10 Forestry Essentials for Your Cabin or Off-Grid Property

A healthy forest is an important part of the cabin or off-grid experience.

Keeping the forest around your cabin healthy is important, but not just for enjoying your property.  It’s also the best thing you can do to prevent wildfires from destroying your cabin and woods.  It’s also one way you can contribute to a healthy environment for plants and wildlife.  Looking for how to keep the forest around your cabin healthy and in good shape?  This guide will provide you with a lot of the basic information you need to keep your forest healthy for years to come.

Why do We Need Human Intervention at all?

For millions of years, forests have been healthy all on their own.  So why do we need to do anything but let nature take it’s course?  Why would a forest get unhealthy if we just leave it alone?

The answer is because we don’t leave our forests alone.

Over the last few hundred years, humans have been interfering a lot with the natural processes that keep ecosystems balanced.  How we used to log and replant trees has actually led to unhealthy and unbalanced forests.  Fighting wildfires prevents nature from cleaning up undergrowth and old trees.  Introducing non-native species of plants and animals has thrown off the balance of nature in lots of places.

We’ve learned a lot over the years.  We still fight wildfires to save human lives and property.  So we have to manage our forests ourselves, otherwise wildfires, diseases, and insects would do it for us.

We’ve learned to better manage our forests.  But government agencies and companies that promote and practice healthy forest management don’t take care of the forest on your property.  That’s up to you.  So if you’ve purchased land or are just thinking about it, here are some important tips to keep your forest healthy and well balanced.

Trim the trees up

One of the best ways of preventing a forest fire from destroying the forest on your property is to trim the lower limbs from your large trees.

Trimming low limbs will keep a brush fire from climbing up your trees and catching the canopy on fire.  Likewise, trimming the lower limbs will assist a forest fire sweeping through the area to stay up in the canopy and not descend to the ground.

So even if a forest fire does come through the area where your cabin is, your trees and your cabin may be saved.  The fire will mostly stay in the canopy, burning only the tops of your trees.  Many of your trees will survive and your forest will return to its full and healthy state quickly.  On the other hand, if you leave these lower limbs then your trees are far less likely to survive and you may be looking at many years before you have a healthy forest again.

A good rule of thumb is to cut off any limbs within 10-15 feet of the ground or the limbs on the lower 1/3 of the tree.  If you have a 20 foot tall tree, I wouldn’t recommend trimming all the limbs within 15 feet of the ground.  Rather, just the lowest 7 feet or so.

The exception would obviously be any decorative trees you’re growing that won’t ever get above about 8-10 feet tall.  For example, you wouldn’t want to trim up a Christmas-tree style fir tree like this.  But short of decorative trees and plants, your trees should all be trimmed up like this.

For tree trimming, I strongly recommend that you get a gas or electric powered tree trimmer.  You can get the ones that have a plain saw blade on the end and they work pretty well for a tree or two.  But if you’re managing a forest, you’ll probably never be able to trim up all the trees by hand.

If you’re a fan of gas power, you can get one like this one on Amazon.  If you prefer battery-powered, then this one is a great choice.  Something to keep in mind is that the electric pole saw is quite a bit lighter, which means it’ll be a lot easier to use for long periods of time.  Plus it extends about 3 feet longer than most of the pole saws I’ve found which will help you get up to 15 feet.

Clear out Brush

For a lot of the same reasons that I recommend trimming up your trees, I also recommend clearing out underbrush.

Don’t get rid of all plants, of course, but forest properties get a lot of woody underbrush growing all over and it can be as much of a fire hazard as low tree limbs.

So spread out the brush at your cabin property.  It’ll make it easier to traverse and use the land anyway.  Just keep enough around to still attract desired wildlife and keep the ecosystem balanced.  There are just some brush plants that spread out and take over really quickly and those are the types of plants that used to be managed naturally by fires.  So unless you want a fire at your property, you’ll have to manage them yourself.

Remove dead trees and plants–but not all of them

Natural forest fires also used to do a good job of clearing out a lot of dead trees and plants.  But in an age where we don’t want fires managing our forests for us, we need to do something about them.

Dead trees, branches, and other plants are a big wildfire hazard and should be dealt with.  For large trees, cut them into manageable pieces and take care of them.  If a dead tree is strong enough to still stand, or if it recently fell, then the wood may be good for firewood.  Cut it into logs and you can later split and use for firewood in your cabin.

