Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Cutting down trees is often part of homestead life, but too often much of the tree isn’t used, just discarded or burned in open piles. There’s a lot of carbon, nutrients, and solar energy locked up in that wood, which no sustainably-minded homestead should waste.
On our homestead, we look on trees like we do hogs: There’s a lot more value there than just the prime cuts, and it should all be put to good use. Whether we’re processing a pig or a tree, we have a plan to ensure minimal waste and maximum benefit. Here’s a look at how we break down an especially abundant and useful tree, one that is simultaneously native and invasive: the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).
Why Cut Trees?
Trees may be the lungs of the planet, but they’re not all created equal. Forests can be overcrowded, leading to disease or stunted tree growth. Former prairies or glades may be encroached on by trees in the absence of fire or other factors, leading to a loss of biodiversity and habitat. Some species may have lost their value in the modern world; young elms today are unlikely to attain their historic glory, as Dutch Elm Disease will almost certainly strike them down before their prime.
Other species take advantage of human disturbance to expand beyond their normal habitat; Eastern Red Cedars are particularly aggressive at establishing undesirable monocultures in the absence of fire or other management. Like a herd of animals, keeping a forest of trees healthy requires thinning the herd now and then, and making proper use of the results. On our homestead, cedars are everywhere, colonizing pastures and choking woodlands, so every winter we set forth to reduce their numbers without wasting their resources.
Clockwise from upper left: Small-medium cedar logs ready for milling; setting up a portable sawmill; fresh-cut cedar lumber; a garden shed built from on-farm cedar lumber.
Our largest trees have trunks over 2’ in diameter; we consider trunks down to around 5” diameter or so useful for the following:
Lumber: Many of our trunks become lumber, using a portable sawmill we hire by the day once we’ve hauled enough logs to be worth the time. The rot-resistant cedar is an excellent outdoor building material, which we’ve used to construct four outbuildings and other infrastructure. We’ve also sold lumber to folks for uses including barn siding, garden beds, and porch decking.
Fence posts: Trunks from 6”-9” wide make excellent fence posts. We cut these 10’ long and sink them in a 2’-3’ hole dug by our tractor-auger, connecting them with welded-wire paneling or tensioned electric line. Thinner saplings can be lashed to T-posts to support fence extensions aimed at deer exclusion.
Cut-off stumps and other odd trunk chunks can be cured as firewood. While cedar firewood is not advisable for use in indoor wood stoves, due to its tendency to soot up a chimney, its hot burn is great for outdoor furnaces or other fires. For years we sold truckloads of cedar stumps and other cured scrap to a nearby dairy which used an outdoor furnace to heat the dairy and the pasteurizer.
Milling logs produces a lot of scrap material, mostly the bark-covered outer slabs from initially squaring the log. These can be used for fencing, whether laid out like a split-rail fence, attached upright to braces like a picket fence, or attached sideways to brace fence posts. Cured, they also make excellent firewood for outdoor use; we use piles of milling scrap to cook down maple sap in spring and heat hog-scalding water in fall. We also use them to fill muddy spots in our farm roads.
From left: Two kinds of fencing using milling scraps; a “rail” fence using cedar poles and T-posts; orchard fencing using cedar posts with milling scrap frames along with wire panels and electric line; pole bean trellises using cedar saplings.
Small trees, those under ~4”-5” in diameter, have different uses than their bigger siblings.
Trellises: Tall, thin saplings shorn of branches make great tripod trellises for growing pole beans and other vining plants.
Fence rails: We’ve stacked thinner trunks between T-posts to make a form of solid rail fence.
Chipping: Described in more detail below; straight saplings make excellent chipper food.
Garden/orchard bed-edge logs: To define growing areas, we use many long, straight, thin trunks to lay out berms along topographic contours in our orchard and elsewhere. This makes it easy to identify the bed location, to build a gently raised bed, and to help break up surface water movement during Missouri’s strong storms.
Clockwise from upper left: a prepped chipping pile of cedar branches; using a DR chipper; fresh cedar mulch; burning cedar scrap in a biochar pit.
Cedars are very bushy, and dealing with the copious branches is a major time-sink. We separate green branches from dead ones.
Chipping: Cedar mulch is a wonderful resource. We use a DR brand chipper that runs off our tractor’s PTO, a very efficient arrangement that eliminates a separate engine to maintain. Homestead-scale chippers like this require you to do some branch prep beforehand, so the material will fit through the relatively narrow chute; we prep and stack our branches in large organized piles to make the chipping easy and efficient. These piles always reduce to less mulch than we’d like, but it’s a great way to use the resource. Small sapling trunks can also be chipped.
Brush piles & gulley fill: Branches which don’t fit our chipping needs (too small, too bushy, or too twisted) can be used to make brush piles for wildlife, or packed into gulleys to help control erosion. We try not to pile up too much cedar in any given location, as once it’s dry it presents a fire hazard in Missouri’s hot, dry summers.
Cedars, especially large ones, tend to have thick, gnarly dead branches below their living crown. These can be pretty obnoxious, but we’ve found ways to use them anyway.
Biochar: over the last few years we’ve been experimenting with making biochar from dry cedar waste, whether dead branches or green junk we’ve let dry for a year. Based on inspiration from a 2009 MOTHER EARTH NEWS article on biochar, we burn all this material in a trench, then cover it with soil while the coals are still hot, producing a charcoal-like substance. Though potentially low in nutrients immediately after production, in the long-term biochar can greatly improve soil by enhancing water retention, improving soil texture, housing diverse and abundant microbial life, and retaining nutrients. We’ve been happy with the preliminary results of making and using biochar, particularly from material that would otherwise go to waste.
Brush piles: This material, too, can be piled up for wildlife habitat, but carries the same fire risk, so we don’t do too much of that.
By separating trees this way, we’ve been able to earn some kind of return from virtually every part of the tree. Lumber, mulch, fencing, and firewood all directly contribute to our homestead’s finances and functions, while creating wildlife habitat, erosion control, and soil improvements with even the worst materials. For our sustainably-minded homestead, it’s very satisfying to reduce our waste stream and get the most out of natural materials on hand.
All photos by Joanna Reuter
Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.