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Welcome to the Urban Forestry Revolution

It’s easy to miss the turn into Carolina Urban Lumber. A modest sign and a narrow break in the hedge are the only indication that a sawmill is there.  Parking is an afterthought and trucks and trailers tango at the entrance as visitors come and go. Inside an armada of color-coded logs – some that weigh several thousand pounds -  float in the mud  and wait for their turn at one of two beefy industrial saws.

Milled boards are neatly stacked and dried in an onsite kiln. It’s a little surprising to find a sawmill in the shadow of the light rail south line, but it’s cleverly carved out of a wooded lot just behind Heartwood Tree Company, and perfectly positioned  for a steady supply of poplar, oak, cedar and other urban logs.

Carolina Urban Lumber and other urban sawmills are at the forefront of a new urban forestry movement in this country, and  the premise is simple:  Plan the urban tree canopy so that when trees must be felled – from disease, damage, or development - the lumber can be harvested, and live on as premium new wood products like cabinets, flooring,  or furniture. Until recently, when urban logs were felled they were often unceremoniously hauled to local landfills – at a hefty expense to both tree companies and local government.  Urban sawmills like Carolina Urban Lumber are changing that by giving tree companies a place to deliver logs at no cost, and milling the logs into premium quality lumber that is sold in the local marketplace.



Carolina Urban Lumber owner Damon Barron is tall with clear blue eyes and a smile that could melt a glacier. He’s always happy to talk trees. “Every urban tree has a story to tell.” He explains, motioning to a colossal Deodar Cedar log revealing decades of growth rings. “This tree was once the second tallest tree in the city of Charlotte.It was felled to clear a site for new construction in Myers Park, and the property owner asked us to mill it into beams for the new structure."

"Lumber from this log will also be used to make a barn door, coffered ceiling, and a writing desk in the owner's new addition,” he adds.

Not every urban log has a story this unique, but they all have a story to tell. And because Carolina urban Lumber is a Treecycle America certified mill, every tree that enters the mill will receive a Tree ID number. This unique number tracks the journey of each log, from the time it’s felled until the lumber reaches consumers as new wood products. The Tree ID number branded on an oak table, for example, gives the table’s new owner a chance to know and share in the story of the tree from which it came.

With the confident ease of a 7th grader playing Call of Duty, Damon controls the hydraulic equipment that positions an enormous red oak log on the mill. This tree was recently felled in Charlotte, but it’ll give an encore performance as beams for a crane mount in a warehouse Uptown. Scrap pieces around the outside of the log can be chopped up and sold as firewood, and in the end, every part of the tree is will be used in some way.

As the urban forestry movement grows, what was once a waste burden will become a valuable resource for local communities. A large white oak felled by an ice storm - whose mammoth branches were climbed by generations of small hands – will live on as heirloom furniture for future generations. 

A stand of yellow pine trees felled to make way for a new transit line will be recycled into comfortable benches for waiting passengers.

A grove of Red Cedar trees cut down for construction of a new elementary school, is milled into boards and framing lumber for their garden program’s raised garden beds and greenhouse. 

Don’t be fooled by the understated entrance and lack of parking. An urban forestry revolution is happening at Carolina Urban Lumber and other TCA certified mills around the country.



Activate Your Compost Pile

You’ve created the ideal compost heap. The mass of perfectly moist, organic material fills a 4’x4’x4’ cedar bin, and layers of finely chopped nitrogen and carbon based material are visible through the 1” ventilation spaces between boards. As a courtesy you tell the neighbors in advance that the cloud that will soon erupt from the pile is just steam  - no need to call the fire department.

But instead of scalding hot decomposition and a pile of crumbly, black compost, legions of tomato sprouts comfortably read about current events from 2012 on the newsprint in your compost heap. Not to worry, because, a compost activator could be just what you need to turn up the heat in your compost pile.

Mass Matters
One common pitfall of a sluggish compost pile is too little material and a poor ratio of carbon and nitrogen based material. The pile should be at least 4’ high and should contain at least 25% green, or nitrogen based material. The mass of the material alone in a heap this size helps speed up the decomposition process, and  shredding the material in the pile increases the surface area, making it even easier for microorganisms to quickly break it down.

Bacteria and Enzymes
Bacteria are the biological agents responsible for decomposition process in your compost pile, and some specialty compost activators claim to either add bacteria themselves or enzymes that bacteria use to break down waste. The truth is that bacteria are almost certainly already present in the material in your compost pile, and simply adding a shovelful of soil – which already contains millions of bacteria -  to each layer will further inoculate the material. Enzymes are biological catalysts that help bacteria process waste, and bacteria produce these naturally as they break down food. 

Meal Time
Adding a small sprinkling of nitrogen rich powdered amendments like bone, blood, and alfalfa meal to each layer in a pile will help feed bacteria and activate rapid decomposition. A sprinkling of bone or blood meal, or dried poultry manure feeds bacteria in exactly the same way as many commercially sold compost activators, and these are useful soil amendments for any organic gardener to have on hand. Coffee grounds are also an excellent nitrogen rich compost activator, and you can throw the filter in along with them!

