The case for planting trees

So many possibilities to choose from as a subject for my first new blog post since May, now that I’m free of book-writing duties… Maybe a report from my time last week at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London (and at the City of London Magistrate’s Court watching my dear wife being committed for trial)? Or the ongoing, pointless debacle of Brexit and its oh-so-predictable descent into constitutional crisis and incipient authoritarianism. But that’s all quite raw and I need something gentler to ease my way back into the blogosphere, so I think I’ll talk instead about trees – and in particular about the case for planting them vis-à-vis allowing natural woodland generation, as discussed by George Monbiot in a recent article.

I’ve made something of a habit in recent years of writing blog posts criticizing various positions of George’s so let me begin by stating once again that this isn’t because I think his writing is especially wrongheaded but on the contrary because he’s virtually the only mainstream journalist in the UK who consistently focuses on issues that really matter with a depth that merits critical discussion. And in fact there’s not much that I disagree with in his article. But I’d like to elaborate on a few points.

In his article, George decries

“conservation woodlands” that look nothing like ecological restoration and everything like commercial forestry: the ground blasted with glyphosate (a herbicide that kills everything), trees planted in straight rows, in plastic tree guards attached with cable ties to treated posts. It looks hideous, it takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest and, in remote parts of the nation, it is often the primary cause of plastic litter.

He argues instead for natural regeneration of woodland, and suggests that government woodland grants should be devoted primarily to funding it rather than to tree-planting initiatives. In this, he’s on message with a strong current of thinking in the permaculture world – don’t plant, regenerate!

Now, if I was an environmentally-minded person in possession of a parcel of land and with no other particular objectives for it I’d probably go along with the natural generation advice. But I’d like to raise a couple of broad issues that complicate things.

First up, having planted seven acres of woodland myself fifteen years ago I’m here to tell you that it needn’t be quite as awful as George suggests. Here, for example, is a photo of part of our plantation taken about ten years ago in George’s ‘looks hideous’ phase, plastic tree guards and all, looking down upon a part of our establishing market garden.

And here’s a photo taken from the same viewpoint two weeks ago.

Bearing in mind that most of the trees in the picture are notoriously slow-growing hornbeams, I’d suggest that our plantation isn’t doing too badly in ‘resembling’ a natural forest, and maybe ‘a decade’ rather than ‘decades’ is a more accurate timeframe to hold in mind for the process.

I removed the plastic tree guards visible in the first picture, reused some of them for other plantings, gave some of them to other people, got some of them back and reused them again, then finally put most of them in a skip a couple of years ago. They definitely come with an environmental price tag, but there are ways of reducing it. And they do a job which still has to be done with natural regeneration. Yes, brambles and blackthorn may protect establishing trees from deer, rabbits, voles, sheep and suchlike – but not always very effectively or quickly.

Here’s a shot of our woodshed from a couple of weeks ago, with a fraction of the thinnings I’ve cut from our plantation getting readied for use. We’re now producing winter heating and hot water for two buildings from our plantation, with enough left over for some modest income from firewood. Meanwhile, we’re getting numerous other benefits from the woodland – not least in terms of wildlife. The trees and the herbaceous layer beneath them have become a favoured haunt for numerous birds, insects, mammals and even reptiles in marked contrast to the arable field you can see at the bottom right of the aerial shot of our farm heading this website.

Therefore, to anyone who’s contemplating planting trees on a piece of land because they have specific goals for it, as we did – wind protection, privacy, nitrogen fixation, firewood and timber, amenity value, fruit and nuts, even wildlife habitat or carbon sequestration at a stretch – I say don’t be put off by the permaculture purists who insist on natural regeneration. Go for it.

Another aspect of permaculture purism concerning trees is the notion that they’re a low value land use best avoided on decent agricultural land and relegated to the furthest reaches of one’s property or, at landscape scale, to far off wastelands. It’s interesting in the light of that to look at Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s The Isolated State (1826), which was based on a careful geographical analysis of the costs and benefits of zoning different crops in a substantially pre fossil-fuel agrarian economy where land transport costs were high, and so were urban demands for firewood and construction timber. In that context, von Thünen placed the woodland zone serving his hypothetical settlement close to it, second only to gardens and dairies, while placing production of grain and meat further out from the settlement. Having basically hand logged a proportion of my timber and hand harvested my grain over the years I can attest to his wisdom. Another case for ignoring received wisdom: put the woodland close to home.

