Iowa: A Producer of Fine Hardwoods?

An Iowa Woodland

Harvesting Iowa Wood is sustainable.

When we tell people that Iowa is a major producer of some of the world’s most beautiful hardwood, they think we’re nuts. After all, we live in the corn state, where it’s possible to drive a hundred miles viewing only crops.

“Iowa is the sweet spot for the highest quality walnut lumber. Further north it’s too cold for the trees to get big enough and down south they grow so fast the logs contain much white sapwood and wide growth rings. Local walnut is of the highest quality, and it’s beautiful and abundant,” said Thomas Hunt as he led us through the Kendrick Forest Products Mill in Edgewood, Iowa.

Black walnut has been a favored hardwood for paneling, cabinetry, furniture, and gunstocks for hundreds of years. Its dark heartwood has a complex grain pattern that glistens with beauty. It is easy to work with, holds finish well, and is used to create furniture prized for generations.

Walnut log

Log ready to be loaded.

Walnut trees are abundant in Iowa, especially in the tightly wooded valleys of the Driftless Area. Trees grow relatively quickly and produce annual nut crops that squirrels bury by the thousands each fall. They only find some for winter snacks. The rest sprout into new trees. When carefully logged walnuts, along with oaks, hickories, ashes, and basswoods produce crops at long intervals and just as sustainably as well-managed farm crops.

 

 

Logs are shipped to Kendrick’s mill and sorted by species. During our visit, workers were transforming sugar maple logs into boards. No doubt some will end up flooring beautiful and resilient basketball courts.

Logs enter a huge machine that removes the bark and any dirt clinging to it. They then enter a powerful bandsaw. We watched Zippy operate hand and foot controls that fed each log into the blade that squared off a side. He then flipped it over and cut three more times to create a massive squared-off hunk of maple that next moved to another saw. It cuts the log into one of many things. Sometimes they make railroad ties. We watched the saw create inch-thick lumber.

Boards then go to the “green chain”, a room where workers sort them by grade and stack them up. From there they are cured in the open air and eventually in a kiln that removes moisture.

Finished products are shipped to customers far and wide. Walnut is especially valued overseas. Anyone who loves finely-crafted cabinetry, paneling, or flooring may have Iowa-grown wood processed at Kendrick Forest Products. Iowa’s more than a corn state!

Want to see the mill in action?  Kendrick’s offers tours. Information is on their website at kfpiowa.com/take-a-tour/.  Can’t get to Eldridge?  Enjoy a video tour on their website. And, learn about Monday Mulch!

Hot August Days in May

The distant view and the feel are “Hot August Days.” The near view and sounds are mid-May.  With this hot weather, the trees have popped, the fruit trees are in full bloom, and the early garden plants emerging after the cooler and damp weather. We may break a century-old heat record today.

Two days ago we had the woodstove running. Now the air conditioner!

Notice the haze in the distance and the sun rising in the east – still six weeks from the Summer Solstice. Humidity levels are high. Winds are calmer after the front blew in.

The trees show emerging leaves and catkins. Insects work the fruit trees and low-growing spring flowers.

Birds are everywhere singing, courting, mating, and building nests.  Amazing transformation in two days.

 

How Hardy is the Eastern Red Cedar?

On a windy cold Thanksgiving afternoon, we did something nutty. After tossing buckets and shovels into our pickup we drove north until we spotted greenish foliage popping through the road ditches dry grass.
There, we rescued six red cedar trees that are now at home in our yard.

A Hardy Tree

Few American trees have such a love-hate relationship with people as the red cedar, which is actually a Juniper. Perhaps it’s unpopular because of the plant’s amazing adaptability. Sure, it needs full sunlight but given that it thrives in heat, salty roadsides, and terrible soil it is one hardy plant! Even stiff grass competition that snuffs out other baby trees doesn’t seem to bother it.

Red cedars thrive from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. In many places they are small bushes, but sometimes the tree grows big enough to interest loggers. The  aromatic wood  is used to craft cedar chests, closet linings, and even pencils. Fence posts made of it last for decades.

Why Ranchers and Farmers Dislike Cedars

Ranchers curse cedars because they spread in pastures. Cattle don’t like dining on prickly cedar twigs, and within a decade or two cedars replace the grassy food that cows love with a green desert of scrubby trees. 

What’s to Love About Red Cedars

But, a cedar grove isn’t really a desert.   Birds, especially cedar waxwings, love eating their tiny blue berries, and dense stands of cedars protect many species of wildlife from howling wind, searing sun, and predators.  

There’s more. We live in Cedar Rapids, a city named for the rugged trees that grow in rocky bluffs over the Red Cedar River. They’re small and twisted but some are over 400 years old.

