Farm Life: Preserving the Harvest, Part 14, Selecting Wood

When you go to harvest wood, your have to decide what trees to cut.  You look at the forest, as in this photo, and ask, “Where do I start”.  To answer this, you need to know what type of forest you live in and what your priorities are.  We focus on selectively thinning our acreage to develop a better wildlife habitat, while gaining enough cord wood for heating.  We are not into clear-cutting, nor are we tree-huggers.  Also, careful selection of the location of trees makes for nice walking paths in summer and cross-country ski paths in winter.

Grand Old Oak (notice Bella at base)

We live in an oak-hickory forest.  However, all forests, if left to natural forces, change through a predictable succession of types of trees.  Regional factors, such as rain and heat cycles, soil types, and geography also affect what types of trees you are likely to find.  In general, an area cleared, whether by clear cutting the forest or fire, will rejuvenate with pines or other emerging forest trees, which would be black locust, walnut, black gum or black cherry trees here in the Appalachian mountains.  These grow well in full sun and from root stock.  This will be followed by the oak-hickory forests.  Theses hardwood grow tall with dense summer canopies, shading out the sun-lovers.  But this forest will give way to maples, which sprout well in shade and have the ability to withstand munching by deer.

This trunk is hollow

An oak seedling will die if it’s first leaves are nibbled off.  A maple will send up more.  Then there are pesky invasive insects, such as the gypsy moth, which can defoliate an oak tree in June, or more recently the emerald ash borer with eats up the water transport system in a ash and maple trees.

My decision making for cutting wood is to leave large “mother trees” to replenish the forest, and smaller, understory trees which also tend to be producers of berries for wildlife, and to stay away from trees that are decayed in the middle, as these are too dangerous to try to cut down safely.  By thinning the forest some (not all) of trees that fall in the middle of these criteria, you also bring in more light for growth, and straighter growing trees,


which will be easier to cut in the future.  Mother trees, such as large oaks and hickories, also produce lots of “mast crop” when their acorns or nuts fall.  Deer, turkeys, and other birds feast on these in fall.  Understory trees include dogwoods, service berries (also called june berries or shadblow), sassafrass, black gum, and hawthorn.  I like to leave these around the edge of the forest, when I do take out more oaks and hickories, as they reduce the 60′ wall of trees, creating an upward edge of 20′, 30′, and 40′ trees.  They are also the most colorful during the spring and fall with their blooms and berries.  Two other trees that I am not cutting are magnolias and birch. I have found only one of each on our property and a couple of others on neighbor’s lots.  I thin out the trees around these to let them grow and hopefully add more to the forest diversity.

pitch pine

For firewood, oak, hickory, and maple are the most useful woods.  If at possible, avoid any type of pine.  In our area, pitch pine is most prevent, followed by hemlock and eastern red cedar.  Pines have too much pitch in them for safe, clean burning.  Pitch pines were used to make turpentine and to seal wooden hulled boats.  If you are going to burn this, you should just change the oil in your truck and toss that in the stove for clean air and a chimney fire.  So, leave the pines for seeds and bird nests.

Oak is the prime hardwood for wood stoves.  It cuts smoothly, splits straight, and burns long and hot.  Hickory is next for heat, but dulls your chain more quickly and tends to be more fibrous when splitting.  I also find that it creates more ash and tosses sparks when it becomes coals.  Maple cuts nicely, except in spring when the sap is running.  All that syrupy sap will gum up your chain and send you to sharpening it after cutting up one

young hemlock (only 20 years)

tree.  Maple is “morning wood” as it burns hot and quickly.  Toss a couple of logs onto the coals from last night and your stove will fire right back up.  A final tree that burns well, but is awful to cut or split is black gum.  The fibers interlock, making axe splitting impossible and log splitter use a mess (just ask the Vicar).  However, all these fiber light easily from coals.  Most black gum are smaller trunks, so I often just cut lengths and put them in the stove, unsplit with a couple of different types of wood.   By the way, if you are buying those $5 packs of firewood at the gas station convenience store, you are most likely buying dead wood or old fence posts.  Nice for an hour of romance, but useful for heat.


I have selected photos of trees in winter, as this is the time that you should cut wood (less sap and less weight).  I have attempted to line up each tree in the center of the photos, though I know that figuring out which tree is which can be challenging, when you take a 20′ to 80′ tree and put it into a 3 inch image.

P.S. Hey, follow bloggers, if you know how to get photos to line up side by side, let me know.  I had each tree and bark photo lined up, but when I saved the draft, wordpress moved them all over the blog.  Sorry that some are out of sequence.  At least they did not disappear!

dog wood

service berry

service berry



black gum

black gum





hawthorn (small, angled trunk)


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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3 Responses to Farm Life: Preserving the Harvest, Part 14, Selecting Wood

  1. Barneysday says:

    I grew up in the Northeast, so was surrounded by pines, maple, birch and oak. In moving here, and now in the mountains (Full time effective today!) we are just about at the top of the oak tree line, and moving into redwoods and sequoias. Both quite beautiful and majestic. Forest Service allows cutting downed trees with a permit, through Nov. 30 of each year. A supplier to me got some Tamarak, which is great for burning, lots of heat, no sparks, and longer lasting than pine, but not as long as oak. Used to burn lots of almond, also great for heat and above average burn time, but lousy with sparks. Had a black spotted carpet for a 3 foot radius around the stove!

    Great piece

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Tamarak. Interesting. I do not know much about that. I will have to look it up next time I’m in CA. Regarding cutting down/dead trees, the National Forest Service is usually happy for people to help clear dead trees to reduce the amount of fuel lying about waiting for the next forest fire. Given that suppression of lighting fires for the past 100 years and development of mountain lands in the West has increase forest stands beyond their natural limits, there are too many dead trees waiting to spark up. We have seen the results if the mega-fires of the past couple of decades. How much space do you have between you and your neighbors?

  2. The Vicar says:

    It sounds like if you stand still long enough the answer is “yes” …. you can see the trees for the forest. and you can see them even better if you cut some of them down.

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