cuts should be on angle to allow for water run off and preferably south facing. In spring the stump re-sprouts and these shoots are allowed to grow on till they reach the desired size. This can range from one year to twenty plus years, depending on the tree species and timber requirements. The tree is then cut back to a stump during the winter and the process starts again. Interestingly the regrowth times are usually considerably shorter here in New Zealand than in the UK, how this may affect the strength of the timber I do not know. Regrowth times for the trees below are for UK.
Pollarding is a higher cut, often around head height, this can be useful if there are browsing animals within the woodland, keeping the fresh growth out of reach. This process is best with deciduous trees, which are cut at low sap in the winter. This unfortunately means most of our native trees are not able to be successfully coppiced, Mahoe, Cabbage trees, Hoheria and possibly Pohutukawa being among the few that will.
Trees that reshoot after coppicing or other crown ‘damaging’ events like fire or wind have Epicormic buds. These buds lie are dormant under the bark, suppressed by the hormones of the actives shoots above. When damage occurs to those higher shoots or the light levels to the epicormic buds is increased, by removal of nearby plants, they can be activated into growing. While these shoots occur in many deciduous trees and shrubs they are not usually found in conifers and many other evergreens.
Maintaining the health of your woodlot.
By their very nature deciduous trees create a fertile self-perpetuating system. Their deep root systems draw up nutrients from the soil and sub soil, these nutrients are then returned to the ground by leaf and branch litter return. This process can be enhanced by including nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating trees and shrubs in your woodlot. By utilising species such as the fast-growing tree lucerne (tagasaste – Chamaecytisus palmensis), as nurse species for your slower growing trees you are not only feeding them, but are providing protection and weed suppression, plus stock fodder, bee food and firewood while you wait for the other trees to establish. Once you begin the coppicing and pollarding of your trees the return of ‘slash’ as ramial mulch feeds back into the system to support the new growth. A herb layer can also be used to provide ground cover and nutrient cycling, suitable plants are comfrey, clovers, lotus, plantains etc
Coppicing is the cutting of broadleaf woodland trees to low stumps, during their dormancy in winter. In spring the stump resprouts and these shoots are allowed to grow on till they reach the desired size. This can range from one year to twenty plus years, depending on the tree species and timber requirements. (Interestingly the regrowth times are usually considerably shorter here in New Zealand than in the UK, how this may affect the strength of the timber I do not know. Regrowth times for the trees below are for UK) The tree is then cut back to a stump during the winter and the process starts again. Pollarding is a higher cut, often around head height, this can be useful if there are browsing animals within the woodland, keeping the fresh growth out of reach. This process is best with deciduous trees, which are cut at low sap in the winter. This unfortunately means most of our native trees are not able to be successfully coppiced, Mahoe, Cabbage trees and possibly Pohutukawa being among the few that will.
Planting a woodlot is best done in winter with bare rooted trees, spacings should be approximately two to three metres and can be done in rows or random placement, some protection may be necessary from rabbit damage etc. Many of the trees listed below are easily propagated by seed, cuttings or poles. It may take a little longer to establish, but it means a woodlot can be created at a very low cost.
Alder, Black or Common – Alnus glutinosa
Alnus glutinosa is a fast-growing deciduous tree reaching approx. 25 m high by 10 m wide. Able to fix nitrogen and preferring wet sites it is a very useful tree where ground moisture is high e.g. Ponds, swales and boggy areas. It is able to spread easily through waterways and should probably not be planted along streams or where native riparian are planted due to its potential to become a pest species in such areas. The black Alder produces both male and female catkins on the same tree which are pollinated by the wind. Its seed is a good winter food source for birds and the leaves can be used for stock fodder/forage.
Traditionally Black Alder has been used for clog soles, woodturning, carving, broom heads, furniture and underwater foundations, it can also be used a fuel wood. The wood is not very strong but has the ability to dry very fast, it is however durable underwater. The tree coppices well and will produce many straight poles in a damp or marshy woodland environment. It is useful for erosion control and for water purifying in swampy ground.