A final and rather unhappy thought on the case for tree planting. Where I live the main pioneer tree that you see regenerating everywhere is ash, which is currently being hammered by ash dieback disease with mortalities reportedly between 70 and 90%. More generally, the trajectory of climate change is such that trees regenerating now may not prosper some years hence. Though I usually subscribe to the doctrine that ‘nature knows best’ when it comes to organizing wild biodiversity, human fiddling has now taken us into realms where there may be a case for a bit more forward planning (i.e. further fiddling) on our part. Don’t worry, I’m not turning full ecomodernist and claiming that we now need to bioengineer the entire world. But I do think there’s a case at the margin for some thoughtful human tree planting in service of present objectives with an eye on the future. It probably adds to the biodiversity…

Turning just briefly to the second broad issue, I also have some reservations over George’s enthusiasm for government grants to fund natural woodland generation. In fact, though I’m far from a free market ultra I have some reservations about government grants for most things because I think the potential for perverse incentives is high and they prompt questions about the market or social/policy failures that underlie the need for the grant-making. For his part, George has campaigned tirelessly and for the most part persuasively against the implicit grant of EU agricultural subsidies that reward landowners simply for owning land. Grants that reward landowners for simply owning land and allowing trees to grow on it strike me as only a small notch further up this scale, so his advocacy for it surprises me a little.

A further issue is monitoring and compliance. Under the old Woodland Grant Scheme the Forestry Commission took no interest in the plantings they funded after ten years – but at least they ensured that grant-holders had first gone to the trouble of establishing a viable plantation, and it’s unlikely that anyone who’d done that would uproot all their hard work a decade later. With natural generation, on the other hand, a decade of nature’s work can easily be undone in a few minutes with a flail mower. Who would monitor this? For how long? With what sanctions? And at what cost?

I’d prefer to go von Thünen’s way. An old saying has it that “the wood that pays is the wood that stays” – what we need to do is figure out how to start developing a woodland estate that ‘pays’ us by serving long-term human needs in an age of climate change and energy descent. These needs include wildlife and natural biodiversity but aren’t restricted to them. This seems to me preferable to spending precious public money now on paying landowners to let their land run wild for a few years before other priorities doubtless insinuate themselves. To do so, I’d place more emphasis on wider social change than on grant-making.

47 thoughts on “The case for planting trees

  1. A recent conversation I had with a friend about the thousands of acres of plantation eucalyptus near me raises a caution that some people would find surprising. At the time the tree plantations were being considered the land had just come out of sugar cane. One of the few viable options for commercial use of tens of thousands of acres of ex-sugar land was forestry. Naturally, there was a lot of opposition for a variety of reasons, with letter writing campaigns, negative testimony at land use hearings and even demonstrations. Even so, the trees were planted.

    Now, about 25 years later, a few thousand acres have been harvested for lumber (mostly sent to China), with the remainder set for use as fuel for a wood burning power plant. The tree plantation owner wants to manage the plantations for continuous production of fuel on much of the plantation land and branch out into more valuable lumber species on the rest.

    It is somewhat ironic, but the same people (including my friend) who were so set against planting the trees in the first place now do not want them removed. It seems that the carbon they have sequestered cannot be released back to the atmosphere, even if new trees are to be planted. The catchphrase being used by opponents to their removal is that “burning trees is worse than burning coal”.

    Everyone who plants trees should be cautioned that even though the trees are planted on private property, public policy could easily shift to prevent their removal for any purpose. The danger that one’s trees may not be cut will increase with age and size. I suggest that people who want to plant for woody fuel and biomass should utilize very small and fast growing species that can be harvested before they begin to look anything like a forest.

    • Apparently.

      How about yours? Small and Delicious Life has been quiet since June. Is there a manuscript in the works??

      Can’t wait for all this great writing to hit the bookstores… 🙂

  2. Perhaps too fastidious for our purposes here… but a quibble just the same:

    George parenthetically claims that glyphosate is herbicide that kills everything. And it just isn’t so. Indeed the list of plants that glyphosate will not kill grows longer by the month. One might even ponder whether glyphosate will disappear quicker due to lawsuits about cancer causation or its mere failure to be useful.

  3. “…it’s unlikely that anyone who’d done that would uproot all their hard work a decade later.”

    However, whoever inherits or eventually purchases the land might bulldoze it for a housing estate or some commercial development. To prevent this from ever happening, the current landowner could create a “conservation easement”.

