firewood structures

November 25, 2010

We collected a lot of firewood this year.

My favorite structure to build is a beehive. I am not sure where this style of firewood stacking originated, but I first saw it in Brighton (IA…). There is a u-pick Christmas tree farm there and they have some very beautiful stacks of firewood.

The trick to building a beehive (in my experience) is to keep the logs tilting towards the center of the shape. I do this by laying small curved logs perpendicular to the rest of the stacked logs. This raises the outside edge, and seems to create a sturdy structure. The tops are formed by laying the logs closer and closer the center, until they meet. I don’t know how this would work on larger structures, but it worked well for my hives.

This is a circle house, inspired by some beautiful ancient ruins in New Mexico. I have plans somewhere down the line to put some sort of roof on it, but it might get used up first…

All the beehives and fences before the first snow. I can’t wait to see them covered!

I have a jar of cherries on my porch. They are solar cooking in a broth of sugar and whiskey. I got sick of pitting all the cherries, and this recipe called for unpitted (and unwashed) cherries, whiskey, and sugar. I had all the ingredients, as well as a quart jar, so I made use of them.

To pick the cherries, which were on a huge tree, my friend Duncan helped me out. We backed his pickup truck under the tree (over the sidewalk) and placed an 8 foot ladder in the bed of the truck. I used a pail with a handle attached to my overalls so that I had both hands free for picking the cherries and balancing.

The cherries “cook” for a month, and are supposed to last up to two years.

I found the recipe (originally made with brandy) in a cookbook on preserving fruits and vegetables according to French tradition, without canning. I am not one hundred percent sure that I trust this method, and might not end up leaving them in the sun the whole time…not sure.

ditch trees

December 28, 2009

This year, and many years in the past I have gotten a Christmas tree from the ditch. When I was little, my dad would go out and find us little trees for our bedrooms. I always looked forward to this, carefully decorating the little tree in my little room. Now that I have a house, I still like to find a tree outside somewhere and use it. I really like unusual trees, and have found that they are readily available in ditches. Ditch trees around here are often arborvitae, also known as red cedar, and are usually cut down every few years anyway, so I don’t really feel too bad about using them.

On Christmas Eve, my friends Swati and Eric and I went out to collect some Christmas cheer. We used Eric’s big car (another reason that I need a pickup truck..) to haul the tree after we cut it down. This year Eric had a source for the more traditional pine ditch-tree (not the scraggly arborvitae). We drove to the spot, found a “minimalist” tree, chopped it down, and brought it home. The whole process took less time than it would have to go to Hy-Vee, select a tree, pay for it, and tie it to the top of the car.

My sister Nozomi was visiting for Christmas with her parents. They came over right after we brought the tree inside and put all the lights on. I LOVE having family visit for the holidays!!!

Since I only had 12 ornaments and 1 strand of lights, the slightly sparse tree worked out very well. The ornaments are knitted Christmas balls, that I made last year out of Noro yarn. They are very nicely multicolored and cheerful.

some more on firewood

November 30, 2009

My dad and I went out scouting for new trees today. I kind of consider myself a treehugger, but when I was out wrapping orange tape around the trunk of large trees, I doubted that particular classification. But then I thought about other sources of heat, such as mining coal or natural gas. And I thought about the only thing that really keeps me warm in the winter-sitting by the fire. We aren’t going out and clear cutting our forest. We have 40 acres of trees, and if we collect firewood carefully, it really is a sustainable operation.

Our mission was to find dead standing trees that were suitable for use this year, as well as live trees that we could cut down this year, split next year, and burn the following year. There are so many different elements involved in selectively cutting trees. Things to look for include the texture and type of tree and the location of the tree (closeness to the road and to other trees). It is also important to know if the tree is dead or alive, and whether something is currently living in or eating the tree. We carefully looked at all of these factors with every tree that we banded.