For smaller branches and plants, I highly recommend that you get a wood chipper.  Especially if you have a lot of wooded property, you’ll want a quick and easy way to deal with brush and branches.  Plus, then you can use the wood chips as mulch at your cabin.

All this said, you don’t want to get rid of all dead trees.  It’s best to keep some fallen logs around.  These attract many insects and some predators and feed on the insects that cause damage to your forest.  I recommend, though, that you be deliberate about leaving fallen logs spread out in certain places on your property.  I would remove their limbs that stick up and just leave these logs to rot away.

Thin out the trees

A forest left unmanaged today will naturally get overcrowded with trees.

Believe it or not, forests of the past didn’t get this way due to natural fires.  Forest fires used to be really common, but they weren’t nearly as destructive as today.  They would clear out fallen logs, brush, and the smallest trees, but many trees would survive the fire.  But by clearing out some trees, forests would stay thinned to a healthy level.

Without a healthy fire burning through, your forest will get overcrowded with trees.  That’s why it’s important to thin out trees a bit.

How many trees to keep depends a lot on the species of trees you have in your forest.  It also depends on the size of those trees.  Larger trees need to be thinned out even more than smaller ones.

There is actually a science to this, and it can get pretty complicated.  But a really good rule of thumb to follow is to thin out your trees as much as you can while leaving a nice canopy above.  If you start to get big gaps in the canopy, you’ve probably thinned them out too much.

Thinning out your trees will help to not only prevent natural wildfires from destroying your forest, but they’ll also help make your remaining trees much healthier.  With less trees around, they won’t have to compete as much for nutrients in the ground, or for sunlight and water.  They’ll grow deeper, healthier root systems.

But what do you do with all these trees?  Well, one option is to call around to logging companies in the area and ask if they would like to log your property.  You can sometimes get them to actually pay you to come out and thin out your forest.  You can work with them on which trees to remove and then they’ll cut them down and take them away.

Another option is to hang onto these trees and mill them down into lumber.  That’s what we do with our forest.  We’ve set up a “portable” lumber mill at our cabin.  I say “portable” because it technically is, but it’s actually really heavy and not easy to move.  That is, until we mounted it on a trailer.  Anyway, this mill gives us the ability to cut up our logs into boards that we can use for building anything we want, even our next cabin.

Read on to learn more about how to decide which trees to cut out.

Keep a healthy mix of different aged trees

One of the big mistakes that they made in the early years of logging was that they would clear cut all the trees from an area of forest.  They then thought they were being responsible by planting new trees to replace the ones they had cut.

The problem with this is that the new trees were all the same age, and would grow at about the same rate.  So now we have whole sections of forest where pretty much all the trees are the same age.

For a healthy forest, it’s actually best to have trees of all different ages.  So as you thin out your trees, don’t cut down all the little saplings.  Try to keep as much of a mix of trees as possible.

Don’t let trees get too old

As trees age, they eventually get to a point where they almost completely stop growing.  These trees are most susceptible to disease and destructive insects.

Different tree species have different natural lifespans.  Fast-growing trees have shorter lifespans than slow-growing ones.  But whatever the natural lifespan of the trees in your forest, the very oldest and biggest are likely also the most susceptible to these issues.  And the danger in that is if you start go get tree diseases or pests infesting some of your trees, your other trees become at-risk.

So as you consider which trees to thin out, it’s probably a good idea to mark some of the oldest and largest for removal.  Again, it’s good to keep a mix of ages, so don’t get rid of all of your biggest trees.  Just try to achieve a good mix.

Remove all trees within 5 feet of your cabin or other structures

Don’t have trees too close to your cabin or any of the structures on your property.  For any trees within 30 feet, you should absolutely make sure that they are trimmed up at least 15 feet or 1/3 of their height.  Also, trim away any branches that could brush up against your building.

It’s also a good idea to have trees far enough away that their branches don’t overhand your cabin.  Branches above your structures create a risk of damage.  Whether it’s a fire, wind storm, or heavy snow or ice, a branch breaking from a tree and falling on your cabin can create a dangerous situation.

