Our keen permaculture minds are too sharp to ever believe that something so precious as firewood, past its prime or not, could be of no use. We, of course, can always simply toss it back into the forest and let it do as it would have done anyway, cycling nutrients through the ecosystem. However, after all the work of harvesting, chopping, and storing it, most of us would rather find a more exciting end for old firewood.
Hey, we should all be so lucky as to end the winter with plenty left to burn, and though those old logs might have lost some of their fire, that doesn’t mean they aren’t apt for something different. Logs of this size, easily handled yet chunky enough to be more than a paperweight, are ideal for all sorts of crafty homesteading things. We just have to figure out where these bonus items are going to go.
Stack Up a Hugelkultur Bed
If hugelkultur isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when a bunch of half-rotten logs are lying around, well, perhaps further perusing the pages of Permaculture News should move up on the agenda. Hugelkultur is a technique in which large chunks of wood are soaked and buried beneath a few inches of soil. Inside these mounds, the wood slowly decomposes, releasing a steady stream of nutrients for up to ten years. Additionally, the rotting logs absorb water, helping to maintain moisture in the mound during drier times. The other beautiful part of hugelkultur is that the crops grown atop the mounds are easier to harvest because they are higher.
Mulch the Fruit Trees
Similarly, if a bunch of damp, woody material is piled up doing nothing, mulch has got to come to mind. Whether it’s large chunks for surface features—good for collecting wind-blown organic matter, providing habitat, harvesting extra water—or it’s to the chipper for spreading out, having an abundance of garden mulch never hurt anyone. For those new to the game, mulch makes all the difference in the world. It protects soil from wind erosion, from compaction by heavy rains, and from drying out in the sun. Meanwhile, it adds nutrients to the soil, feeds the soil life, and prevents weeds. Woody mulch tends to be the longest wearing option as well, and it is particularly well-suited to trees, which prefer fungal soils rather than bacterial, which vegetable gardens favor.
Burn It Anyway
Often just a touch of rot can seal a fire log’s fate, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. A lot of times this wood isn’t really what we want to be burning in the fireplace, but it might do just fine for a campfire cookout or for various other summertime activities, where warmth isn’t so much the goal as having a get together. If it’s easy to pull off the rot for the mulch pile and there’s enough of something left to burn, then why not let it live out its fate? Obviously, in the wintertime, we want the best burn possible, but campfires and bonfires hardly need the premium stuff.
Amend the Soil with Ash
Whether it’s old firewood in the sense of the burning the rotting heap from years’ past or collecting the new ash heap from the cook stove, ash is definitely something worthy of a compost pile or garden bed. It’s got lots of micronutrients for making a well-rounded soil. That said, wood ash veers to the alkaline side of things, so it can be used to raise pH levels if that’s desired, such as in beds meant for cruciferous stuff. However, that also means that acid-loving crops, like berries, might not take to kindly to ash. Some folks toy with making bio-char and activated charcoal, which can soak up a lot of nutrients and provide long-lasting carbon for the soil.
Make Raised Bed Borders
If hugelkultur isn’t in the cards, or if there is just a need for creating some defined edges along sheet-mulched or raised beds or wherever, nothing makes such a splendid border as some rotting logs. Again, the logs will break down slowly along the edges, feeding those plants nearest them. Further more, they’ll keep mulch in place, help to prevent erosion, attract wildlife, and stop grass from encroaching on growing space. Again, these will work particularly well in woodland settings, like orchards or hedges, where the woody material will encourage fungal rather than bacterial growth. That said, firewood borders around vegetable gardens won’t cause soil problems and will still benefit the plants.
Establish or Mulch Footpaths
Mulch is great in the forest gardens, but if for some reason there is a crazy amount of mulch firewood, wood chips make dandy walking paths. This might be a good idea for those in places where tree-trimming businesses offer up free woodchips or people are constantly giving away old material like this (check “free stuff” on Craigslist). A nice wood chip path through gardens, pastures, or yards will define where we should walk, helping to keep the remaining soil loose and airy, as well as protecting the soil beneath the footpath from drying out, eroding away, or acting as drain for water. For those fortunate enough to have an abundance of wood chips or old firewood, this is a great option.
Create Animal Habitats
Dig through any old wood pile and it’s quickly apparent that a huge bevy of animals are quite happy that it’s around. While this might not be the ideal population for a woodshed, all of this wildlife could be a great part of a diverse garden ecosystem. Having big chunks of wood or piles of wood in or near gardens invites a whole host of beneficial creatures—lizard, snakes, frogs, carpenter bees, spiders, centipedes, worms, and so on—to set up homes and begin interacting as part of the system. They’ll feed on pests, turn up soils, add manure, and enhance what’s happening. It’s all free, from the logs to the benefits.
Encourage Mycelium and Mushrooms
Though mushrooms are often cultivated on log piles, this is accomplished with inoculating freshly cut logs, not the already largely decomposed and rotten specimens and old woodpile provides. Nevertheless, on occasion, mushrooms from existing woodpiles will spread on over to old logs that are stood against them or placed nearby. After all, this is how it happens in nature. If nothing else, it will provide the fungi more to feed on, which isn’t a bad thing. As well, wood chips are a popular growing medium for many mushrooms, such as wine caps, and many beloved mushrooms—oysters, shitakes, etc.—prefer hardwoods like oak and locusts, often used for firewood.
I have great faith that no one reading Permaculture News would ever dream of carting off spoiled firewood. After all, organic matter is organic matter, and we permaculturists are not in the business of passing that up or giving it away. However, I hope this list has perhaps provided or sparked some new thoughts on old firewood. Though a rotting pile is likely fine just where it is, we could also most likely put it to better use.
And, I would certainly note that, in areas where firewood is commonly used, many, many people are giving away old piles in the spring, once the need has passed, and in the fall, once the rotten pile is rediscovered. It’s a great free resource to take advantage of, especially considering all of the felling and cutting that has to be done.
Header Image: Courtesy of liz west