How to grow your own heat: planting a small woodland

House in deciduous woodland, Wicklow Log and axe

“Growing  your own’ or ‘Grow it yourself’ are terms which are on everyone’s lips. For many, it’s a real possibility, whether it’s a fully-fledged vegetable garden, a couple of fruit trees or a window box planted with herbs.  Growing enough to be self-sufficient is a real challenge. On the other hand, making a dent in your weekly shop, or topping up a meal with some fresh, home-grown ingredients is quite possible and very satisfying.

After a cold winter, and the transport chaos brought on by snow and ice, it’s a good time to think about another type of growing your own: fuel. Most people may not have the space, but for anyone with even a small amount of land it’s a real possibility. Trees grow quickly, and within only a few years can provide a long-term, easily available and economical source of fuel. It requires a minimum of day-to-day effort and can make a meaningful reduction to your carbon footprint and your spending.

Our own house is set in the midst of a young plantation of mixed deciduous trees such as oak, beech, alder, larch and ash. The soil is heavy clay and was never good for grazing or growing crops. The trees are now over fourteen years old have been providing firewood for at least five years.  The woodland floor is littered with small branches for kindling, and over the last few years the trees have been periodically thinned for more substantial logs and to allow for straighter, fuller growth.

View from the kitchen sink into the woodland

Planted densely at a spacing of approximately two metres, the trees quickly form a canopy which will suppress grass and weeds. Choose trees which are suited to the site, as this will lead to faster and healthier growth. Some trees tolerate damp or heavy soil, such as ash or alder, whereas others prefer a drier soil, such as beech or Scot’s pine. Some trees require a degree of shelter in order to grow successfully, while others can grow in the harshest of environments. It’s a good idea to research this well and to take advice from books, online or from your local nursery. Buy bare root trees and plant between November and March.

As your woodland matures it will change in character from dense, young trees to vigorous saplings to mature specimens. It is important that the woodland is continuously thinned in order to prevent trees getting gangly and weak. It’s these thinnings which will be the basis of your firewood.There is work involved, and hard work too: the logs need to be chopped, carried and stacked. Making sure that they are stored well is important, and ideally they need to be dried for a couple of years before burning them. This means you need at least two sheds or lean-tos. They should be as open to air as possible, but also covered.

There are of course many other benefits to having a small woodland, the main one being its amenity value. As it matures it becomes a valuable habitat for birds and mammals, as well as a beautiful place to walk and carry out ‘forest gardening’. You can speed up the process by introducing patches of suitable ground-cover plants such as bluebells or wild garlic. A woodland also provides a bountiful supply of leaves to be used in the garden (we pile them up to make leaf-mould for the beds), as well as fence posts from thinnings. Lastly, a well-positioned woodland provides shelter and privacy to your home.

Drying your own logs