    Farmland, working forests, natural rainforests, or a combination of land attributes like this can be maintained and protected indefinitely on private property this way, despite the pressures of encroaching ‘development’ and rising property values.

    • In a similar scenario, I was recently looking at a hectare of land within a town that had an interesting covenant on it. The previous owner had had himself buried there, and this appeared to be putting the building companies off. Worth looking into I assume, if slowing ‘development’ becomes a dying wish.

  4. Growing up in an urban environment far from most sapling-bothering wildlife, the local council still adopted the belts and-braces approach to tree planting, probably because their efforts were often put paid to by, I imagine, unruly folk, whippersnappers if you will. But however it gets established (though the Steve Jones hierarchy linked to in the Monbiot article does have its ‘slow woodland’ appeal), I wonder if there’s a sensible hierarchy for how wood(land) should ‘pay’ humans, as you mention in the last paragraph? I tend to consign burning wood for heating as a last resort, though one has to heat! And where people attempt fossil-fuel free living, even if they don’t need to heat their dwellings or water, they still need to cook, for which wood fuel often comes in handy. There will be various happy mediums for different environments and needs I guess. Like the way Jean Pain apparently used his few acres of woodland in the south of France. He claimed the heat from composting woodchips made from collected brash was greater than the heat given off from simply burning the material, and heated water for his radiators in this way. I think you nail it really: rather than grants, wider social change would be good.

    • The Wikipedia piece on Jean suggests he and his wife had a 596 acre timber tract. On the larger side of ‘small’ where I’m from.

      But there is a fascinating angle to this, regardless of how much timber Jean was working with… the heat yield from burning vs composting. Chemical oxidation (burning) vs biological oxidation (composting)… rapid vs slow. The ability to recover the heat produced (burning allowing much heat to escape through the flu).. and the demands for heat. One suspects it would be difficult to fry an egg with a compost pile, while heating water seems a very compost friendly task.

      Making compost from logs is far more difficult than making compost from leaves, twigs, and duff. And burning duff is a messy business. So keep the small pieces for the compost pile, and larger pieces for the cook stove.

      • I use a small Vermeer chipper to produce mulch from small stems and branches (under 6″ dia). I have not quantified the fuel use per unit output, but it uses a fair bit of fuel. Pain uses a tractor mounted chipper, but the fuel use would be similar.So composting energy recovery should be adjusted for the fuel used in reducing the source wood to compostable size.

        That said, having a compost pile provide heat all winter would be very convenient. Beats repeated trips to the woodshed in the snow and rain.

        The most effective way to use a compost pile for space heating would be to install the compost pile in a bin under the floor and let the rejected heat waft up into the living space through a grate. Piles the size Pain uses would require a second floor living space.

        Cutting up logs with a chainsaw and using a splitter to break the rounds down into stove wood use far less fuel than a chipper per unit wood, but you’re right about heat loss through wood stove flues. I guess there will always be higher heat losses at the higher temperature differential needed to cook food.

        • I’ve read somewhere that a second floor living space has also been used to live above the livestock… the critters acting as a passive heat source. Not sure I want to sign up for that, but I suppose if necessary I could find a way to tolerate it. Inuits manage to deal with far colder temps than I’m ever exposed to… where there’s a will.

          I was going to smirk at the use of a splitter – my axe and a maul with wedges are all I’ve used to this point… but I am quickly coming to a point where my body is hinting to my brain that something like a splitter might be a worthy acquisition.

          • My 240 VAC splitter runs off my solar system (120/240 AC inverter output). I don’t think my 71-year-old body could live without it. Tropical hardwoods can have very twisted grain and be very dense too.

            I have heated with wood since 1975 and just recently got the splitter. I still have wedges and mauls just in case.

            Of course there is also plenty of small wood around that could be cut by hand and not need splitting at all. I would switch to that if solar is no longer possible (collapse of civilization and all that). Got to plan ahead.

          • I once saw an old print of a Swiss farm girl stretched out asleep on the back of her cow in the living space of the farmstead home. Those follks lived simply. They supposedly also felt that the year consisted of “Five months of hell and seven months of bliss”. The hell was the planting/growing/harvesting period of the year.

          • I’ve read somewhere that a second floor living space has also been used to live above the livestock… the critters acting as a passive heat source.

            This seems to be common in some areas of Switzerland — and common-sensical, too!

