Many rural homes have a back forty that’s treed. To some, the forest is a liability because we need the land for pasture or crops. Food should be a priority, but don’t overlook the forest for the trees. Those trees can be a tremendous asset and can be tended and grown like a garden to provide firewood and other valuable resources.
Besides firewood, your woodlot could also provide you with lumber for your own use or sale, wildlife habitat to benefit preferred species, recreational habitat for us humans, privacy, and the scenic backdrop we enjoy.
How trees grow
Trees use sunlight to make sugar from water and CO2. Sugar is tree money. They burn most of the sugar to live, grow leaves and shoots, and do their “business” like the rest of us. They save some sugar for next year’s energy as starch.
The extra sugar gets twisted into cellulose and other elements of wood for diameter growth of the tree’s stem. So the thickness of the summer’s growth ring is most proportional to the amount of extra sunlight the tree got, not rainfall. Most natural forests are too crowded, and crowded forests show slow growth.
Rainfall or drought will only be significant for the drought-stressed trees on rocky knobs or in the driest parts of the country. Competition with other trees for sunlight on the green crown will be the most important factor for growth.
This changes over a tree’s life, showing a growth pattern in the rings. Most forests will grow almost a cord of wood every year, per acre. If the forest is old or crowded, then decay and mortality will be about the same as growth.
In a crowded forest, the growth is spread out over many trees, growing slowly, and all the trees are unhealthy. If a forest is properly thinned, the best trees all have plenty of sunlight, some room to spread their branches, and will grow rapidly.
The “ideal” trees to grow have several attributes:
- The species are well suited to the soil and site and have good value potential or usefulness.
- The stems are straight, with no major defects such as rotten branches.
- The green part of the crown is large or medium-sized compared to the other trees.
- The tree is overall in good health and not overmature.
The ideal trees also meet your objectives for the site. For example, if you maintain an area for firewood production close to the house with easy access, then you would prefer to grow hardwoods there.
If you are growing trees for eventual sale, then the valuable species for your area should be a preference. Some species have specific wildlife benefits, like acorns from oak trees.
All these things are taken into account to select the best trees to grow in a given area.
Mapping your trees
Mapping the forest is a good place to start. The best tools are an accurate survey of your land and aerial photos at the same scale. These may be available from your state forester, Agricultural Extension Service, or town office. Nowadays, a lot of folks are using drones to map their region, and such devices are also ideal for mapping your woodlot.
Roughly map your property by natural divisions—streams, ridges, or other features—and then notice the changes in the forest. Changes in the species are most obvious, then changes in the diameter or height of the trees (e.g., one area with small trees, one with large trees, another area of all mixed sizes).
This is useful to determine what the goals can be for each area. Younger areas can be maintained for a long time as the trees grow. Mature forests can also be thinned, but it may be time to start a new forest, if only in patches. Some areas may have specific value to you as wildlife habitat or recreational use. These things will be important to how you treat each area.
Each area should have a specific goal or desired future condition. For example: grow acorns for deer and turkeys, grow valuable lumber for retirement income, harvest lumber to build a barn, or maintain it scenic for a picnic spot.
Harvesting your woodlot
Harvesting is the basic tool we use to change the forest. I realize that I have a “products approach” to forests, and forests are so much more than products. The other tools include fire, herbicides, wind or ice storms, and time (allowing trees to grow or die to change the forest). You can see that harvesting is the only one that pays for itself and is easier to control than the others.
Since trees grow and the forest is probably too crowded, often we can select the portion of the trees we want to grow for some future benefit and the portion of the trees we want to harvest for some present benefit.
For example, a mature area of softwoods might be harvested to build the barn, or it might be left as a scenic area or left for future harvest.
A younger mixed forest could be thinned to favor either hardwoods or softwoods depending on the site, relative values, or landowner preferences. Mature oaks can be left alone or thinned to improve acorns and future lumber, or harvested for lumber. Different owners will make their own decisions.
Understanding the biology and economics is the science. Weighing the present and future benefits is the art.
Future use also helps you establish which are the best trees to use or sell today. How do we reconcile that? The first decision is whether the forest is mature. If the trees are young and healthy, then they can be grown for a while (10 to 100 years or more). Most of the best trees should be left to grow.
A few of the good ones can be harvested, but many of the poorer trees should be cut.
Are they useful for firewood or logs?
Are they profitable to harvest and handle?
Would harvesting them help you meet your goal for additional growth?
Thinning and weeding will provide firewood or fence post-sized trees, yet leave the very best trees for the future.
Middle-aged forests can still be thinned if there is enough good quality potential to grow. Thinning here will provide firewood and perhaps logs for sale or home use.
On the other hand, perhaps the forest is mature. This means either that most of the trees are old or declining in health, or that the trees have met your goal for some products. Trees don’t last forever, and like vegetables, they have an ideal time to be “picked.” However, the opportunity to pick may span 10 years instead of two days.
If you are building a house from trees on your land, don’t scrimp and use rotted, crooked, or poor-quality trees. Certain species and sizes will be the best ones for each job. Cut them.
Hopefully, you’ll only build one house. But understand that if you cut enough of the best trees from a given stand, it will be time to start a new forest there. Even if you have left some trees, crooked or junk trees might not be healthy enough to make a suitable forest.
Harvesting a mature forest will usually provide the most valuable logs and make the biggest mess. Of course, there is always enough firewood from tops, branches, and rotten or crooked trees. Sometimes, natural regrowth can be controlled to be adequate, but planting seedlings might be needed.
Wasting wood seems like a shame. One of the things we don’t like about commercial harvesting is the mess: tops, branches, and cull logs left on the ground. We think: “Look at all that firewood.” Usually, if these pieces could be sold for near their handling cost, they would be gone. Left behind, they rot and replenish the soil and provide ugly habitat for fungi and wildlife.
Very “clean” harvesting, where all the debris is hauled out, can have other problems. It is pretty but can deplete the soil nutrients. Is pretty better?
I usually encourage people to get their firewood from poorer quality trees that are still alive. Leave the tops to decay and the dead ones for wildlife. Get into the crowded portions of your woods and cut the trees that crowd the best ones for future growth.
I once saw a landowner cut two beautiful oak trees from the edge of his woods for two cords of firewood. He used every stick. It was great dense wood, split easily (perfect straight logs), and he could pick up the pieces with his garden tractor.
I explained that the four premium logs were worth about $500, and he could have had five cords cut, split, and delivered to his driveway in exchange. He still would have a cord from the tops and branches to pick up. The moral of the story is that wasting wood is a relative term, compared to wasting value. Also, growing a forest of valuable trees can be profitable.
Your forest is like a garden
Treat your forest like a garden. Trees, unlike tomatoes, take decades to grow but respond to the same care of planting, weeding, thinning, or harvesting. Go carefully, but remember that forests are resilient. They have survived centuries of storms, fires, diseases, and farming or harvesting influences.
Currently, more wood is growing than being harvested in every region of the country. Wood is the best natural resource, environmentally, requiring less energy and making less pollution in processing. It is completely renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable.
Also, by providing our wood products close to home in sustainable ways, we reduce imports from places like Brazil and Siberia, where environmental protection is not the norm. Here, where we enjoy land ownership, we take the best care of it.
This article was submitted by Jason N. Clark.