The variety of tree is very important when choosing trees to cut for firewood. Every type of tree has a different character. More ashes, less ashes, higher heat (BTU), easier to light, etc, etc. Some woods even smell better than others, which does actually make a difference. There is a great chart that outlines the specifics on burning different hardwoods on the website Demense. Great if you are collecting or buying firewood. We have been harvesting mostly oak, hickory, and locust. We leave the walnuts, as they have lower BTUs, and create a lot of ash! And if the wood is mostly limb wood it will burn well, but because there is a higher ratio of bark to wood you will get a lot more ash. The limb wood is great for starting a fire though!

Looking up to the sky tells a big part of the story. It is important to pick trees that are crowded in, have less of a chance to reach sunlight, and are leaning heavily and or awkwardly. The hickory in the images above and below is leaning significantly to the right. When we cut it, the space will open up for the surrounding trees to grow. According to my dad we are speeding up the clock a little. Taking down trees that are more likely to die sooner anyway.

Below is another example of trees that are crowded. The tree on the bottom of the image below is banded to be cut for future use. It has grown underneath the rest of the trees, and is growing almost sideways at the top. The tree is still alive, but not getting as much sunlight as the surrounding trees. The tree on the right is a dead tree, also banded to be used this fall. Once these trees are removed, the sky will open up, and the surrounding trees will have more of a chance to grow and expand their canopies.

Another important factor is the path for the tree to fall. When you chop down a huge tree, there is always a chance that it will take some of the surrounding trees with it. It is better to find a path for the tree to fall that doesn’t wreak major havoc on the surrounding trees. And since we are felling these trees for firewood, it is important to have a good access point for the truck so that we can winch the trees out with relative ease.

Back to type of wood. We tested the dead standing trees by chopping away at them with an axe. If they had a nice ring to them, the trees were solid, and good for firewood. We wrapped these trees with two bands of orange tape to indicate that they were ready for use this fall. (We didn’t start the double wrap until after this tree..) Dead trees are ready to cut, split and use right away.

The single band wrap was for trees that are to be cut this year and used later. Trees that are cut alive, or green, take about a year to dry out, and then they are ready to be sliced into rounds and split. It is okay to cut the green wood, but it is difficult to split it because of all the moisture present in the cells. The plan that we have come up with is to cut the tree one year, cut and split it the next, and then burn it the following year. That way the firewood is given a chance to cure, and is great for burning!

It is important to leave dead trees for wildlife too. Ants, beetles, birds, squirrels, raccoons, mushrooms, etc. need homes and food too. We left rotton trees, or trees that had a lot of evidence of animal life alone. There were some trees up for debate here, but we didn’t end up with too much of a feud (for now anyway).

The above tree is home to a whole colony of puffball mushrooms. This picture is only one of the stumps in the small area that is covered with puffballs. They seemed to have taken over. All the trees were elm, and I have always looked for morel mushrooms under dead elm trees, so there might be a connection here as well.

slightly broken heart

November 21, 2009

When we were out collecting firewood this morning my dad came up with this beautiful trivet/wall hanging. I remember him making many trivets when I was little, by carefully slicing logs into thin pieces. One year for Christmas he made trivets as gifts for everyone. This one is particularly nice, and we aren’t sure if it will break all the way through, or stay together! It also looks to me as though there are two eyes staring brightly out! The crack down the middle was the home of some ants, so we made sure to carefully remove them all.

Making trivets is really easy. You can slice the wood with a chainsaw, or a simple wood saw (what I would use). The result is always unique, and often very beautiful. Sometimes the trivets will crack when the wood dries out, and this adds more character.

firewood (logistics)

November 2, 2009

My dad and I collect firewood in the fall. It seems to have gone from canning season (I canned what might be one of my last jars of spiced pickled pears last Thursday) to firewood collecting season. The weather is perfect, and I actually look forward to spending all Saturday or Sunday morning outside.

