Do you own wooded property? What part do your wooded acres play in your day-to-day life? Could your woods be improved? How do you manage them? Did you know that it would benefit from active management? During the winter season, you have a terrific opportunity to look at your wooded ground in a whole new way.
For most of us, the ideal woods consist of stately mature trees with open space below, so we can easily walk through the trees without watching our step. Cool and shady in summer, perhaps with a babbling brook running through it; the sound of squirrels and birds echoing all around us.
Mature trees were once young saplings that began life as “volunteers”, simply sprouting and growing on their own. The weakest softwood species tend to be the first “volunteers”, and over a long period of time are replaced with longer-lived species by a process of competition called “climax growth”. Climax growth simply means the progression of the woods from one dominant species to another, by survival of the fittest. The growing conditions in sunny open fields are good for certain trees to sprout from seed. Once the ground is shaded, different tree seeds sprout, compete for sunshine, water and food, and gradually squeeze out the weaker trees.
You can speed up this process and help the desirable, healthy trees win this territorial battle. The first step is to make sure you have access into the woods, by making trails that are easy to maintain. We have a network of tractor trails on our property, so that I can efficiently maintain access through our woods with my bush hog. Trails should ideally run along hillsides, not up and down hills, to reduce erosion damage to the fragile forest floor.
We constantly cull out undesirable trees. Foresters call this “crop tree selection”. Every woodlot has crooked, defective or damaged trees competing with the good trees. During the winter it’s easy to go through and cut down the culls while they’re still young. This frees up food, water and sunshine for the remaining trees, so they grow faster. Tackling crop tree selection can be overwhelming on a large property, but you can proceed at the pace of an acre per day if you focus. Over time you’ll vastly improve your woodland; years from now you’ll really see a difference in the quality of your timber.
Keep a sharp eye for defects. The worst tree defects can be fixed, without climbing, when your trees are still young. Trees should only have one main trunk (called the “leader”). The leader should be straight and true all the way to the top. Duplicate leaders, or trees with crooked or forked leaders, should be heartlessly cut down. Larger side limbs within your reach should be cut off, to encourage growth higher up. Where less-desirable species like ash or catalpa are growing right next to hardwood trees like oak, maple and hickory, they should be cut to the ground.
Except for cedar, we usually leave culled trees and limbs right where they fall. Mother nature will clean them up for you. It’s amazing how fast they rot away, becoming food for the remaining trees. Cedar trees and tops are a different story; we pull them out and burn them because otherwise they’ll be in our way forever.
Invasives like thorny locust, wild grapevines and Japanese honeysuckle can choke your woods very quickly if you don’t take action. Any time you see these in your woods you should stop and pull them out, or cut them off if they’re too big to pull out. Again, if you devote even a half-day each fall or winter to dealing with these invaders you can make a huge difference over time. If you do nothing they will take over willy-nilly, a much more challenging situation.
Winter is the best time to work in your woods. Chainsaw work is good exercise and keeps you warm. Bare trees and snow cover make it easy to see tree structure. You can also see the lay of the land better, so winter is the time to lay out trails. I like to have a roll of hot pink flagging tape in my pocket; I can flag property lines and mark trees I want to save or cut down. I always carry my Felco pruner and small folding saw when I’m walking in the woods, so I can take action right then and there when I see problems. Like compound interest, every nip and cut you make will set your personal forest one more step in the right direction. Then, when it’s too hot to play Paul Bunyan, you can cool off with a relaxing walk in the woods.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.