Planting new trees into the existing woodland to increase diversity

It has to be said, our lives revolve around wood, and as a fuel trees are hard to beat. They lock up carbon, are completely renewable, and have multiple uses. Trees are key to our approach, both in providing habitat here at Lackan, and as a sustainable source of fuel. As well as the several acres of birch wood that were already here, we planted another 800 trees last year, and the job is far from done. Last year’s plantings put on amazing growth in a short space of time, and now we are infilling little areas around the farm so that eventually the entire north side will be screened from the road, giving some visual protection, and also slowing down the northerly winds. The planting should also have the effect of lowering the water table far more effectively than drainage alone.

As well as our new planting, we are continuing to thin and coppice the birch and willow in the woodland, cutting trees down to around 18″ above the ground, whereupon they throw up new growth at an amazing rate. The willow put on nearly 6 feet of growth in a season, and all the birch coppice has thrown up 3 or 4 feet over the same period.  In this way we will be able to create a supply of wood that continually renews itself.  Our original plan had been to plant vast amounts of willow as a fuel crop until someone pointed out that birch already grows well here, grows fast, and is easier to process and dry for our stoves than willow would have been. Some of the best advice we’ve had.

In a home where cooking, hot water and central heating are all fuelled by wood, a surprising amount of time has to be devoted to cutting, moving, logging and splitting, then stacking it all ready for use. This winter we will be building a proper log store, accessible from the cottage so that the wood will dry properly. This winter we’ve been fortunate to be given a huge fallen pine tree, which by next season will have a low enough moisture content to burn properly.

The heart of our home

The heart of our home, an elderly Esse Doric, the most humble of ranges

Cooking with wood involves more than just having logs to hand. The daily routine of lighting and cooking requires a mixture – of tiny, very dry hardwood twigs such as birch, or dry softwood for lighting, some smaller material to get the fire built up, and then larger split logs once the heat is up. Then we would keep some smaller hardwood so that fast heat can be generated quickly when we need it. Large bits of wood that are hard to split are kept for the heating fire rather than the cooking fire. Only the best bits are for the range.

There are all sorts of options available for heating homes with wood – regular woodburners, masonry stoves, rocket mass heaters. Then there are ranges and rocket stoves for cooking. When it comes to cooking and heating water at the same time, your options are a little more limited. Having looked at many range cookers, I have come to the conclusion that although there have been some improvements in combustion and that some ranges are more adjustable than others, the basic concept remains the same, and what makes the difference is good fuel. As long as you can direct heat to oven, hotplate and boiler,  choke the flue as needed (usually bu closing a flap somewhere), and regulate the airflow to the fire – both from below the fire and above, to reburn the partially burned material from the fire, there isn’t much more you can do.

If you are heating water with a range cooker, there is every chance that the water will become very hot. Hence the pipework needs to be vented into an expansion tank, that can overflow to the outside world. With careful pipework, you won’t even need a pump. The principle of thermosyphoning (hot water rises), will push water around the plumbing circuit without the need for electricity. It is a great low tech solution, and there is very little to go wrong.

The only downside is that there is no thermostat, and the cottage is a little cooler in the mornings, but old stone houses are great heat sinks, and so the temperature loss isn’t that great. A small price to pay for a system that is self sustaining and easy to maintain, don’t you think?