Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter work to warm you: Although a tropical beach is a delightful image to warm the cockles of your heart I really do like the changing of the four seasons that we get with a temperate climate. The least favourite part of my winter day is dragging myself out of the warm cocoon that is the marital bed, to do the morning rounds of the animals. However, wrapped up in good clothing (including a somewhat rustic Russian-style hat that Gabrielle's made for me out of home-made felt and rabbit skin) with a bit of winter sun and some work to do, a winter's day does have its charms. There are certain jobs that are specifically winter jobs.

One of these is cutting deciduous trees. During the winter, the energy of the tree descends into its roots and hence all the leaves drop off it. You can cut the whole tree down and yet not kill it. In the spring it will re-grow from the stump; this process is called coppicing. You can do the same thing higher up the trunk, above grazing animals’ head height, for example, called pollarding. Another reason for cutting during the winter is that there is much less sap in the wood, so logs cut for firewood season (dry out) much quicker.

Our 11 acres of woodland used to be fields of pasture and has been planted up between 15 and 25 years ago but never then maintained and needs several winter seasons of selective cutting to knock it into shape. I cut a woodland ride last year to create some access where there had been none before, not so clever when we have trailerfuls of logs to bring out but with only space for a wheelbarrow. This year, we’re working on a woodland walk through an area of mixed oak and wild cherry and thinning a plot of sycamore.

Expert woodsmen from two French organisations that help and govern owners of woodlands advised us that sycamore is not suited to growing in monoculture plantations and that our soil, heavy clay, which stays very moist in the winter is also not ideal. With this in mind, we cleared a third of an acre and replanted with other species in our first winter but, since reading a fact sheet
on sycamore published by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust, we’ve decided to try to thin a plot and see how the trees that are left standing fare. He writes: “Mature [sycamore] trees will die rapidly if their crowns are not kept free and open … Thinning should start by the time the trees reach 10 m (32 ft) high, sooner on fertile sights. Thinning should be undertaken every 5-6 years thereafter."

The technique, as explained by the French woodsmen, is to choose a tree you like the look of (strong straight stem, without forking, for final harvesting for timber) and mark it as a keeper. Then chop down the tree that’s bothering it at canopy level. Then choose another keeper about 6 metres (20 ft) away, removing its most troublesome neighbour and so on. That way you don’t cut too many trees down at once, which would leave the remaining trees vulnerable to strong winds before their root systems have had time to adapt to the new situation. In the photo at top, the green rings are trees to keep and the red crosses are for the chop.

Another winter job involves spreading straw on top of the strawberry patch and setting light to it. Apparently, this is recommend by Joy Larkcom (of Grow Your Own Vegetables fame) but as Gabrielle is currently in England seeing friends and family, I haven’t the detail. It certainly looked impressive, see photo below.

Lastly, and nothing whatsoever to do with permaculture, I couldn’t resist showing you this picture of a skier in the USA who got into some difficulties on a chairlift. He was like that for about 7 minutes before being rescued; read more about it here.