      • Yes, seems Jean Pain was the caretaker of a large woodland. The two-part German doc (with English subtitles) on youtube states that over 5 days, Pain and his team cleared brush from 1 hectare of woodland, collecting 40 tons of material, chipping it via a tractor-mounted device and burning 500 litres of fuel in the process. The narrator goes on to say that this amount of brush, if burnt for heating, could replace 10,000 litres of oil. Pain favoured composting it for further energy gains, and this much compost looks to be the size of a small yurt.
        Gael Brown’s book The Water-Powered Compost Heater seems the most up to date source on more recent tinkerings along the line of Pain’s, most on a large farm scale.
        Seems the chipper/shredder is the key equipment. I wonder if one could be powered directly from PVs, and if so how many?

          • The compost heat idea has also been developed further by people in Germany and the Netherlands under the name BioMeiler (some google and youtube results in english). This includes some nice refinements.

            Ultimately, we need to bring the mastodons back: they would convert a young sapling into a shredded, humidified and bacterially inoculated pile of woodchips in short order!

        • collecting 40 tons of material, chipping it via a tractor-mounted device and burning 500 litres of fuel in the process

          That seems excessive.

          We do a lot of chipping. We have the local “do-gooders” collecting invasive Scotch Broom and delivering it to our goat feeders. When the goats are done with it, we run it though a tractor-mounted chipper.

          The 20 kW tractor-chipper consumes about two litres an hour. I have not actually weighed what we chip, but we can produce a “small yurt’s” worth of chipped material in 6-10 hours, which would be about 12-20 litres of fuel.

          Yea, many unknowns, at least one of which must be off by an order of magnitude for Pain to use so much fuel. Perhaps it was a large yurt. 🙂

          I wonder if one could be powered directly from PVs, and if so how many?

          This is not a PV-friendly application, in my opinion — at least not without a bank of batteries. Wood chipping has a high peak-to-average power need.

          If the chipper gets a big mouthful, we can nearly stall our two-cylinder, 20 kW diesel tractor, which says you’d need 20 kW of solar panels to do the job. But that only happens when you over-feed the chipper, so you might get away with 1/10th that amount with a battery bank to handle the peak needs.

          I’m a big fan of tractor-mounted accessories. We also have a tractor-mounted wood splitter and a tractor-mounted 15 kW generator we can use during power failures. Being on a tractor, it’s portable — we rotated among several houses last winter during an extended power outage, keeping everyone’s freezer happy.

          We run the tractor from biodiesel that we make from waste fryer oil, so it could be thought of as “zero-CO2,” depending on how much fossil sunlight went into the production of the fryer oil in the first place.

          • Thanks for the reference, Joe!

            One reason our result may differ is that the study you cite used huge tractors, with ten times the power of our little two cylinder!

            Without knowing too many details, unless they keep such huge machines busy at peak efficiency, they use a lot more fuel idling than our little tractor does. They undoubtedly have more peak power available for chipping huge logs, but if they’re feeding by hand, they are still running without load much of the time.

            So I’m not exactly standing behind my “order of magnitude” guesstimate, but that’s only a factor of two better than the study you cited. I’ll bet a 246 kW tractor uses more than twice the idle fuel that our 21 kW tractor does!

      • the video i have seen uses the dreaded plastic pipe to circulate water thru the compost pile .
        i use wood chips as either mulch or fuel for the wood stove , they burn hot enough to keep the secondary air burn going hense no smoke .

        • the video i have seen uses the dreaded plastic pipe to circulate water thru the compost pile

          All plastic is not created equal.

          The cheap stuff is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which has a nasty pollution signature and which melt at just a tad over the boiling point of water. I know people who built a wood-fired water heater for hydronic floor heating. They used cheap PVC in a sand bed over the fire box.

          Short story, they didn’t use anti-freeze, the pipes between the house and the wood burner froze and burst, the water drained out of the system while the wood was burning, and all the PVC melted into a glob.

          Spend a bit more and get cross-linked polyethylene (PEX), which is more environmentally-friendly to manufacture and has a higher melting point. It is very common for in-floor hydronic heating.

          But wait! There’s a salvage source you might be able to tap!

          Remember when solar swimming pool heaters were all the rage? They used a number of ~5mm tubes molded onto a flat backing, made from ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) rubber, which is fairly pricey, but which is free once the pool-owner tires of his solar heater and goes back to natgas or electric pool heat.

