Cutting Down Trees
The age-old question has always been when and if you should cut down a tree. That is the dilemma that I am facing this fall.
At Soggy Bottom, we heat the house with firewood. There is a certain comfort that comes from wood heat. If you have ever warmed your buns while standing in front of the fireplace, you understand. The waves of heat that emanate from our woodstove are satisfying. It has been about 10 years since we turned on the furnace. If we keep the doors of our bedrooms open at night, the whole house stays warm. Some winter nights, I am in shorts and a tee shirt. My comfort temperature is much lower than Ellen’s, so the temps inside the house are often cozy (hot to me) to accommodate her.
Working from home has slightly increased our wood consumption. We tend to let the fire die down by mid-day to prevent overheating the house. The need for heat decreases with a normal day’s afternoon increase of temperature and warmth from cooking dinner and we often receive significant solar gain from southwest facing windows. Some nights we don’t need an evening fire. When we were travelling to our offices for work, the fire would die quicker, and I’d usually need to light a fire when I got home. Now that we mostly work from home, we can tend to the fire throughout the day.
Over the last 10 years, we have worked hard to insulate and tighten up the house. We added R-30 to the entire house when we had the roof replaced. This added to the R-value of the original insulation. We added a layer of 1-inch rigid insulation to the walls before we sided the house. New windows and doors to increase our energy efficiency. Spray foam insulation under the house finished off the protection from the chill of Soggy Bottom winters.
When we first moved in, there were enough fallen trees in the yard that we could collect and stockpile wood for the whole winter. The clean-up took quite some time, so the stockpile included several cords of alder, maple, fir, and ash. Over time, weI found we needed to purchase a cord of wood from our local tree service in addition to the winter storm blown material. Usually, we purchase Douglas fir. The aged wood splits nicely, lights quickly, and makes a satisfying fire.
The 16 acres of forest on the farm is covered with a Forest Stewardship Plan. A Forest Stewardship Plan (also known as a Forest Management Plan) helps individual landowners manage their forest to reach individual ownership objectives while protecting and/or enhancing forest resources. It gives us property tax savings but also helps direct our actions in the forest. Forests, like ours and many others in King County, have been highly disturbed by past actions. At Soggy Bottom, we are lucky to have a nice second growth forest with a diverse stand of trees. The Soggy Bottom Forest has mixed aged conifer stands of Western red cedar, Western hemlock, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce. It also contains deciduous species like Big Leaf maples, Red alder, Bitter cherry, Western cottonwood, and many types of Willows.
Part of our Forest Stewardship Plan included incorporating more conifers into about 3 acres of the forest. There were 6 areas throughout the forest that had a high density of Red alder and few conifers. Natural succession, also known as ecological succession, is the process by which biological communities replace each other in a relatively predictable sequence, based on environmental changes that occur within the habitat. In our forest, this means going from open land (after some disturbance) to deciduous trees to confers. In nature, the Red alder comes first and grows fast. These trees actually fix nitrogen to prepare the soils for the next conifer generation. The Red alder’s life span of 60-80 years is comparatively short by forest standards. As the Red alders die and break apart, their branches and tops fall to the soil and decompose. This creates the foundation of the organic matter that makes a bio-rich soil. It also creates openings for light to reach the conifers that establish in the understory. The light and added nutrients allow the conifers to shoot up to the sky. This process creates the wonderful forests of the Northwest and our Soggy Bottom woods. In 2014, we took down 50 Red alder trees to allow light into the forest for 300 newly planted cedar, hemlock, spruce, and fir trees. The wood of those Red alder trees heated our home for two seasons.
Here on Soggy Bottom farm, we like to plant things. We have planted over 1,000 trees since we moved here in 2012. We plant trees both in the forest as well as the home/farm side. We plant native plants in the forest and on the home/farm side we plant a mixture of native and food crop trees along with ornamentals in the garden. The King Conservation District has a native bare-root plant sale (www.kingcd.org) that offers inexpensive trees, shrubs, and ground covers. Bare-root plants (dormant plants sold with no pot and soil) are a cost effective to get a lot of plants on the ground. This means many of our new trees start out quite small. There is a certain satisfaction of watching a tree grow year after year.
Back to the question, when and if you should cut down a tree. As you can see, we need trees in our life, both living and “dead”. We appreciate the majesty of the forest, and trees have meaning for us beyond their function. In a practical way trees have immense value in our forests, in our viewshed, in our neighborhood, and our world. We also value the heat that they produce to warm our home. Currently, we responsibly choose trees to thin from the forest. These individuals are selected so they don’t take away from the health of the forest but, in fact, improve it.
This fall, we decided to take another 10 Red alder trees down for the winter 2023/2024 firewood season. We cut a year to allow the wood time to dry and season. The bottom line is we think long and hard about trees that we use here on the farm, and we plan ahead. We believe in the interdependence of humans and trees. We think about the function of trees in the ecosystem, how they fit in the forest, and how they warm our home. To answer the question, each tree has its place, and we carefully consider each time we make the choice to cut one down. We also take care to plant new trees to increase the diversity and replenish the forest so that we do no harm.
Come for a walk with us in the woods and we’ll show you.