You want the best for your woodlot, but how do you know what’s best? Should you thin, cut or abandon? Writer Cecily Ross discovers the hard way how to properly care for her trees

by Cecily Ross

I love the woods. I love standing among the tall, patient trees feeling their grandeur. I put my head back and look up at the canopy as dense as a cathedral ceiling in places, in others open to the sky. I bend down and touch the ground, smell its cool peppery smell, feel the life-giving decay of leaves and old logs. I touch the rough trunks of the trees, lean into their strength. I count the varieties – maple, beech, cherry, ash. I note the height and circumference of each, the living, the dying, the dead, the old and young and in-between.

Alien invasions
Invasive plant species imported from other countries pose a threat to Ontario woodlots because, lacking the natural control agents that existed in their native environments, such species can dominate a site by crowding out indigenous plants.

Exotic plants should be removed as soon as they appear, either by hand or using biological control agents if they are available. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources publication A Silvicultural Guide to Managing Southern Ontario Forests explains how these pesky plants reproduce and recommends control measures.

Sometimes I can hear the eerie, plaintive call of a red-tailed hawk, the rising melody of a rose-breasted grosbeak, the noisy queedle of a blue jay. I imagine the creatures I cannot see: the voles underfoot, the porcupine tucked into the fork of a basswood, the red squirrels and pileated woodpeckers nesting in cavities bored into a dying hemlock, the doe and her twin fawns hiding in the understorey.

I think about the trilliums and dog’s-tooth violets in spring. The emerald carpet of wild leeks, the magic of finding morels between the roots of an old beech. I consider the forest in winter, the brilliance, the bareness of it. The crisp stillness, the branches cracking in the cold.

If you love your woods as I love mine, you will cherish and care for them. You will not make the mistakes that I made out of ignorance and, yes, I admit it, greed.

My story begins on a brisk and sunny spring day in early May 2006. A late-model silver pickup truck pulled into my driveway, and a pleasant young man presented me with his card and asked if he could look at my woodlot, saying he would mark the trees he was interested in buying and would quote a price for them.

My husband and I had moved from Toronto about a year earlier to this 39-hectare farm in Mulmur Township at the far northeast corner of Dufferin County. I had grown up in the country and longed to return to my roots. Most of the land (some 32 hectares) is open fields, but the far western end contains a small woodlot (about two hectares) that is part of a larger eight-hectare forest shared among four farms.

Common invasive plants

Barberry has tiny leaves on long shoots with three-pronged thorns. Its leaves turn bright pink or red in fall.

Garlic mustard
Garlic mustard was introduced to North America from Europe in the 1860s as a culinary herb. It has broad green leaves and white flowers. The insects and fungi that feed on this plant in its native habitat are not present in North America, where it crowds out native forest trees.

Dog-strangling vine
Dog-strangling vine, named for its long twining stems, is an extremely aggressive member of the milkweed family that chokes out native plants. It grows one to two metres in one season.

Dame’s rocket
Dame’s rocket, a native of Eurasia, has mauve flowers that are a common sight along roadsides, where it is often confused with phlox. Considered invasive in woodlands, it is not a threat in urban settings.

Cecily Ross

Since we moved in, in the middle of February 2005, I have walked, skied and snowshoed to our patch of hard maple, black cherry, ash and a smattering of hemlock with our two small terriers almost every day. I go for the peace and awe that I never fail to feel as I stand among the trees.

The logger marked 50 trees, most of them sugar maple, along with a few black cherry, and said he would give me $11,000 for them. He explained the importance of thinning a woodlot every 10 or 12 years, and mentioned a large maple with a hawk’s nest in it that he would not cut. He talked about leaving the beech trees because they’re a food source for wildlife and birds, and mentioned a patch of morels he had stumbled across. He also pointed out that my neighbour was allowing his cattle to graze in his woodlot, which adjoined ours, thereby destroying his understorey and the future of the lot. His assessment was convincing. Besides, there were so many trees – an estimated 2,500 to 3,000. What difference would 50 make? We accepted his offer, and within a week the trees were cut down and sold as veneer logs to be used in furniture making.

A newly harvested woodlot is not a pretty sight, even when done properly. We had sold only 50 trees, but they were the biggest ones in the woods. Without them the lot was noticeably sparser. Light poured onto the forest floor where the trilliums and wild leeks were just beginning to push up through a carpet of dead leaves. Huge tire tracks were gouged in the wet earth. The tops of cut trees lay where they had fallen, a messy tangle of broken limbs, their nascent buds already nibbled on by foraging deer.

That fall, we cut some of the logs left behind for firewood. In winter, when we snowshoed into the woods, we saw that the deep snow had softened the ravages of the chainsaw. The next spring, the morels were more plentiful than ever, and the wildflowers flourished. But so did the invasive garlic mustard, which, with its distinctive white flower, seemed to be spreading before our eyes.

This past summer as we waded through the waste-high weeds – mostly thistles, nettles and garlic mustard – I wondered if we had made a mistake. Had the logger destroyed our beloved woodlot? Would it ever recover? I called Jim Eccles, a forester at Lands & Forests Consulting in neighbouring Grey County, who used to work for the Ministry of Natural Resources, to assess what, if any, damage had been done to our woodlot.

Eccles, a ruddy-faced man in his forties, arrived on a hot, dry day in mid-August. It hadn’t rained for at least six weeks, and every living thing, from my brown front lawn to the tree seedlings we had planted down by the pond, was feeling the heat. As we rode in his air-conditioned pickup to the back of the farm, I commented on how healthy the woodlot looked from the outside, an undisturbed mass of solid green rising against the sky. Eccles nodded.

“Jobbers sometimes do that so the enquiring public doesn’t know what’s going on in the woodlot. We call them donuts,” he said. “Besides, edge trees are more likely to have lower branches on them, which decreases their value.” Eccles explained that loggers are looking for trees with tall, straight trunks uninterrupted by branches, knots or other blemishes, which can then be planed into beautiful uniform veneer boards. As they reach for the sun, the trees in the middle of a hardwood forest often rise 18 to 30 metres, as straight as ships’ masts, before branching out. Hardwoods like maple and cherry are prized in the furniture industry for their durability and beautiful wood grain. Species common to the Carolinian forests, such as black walnut, can sometimes command prices in the five-figure range for a single tree.

Most commercial loggers, Eccles continued, take only the biggest trees, what is called a diameter-limit cut. In other words, they take only trees over a certain size as specified in the tree bylaws that most jurisdictions have in place. For instance, Dufferin County, where I live, does not allow the harvesting of healthy trees that are less than 205 centimetres in circumference (measured 10 centimetres above the ground). Caroline Mach, Dufferin County forest manager, admits that the bylaw is a blunt instrument. “But it’s main purpose,” she says, “is to promote sustainable logging and discourage overharvesting.”