Trees Standing

Here is how it goes. My dad scouts, measures, and takes care of general logistics, which there happen to be a lot of! He locates the logs and figures out how to winch them up the hill to the cutting/splitting station. He works with Yogi, who is usually wielding the chain saw. They are on their way up the hill here, probably headed to get supplies to chop things. My dad got a new chain saw this year. It is about twice as big as our old one, and Yogi is able to saw much larger logs. I didn’t get any pictures of the chainsaw in action this week, but will post some more later.

Log and Chain

This particular log is tied up with the chain and hook at the end of the winch. The winch is attached to the Power Wagon positioned (stuck) up the hill. As the winch reels in the cord the log is pulled up next to the splitter where it is sawed and passed on to me.

Adjusting Log

Yogi is pushing the log away from the standing tree to the right. It was stuck here on its way up. Sometimes the logs need to be rolled all the way over, and sometimes they need to be adjusted just a little to make it around trees and other barriers.

Wenching Log

One of the most important elements of our operation is the Dodge Power Wagon. We use it for hauling wood, hauling the splitter, winching large logs out of the woods, and storing supplies.The Power Wagon is a beast! It was built sometime in the 50s (I think), and is still going strong.

Measuring Stick

This white stick is the measure of how long the firewood needs to be. My dad measured exactly how long the logs could be and still fit into the stove, and then cut the measuring stick accordingly. My dad usually holds the stick against the log, and then Yogi cuts a mark into the log, and then goes back and chops all the pieces at once. It is a two person process, for efficiency as well as safety. One of the big rules that we have is that no one is to operate the chain saw (or splitter) alone!!

Setting Up Splitter

The splitter has been staying out in the woods this fall. We cover it up with a tarp when we aren’t using it, and then it is ready to go when we return. This happens to be my tool of choice. I love splitting the logs, making sure that all the pieces will be a good size for burning. It is a little like a puzzle, trying to figure out where to start splitting, how to avoid knots in the logs, etc. And when you are operating the splitter you get to smell the freshly split wood. There is nothing sweeter, and more reminiscent of fall than the smell of freshly split wood (mixed with exhaust fumes from the chainsaw and splitter of course). There are often beautiful colors, reds, oranges, and the occasional dark brown of walnut (not the best wood to burn, but exceptionally beautiful when freshly split).


My dad splitting some troublesome pieces. Sometimes when the logs have a big knot I pass them on to him and he somehow manages to break them up into nice little pieces.

Ant Nest

A freshly split piece of locust happens to be the home of some carpenter ants. The pieces that have the ants are put in a separate pile to be used quickly, or to wait a year for the ants to move, so that they don’t invade and eat the woodpile/house.

Papa with TruckMy dad, the man behind all the operations, with his faithful truck!

ChestnutInNestI got a few chestnuts for planting last week. They are now situated in the field in front of my house. I got directions for planting from John Wittrig, owner of J & B Chestnut Farm in Winfield, Iowa. He gave me some to plant from the prized trees in their “North Lot.” According to John, in order for chestnuts to really produce, there needs to be at least two of them. I had already planted 2 seedlings about a month ago, and thought that it might be a good idea to add some more to the field (just in case). I planted 15, so I will have lots of extra seedlings next summer. Just let me know if you want one, and I will save you one for next year.

Chestnut in Cardboard

I used a piece of cardboard to mark my spot, and to mulch the chestnuts and protect them from weeds. I made holes into the cardboard where the chestnuts were to be planted.

DiggingToolTo plant the nuts, I fluffed up the soil a little with a digging tool, and then stuck my dibber down in to make a hole.Dibber The chestnuts should be buried about 2 or so inches down in the earth, and I covered the tops with loose soil. Finished PlotAfter I planted the nuts, I replaced the cardboard, and covered the area with chicken wire to protect against little (and big) animals eating the nuts. I used some logs around the outside of the plot to hold the chicken wire down. I am kind of curious to see how many nuts actually survive the winter, moles, voles, deer, mice, etc. that might come across them, even with the little bit of protection there. I guess that they make it in nature, so some will probably survive!