This year Emma and I are taking something we did last year and making it more functional: We are heating with wood, full-time. Previously, we often had fires at night, giving the heating system a break and enjoying the atmosphere, but it was noncommittal. Some nights we didn’t bother. We used the wood-burning cook stove even less than that, though we did love the event it made of a meal, as well as pulling a couple of rocking chairs in front of stove while dinner was bubbling. It was all in an effort for us to learn the ropes with building, using, and maintaining fires.
Winter has hit hard and early this year, but we have yet to let the heating click on. We’ve set the thermostat at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), to prevent any freezing damage or some such thing should we fail to keep the fire stoked. And, in addition to new lessons in heating 100% with fire, something much more involved than nighttime romanticism, we are becoming more and more in tune to the multiple functions heating with wood has. It seems very much in keeping with our permaculture principles.
Function #1: Clean Up
We live in the forest. So do our neighbors. So do the strangers down the road. Throughout the year, a number of trees have fallen. They fall across roads. They fall into gardens. Limbs drop in yards. Leaning red oaks threaten houses. And, trees—regardless of who’s around to hear it—do fall in the woods. A number of factors go into the fact that throughout the year, lots and lots of firewood can be produced by purely cleaning things up. Here are some examples:
- Over the last few years, several oak trees have fallen across the gravel road that leads to a friend’s house. He cuts them, pushes them to the side of the driveway, and lets them season. A couple of weeks ago, I lent him a hand sawing and busting up the tree trunks to make several truckloads of wood, one of which went to our woodpile.
- One of my (three) part-time jobs is helping to take care of a property. After an ice storm last week, several large limbs—honey locust and black locust, great firewood!—fell in the yard. The small crew I work with would normally just toss this down into a hollow and out of the way. Instead, by the end of the day, I’d been paid for half a day’s work to cut up my own firewood.
- With today’s climate issues, wildfires are becoming more and more an issue, so folks are really keen to have the forest understory tidy, particularly by homes. Just below the cabin we rent, Emma spotted a bunch of dead and/or fallen rhododendron. They are ready for harvesting and perfect for the two of us, who cut our firewood by hand rather than chainsaw. They are also ideally sized for the cook stove. Harvesting the right sized pieces give us something to burn, and it gets the dead wood down to the ground to rot rather than be a fire threat (Function #2).
I know that some environmentally savvy folks have objected to the idea offirewood being green; however, Emma and I avoid many of the unsustainable issues. Most of our wood is cut by hand, so no gas is required for chainsaws or wood splitters. For larger pieces, I help someone with equipment, and as I said, this is done in a clean-up effort. The wood we burn is found near home (or work), typically by the wheelbarrow full rather than truckload. However, the energy for driving a few hundred feet doesn’t seem insurmountable.
Furthermore, we are moving towards using a cook stove, which utilizes small diameter wood, and once that transition is completely (hopefully next year), we’ll be able to cut it all by hand. The cook stove will add even more functionality for the energy we are producing with wood, which in turn means less resources used.
Function #3 & #4: Heating and Cooking
Unfortunately, our situation now isn’t perfectly constructed for this. We have a fireplace insert, which works much better than the standard open-hearth fireplace, but it definitely isn’t ideal. Right now, we build a fire, and in order to get the benefit of the heat it generates, we have to turn on an electric fan that takes the heat from insides the firebox and blows it out into the room. It heats well when the fire is going and the coals are piled, but it is severely lacking when the fire dies down. Not only is there no residual thermal mass heat happening with it, but also we aren’t able to use that heat for much else, save drying clothes (Function #5?).
Photo: Cook Stove
When we use the wood-burning cookstove, which unfortunately isn’t placed centrally (or well at all for heating) in the cabin we rent, it provides a lot more heat. The stove warms the room up very quickly, and because the thick, cast iron cooktop absorbs the warmth, that continues to heat the room even when the fire is dying back. Moreover, it doesn’t require electricity to run a fan. Plus, we are able to cook a pot of beans, bake some bread, boil a kettle of water, and sauté some greens. We’ve designed our cabin (we are building soon) to have a wood-burning cook stove as its wintertime centerpiece.
Designing for Fire
We’ve just purchased a 4.6-acre (2 hectare) property, which is mostly wooded with a little over an acre already cleared and a stream-fed dam already in place. We’ll be leaving the remaining 3.5 acres as natural forest, from which we can harvest small diameter firewood, leaving broken down twigs and trunks to feed the forest regrowth. There are a lot of mountain laurel and rhododendron, both of which are great firewood and grow in the shade. (Burning these woods is sometimes debated because they are poisonous when ingested, but the toxin burns up at fairly low heat and the logs burn very hot.)
We’ll also be growing plenty of nitrogen-fixing trees—mimosa, locust, etc.—that can be coppiced to augment the naturally occurring fuel supply from basic cycles of the forest and an edible bamboo hedge that’ll need annual control measures.
Function #6: Garden Supplement
Wood ash can be a fine fertility builder in garden beds, beneath the trees in the food forest, and within the compost pile. We are now saving all of the ash we produce and adding it to different projects. Wood ash is particularly useful in our oak-pine forest, which has acidic soils. The wood ash adds potassium, potash, and trace elements. It can also be used in place of agricultural lime to raise the pH levels of soil.
Wood ash can be a wonderful garden additive, but it can also be easily overused. It shouldn’t be added to already alkaline soil. According to Mother Earth News, it shouldn’t be used on soils with a pH above 6.5, and one should never apply more than 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet (approx. 12 kilos to 100 square meters). And, if plants are acid-loving, such as blueberries and potatoes, wood ash should be skipped altogether. But, for many things, like beans, peas, root vegetables, and fruit trees, it can be great.
Admittedly, this is just the beginning for us. We see that we’ll struggle at times to keep the flames burning: I woke up twice last night (and have done so nights before) to get the fire going again because the temperature outside had dropped to 23 F (-5 C), and the old cabin we are in certainly isn’t air tight or sufficiently insulated. It’s a good lesson to have learned before we start putting our home together. We’ve also been shuffling firewood under the porch roof every couple of days to keep it from getting wet in the rain, so a covered storage space is a must-have.
The optimistic side of us also sees many more potential functions that our cook stove can perform. We hope to design a thermo-siphoning water heating system (Function #7) that could use the pipes as radiators for heating the bathroom. The hot water tank, we hope, might be stored in and help to heat our attached glasshouse/mudroom (Function #8), which will have winter plants and spring seedlings.
In other words, as we should, we are finding ways to make heating with wood provide as many functions as possible. It’s an exciting process, and we’d love to hear any pointers or added benefits we might derive from the practice.