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Introduction - Turning a planted woodlot into a 'real' forest  RSS feed

Posts: 22
Location: Ontario - zone 5b
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Hello everyone!

After years of dreaming, googling, and ending up looking at these forums, I am finally going to do something with my plotting!


I'm a recent university grad who has been living in the city (Greater Toronto Area) for the last year and a half. I have been 'helping' with gardening since before I could walk, and grew up mostly in the country with parents who chose houses partially based on the number of established fruit trees. Gardening space is valuable to me.

Wait lists for community gardens in this area are years long, and I'll never be able to afford a house/townhouse with a small yard. I've tried helping people with their gardening  and they get confused when I throw in edibles and herbs with the pretty flowers. My own gardening space is maxed out with three planters on the ground and two on the railing in the landing to my apartment.

But... I have recently been given 60 acres in south-central Ontario. The property was considered marginal farmland and planted with pine and spruce about 40 years ago. It is overgrown, not diverse, and should probably be harvested/thinned. Nothing else grows in the forested areas other than the conifers, and I never see/hear wildlife.  There is a swamp with lots of cedar and there are some natural clearings where nothing but grass has established in 40+ years because the soil is so gravelly. I've attempted to attach a photo of one of them. There are some decent trails through the property.


I want to develop my land into a long-term oasis of non-cityness, complete with gardens to plant and harvest, fruit to pick, trails to walk/ski/snowshoe, and a small off grid cabin to camp in and live in whenever work/life permits, including during the winter. Because my work often involves going away for weeks to months, I want to do things that may take lots of energy up front, but can basically be ignored when I am not around. A lot of permaculture seems ideal for this.

My major project next year is probably going to be building a 100-300 sq ft cabin in a natural clearing once I finally settle on a design that is cheap, fast, sustainable, well insulated, and building permit-friendly...  Or compromise on one of those ideals.

My very long term project will be trying to convert the existing planted woodlot into a diverse forest. My goal includes some food forest components ( a variety of native and non-native fruit and nut trees, plus berry bushes and perennials), lots of native deciduous trees (oaks, maples, birch, and rarer trees like honey locust, beech, ironwood, etc) and some coppiced woodland for heat. I want to use hugelkultur in some areas to add organic material to the gravelly soil and give me a good garden area. I plan to start around the cabin and work outwards.


Does anyone have any experience/ideas/advice for slowly converting a pine/spruce plantation into a diverse forest? The limited information I have seen and heard about rejuvenating an overgrown, never thinned woodlot suggests cutting it all down, then replanting. I plan to take some trees down for firewood and hugelkultur, but clear cutting 40+ acres and starting over sounds rather extreme.

Also - the clearings and trails are overgrown with poison ivy, including the one I want to build on. Any suggestions for safely removing it/outcompeting it/generally making it go away?

Thank you!

[Thumbnail for IMG_20161009_171640093.jpg]
A clearing...
Posts: 79
Location: Northwest Lower MI
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Wow, Catie ... there is a lot here to try to address.

Can't help you with the poison ivy.  I don't have PI on my upland conifer sites.  Thank goodness I do not have to deal with it.

But the slow conversion from all conifer to a mixed forest?  Maybe you can benefit from our experience here.

From the picture and from your description, it sounds like the conifers need thinning.  Good for you to have the hugelkultur plan.  You will have lots of wood for HK.  
Your site is probably quite similar to my own in northern Lower Michigan.  Conifers such as spruce or pine are most often planted in plantation configuration on a 6'x8' spacing.  This close planting shades out competition like grass in a few years and forces trees to compete for sunlight by growing straight and tall ... making for good saw logs or cabin logs.

Shade tolerant hardwood species like maple, beech and chestnut will colonize under the conifer canopy, making thousands of new seedlings ready for any opening in the conifer canopy to shoot up and take their share of the sunlight.  It looks like you have a lot of spruce.  If it were my ground I would start pulling individual trees out of the stand for use in building, biomass (chips, etc), and hugel construction.  Take "the worst first" with the thought of releasing some of the spruce for improved growth with less competition.  Maybe I would take half or two/thirds of the spruce out over an extended time.  This will create the micro openings volunteer hardwoods need to take off as well as micro/garden spaces for food plots.