You should also remove all brush and clear out any pine needles and pine cones within 30 feet of your cabin and remove anything flammable, like firewood, from within 5 feed of your cabin.

This is less about healthy forest management and more about keeping your cabin safe from forest fires.  If you have a good defensible space around your cabin of at least 30 feet, it’s much more likely to survive if a forest fire does come through the area.

This plus keeping your forest healthy will go a long way toward protecting your cabin and your forest from a highly destructive forest fire.

Allow local, natural grasses to grow

It may sound like I’m in favor of getting rid of all of the vegetation on your property.  That’s not it at all.

Having a healthy amount of vegetation on your property not only adds to its beauty, but is an important part of a healthy ecosystem.  Plus, having grasses and other plants will help prevent serious erosion problems in your forest.

That said, it’s important to stick to growing grasses and other vegetation that grow naturally in the local area.

First of all, trying to plant much of a lawn at your cabin using traditional lawn grasses isn’t going to be very successful.  Unless you have the water available at your cabin to keep it well watered, it’s not going to come in very thick.  And unless you are planning to keep it mowed, it’s not going to be very nice.

But, there are lots of natural grasses that grow in various regions that will help keep down erosion and will provide beauty and a healthy ecosystem for your forest.

Try to find a local business that promotes native local planting and they’ll be able to point you to the right varieties.

If you just let nature take its course and thin out the undergrowth, you’ll probably end up with some good natural grasses over time.  But if you give it a little help by scattering some seed around at your property, you’ll get a nice, grassy forest much more quickly.

This is particularly nice shortly after building a new cabin or clearing brush in an area.  Depending on the soil at your property, construction and clearing can lead to a really dusty ground.  Getting some local grasses to grow will help keep that dust down.

Stick to natural, local plants for your forest

This goes hand in hand with growing local grasses in your forest.  The same is true for other plants and trees in your forest.

Introducing species of plants that aren’t native to the area can cause huge problems.  Kudzu is an Asian plant that was brought to the United States back in the 1800’s.  At the time, it seemed like a great plant to use for erosion control because it grows so rapidly and spreads out with its long vines.  But in many places it has become a noxious weed that kills other plants quickly by growing over the top of everything and blocking out sunlight.

Because Kudzu has no natural predators in the United States, it grows unimpeded except for by herbicides that we use to try to kill it or at least keep it in check.

While it’s not likely that planting the wrong bush at your cabin will have the same effect, using non-native plants in your forest can disrupt a balanced ecosystem.

Local plants attract local animals.  Having a variety of plant and tree species that are native to your area promotes a strong, healthy forest ecosystem.

That said, some plants attract animals that you may not want around.

Berry bushes are very attractive to bears who forage for most of their food.  Keeping berry bushes near your cabin is probably not a good idea if you don’t want bears around.  In fact, it’s worth while to do some research on local animals and plants to figure out just what kinds of plants you want to have next to your cabin and throughout your forested property.

Learn about pests and diseases that could affect your trees

If you’re going to manage a forested property, it’s important for you to know about the pests and diseases that commonly affect the trees in your area.

Different plant and tree species have different diseases and pests.  Likewise, different areas have varying problems at any given time.  Find a good resource to learn about the common pests and diseases for plants and trees in your area.

Learning about these issues will help you to prevent them from afflicting your forest.  It will also help you identify any trees that are affected and treat them appropriately.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is remove the affected trees.  But sometimes, you can treat them and allow them to return to a healthy state.

But it all starts with knowing.  We can’t cover all tree species or all of the pests and diseases that affect your area.  But the local forest service in your area should have some resources to help you.

Keep Your Forest Green

When you bought a cabin or some property, you may not have thought too much about the forest around it.  But it turns out that having a healthy forest adds a lot to the cabin experience.  Most importantly, it can protect your cabin from destruction due to wildfires and even other natural disasters.

A healthy forest has trees with deeper and stronger roots.  It is more likely to survive a wildfire.  In fact, healthy trees will even hold up better in storms.  And while the forest may not seem like the most important factor impacting your level of enjoyment at your cabin, imagine what it would be like if your forest were completely lost in a fire.  Would you enjoy visits to your cabin then?

That’s why it’s so important to spend some time managing your forest.  Keep it healthy and you’ll be able to enjoy your cabin, the trees, and the native wildlife for many years to come.

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