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franklin county times

Giving thanks for firewood and other holiday blessings

By By Steve Strong / area horticulture agent
Dec. 4, 2002
Nothing feels more like being home for the holidays than enjoying the warmth and smoke of a good wood fire.
Spending Saturday afternoons with the family chopping and hauling firewood are actually among my favorite childhood memories of fall learning the value of hard sweaty work rewarded on many frosty nights with roasted marshmallows and toasted cheeks.
Man's fascination with fire stems back to primal days, when hunting and gathering wood to heat the cave or cabin was as much a part of survival as finding food.
Fire may be less of a daily necessity than it used to be, though the aromatic and therapeutic thermal value still rates at an all-time high.
Wood fire is a five-senses experience, an eye-dazzling light show complete with a snap-crackle-pop soundtrack that warms your nose while leaving that smoky, acrid flavor in the back of your throat.
Whether the gathering is around the family hearth for the Thanksgiving holiday meal or at a backyard Christmas bonfire for a spirit-sharing good time, this is the season to get fired up and be jolly.
For sheer hardwood heat value, nothing beats hickory (pecan is also a member of the hickory family), followed by red and white oaks, maple, cherry, blackgum or tupelo, and sycamore.
Some sources also mention beech, white ash and various birch types (many of those listed do not grow in the Deep South), although many species are now more prized for their furniture qualities.
Softwoods also make a great fire, however, care should be taken to limit the amount of pine and other conifer wood that is burned in a standard home fireplace.
Starter wood, also called kindlin' or "fatwood," usually contains a high resin content in the sap (i.e. pine knots), and can build up in a chimney to cause a dangerous flue fire.
Red cedar is another available softwood, but as with hickory hardwood, keep the fire screen in place and be prepared for frequent showers of sparks. For the wood-burning holiday chef, don't forget about fruitwood like apple and pear to add a special sweet, smoky bite to that Thanksgiving turkey or hindquarter.
Keep in mind that most timber will require some amount of curing before it dries out enough to become quality firewood (using moist, green branches of hickory or fruitwood that smoke rather than flame can be an advantage in cooking, though).
Where a bright hot flame is required, avoid using poplar or elm altogether unless you want a disappointing, smoldering mess.
After the fire is gone, the wood ash that remains contains high amounts of the element potassium that can be recycled as organic fertilizer for the home lawn or vegetable garden.
Use a maximum amount of 25 pounds of "potash" per 1,000 square feet of space, and avoid pouring the ashes directly on actively growing green foliage potash is extremely alkaline with a pH near 14 points, and can burn plant leaves or fruit.
Please follow careful safety precautions when harvesting your own firewood be sure to wear gloves, eye protection and even a safety helmet. I personally know of a family back home recently mourning the loss of a loved one who had the top half of his skull removed when the butt of a tree he was sawing kicked back on him like a recoiled spring.
Fires and the wood that fuels them are wondrous things, but it takes a proper show of respect for our natural resources and a desire to play it safe to enjoy wood fires for a lifetime.
Don't forget to have saw equipment checked by a professional before using it each season. The same goes for the fireplace chimney. And keep away from that can of gasoline.

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