          EPDM is high-temp stable, and, unlike other plastics, is a great conductor of heat. We harvested a swimming-pool’s worth, and are experimenting with using it to move heat from compost to our greenhouse seed propagation tables.

          • Just to clarify, when I quoted a use of 500 litres of fuel in the Pain process, the impression I got from the film’s subtitling was that this included driving the truck/tractor etc to and from the forest over the five days. It was also around half a century ago, when engines generally were thirstier than they are today. The conclusion Pain made from his composting experiments was that he could benefit from one-fifth more energy than from simply burning the 40 tons.
            As Joshua mentions, further refinements to the approach have since been made, and maybe even someone somewhere is preparing to reincarnate the woolly mammoth. I kind of hope so as I have a short row of Osage Orange trees (Maclura Pomifera) and mammoths were supposedly the only thing that would eat the fruit.

  5. Pingback: The case for planting trees | Small Farm Future

  6. Nice to see the old crew assembling here with thought-provoking comments as ever…

    Joe’s point about opposition to felling trees is sobering. “Doing x is worse than burning coal” is becoming the motto of the decade, as the search to blame climate change on anything but fossil fuels hots up quicker than a climatologist’s temperature anomaly plot.

    Worthwhile point from Steve on conservation easements. Though I’d still prefer to work towards a world where looking after your woodlot from one generation to the next is plain common sense…

    Simon’s point on firewood as a last resort is interesting. When we planted our woodland we had some higher value uses in mind, and of course it’s great to do that for those who want to pursue that path. But – and here’s another permaculture heresy – I think it’s possible to spread oneself too thinly dreaming up endless product cycles and diversification strategies. I’ve come to the realization that I’m basically a veg grower, part-time stockman and writer. So I prefer to let the trees get on with work that requires no labour from me – wind protection, nitrogen fixation, wildlife value etc. – and concentrate my limited labour time in the woods to just a few things that I really want, namely nuts and firewood. But in a different economic situation I might invest more labour in them (and how gratifying it is, by the way, to put a ‘u’ in ‘labour’ after having my spellchecker on US English for the last year…)

    Fascinating discussion on compost vs logs and hot animals, so to speak. Another one for a different economic situation…

    Finally – Hi Ruben, yep the book is done. Or at least, my draft manuscript is with the publisher. Further info soon…

      • – Plant your agroforestry trees, whatever they are, or mould them using electric fencing
        – pollard those you wish to use as fuel
        – get a Kachelofen, Grundofen or the like with an integrated water heater and an insulated storage tank
        – watch the fire from small branches you harvested using hand tools

        Everything can be endlessly complicated.

        • The plastic required to coil through an 80-cubic metre mound of composting woodchips, such as Jean Pain used, put me off initially too. Then again, most buildings today use plenty of plastic water piping (it does have some advantages over alternatives, much that I guess we’re all becoming appalled by the stuff in its many forms) and I’m sure it could feasibly last a lifetime if the compost fork’s tines don’t puncture it. Maybe my inner purist needs to pipe down sometimes, so I’m having a rethink… Getting to grips with the rough C02 emission of a length of PTFE or similar could be a good place to start.

          All these things can become over-complicated, I agree, but to further reduce the comparably small (by Eastern European village standards) wood we burn, I’m open to other ideas, indeed it fascinates me. Right now I can see a neighbour has had delivered a small copse’s worth of huge beech trunks he’ll chainsaw, chop and burn this year. It strikes me there’s enough to very thickly clad at least one wall of his house – how much might that insulate? Let’s go further. Let’s say the neighbour’s a beekeeper. Bees regulate hive temperature at about 32-35C in the brood nest (I Googled that one)…. could we clad another wall with hives, then spend the winter making a ladder with the wood spared in order to reach the uppermost row? In short, I think it would be of benefit to not have to space heat much in winter, if at all. It would save me quite a lot of time for other things I might rather be doing, and yet I am slightly looking forward to lighting the first fire of the year, when the sun goes down, with paper, card, twigs and branches, in the kachelofen, any day now.

          • “Getting to grips with the rough C02 emission of a length of [plastic pipe for compost heat]…”

            My back-of-the-envelope calculations show that the production and consumption of petrol (or diesel) results in more CO2 emissions than the production and use of the same mass of polyethylene pipe.

