Plan Now To Clean Up Fallen Trees From Winter Storms

A winter storm caused two dozen fallen trees on my northern Wisconsin farm. But careful planning will help me clean up the mess efficiently in the spring.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

It was a storm of rare intensity for our area. A mid-December thunderstorm in northern Wisconsin—not something you see every year, or even every decade. Maybe it was triggered by a bizarrely warm 50-degree day that prompted approximately 1 foot of snow to melt in less than 24 hours.

In any case, the storm struck swiftly, with powerful winds sweeping from south to north—unusual in a region where prevailing winds blow from west to east. The sheer force of the wind, coming from such an unexpected direction, did a number on the local conifer population.

We’re thankful our farm escaped with buildings and livestock undamaged. But the tree cleanup is going to take some time and effort!

Looking Ahead

It’s currently mid-January, deep in the heart of winter. Spring thaw is at least two months away, maybe three. There’s a lot of snow on the ground, but not enough to hide the dozens of fallen trees scattered across the farm, their crowns uniformly pointing north as if to scold the storm and say, “It went that way!”

But there’s a silver lining to every cloud. And we intend to put the fallen trees to good use.

Many are Red Pines knocked out of windbreak rows. Their trunks are straight and true, so we’ll haul them to our sawmill and turn them into lumber for raised garden beds and other farm projects.

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The key will be tackling the cleanup as soon as possible. Time is of the essence. Many of the trees have fallen in grassy areas where spring vegetation will quickly grow through and around the crowns, making it difficult to clean up.

Even a single tree produces a lot of debris. Cleaning up a couple dozen—while juggling the many other spring farming tasks in need of attention—will require careful planning and time management.

Fortunately, there’s no better time to construct a game plan than the dead of winter. And the two or three months remaining until thaw might be just what I need to get a head start on the project.

Here’s how I’m thinking of approaching the job:

1. Trim branches off the crowns during winter

Before the valuable trunks can be sawed up and hauled to the sawmill (the job of a tractor with a forklift attachment), they need to be stripped of their branches. This is a task that can be largely accomplished during winter.

Even if I’m not hauling away the branches (the snow is too deep for this to be practical), every branch I cut in the winter is one I won’t have to cut in the spring, when I can focus on cleanup instead of cutting.

Read more: Yes, you need a forklift attachment for your tractor. Here’s why.

2. Repair my trusty red wagon

A key ingredient to my cleanup plans is my trusty red wagon, which I use to haul logs, stumps, branches and debris wherever they’re needed.

But one of its wooden sides suffered damage late last year. I’ll need to get it repaired before subjecting it to full loads in the spring. This is another project I can address during the winter. The red wagon will be ready to go as soon as the snow melts!

3. Plan for dealing with the volume of material

A couple dozen fallen trees generate an extraordinary amount of material. The trunks, of course, will head to the sawmill. But what about the branches?

Normally, I would add them to a brush pile in a remote location on the farm. But the sheer volume of material I’ll be dealing with this spring risks making this an impractical solution.

I can’t imagine how many wagonloads that would require. And the size of the resulting brush pile would be staggering.

Instead, I’m thinking of investing in a heavy-duty wood chipper, which I can bring to the site of each fallen tree. Once there, I’ll use the wood chipper to reduce the size of the debris and simultaneously turn it into a useful product—wood chips, perfect for mulching!

Read more: Thinking of buying a wood chipper? Keep these purchasing tips in mind.

4. Head for the high ground in spring

Our farm sits on slow-draining clay soil. The lowlands tend to gather water and turn to mud in the spring.

To avoid rutting up the ground (or sinking a wagon full of trees into the mud—been there, done that), I’ll focus on cleaning up high-ground areas first thing in the spring. As different regions of the farm dry out one by one, I’ll shift my focus accordingly. And I’ll leave the lowest and wettest areas for last.

5. Bring in professionals for the biggest jobs

Even with careful preplanning, I know I’m not equipped to deal with the largest trees. One Norway Spruce measures 90 feet long. It came down on top of several smaller conifers, making quite a mess.

Other trees are only half toppled, hung up dangerously in the crowns of nearby companions. Rather than struggle to handle the most challenging jobs myself, I’m tempted to call in professionals. They could put their experience and specialized equipment to good use while I handle the more manageable messes.

Cleaning up after such a massive storm won’t be easy. But with a few months to prepare my plans and tools, I’ll be ready!

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