Heating with wood often requires kindling

In permaculture design thinking, we make sure that our critical functions (such as staying warm in these northern climes) can be served in multiple ways. Another way to think about this could be that there is such a thing as smart redundancy, or “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” To that end, I often recommend backup heating options for design clients who are relying solely on a fossil fuel appliance for heat and, indeed, I’m not alone in that thinking.

Many people are moving toward wood burning as at least part of their strategy for home heating. This is more feasible as improved wood stove models become more available; they are highly efficient and generate the very minimum of emissions when running at optimal levels. When managed properly, woodlots can produce an annual yield of something like 1/2 a cord per acre (+/-) without diminishing the total standing stock of biomass. This means wood can be a truly renewable source of fuel. When we start looking at coppicing hardwoods on a specific rotation for harvesting high-BTU fuelwood (and for other benefits) and very aggressively tightening up and insulating our buildings, we are getting closer to a picture of a local self-reliance around how we stay warm in winter. Of course, we need to regain lost skills around how to do all of this in the safest, cleanest and smartest way possible. We also need to be realistic about how quickly we can convert our housing stock to non-fossil-fuel heating methods. But wood burning is certainly one of the most important transitional strategies we have in order to achieve both household and regional energy independence.

We happen to have a brilliant Waterford cast iron stove that we picked up several years back on a premonition that we would need it. We heat our entire house exclusively with this appliance and the design not only burns efficiently, but allows us to “ash out” live and keep the stove going around the clock. Our need to let the fire die out so that we can ash out and re-start is almost nil. However, sometimes we do need to start a fresh fire and many people do so every day. In order to do that you typically need kindling (smaller, dry carbonaceous material such as twigs, dry leaves, expensive “fatwood” from LL Bean, or paper). We don’t get a newspaper delivered and any paper we do receive from friends is reserved for sheet mulching (subject of a future post). Slash wood and brush piles are being employed toward a higher purpose: garden fertility and hugelkultur beds (again, future post).

Enter the renewable, perennial kindling king: Maximillian Sunflowers.

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximilianii) should be a part of almost any permaculture landscape for a variety of reasons but, if you need kindling on your place, it is a must-grow plant. These are beautiful, tall and robust sunflowers that come back every year. As they finally die back in fall, they leave woody and mostly hollow stalks with just a few dry flowers hanging on. I use my hand pruners to nip these dry stalks off at ground level (leaving the tubers and roots intact under the soil surface for next year’s crop), bundle them up with a bit of twine and put them in a dry spot. When I get a moment later in the season, I use the pruners again to nip the long 6-8′ stalks into shorter bundles suitable for putting in our wood stove. The dry stalks are perfectly combustable and the hollower ones deliver air to the center of the newly built fire. Our patch of Maxi’s is about 10′ long and 2′ deep and that keeps my family into kindling all winter. Any leftovers are great for the base of a new compost pile. No paper, no collecting twigs or smallwood and definitely no spendy “fatwood” required.

Stacking Functions

In any good permaculture landscape, each design element should perform at least three functions (also known as “stacking functions,” one of the secret handshake phrases of the permaculture world:). Maxi’s are champion function stackers because, beyond kindling, they…

  1. Are beautiful and low-maintenance.
  2. Are erosion-control champs; highly recommended for slopes or disturbed areas you want to hold together or heal.
  3. Attract birds and pollinators like mad.
  4. Produce dry flower heads that can be held in reserve and fed to wildlife over winter.
  5. Have edible tubers (somewhat like their cousins, Jerusalem Artichokes or “sunchokes”) and seeds.
  6. Withstand poor soils and intense heat and drought (important in a climate-changing world). They can be a good choice on the sunny side of your house to keep beating sun off your foundation and to make use of space that might have lead or heavy metals (don’t use for food/medicine in this case).
  7. Are rumored to repel mosquitos.
  8. Have some medicinal properties and a history of edible and medicinal use by Native Americans.
  9. It is a great “barrier” planting or can act as a traffic cop, directing passing deer away from your gardens and onward in the direction of your choosing. The stems grow quite densely and bristly, creating an effective barrier from one side the other. For this reason, we often plant it around the edges of a sun trap to “hold” the boundary and even slow encroachment from the woods for a while.

I’m sure there are even more functions than this. I started our Maxi bed several years ago with seed from Johnny’s here in Maine, but you can also dig up a clump of tubers and roots from your friend and plant at your own place.

The USDA hardiness zones for Maximilian sunflower are 3 to 9.

I never have to worry about kindling again and I have a plant that could quite possibly win the “stacking functions” olympics, were there such an event.

Perennially Yours,