            500 liters (roughly 400 kg) of diesel fuel was mentioned for powering the wood chipper.
            The same 400 kg of plastic would amount to more than a kilometer in pipe length (for 1″ diameter).
            The 500 liters of fuel is presumably burned every year.
            The plastic pipe may function for decades without needing to be replaced.

            Our society seems to tend toward “penny wise and pound foolish” when it comes to the environmental impact of saving a plastic bag, for example (wise nonetheless), and filling up the petrol tank.

          • For clarification, my calculations (mentioned above) considered fossil fuels, not biofuels.

    • Re: burning wood for energy and whether it’s a bad thing.

      I live in Sweden, where the large forest industry greenwashes itself with climate arguments in order to draw attention away from how old natural forests are cut down and how bad plantations are for biodiversity. Their arguments are that we should cut down as much forest as possible to substitute for fossil fuels (and replant, of course). Recently the green party(!) said that we should substitute all fossil-based transportation fuels with wood-based fuels.

      I don’t object to a little wood-burning to heat your house in winter. But I don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to keep driving cars and flying on the scale that we do, but supply the energy from wood instead of oil. Also, the carbon debt from clear-cutting is a real thing, at least on Sweden’s latitudes where the forest doesn’t grow all that fast. And a lot of the carbon is down in the ground with the mycorrhiza and it leaks out when you clear-cut.

      • I don’t mean to suggest that you or any other commenter here was advocating what I was arguing against! I just wanted to show where the resistance to burning wood comes from, at least in my case.

        • I certainly agree that biofuels can’t substitute for fossil fuels at present levels of total energy use and that it’s not always a good idea to fell trees. But it’s not always a bad idea either…

          BTW I’m now going to be offline for a couple of days.

  7. Yes, plant trees. I’ve mulled over the issue of how much intervention to take on reforestation, and have taken a sort of middle path. The land which we were fortunate to obtain and steward is roughly one third wooded, but was pasture with a few isolated trees till about fifteen years ago. Much of the land is in early succession, with small woody shrub ( sumac, prickly ash, dogwood and briars) crowding out the typical annuals, but I wanted to speed things up a bit. I’m cutting in narrow trails, and making small clearings to plant climax trees like maple and oak. The flatter, more “tillable” areas we are planting to chestnut and hazelnut on contour swales, ala Mark Shepard. This area will probably be silvopasture in the near future.

    Regarding long term climate considerations, I got guidance from a local professional forester, and he said they are actively researching what species to recommend to area woodland owners as they work to manage their stands. I am now also planting hackberry, which they predict will do well with the projected trends here in SW Wisconsin.

    Heating with wood- Each area will have very specific best answers, based on local carrying capacity and weather. We heat with wood, and I was curious and did a rough first pass calculation on how sustainable we were. Here is link to my blog entry on the subject.;postID=4441230276363121801;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=7;src=postname

  8. Chris,

    Good to see you back on line, and best wishes to La Brassicata in her forthcoming trial.

    One other point that George has made in the past is that the UK imports large numbers of ‘live plants’ including trees.

    This raises a range of issues but one is that we are constantly importing new plant diseases.

    He has called for a ban on live plant imports & that means setting up our own tree nurseries and/or going for more natural regeneration

  9. Hi Chris,
    Good to see you back in the blogosphere. I denfinitely concur: when it comes to planting trees, go for it if you have the opportunity to do so! Even if you only got a relatively small garden and/or are worried about them being to close to houses/buildings when they are fully grown: almost any decidous tree can be pollarded/coppiced (i.e. cut down to fit your property´s size), and they will still attract birds, insects, give you shade in these record breaking summers and keep the water in the ground much better than any lawn or flowerbed. There are tree species that especially benefit pollinators: willows, for example, provide them with their first food in early spring and it´s a joy to watch the first bumblebees of the year browsing amongst them. Nor does one willow necessarily look like the next: there are about a hundred different types, and their looks are really quite varied. Some grow tall and straight, others more shrub-like, going for width rather than height; some have got long, bright green leaves shaped like arrowheads, some almost round dark green ones. Their bark varies in colour from a bright reddish yellow (changing throughout the season) through a silvery grey to almost black; and that´s only willows I´ve just described. So apart from being useful trees can bring a lot of beauty to a plot of land, and at the danger of repeating myself: I can only encourage everyone to plant them.