We planted our cedars on the edge of our property where they will form a screen from the wind and passing car headlights. They also will give us privacy, and be a  safe home for birds that visit our feeders.

In mid-December, we’ll return to the road ditch and cut a six-foot red cedar for our Christmas tree. Cedars are scraggly and unsymmetrical, but we don’t put our tree up in the house. It will grace the Holiday season on our back deck. Pouring a few cups of sunflower seeds in its foliage creates a  living stream of ornaments as goldfinches, chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches come and go.   

For information on red cedars and many other trees visit the website of the National Arbor Day Foundation.

How Can You Catch Nature’s Miracles?

A camera is an outstanding tool to see change. Plant a tree or prairie and it grows so glacially slowly that noting change is hard. Photos help by compressing time.

In August 2020 a derecho felled 47 of our 53 mature trees. We spent much of last fall converting them into firewood and piling up brush. Knowing that the land would be sunny after years of leafy shade, we planted a blend of savanna wildflowers last November.

The area didn’t change much from last fall until April of this year. Then nature put on a glorious show. Here are three photos of our yard taken in April, May, and September 2021. Most of the growth didn’t come from the seeds we planted last fall.   Seeds long dormant in the soil sprouted with enthusiasm once they sensed the sun’s springtime warmth.

 

Coppicing. Why Do Trees Re-sprout?

Coppicing

What? Coppicing? That word almost sounds dirty. Well, it’s not.  It is a good way to help derecho doomed trees live on!

We recently hosted friends to mark the first anniversary of the August 10, 2020, furious derecho that leveled around 70% of trees in the Cedar Rapids area.

Many people used words like devastation and destruction to describe what happened to trees in both forests and neighborhoods. The damage was truly shocking.

The Giving Trees

We wanted to show visitors a miracle of nature stimulated by the storm. Just east of our house stood a couple of basswood trees. Few of nature’s scents are as delightful as what comes from the blooms of this tree. Bees will fly three miles away to gather the nectar. We just enjoy the scent.

Basswoods have a problem. Their wood is soft and weak. When the derecho hit, they quickly snapped off, leaving a tangle of branches in our yard. Nearly a year later they demonstrated the power of near-perpetual youth.

Basswoods, along with many other deciduous trees, readily coppice. If a tree is cut or blown down it sends shoots up from the stump. Our basswoods quickly sprouted this spring, and we’re seeing others sprouting from stumps in suburban yards.  Many species of deciduous trees also send up shoots. Ashes, oaks, and honey locusts are common sprouters. Evergreens don’t. If a pine or spruce is cut off, the stump dies.

Woodland Management

In Europe coppicing is a method of woodland management. A tree is cut down and allowed to resprout. Because the regrowth is coming from a well-established root system, sprouts grow like crazy. The sprouts are managed carefully. The most hearty sprout is kept and the others cut off. Within five to twenty years, or so, the hearty sprout is big enough to cut for firewood, fence posts, or walking sticks. Then the stump resprouts again.  Some trees have been coppiced for hundreds of years.

Basswood trees are champion sprouters. Our stumps now look like balls of green leaves from all the sprouts radiating from the stumps. This fall we’ll clip off all but the most vigorous one. It will quickly form a new tree. That’s better, easier and cheaper than grubbing out the stump, then buying and planting a replacement tree.

An Internet search will turn up much information on coppicing. We like the website of the Midwest Permaculture Center.

New Oak Signals Hope

May’s first few weeks are the most delightful time to be outdoors.  Warm days combine with the delicious scent of spring.   It’s the peak time for birds that wintered far to the south to either settle in to nest or briefly rest and eat before winging further north. Their songs fill the air.

Early May awakens plants, and in early May Rich discovered a treasure.  It was an oak sprout that seemed to have “hope” written all over its new soft green leaves.

oak seedling next to fallen log

The seedling radiated hope.

Winding Pathways adjoins Faulkes Heritage Woods, an area of sloping land bordered by homes on the south and Indian Creek to the north.   Last August 10th a derecho bearing 140 miles an hour wind tore through Iowa.  Neither Winding Pathways nor Faulkes Woods was spared. Trees, many of them enormous, either snapped off or uprooted, leaving a scene many called “devastation.”

At first, that seemed like an apt description, and the woods looked ravaged all winter.   Rebirth comes with spring. While sitting on a fallen log Rich looked down to see a tiny white oak sprout.  It just seemed to say, “Hi, here I am ready to grow.”

Oaks thrive on sunshine, and with big trees now felled on the ground, light floods the soil to energize the leaves of the baby oak and other seedlings. Gradually the old tree will decompose.  Its wood will add nutrients to the soil to be appreciated by the youngsters.

Nature has amazing resiliency.  One just needs to look to see it.