Ash – Fraxinus excelsior
This large deciduous tree grows to approx. 30m, the trees bear both male and female flowers but often not in the same year, these flowers are wind pollenated. The seeds known as ‘Ash Keys’ are best sown while still green to achieve faster germination. The Ash is able to grow on many types of soil but is best in limestone where it will seed freely. While recent times have seen Ash suffer with Ash Dieback it was once a highly important resource for smallholders and farmers due to its resilience and rapid growth. Though considered non-durable the timber has the qualities of high flexibility, shock resistance, and resistance to splitting. This makes ash wood an excellent timber for making bows and tool handles. The trees are often coppiced on a longer cycle of 10 to 21 years and therefore are often grown in a mixed woodlot. Ash is also popular used green for chairmaking.
Beech, English – Fagus sylvatica
Though this large tree, approx. 30m, is deciduous it will in fact hold its browned leaves until spring when the fresh growth appears. While this particular tree has green leaves, changing to yellow then brown through Autumn, there is a natural mutation the Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica Purpurea) which has purple new growth which gradually turns deep green and then copper in Autumn. The male and female flowers appear in spring and are wind pollenated. In autumn the hairy Beech husks drop, each husk has two seeds known as beech nuts, these are apparently edible and were often used as pig fodder. The leaves are also edible when young (for humans) and can be used as fodder/forage for stock. The beech grows best in well drained limestone soils. It is not usually coppiced in a woodlot situation due to its slow growth, but is pollarded instead to prevent browsing animals killing off the trees. However, it can be cut back quite hard and used as a hedging plant. Used in green-wood craft for furniture, tool handles, and kitchen utensils like spoons, spatula and bowls, beech is also excellent firewood.
Birch – Silver Birch – Betula pendula
A fast growing, deciduous tree reaching approx 30 m, it is very noticeable for its white papery bark. The Silver birch has both male and female catkins on the same tree and can seed throughout an area very easily. It is considered a colonizer, growing on poor soils, but its leaf litter can improve the soil over time allowing other species to grow. While it can be coppiced while young, older trees tend not to grow back. These are often replaced by seedling trees. An interesting feature of the Birch is its fungal relationship with the Birch Bolete an edible mushroom which grows under the Birches in Autumn. While the wood is not durable, it does have many uses, such as small furniture, cooking utensils, spoons and toys. The bark however is considered to be very durable and is used for canoes, pots, baskets, shoes and roof tiles. It is also an excellent fire starter. The sap is another product, harvested in early spring to make wine and Birch syrup. it is worth noting that some people do experience hay fever/allergy symptoms from the pollen of Silver Birch.
Black Locust – Robinia pseudoacacia
This hardy deciduous tree is very fast growing and reaches approx. 25m in height and is commonly used as windbreak or shelterbelts, though it does not tolerant severe winds well. It is able to grow in most soils, though prefers well drained situations and can handle drought. Black Locust is also tolerant of low fertility soils which means it can be used as a pioneer species. Its nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating can support the growth of other plants, plus its light canopy allows sunlight to penetrate. In some areas it is considered a weed species due to its fast growth and ability to spread via seed and sometimes suckering. If used in a woodlot or food forest situation it needs to be managed regularly.
Its timber is considered highly durable, fence posts of Black locust are said to last 100 years in the ground. It is used as greenwood for furniture, tool handles, building and pasture posts. The tree is able to be coppiced and pollarded, but there can be some variation in growth form. For this reason, selecting seed from straight trees is more likely to give you suitable timber for building or posts. Root cuttings of 5cm length and about thumb thickness can apparently be propagated or stakes/poles can be planted direct into the ground.
There is conflicting information of the fodder value of this tree, some sources claim the whole plant is toxic. While others compare its nutritional value to Alfafa and apparently Black locust is used as a fodder crop in many countries. It is well recognised for its benefit as bee food with Robinia honey common in USA and Europe. The white racemes of flowers in summer are said to be edible, as are the seeds once cooked. It is also considered to have medicinal qualities.
Worth growing for its fence post potential alone, as we try to move away from using treated wood on the property. The discrepancies on its fodder value can be negated by simply planting the Black locusts away from grazed areas. Most stock will not browse on toxic plants unless there is a shortage of other feed, with low level toxicity some browsing may occur in a medicinal manner. We believe that the animals have an instinctive knowledge of what they can consume and to what level, however, as said above this can be over ridden if feed is short.