"Cut more trees" ... it sounds terrible to many, but the more space you can create by removing conifers, the more diversity will enter the equation.  Do not worry about cutting too many conifers.  If you are working slowly and without massive machinery, it will take you a long time ... and GIVE you time to mull and consider your options as you go.

By approaching the project as one that is creating biomass that will be useful in a number of ways, your "worst/first" approach will begin to open small spaces that will give you new ideas about how to use that space.
Avoid the temptation to call in the loggers or pulp cutters to take large masses of material all at once.  Sixty acres is a lot for one person to handle, but you sound young and may have many years to shape your space.  Take your time and enjoy the work if you can.

You may have to take 20-60 trees for your cabin and out buildings (wood sheds, stock shelter, etc).  This alone will give you a start.

In my pine plantations I have already thinned the stand by removing some 10,000 or so trees out.  Many went as pulpwood, but hundred more have been used in buildings and gardens.  And I STILL need to take almost another ten thousand to give the remaining pines room to fulfill their own genetic potentials.   In time, as the original plantings of nearly 1,000 trees to the acre becomes reduced to perhaps 100-200 per acre the conifer plantation become more "garden/like" with lots of space and light within the stand to establish new gardens.

Note:  I have no problem letting a trimmed tree trunk lie on the ground and rot for several years before moving it into a hugel situation.  And even if I do not use it in the garden or for building and it just rots where it lies I feel good about the soil it is making as it melts back into earth.  I also burn a good deal of brush and trimmings in order to make soil amendments like wood ash and charcoal for the hugel beds.

I also like to prune up the remaining spruce to create cleared working spaces BENEATH their canopy.  This kind of space usually receives "side/light" while also providing overhead cover from frost and hail ... making a good space for protecting nursery stock.  I grow a lot of walnut and chestnut nursery stock, and these young trees shelter well for a year or two while they toughen up enough to go out into the open.
    I would prune your prize remaining spruce up from the ground at least 6 feet or so.  Rule of thumb for pruning?  You can take about one/third of the growing branches off to the great benefit of the tree.  Pruning usually stimulate strong new growth in girth.

Need fruit tree light?  There are always the sunny edges.  Or you can open smaller spaces within the conifer plantations in order to establish young fruit trees .. then gradually remove any additional conifers as the fruit tree grows.  The young trees will love the shelter of having big spruce wind/shelter while they establish.

I look at the 30,000 or so pines planted on my site as unnatural interlopers.  Left all alone from this point, the maples, beech and chestnut will move into the conifer stands and become a MIXED forest.  In a hundred years or so it will be more hardwoods than conifers ... closer to a "real" forest.

I think of your work as something like that of a sculptor, taking away excess material (trees) in order to produce a more useful form.  Ironic that in order to produce a mixed forest you must cut down so many existing trees.  Not all at once, of course, but over the long haul of your relationship with an evolving woodlot.

You were "given" 60 acres of forest land?  How sweet is that?  Where can I go to get in the way of a gift like that?

Nature invites your participation in the evolving dance on your acreage.  Do not be shy about converting those beautiful spruce to materials you can use.  Working slowly and mostly by yourself means you will have time and space to figure it out as you go.

I bet if you open the conifers a little at a time, the hardwoods will begin to come in on their own.  Where I live, sugar maple volunteers will quickly take over a pine plantation planting once a few trees come out.  Funny to think of sugar maple being problematic, but they come in so densely they can seriously retard to future growth of the conifers if not controlled.
Posts: 20
Location: Campti, LA, Natchitoches Parish, Zone 8
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Hey there!  I just saw your post this morning and you have an AWESOME opportunity!  Where me and my girlfriend live, we have a similar situation, where we are starting with a really overgrown area and are in the process of converting it into a sustainable ag farm.  I look forward to hearing more about your progress.
Posts: 1553
Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
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Catie George wrote:Does anyone have any experience/ideas/advice for slowly converting a pine/spruce plantation into a diverse forest? The limited information I have seen and heard about rejuvenating an overgrown, never thinned woodlot suggests cutting it all down, then replanting. I plan to take some trees down for firewood and hugelkultur, but clear cutting 40+ acres and starting over sounds rather extreme.