  10. Hi Chris.
    In all the comments on this topic I was surprised that only Michael has picked up on the significant point, which is that with a well insulated house and an efficient stove, there should be no need for machinery to harvest wood. Small section wood cut with hand tools should be sufficient. Michael mentions Kachelofen masonry heaters. A cheaper option is a rocket stove mass heater. I have built one (with the help of a blacksmith friend) for almost zero cost using an old gas cylinder and scrap flue pipe to heat a small straw bale house. See

    • I have a well insulated house ( keeps the AC bills down ) and burn wood in winter in a efficient stove but i live in TX , wood grows slowly here and most is oak , that stuff kills chainsaws , six cuts and resharpen the chain , a ten tonne log splitter baulks at some of it ,cutting it by hand OH BOY i have tried ,think of sawing concrete , it takes a week to cut a chord though i only burn a chord each winter . there is a lot of dead ” live oak ” ,oak wilt is the culprit hard as hell to cut and split but burns long and hot , but without a chainsaw it would be a better man than me to tackle one with an axe !

  11. Interesting further thoughts and analyses – thank you. My focus has recently been elsewhere, as I’ll relate in my next post, so I’m not minded to plunge too deeply at this stage into the issues and data that folks have provided above – but I’ll read over it and have a think, so thanks again.

    Maybe just a couple of further points. In our particular situation I think it made sense to plant a woodland and to use it subsequently for heat, among other things. But I’m not arguing that woodland is a complete energy solution for humanity. It does seem to me, though, that we should think carefully about the place of both planted and natural woodland in our wider land use planning, that planted wood as fuel has a place in that thinking, and that subsidies paid to landowners for natural regeneration arguably aren’t the best use of public resources in furthering that wider planning.

    Regarding the detailed discussions about different heat-from-wood technologies, I think I’ll plead open-mindedness (aka ignorance). Bear in mind that us modern softies have come to think of hot water as well as a warm dwelling as essential to a decent life, possibly with different implications than those for space heating. Also, with a woodland planted under a Forestry Commission grant with whips at 3x3m spacings, it’s hard to avoid thinning at a later stage – perhaps another downside of subsidy regimens but one that’s currently providing us with space and water heating.

    I’ve been using a solar (battery) powered chainsaw for cross-cutting, but I don’t think I’d be happy to use it for felling. In terms of my overall carbon/technology footprint, chainsaw use is such a small part of it that I’d prefer to focus my belt-tightening efforts elsewhere.

  12. To state the obvious, whether trees-planting or natural regeneration will be the best option will depend on many factors, such as whether desirable – or just plain non-noxious – vegetation has a reasonable chance of growing back, and being viable. Would it be considered natural regeneration if one simply allowed a piece of land to go feral with invasive species? Better than some of the alternatives (paving, plowing) certainly but not necessarily the most satisfying from a biodiversity point of view. Iʻm afraid Iʻve become resigned to rather more fiddling than less being the best option. Not full arrogant eco-modernism but a sadder version that foresees much trial and error in finding a way to do the best we can by this world that is damaged so badly already.

  13. Thanks for another great article. I’ve read a lot of stuff on your website but this is my first comment.
    I recently started work at an estate where they are planning to plant about 1500 mixed native trees with understory and hedgerow. They have asked me to get involved and manage the project and we have finalised the design and layout, ordered the fencing, gates, trees and plants. Unfortunately the landowners, nurserymen and fencing guys are all in agreement that the sites need to be blasted with glyphosate to remove all the grass and weeds prior to planting. In my opinion this is totally unnecessary and will do great damage to the living soil ecosystem. I need to persuade them that although it will possibly entail more work and not be as convenient (that dreaded word), we can clear enough space around each tree to reduce competition from grass and weeds and maintain it until the trees are old enough to manage on their own – about five years I reckon. Sorry for the long-winded post, but what I’m really after is some evidence to backup my belief that this is not the way to do things and will do more harm than good. Can you help with any links or references?
    Many thanks.

    • Hi Nigel, thanks for commenting and good on you for trying the non-pesticide route. We established most of our trees by mulching with newspaper and straw – though it was a LOT of work! I’m not sure about evidence concerning harmful effects, though the carcinogenicity case against glyphosate seems to be hotting up. Maybe the Pesticide Action Network might have something useful?

      • Thanks for the PAN-UK link, Chris. I found out via their website that our local town council has actually banned the use of glyphosate here so I have a perfect case for my argument!

  14. Pingback: How I grew, and lost, a rainforest - Resilience

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