City Forest Farming


One of the bright spots in our fumbling, bumbling economy is the progress of urban and suburban farming, especially in connection with farmers’ markets. But there is another aspect of this coming together of city and country that needs more innovative thinking. I was traveling through Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, recently and was struck by how much of this beautiful, old, well-heeled residential area is really old growth forest with houses in it. And I mean real, old growth forest—lots of huge trees towering over the castle-like residences so densely that the houses are almost hidden from view.

My first thought was how much people love trees because there is considerable risk involved when these trees inevitably die or age enough so that storms drop them on the houses. My next thought was to try to calculate how much wood was growing here in this urban forest which will probably end up in a landfill. Oddly enough, the answer to both potential problems is the same.

Let us take, just for discussion purposes, five square miles of this kind of urban forest. A mile square is 640 acres, so five miles square would be 3200 acres. An acre of established woodland can produce a cord of wood a year without diminishing itself, so the experts agree. With good forestry practices it can do better than that, but let’s go with that figure. Let’s assume that every acre in this old growth urban forest would produce half a cord a year because the houses and lawns take up some of the room. So this tract in Cleveland could be producing 1600 cords of wood a year. At let’s say $200 a cord (more than that as a replacement for heating oil right now), that’s $320,000 a year.

Now try to imagine how many wooded urban acres there are in this country. We’re talking millions and millions and millions of dollars in wood mostly going to waste due to a lack of planning and management. The main problem is that we don’t think in tree time.  Humans are lucky to live 80 to 90 years. The life cycle of trees is twice that at least, but it is, nevertheless a cycle. We tend to think of our beloved trees as monuments but they are living things. We should be planting them and harvesting them on a schedule of about eighty to a hundred years to take advantage of their value as lumber or fuel while avoiding most of the possibility of storm damage. The issue is increasingly pertinent, especially now that power companies are again thinking seriously of using wood for some of its electrical generation.

The first management plan should involve the choice of trees used for urban forests. Maples and oaks, for example, are just as pretty as smaller ornamental trees but contain more BTUs for fuel and better wood for lumber. But even small trees can make good firewood, and some of them, dogwood for example, are high in BTUs or for specific wooden products. Persimmon wood used to be used for sidewalk and road pavers almost as durable as brick. It also makes beautiful golf drivers.

The supply of this kind of wood is only going to increase tremendously. Newer subdivisions and their trees are in the process of becoming the mature urban forests of tomorrow. Older village and town residential areas are already facing lots of problems because of storm damage and power outages as their trees grow bigger and older. Starting now for a planned, orderly cycle of harvesting old trees and growing new ones, of varieties known for good lumber or fuel wood products, will at the very least alleviate the cost of removal and could eventually become a profitable enterprise. It will also generate jobs. Already there is a big increase in the number of tree removal businesses, increasing use of bucket hoists and other tree handling equipment. You may have noticed, if you live in an urban forest, the appearance of a new job skill.  A new brand of tree trimmer has come along who swings from tree to tree on ropes, able to remove huge tree limbs over houses with a chainsaw, piece by piece, in places where no other removal method is feasible.

Since residential home owners almost always prune their trees as they grow, they can start doing it to produce clean-limbed, valuable logs for lumber sales. This kind of urban forest farming is a totally win-win situation because although the rewards of selling the wood may be years and years away, the reward of enjoying the trees as they grow is ongoing and the environmental benefits of those trees taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen are lifesaving. City planners have often proposed the idea. When are we going to start listening?


Last week was the first full week of school and I never got around to reading your Progressor-Times column online. I finally remembered to do it today and it is a great companion piece to this and i also enjoyed your take on “retros” in this weeks column. What I enjoyed much more was the serendipitous discovery of a great picture on page 15 of last weeks paper. I remembered that there had been info about the paper rearranging its format and I had to search around to find your column. My search was grandly and unexpectedly rewarded with a great picture of a great couple being honored for a very special occasion. FOLKS – GENE AND CAROL HAD THEIR 50TH WEDDING ANNIVERSARY ON AUG 26! I’m a big fan of good things happening to good people and this is a really good thing happening to exceptionally good people. Congratulations and best wishes for a bunch more.

Jan Steinman, apple wood is good for smoking meat too. I once heard from an orchardist who tied up apple tree trimings in handy bundles to sell for that purpose. Yes, I should have said more about fruit trees. Right now I am looking for examples of grove owners who spot fruit trees around in isolated clearings in their woodland to see if that cuts down on the need for spraying. Know anyone? I do that with peach trees with some success. Gene

Ain’t nothing new. Had friends who used to harvest old oak trees in western suburbs of chicago. Saw the same operation in No. Jersey. They got paid to take tree down, cart it away and then got to sell the wood for what the market would bear. They sold firewoood or sold sawn lumber as flitch cuts or bookmatches. Made a good living at it. I think the name for them is arborists…tree surgeons?…

There is NO problem nowadays finding all the metal in the trees when you’re sawing the logs. There are TONS of used metal detectors for sale or theft at any major us airport..

