Don’t grow your own fire­wood

Hav­ing a stand of trees just for the pur­pose of fire­wood is a com­plete waste of space.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS SHERYN CLOTHIER

When I was first plan­ning my block, I con­sid­ered plant­ing a stand of gums in the far back cor­ner for fire­wood. It is a scheme I had seen on other small farms and hav­ing a sup­ply of fire­wood was on my list of sus­tain­able things to do.

An ex­pe­ri­enced old treecrop­per ad­vised me against it.

“Plant trees,” he said. “You will al­ways have fire­wood.”

A decade later I bless this man for his ad­vice. I now firmly be­lieve trees should ful­fil mul­ti­ple pur­poses, only one of which – their fi­nal one – is fire­wood.

My 3.5ha looked large and empty 10 years ago. To­day, I no longer have the space for some­thing as sin­gle pur­pose as a fire­wood block. Trees around here have to jus­tify their ex­is­tence and I’m quite de­mand­ing. They pro­vide shade or fod­der for our an­i­mals, fix ni­tro­gen in the soil, sta­bilise banks, break the wind, pro­vide fruit or nuts for our fam­ily, and food for our bees or the birds. When they have fin­ished do­ing that, or when they get too big, or when I want to plant some­thing else, they be­come fire­wood.

My first piece of ad­vice is not to plant a wood­lot just for fire­wood, but do plant trees which make good fire­wood. Plant a se­lec­tion of trees that ful­fil dif­fer­ent func­tions and ma­ture at dif­fer­ent times so you have an on­go­ing, sus­tain­able source of fire­wood. I have listed some sug­ges­tions (see pages 49-51), but it is more im­por­tant that you choose trees that will do well in your con­di­tions.

1 Plan ahead

Sus­tain­abil­ity is not a short-term plan and a good wood­lot is per­pet­ual for gen­er­a­tions to come, so think about har­vest­ing while you’re plant­ing.

Do the math

How many trees do you want to use each year? It’s a good ques­tion and is go­ing to de­pend on how ef­fi­cient your fire is and how quickly your trees grow.

To give you some idea, we have a large house with an open fire which I use ex­trav­a­gantly. It can be burn­ing all day in win­ter, and we bud­get on seven tight­ly­packed cu­bic me­tres of wood each year. Some peo­ple only use two.

De­pend­ing on what and when you harvest, seven cu­bic me­tres could be from 21 young trees to two or three big old ones, but a me­dian would be about 7-8 trees a year.

Leave some ac­cess space

You need space to fell the ma­ture tree, and you need to be able to get the trailer or trac­tor to it to cart the wood out. You are go­ing to be older when you are har­vest­ing your fire­wood, so make it easy on your­self.

Stag­ger your trees

Grow­ing your own fire­wood is not an allin, all-out job. You want a few trees each year for the rest of your be­got­ten life. If you have the space to plant a few ex­tra, you can share them with a mate who helps you to chop them down and up, mak­ing har­vest­ing a more so­cia­ble and eas­ier task.

How to plant

Plant your trees close to­gether, be­tween 1.2m-2m apart. You want tall trees with a straight grain that are easy to split and close neigh­bours will en­cour­age this up­right growth. Close plant­ing will also de­ter weed growth un­der­neath.

Mix your trees up. Don’t plant a block of trees all the same type, same age. A mixed wood­lot is more multi-pur­pose and sus­tain­able which means if it’s man­aged prop­erly, it will con­tinue per­pet­u­ally.

Some trees will en­cour­age oth­ers to grow (com­pan­ion trees). Some you will harvest in as lit­tle as six years, leav­ing more space for their neigh­bours. Some you will cop­pice, cut­ting back to the stump which will quickly re­grow and re­place it­self.

The big­gest cost of plant­ing out a wood­lot

It is not the tree them­selves that are the ma­jor cost. It is the fenc­ing and the time re­quired to do it, and then the time re­quired to plant them out.

Trees can be sourced from other trees. Lit­er­ally plant­ing an acorn in the ground is how na­ture has planted oak trees for mil­lions of years and it works won­der­fully, es­pe­cially in oak-leaf com­post.

4tips for main­tain­ing your wood­lot

Once planted (and plant well, with com­post and mulch to get them grow­ing), mark where each tree is. One sug­ges­tion is a me­tre-high pole, colour co-or­di­nated for each species. In spring, the grass (and maybe also other weeds) is go­ing to grow

“Trees should ful­fil mul­ti­ple pur­poses, only one of which – their fi­nal one – is fire­wood.”

and smother your new young tree. For the first cou­ple of years, in spring and au­tumn, you are go­ing to have to go and find each tree and ‘re­lease’ it from the over­pow­er­ing weeds. Hav­ing a lo­ca­tor pole makes this job much eas­ier.

If you have pests, in­vest in some­thing like KBC shel­ters. For $6.50 they pro­vide pro­tec­tion from rab­bits and pukekos, a ther­mal shel­ter, and make lo­cat­ing (and even spray­ing) easy. The bonus? They are re-us­able.

Like all plants, fire­wood trees need food to grow strong and fast. Fer­tilise or mulch with com­post to get faster, bigger wood and health­ier trees.

Prune to re­move any dou­ble-lead­ers and open-up any­thing be­ing used as a wind break. You want these to fil­ter and slow the wind, not stop and dump it.


The idea is to harvest your fire­wood trees be­fore they grow into huge, dan­ger­ous, gnarly and hard-to-split be­he­moths. Wellfer­tilised trees in the right con­di­tions can be ready five years af­ter plant­ing, when they are still small enough to fell eas­ily and don’t need to be split.

Re­move al­ter­nate trees to leave space for oth­ers, or choose a va­ri­ety of woods for the fire, ie some for high heat, some for easy split­ting into kin­dling. You can also choose to cut out the largest or just take out any you don’t par­tic­u­larly want.

You want to fell your fire­wood tree in win­ter – at least four weeks be­fore bud burst in spring – for sev­eral rea­sons. • it gets you warm and it gets the job out of the way be­fore the busy grow­ing and hol­i­day sea­sons; • im­por­tantly for de­cid­u­ous trees (those that lose their leaves in win­ter), by this time of year they will al­ready be halfdry as they have half the amount of sap run­ning through them in win­ter as they do in sum­mer; • they will have less su­gar in them which is what fungi (rot) grows on, so there is less chance of this too; • if you leave a fallen log to burst into bud (or if it has leaves/nee­dles on it, for these to wither and die) this will draw even more mois­ture out of the wood. • if you are cop­pic­ing your trees, you’ll get good re­growth in spring. • most of the trees I’m about to men­tion, if felled in win­ter, will be ready to burn the fol­low­ing win­ter. The ex­cep­tions are ch­est­nut, elm and gum and most conifers (in­clud­ing com­mon ra­di­ata pine) which take longer to dry prop­erly.

you want to fell your fire­wood trees in win­ter, at least four weeks be­fore bud burst in spring.


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