Hazel – Corylus avellana
Though more of a deciduous shrub than a tree, the Hazel is one of the most useful woodlot plants. Fast growing and multi stemmed it can still reach 12 m or more in height if left to grow. But Hazels are often coppiced and the many straight stems produced have many uses. Both the pendulous male catkins and small female flowers are born on the same tree and are wind pollenated. In nut production a different cultivar of pollinator Hazel is often necessary to achieve high pollination rates. These early spring flowers can provide early feed for bees. While mostly known for its nuts, the Hazel leaves are also a highly palatable forage for livestock. Widely used as a hedgerow plant many English villages would often have an area of Hazel coppice, which was traditionally cut on a seven-year cycle. Hazel is the traditional material of hurdle making (woven fence panels) due to its ability, when twisted, to form a strong ‘rope’ of separated fibres. This means the wood can be twisted back upon its self to form the woven panels of the hurdle. Other uses include thatching spars, walking sticks, garden stakes, garden climbing frames, baskets, traps, crates and many other useful everyday items.
Sweet Chestnut – Castanea sativa
An attractive deciduous tree reaching approx. 30 metres in height. Preferring slightly acidic free draining soils and dislikes waterlogged, alkaline soils and exposed sites. Both male and female flowers appear in summer on the same stalk, these are wind and insect pollenated. The edible nuts develop in a prickly case that splits open in autumn when they are ripe. The nuts and leaves etc. can be used as stock fodder and all parts of the tree, except the actual nut, are said to have anthelmintic (anti worming) properties.
Sweet Chestnut is a durable wood which coppices very well and can be coppiced at various ages for different purposes. At 5 years timber is used for walking sticks, yurt poles, garden stakes, woven panels, balustrades and rustic furniture. At 7-12 years, rustic furniture, laths, pales, garden arches, gate hurdles, trellis panels and trug handles. 20 years, rustic furniture, laths, pales, charcoal, firewood, barrels, fencing posts. 30 + years, roundwood timber framing, post-and-rail fencing, fencing posts, decking, cladding, arbours, gates, shingles, window frames, charcoal and firewood.
Willow, Osier or Basket Willow – Salix viminalis
A deciduous, fast growing multi-stemmed shrub up to approx. 6 metres tall with straight thin branches used for basketry. The Basket willow is best grown in wet non-acid soils and propagation is easy from stem cuttings, this is preferable to seed as it can cross pollenate with other willows. Coppicing is done yearly to provide the long straight flexible rods needed for basketry. It is also used to create living screens and sculptures in gardens by inserting rods into the ground and weaving them into required shapes. Other uses are fodder/forage for livestock, water purification and it has the ability to absorb heavy metals, often planted to ‘clean up’ contaminated waste ground. Other willow species can also be used but Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea (purple stems) are most commonly used for basketry.
There are other trees which can be included in your woodland, the ones above are chosen here for their ease of coppicing/growing and specific uses, including food or forage uses.
Wild Cherry – Prunus avium, Elm – Ulmus procera, Linden – Tilia cordata, Oak – Quercus species, Maple – Acer species, Gum – Eucalyptus species, Poplar – Populus species.
The Brandenburg Coppice at Lincoln College New Zealand was planted in about 1985 as a study on coppicing woodlots and suitable tree species for New Zealand. It is a very informative read for anyone with an interest in establishing a coppice woodlot.
We live our life on a precipice and I’m not talking metaphorically here. Not far from our house is a cliff. A beautiful bush covered ravine with a fresh, clean stream winding its way to the Whanganui river. Steep walls of water hewn rock tower over head, hung with the lace of ferns and entwined with the clinging roots of brave trees. Cascading falls of sparkling mountain streams plunge into its depths, dark, cool and mysterious in the scorching summer heat.
It was into this gorge we lost a pig. A Kunekune who was destined for freezer camp on the next cool day. We think he knew and did a runner, or just fell off the top while chasing a walnut….
We searched the paddock and along the edges calling “Pig, Pig, Pig” no reply. The Other Half scaled the steep track down to the stream, wading and kayaking its alternating shallows and depths, braving the giant eels in deep dark pools (or so legend says) But to no avail, the pig was nowhere to be seen.
A week later freezer camp prospect number two also disappeared. (Yes, I know we need to fence; we need to do a lot of things. Would you like to see the list of must do jobs?) Again, we searched with but no success.
Then a few days later 2 little pigs didn’t turn up for dinner (I’d like to note here all missing pigs where male…) This time however our searching and calling from the top yielded faint answering oinks and grunts from down below.