I have had to do some research into this for my work as a restoration coordinator. The land trust that I work for has several properties that are old forestry sites that we are wanting to manage in a way that brings them back to a more natural structure. The problem with modern forestry techniques of clear cutting and then replanting is that you get a forest of just 1 species (most of the time) and all the trees are exactly the same age. When trying to restore these types of forests it would not be good to just cut all the trees down since you will just be starting the exact same process over. Here is a way you can think about it:

Current Trees - These are your large "old growth" trees in relative terms. You will want to thin these and while it is fine to remove some for firewood or other use, you should also leave a lot of these on the ground. Also, some of these should be thinned by girdling them - this will create standing snags.

New trees - Look at existing natural forests in your area and look for a mix of canopy trees, mid-story trees, and shrubs/small trees. This is where you can plant new species to increase biodiversity and also increase structural diversity of the forest. Structural diversity refers to both a diversity of sizes/heights of the trees and also a diversity of ages of the trees.

The goal is to go from a low biodiversity, low structural diversity forest to one with a high level of biodiversity and structural diversity. This will create a dynamic forest with a range of habitat and should be a far healthier forest than what you started with.

Here is a document that outlines the process in a lot more detail than I went into:

Catie George
Posts: 22
Location: Ontario - zone 5b
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I'm really, really glad to hear that other people are trying to do this (and succeeding)!

I'm also very impressed, Jay - 10 000 trees is a lot of dedication. Thanks for sharing your experience- it gave me a lot of ideas (and hope). I like the idea of pruning for light and growth, and using the existing trees to shelter seedlings.  

Thank you Daron - I'd never heard of or thought of girdling a tree. It's great to have a technique for thinning that doesn't require me to lug around a chainsaw. You're right, I will need to keep finding and walking in natural forests in the area. I've only ever lived in boreal forests, and they have very different species and structures.

I am quite hesitant about logging - my parent's land (regrowth boreal forest on shallow bedrock) was selectively cut about 8 years ago. We discovered that in shallow soil, the trees hold each other up with their branches. If you suddenly remove 3/4 of them, leaving only the "best" as seed trees, most of the remaining trees will fall down. Then it takes another 5 or 6 years for them to stop falling for long enough to actually keep a trail clear. I think the trees on this site have deeper roots but I don't intend to test that theory. A few at a time seems more reasonable and manageable.

I realize this will take me time; probably years, more likely decades since I will only work at it occasionally. But  ample time is one of the advantages of being young When I get impatient, I can remind myself that 40 years from now, hopefully, the forest will look a lot different- with deciduous and coniferous trees of mixed ages and types interspersed with some majestic 80 year old red pine and white spruce planted by my grandpa.

One of the things I am thinking about HK for is one of the open clearings that already exist. It's probably the easiest place to put in light loving trees, if I can get some soil established to feed them. I do want to keep some of the natural clearings - I think of them as the ultimate low maintenance lawn.

Some of my work will be getting trees established to give me volunteer trees. I've been thinking of clearing, say, a 10' radius circle and replanting it with one or two hardwood tree seedlings. Then moving to another area and doing the same thing. In a few years the trees will grow, and some seeds or roots will be able to migrate and colonize new areas adjacent to my circles (especially if I've thinned out the trees in between in the meantime).

Also, so far I don't appear to be allergic to poison ivy. But my family and friends are, so I should probably deal with it before I ask them to help me.

- Catie
Posts: 4
Location: Midland Ontario / Nichabau Quebec
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Im just curious, how is this project progressing?
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