rural heritage logging camp

Cultivating Your Woodlot
by Brandt Ainsworth
In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

Firewood is as important to some of us now as it was when Robert Frost penned these lines. We all love to warm our bones beside a nice winter fire, and nothing tastes as good as supper cooked on Ma's woodstove. Most of the benefits stemming from wood heat are obvious. Less obvious are some of firewood's other benefits.

For as far back as I can remember, fall was the time of year when we cut firewood out of the hedgerows. When the woodpile was getting low, on a Sunday my Dad, our old dog, and I would pile into the truck and head for a hedgerow with the shotgun and saw. You can't always find game to shoot in the hedge, but there's always firewood to cut.

Now scientists have proven a piece of wire in a tree has a magnetic field that draws a sharp saw chain into it. But if we didn't have to file the saw too many times, we could get a pickup load in about an hour. That gave us enough time to unload and catch the fourth quarter of the football game.

The three greatest benefits we derived from hedgerow firewood are: quick easy wood, a field in which equipment can get close to the edge, and less shading of crops. With the simple bit of knowledge that less shade from the hedge or from weeds improves the yield of corn, you can improve the yield in your woods, just like running a cultivator through your corn.

Accordingly, the first thing I do when felling trees for firewood is find an area that needs to be cultivated. I look for good quality marketable young trees (corn) that are being shaded by undesirable, lesser value trees (weeds). Then I cultivate the weeds. I do this by cutting the low value trees into firewood, while trying not to disturb my crop (the more valuable trees). Just like corn, trees do better with less competition.

A good example of cultivating a woods the right way is my Dad's woodlot. When he bought it in 1975, a logger could have cut all the marketable timber with one tank of gas in his saw. With a common sense approach, my Dad set out to improve his woods, and heat a large house at the same time.

When a small hard maple, black cherry, or white ash was being crowded by bigger undesirable dying beech, down went the beech for firewood, thus letting in light for the more valuable timber. We needed a lot of wood to keep warm, which meant a lot of woodlot improvement.

After about five years of intensive management, my dad cut a few thousand dollars worth of white ash out of his woods. While doing so he improved his stand of timber, because he cut only trees that held others back from growing.

Another five years after that we cut out a few thousand dollars worth of saw logs, some of which were valuable veneer. Remember, this woods is the same one just 10 years prior had hardly any value, only potential.

We made a third harvest again in five years. This time we took out some really nice timber. Three years later we cut out a few loads of logs. We followed a three-year schedule for awhile, then went to every two years. Then we reached the stage we're at now, cutting two or three loads of logs every year. Not only do we harvest more frequently, but the quality of logs gets progressively better.

The reason this small woods has been such a big producer is selective crown thinning, or as I call it, cultivating. Dad calls it, "Cuttin' enough wood to keep Ma warm." Another reason this woods grows fast is that around the same time the harvests got more frequent I got old enough to have my own firewood business, not using only tops, but also cutting more cull trees.

More cull trees cut = more light.
More light = faster growing trees.

The other day on my lunch break I studied the growth rings of the stump I was sitting on. The seven rings closest to the outer edge contained about two rings per inch. All the rings closer to the center had at least five, sometimes more, rings per inch.

These rings told me the tree grew fastest during the last seven years. The reason is simple—seven years ago I cultivated that woods. It was my first log job on my own. I must have done it right, because this tree grew more in the last seven years than it had during the previous 20.

The results of your firewood cutting may not be immediate, but if you hang to it, after three or four years your woods will increase in value. You will also reduce your heating costs, be in better physical condition, and have a better team. The more firewood your team hauls out, the better they get. What's the sense of taking a tractor to the woods while your team stands in the barn learning nothing? Besides, I'll bet Robert Frost never wrote a poem about harvesting firewood with a Minneapolis Moline.


Brandt Ainsworth of New York hosts the DVD Logging with Horses, Oxen and Mules and is a frequent contributor to Rural Heritage. This article appeared in the Holiday 2003 issue.

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27 May 2004
23 October 2011 last revision