Now for someone afraid of heights living above a gorge is probably not smart. Searching for bloody pigs on the bush clad edge of such a gorge is just stupid. Especially when a quick swipe of an arm through thick ferns reveals nothing but air on the other side. Shudder.
But down the bank he was and at that spot there were fern covered ledges. So, with a strop tied to a sturdy tree The Other Half lowered himself over the edge, dropping 2 metres to a narrow track. He edged along the ledge calling the Kune, who promptly ran in the opposite direction. Sigh. Unfortunately these little Kune had not experienced much hands on attention from their busy humans and he was adamant this human could just stay the hell away.
We decided to try from the bottom. It was down the steep track again – we’re talking 30 metres or more almost straight down, dirt footholds cut into the cliff and timber ladder steps with dodgy hand rails. The light was fading making it even darker in the shadowy deep gorge. He waded through the cold bush stream calling “Pig, Pig, Pig”. The growing gloom creating a creepy, echoey, eerie feel beneath the damp rock walls and overhanging fronds. No answer.
Then turning to search further along the stream bed and towering rocky banks he spied a small shivering lump on the opposite side. The little lump didn’t move as The Other Half reached out and grabbed it. But as it rose into his arms all hell did break lose. The pig screamed and squealed, wriggled and squirmed, and BIT…
The ungrateful little sod was grasped super tight and bearing this heavy (25 kg+), loud and hostile burden The Other Half headed for home. He trudged back down the stream, struggled up the horrendously steep track, through the overgrown pine paddock, out the rickety wooden gate and back down the gravel road. Then tossed the cranky little sod over the fence into the pig paddock. Wet, dirty and deafened he strode back through the pig paddock, down the steep hill side to the tree with the strop. “Grunt, grunt, grunt” said the first little pig and ran along the ledge below.
Holding the strop, wrapped around his wrist, The Other Half advanced on the pig who ran along the top of what looked like another ledge. But the softness underfoot revealed it was actually just ferns adhered to the bank by their trampled roots. Too late! he was already half way as the pig made a leap back up the bank. The Other Half grabbed its leg and held on fast, the added weight shifting the roots beneath his feet. He lunged back to firm ground the strop in one hand, screaming pig in the other. Then back up onto track above and to the foot of the tree “grab the bloody pig!” he yelled to his white knuckled wife and tossed it 2 metres up into the air. She grabbed it by the front leg hauling the rowdy beast back to safety and The Other Half scrambled back up too. With darkness upon us we retired for the night, weary and grubby, covered in mud.
The next morning the suspected escape route was blocked off and no more little piggies were lost. But our story doesn’t end there. For one month after the first pig disappeared with no sign or sound of either pig. I heard a commotion, a screech and a squeal (me thinks I have spent too many years reading Hairy Maclery…)
Polly the sow was all in a rage, chasing a pig all over the place. And what should we have? who should it be? But one of the big boys come back for tea! Mum was a bit pissed that he’d entered her space, she let him know that he was a disgrace. But it soon settled down, piggy life back to normal and the prospect of bacon a delight to us all.
As the nights begin to cool many people start to focus on firewood, but for those of us living off the land and reliant on our wood burners this year’s wood should be in the shed and ready to burn. Leaving it till the cold sets in could leave us with smoky fires which struggle to warm the house or a hefty heating bill. Better still we aim to have at least two years’ worth of wood cut, with at least one years’ worth dry stored. The just in case factor.
What trees are good firewood trees?
Honestly, whatever you already have growing…
The existing trees on your property are your first resource. I’m not saying go and cut them down, there are other, better, ways to get firewood. Look at pruning them, lifting branches, thinning if planted to close. If they are able to be coppiced learn how to do that and you will have renewable, sustainable firewood* But learn what your trees are and how best to manage them. Buying a property with trees is an amazing resource and removing trees should only be done if they are a risk or negatively impacting their surrounding environment.
We believe that if you are going to plant trees, they should have many uses, multipurpose. The main uses would be edible crop producers, fodder and forage for livestock, timber or woodcraft sources.
Fruit and nut trees can cover all three of these uses and are great firewood. Planting a large orchard and nut grove or including them in hedgerows, will eventually yield a decent supply of wood just from the pruning’s.
