Friday, October 24, 2008

Our environmental footprint and willows

We heat with wood.

Now, before you run right over and hug the trees there's some things you should understand. First, we have a modern, wood stove with catalytic converter, designed to burn wood fuel at peak efficiency.

Second, trees have a life span. "Weed" species trees -- the term given to native trees with no apparent commercial value -- colonize bare ground quickly and grow fast. These tree species -- poplar, cottonwood, willow, aspen -- grow so fast that they absorb huge amounts of carbon and nitrogen out of the air, giving off oxygen with their transpiration. They shelter the slower growing native trees in their shade. Their lifespan is a mere 30 to 50 years, if they are in a sheltered area.

When they drop their leaves in the autumn, this carbon is then put into the soil, acting as a carbon sink. When the tree is burned for fuel it releases less carbon than it absorbed in its lifetime, giving it a negative carbon balance.

These are the first trees to fall in a wind storm. By getting out of the way, they make room for other slower growing native species like pine, spruce, cedar and birch. We use these fallen or standing dead trees for our winter fuel. If they are left on the forest floor to decompose, they quickly build up the fuel for potential forest fires, so its important to clean them up -- especially close to the house.

Our acreage is about 70% forested, with the rest in creek bed, or natural grass pasture. As with most Canadian homesteads, our home, animal shelters and fenced gardens occupy less than 1 acre of our 1/4 section, insuring a low environmental impact. That's responsible stewardship of the land -- God's land.

To take further advantage of the benefits offered by willows, Joybilee Farm grows 15 varieties of willows that we manage as an annual or biannual coppice planting. These willows are mostly imported basket willow varieties, with a few ornamental types, that offer a banquet of colours and textures throughout the growing season. They are easy to care for and give us ample materials for basket weaving, garden poles, furniture making and animal fodder or wood, as well as floral bouquets.

A willow coppice managed on a 5 year rotation can be used for wood fuel, offering fast growth, carbon sequestering, and a renewable fuel. As well as ornamental bark colours and leaf shapes, willows offer early bee fodder, summer shade, and habitat for song birds and wildlife. A willow planting can also renew land that has toxic soil and can be used as a pollution and sound buffer in industrial areas. Some species of willow are used in stream bank stabilization and marsh reclamation. There are willows for every climate zone.

Then there are the medicinal benefits of "weed" trees -- Balm of Gilead from the sticky cottonwood buds, salycilic acid from willow bark -- both are anti inflammatory, anti viral, and anti fever. Willow also contains a natural rooting hormone -- more efficient and environmentally safe than commercial chemical preparations that contain toxic fungicides.

Willows are a gift, that helps us steward the land and live a healthy, vigorous life.

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