The problem in the urban area’s is convincing folks to PLANT the native species to replace the old one.

Good. We use our trimmings for mulch in the garden and back under the trees. Mostly fruit trees. We use trimmings as fire starters also. No enough yet for logs. Maybe in the future….

Gene, you seem to have left food trees out of the equation!

Apple and pear make as fine a firewood as anything else — and also provide year after year of delicious carbohydrates, which might be very important in a fossil-sunlight starved future.

We’re putting in twenty blight-resistant American Chestnuts this fall. This was one of the most prized woods in Appalachia prior to the blight.

Along the lines of urban orcharding, driving through the neighborhood the other day, I wondered if we’d get to the point where good food was again so valuable it would be a usual sight to put feeder pigs on a leash and walk them down the street from house to house to feed them on the windfall fruits. Homeowners would welcome the cleanup and extra nutrients spared from the piggies. With two blocks of my home (in mid-Wisc.), I see apple trees, cherry trees, and pear trees with fruit left to be mown and mulched into the ground. Free food is a nuisance instead of resource.

I think I’m developing a case of math anxiety!

Hello from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. Unfortunately, I live in a village that does not allow me to take down any tree that is not dead or very small ‘trash tree’. But when any have Dutch elm or emerald ash borer they must be removed within a short period of time and burned or removed immediately at great expense. We have so many problems with power outages during storms (mostly due to trees down) most of us have to have generators. I live on almost 3 acres and have almost one in trees. Would love to manage them as you describe. Perhaps it is worth am inquiry. Anything to help defray our brutal property taxes. KUTGW

Um, five square miles is not the same as five miles square. The first one is an area one mile wide by five miles long – 5 x one square mile. Five miles square is a square five miles on a side, or five miles by five miles. That’s 25 square miles.

So a one mile by five miles rectangle would be 3200 acres, but a square five miles by five miles would be five times that, or 16,000 acres. Depending on what you mean by “this tract in Cleveland”, you could mean either 1600 or 8000 cords of wood per year.

The problem with the better firewood species is that most of them (not all) take a long time to grow. Most of the oaks are slow growers. It’s not quite true to say that the lifecycle of trees is twice that of people – depends on the species of tree. They range from 20 years or so to two thousand or so.

Sure is frustrating to think that *any* trees would *ever* go to a landfill, though. What a pointless waste that would be. Even complete junk like tree of heaven makes more sense to season and burn than waste diesel hauling it to a landfill.

My brother-in-law rounded up the trunks of trees from here there and everywhere and hauled them to a mill and then had enough lumber to build a modest house.

The formerly vacant city lot where I have a little “urban homestead” had some trees that I wanted out to make room for a garden and because they were leaning toward a neighbor. These were cedar trees. I put an ad in the paper and interested parties got into a bidding war and I sold them for more than I expected and the buyer paid a professional to take them out and haul them to the mill.

Local mills around here (SW Louisiana and SE Texas) buy logs from individuals. Some will come and get them.

Matt, the same timber buyers who buy from farmers would buy from you except for one problem. “Yard trees” sometimes contain “hardware”— nails, screws from bygone clothes line etc. that would ruin saw blades. Timber buyers traditonally have shunned “yard trees” for that reason. But now there are magnet gadgets to detect hardware to avoid the problem, and enlightened sawmills and timber buyers will buy yard trees— they bought one from me— especially of desirable woods like white oak, wild cherry and black walnut. There are also enlightened homeowners who scrupulously avoid hammering nails in their trees. This is the problem with urban trees as well as rural trees but one that is quite solvable. Gene

A couple of observations from South Louisiana:

When I lived in Baton Rouge in the 90’s and was involved a little in construction, a little in tree work, a little in landscaping, Baton Rouge was one of the top ten fastest growing cities and the sprawl was taking over a lot of formerly wooded areas. The trees did not fare well for long. A lot of time just the construction vehicles driving over roots was enough to do them in. Baton Rouge has a fair number of trees: as you come over the Mississippi River Bridge it looks like a forest other than LSU and downtown. As you mentioned, it’s due in large part to people taking a lot of measures to protect the trees. As far as risk posed by them, a lot of the trees in Baton Rouge, are Live Oaks. It takes something really extraordinary to blow one of them over. The’ve been taking major hurricanes, many of them, for centuries now.

Now I’m over in Lake Charles, in Southwest Louisiana. Not much wood goes to waste here. The tree cutting companies all either sell firewood or dump it on someone who does. (Same was true in Baton Rouge) Any limbs that an individual puts out on the side of the road is pounced on within 24 hours by someone cutting wood for himself. The one time some wood went to waste was 2005 with Hurricane Rita because there were so many trees down there was no way to use all the wood before it rotted and it was too expensive to haul it to other areas for sale.

As a homeowner, how do you sell “clean-limbed, valuable logs for lumber sales?” Who’s going to buy lumber from a homeowner?

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