Coppicing trees such as Alders, Birches, Hazels, Sweet Chestnuts, Poplars etc.* these provide a, usually, fast-growing renewable and sustainable resource for timber, nuts and fruits in some cases and livestock food as well as firewood.
Fodder trees are well worth looking into if you have livestock, they are a great resource in times of drought but also provide diversity and added nutrition for your animals. If planted in areas where they are protected but next to or in paddocks, they can also provide shelter and shade. Two factors which are unfortunately often not provided for on many farms. An excellent small tree for fodder is Tree Lucerne (tagasaste) it is a high protein feed, drought hardy, fast growing and good firewood. Many of the fodder trees also fit in the fruit and nut category and can be coppiced. Mulberry is another high protein feed and if you can beat the birds has very tasty berries. It is also apparently, one of the top heat producing woods.
Many people think gums when asked for firewood trees and they have their uses, but are not really for us. Having experienced the effects of root rot on a massive gum from our neighbours property, which took out our fence line but thankfully fell away from the house. They are also heavy feeders, sucking nutrient out of the surrounding soil, which can be mitigated by planting a nitrogen fixer/mineral accumulator such as Acacia. They are fast growers, but if not dealt with at a decent size they can get oversized and felling becomes an issue. As they age, they can also start dropping limbs which is a hazard for you and your livestock. We have a large gum at the end of our paddock which is now in this scary stage, with many broken limbs on the ground beneath it. If you are keen to grow the larger trees Acacia would be family to look at, they support the soil around them via their nitrogen fixer/mineral accumulator properties, are fast growing and make great firewood which is hot burning and easy to split. We especially like the Black wattle and Tasmanian Blackwood. But there are also Oaks, deciduous Beech and Maples, which can also be coppiced and are good firewood
Finally, we will look at native trees, Manuka and Kanuka are great fast growing pioneer trees, they can be used with other small trees like Tree lucerne (not native), Mahoe, Kowhai and Pittosporums, to fill in the gaps while larger slower growing trees like NZ Beech and Mahoe are establishing, then felled for firewood etc. when no longer needed. Personally, we would not grow the slower natives for firewood, as it does not really fit into the sustainable woodland concept as they are generally not able to be coppiced. Only small number of native trees can be coppiced Mahoe, Pittosporums and Pohutukawa are among them.
Harvesting and Drying your Firewood.
‘Cut at low sap’ is some traditional advice, this would mean cutting your firewood in winter to early spring depending on the tree, while they are dormant. There are several reasons for this: 1. Traditional woodlots were also often Coppice Woodlands*. The trees were coppiced in winter for various timber uses and regrowth from the stumps occurred in spring.
2. Tree sap ‘runs’ when they are actively growing, however there are differing views on how that effects the moisture content of the tree. One view is that apparently over summer they can contain up to 50% or half their weight in water. While they are dormant the sap supposedly flows to the roots, lowering the moisture content of the tree. The opposing view put out by forestry industry is that there is no real difference in seasonal moisture content and that trees in fact hold a relatively constant moisture content all year round. It is believed that cutting down a tree in sap run can actually speed up seasoning/drying time, due to the tree effectively ‘bleeding out’.
3. Deciduous trees lose their leaves over low sap/dormancy and this can lower the weight of the tree and make clean up easier. However, if you are making full use of the tree, Ramial wood mulch can be made from the branches under 7 cm diameter, with or without the leaves. In full leaf there will obviously be a higher green matter content to the mulch and the fresher the branches the more nutrient available for the soil.
4. Firewood can be hard and heavy work, cutting, moving and stacking firewood over the cooler months, which are often quieter farm wise, can be easier than doing it in the heat of summer. You have a higher appreciation of the results when you enter the warmth of the house after hours in the cold.
There are of course other factors for timing of firewood cutting. Pruning done at any time is potential firewood or wood mulch and can be specific to what season suits each particular tree. Fruit trees are good example of this with stone fruit usually pruned in summer to avoid disease. Weather being another factor, in very wet climates the drier months might be the only time to get firewood done. But the general time frame would be cut wood in the winter or early spring, dry over summer and into the shed by March ready for those cooler nights.
So, the trees are down or the branches are pruned, what now?
The wood needs to be cut and split into sizes suitable for your woodstove, often we will just ring it into the right length and leave it in piles until we are ready to shift it. It is thought that by leaving the wood in the elements the rain will wash out the sap which keeps it green and speed up seasoning. However, most trees are best split fresh as they can harden over time and if you are hand splitting with an axe it is easier to split the wood fresh. We then stack the cut wood on pallets to keep the wood off the ground and allow airflow underneath. A tidy outer wall layer is stacked with attention put into stabilising or ‘locking in’ the corners with crossover pieces. It’s a bit like building a 3D jigsaw, most of the wood is either flat, triangular, half round or round and can be fitted together to make a stable structure. The gap in the centre is filled with the odd pieces, short bits and knobbly bits etc. These are put in randomly but the space needs to be filled as you stack the walls and be relatively close packed to support the walls. Air will still flow through as there will be many small gaps in the stack. Once the stack reaches about 1.2 metres we level it off and place several sheets of old corrugated iron on top, weighed down with some heavy chunks of wood.
Why go to all this trouble you might ask? Firstly, firewood is an extremely important resource for us, it not only heats our home, but all our hot water via wetback and we use our woodstove for cooking, we do have a gas stove but the gas is an outside expense and the wood is a homegrown sustainable resource. Secondly, the structure that is created is very stable and can be built in the paddock where the livestock are, the cow might occasionally try to knock it around a bit but the structure stays standing. The size of the stack, which is the width of a pallet and usually 3 or 4 metres long, means we can stack for drying a large quantity of wood, approximately 2 cord, in a relatively compact space. Most firewood stacking advice that I have seen says to single width stack, while this works, for us it would take up too much area, not be as stable in the paddock and be difficult to put a corrugated iron ‘roof’ on.
The corrugated iron provides a heat sink which warms and dries the air inside the pile, while keeping the majority of rain off. Yet the outside of the stack is still exposed to the elements especially wind and sun. We find the stacked wood is ready to be transferred to shed storage in about 3 to 4 months, it will be bone dry and excellent burning. Bone dry wood burns hotter, longer and, when the fire is shut down, turns to charcoal which creates a low burn to last through the night. Once shed stored it should stay dry, but it pays to check the roof for leaks and have a shed that is North or North West facing for maximum sun and that allows air flow. A simple cheap design is a corrugated iron roof on four poles/posts 2m or taller. Cover the floor with pallets to let the air flow under and keep the wood off the damp cold ground. Hurricane netting can be used around the outside ‘walls’ to hold the wood in but still allow air flow and if necessary, a wall can be built on the prevailing rain side or to the south, as long as the sun side is left open. Any wood on the outer edges that gets rain wet will soon dry on a sunny day as long as it was seasoned/dried before going in the shed. The 1000l pod cages (without the plastic tank) or the big wooden produce bins can be used, but make sure to cover the top with corrugated iron or something to keep the top rain out.
Burning wet or unseasoned firewood firstly produces less heat and secondly can cause creosote buildup in your flue, especially with softwoods, which can cause chimney fires. A good example of this is when we first moved into our property in the winter. The note from the previous owner said we would need to clean the flue every month to keep the fire burning well and that the drier wood was in the rear of the middle bay, which involved climbing over wood to get to it… We thought what the hell, well used to wood fires, it should only be cleaned once a year and why would I want to climb over wood to get the firewood. But once the stack of wood by the back door was gone, we realised the issue. The whole three farm shed bays of firewood, which was pine, had been wet stacked. It was moldy and damp. This was causing excessive smoking and clogging of the flue, and we wondered about the health impacts of burning moldy wood. Luckily after a few days of wet weather it cleared for a couple of weeks and we pulled out the front of one stack to open more wood up to the sunshine and air. Each time we went to get firewood it had to be checked for dryer pieces, while still not bone dry it was a lot dryer than before. As the wood dried out the smoking and flue issues eased as well. Our primary wood shed is about 100 metres from the house, this is not ideal and we will build one closer. It is a good idea to have at least a weeks’ worth of wood close to the house in the event of bad weather. Trudging across a paddock in the rain with a wheelbarrow load of firewood is not cool for you or the wood.
There are many views on firewood and systems to manage it, but this suits us and provides us with loads of well-seasoned firewood throughout the year. By planning a sustainable woodland or large multipurpose orchard and nut grove, we can provide ourselves not only with firewood but food, livestock food, garden mulch and stakes, fencing materials, timber and a beautiful landscape.