Manure ;  your stinky friend
Fresh or dried manure from herbivore livestock like cows, sheep, goats, chickens and rabbits is an ideal, nitrogen rich compost activator. Spread a 2”-3” layer of fresh manure, or lightly sprinkle dried manure between layers.  Horse manure is not a good choice because a horse’s digestive system cannot process hay and grass seeds. Dog and cat feces can carry disease pathogens, and human waste has it’s own set of risks. Read up thoroughly before you decide to head out to the compost pile with a newspaper and roll of toilet paper.





Simple Crop Rotation for Healthier Plants

Have you noticed that insect pests seem to get worse every year in your garden? Tomato hornworms appear out of nowhere, and swarms of cabbage moths dive and swoop among kale and collard leaves.

Have yields diminished over time, or do your plants seem to have lost that vigor they once had? If you’ve grown the same plant variety in the same place for more than one season, crop rotation could be the answer. Different plant varieties have unique nutrient requirements and insect pests, and planting the same thing in the same place depletes the soil, and allows insect pest populations to become established.  Planting kale after another brassica family plant like collard greens, will encourage the cabbage worm to .

The nutrient requirements of edible varieties are generally based on the part of the plant that is eaten. Plants that produce edible roots, blossoms, leaves and fruits all have unique nutrient requirements at various stages of the plant’s life cycle, and grouping plants with similar traits together allows us to properly rotate them in the garden.

Heavy Feeders
Fruiting and leaf crops including tomatoes, kale, collard, greens, and spinach.

Light Feeders
Root vegetables and onion family crops including beets, carrots, and garlic

Nitrogen Fixing
legumes including beans and peas


While there are more complex ways to rotate crops, the Simple Crop Rotation method is the easiest to follow in the typical backyard garden.  While the most effective crop rotation is to avoid planting the same variety in a bed for at least three years, but this is hard to accomplish in the home garden, and following this simple formula will go a long way toward keeping insect pests guessing, and your garden’s soil fertile.

  1.  Follow a heavy feeder with a light feeder
  2.  Follow a light feeder with a nitrogen fixer
  3. Follow a nitrogen fixer with a heavy feeder






How to Conserve Water in Your Garden

In summer, it can seem like all the water in the Mississippi River still couldn’t keep your garden’s soil perfectly moist and plants happy. You carefully water in the cool mornings and evenings, yet your garden’s soil still seems to dry out too quickly. This challenge has more to do with water loss, and it's important  to understand the three ways that plants and soil lose water.

Water evaporates from the soil surface on hot, windy and sunny days, and because of capillary action, evaporation from the surface can also draw water up from deep beneath the soil, depleting that as well. The best way to offset this is to place a three inch layer of organic mulch like compost, hay, leaves or grass clippings on the surface of the soil. A drip irrigation system buried a few inches below the soil surface will further reduce evaporation from the surface because it places water right at the root zone of each plant. Overhead sprinkler systems and hand watering with a hose are much less efficient because they wet a much larger area of the soil surface, allowing faster evaporation.

Organic humus actually attracts and holds water, and working plenty of it into your garden’s soil will reduce the amount of water that percolates, or flows down through the soil out of reach of plant roots. Water percolates fastest through sandy soil types, much slower in heavy clay based soils.

Plants lose water through their leaf tissue by transpiration, and misting certain varieties on hot, dry days can reduce the amount of water lost and reduce stress. Always mist plants in the morning or evening, never in the heat of mid day as the water can heat up and damage or even kill the plant. Alternatively, allowing plants to wilt for a few hours in the hottest part of the afternoon can also reduce the amount of water lost through transpiration.


5 Leafy Greens That Love Summer

It can be a little heartbreaking when a week of hot weather sends arugula and lettuces spiking for the sky. One day you’re clipping delicate salad greens, and the next day spiky stalks and flowers are swaying above bitter greens in the garden.

But not to worry – you don’t have to devote your summer garden entirely to the popular warm season varieties like tomatoes and squash, because there are some famously cold tolerant leafy green cultivars that can also stand up to even the sultry summers of the Southeast.  Here’s are a list of  leafy greens that are perfectly happy nursing a cup of hot cocoa or a cold glass of iced tea...


KALE (Brassica oleracea)
This non-heading member of the cabbage family famously produces even in harsh Russian winters, but is quite content in warm weather. Harvest the outer leaves a few at a time throughout the season, and water regularly to improve tenderness.  Space plants 12”-18” apart and rotate crops to avoid common soil borne diseases, and companion plant herbs to help control insect pests like the cabbage worm. Recommended cultivars: Red Russian, Hanover Spring, Blue Curled Scotch, Lacinato.

CHARD(Beta vulgaris cicla)
A relative of the beet that has been developed for its tender, nutrient packed leaves, Chard is often used as a heat tolerant substitute for spinach.  Space plants about 8” apart in rich soil amended with plenty of compost and an organic source of potash like green sand or wood ash. Suggested cultivars : Rainbow Chard, Ruby Red.

Native to Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, this heart loving perennial climber has no problem with the steamy summers in the Southeastern US. “What hot weather?”, it asks as this perennial climber methodically overtakes anything it can climb onto, producing thick,  heart shaped leaves that , while not technically spinach, are milder and loaded with Beta Carotene, iron and vitamin C.

COLLARD GREENS(Brassica Oleracea)
What this reliable, hearty garden producer lacks in aesthetic beauty, it makes up for in consistent yields of nutrient packed leaves in any season. Every bit as cold tolerant as it’s cousin kale, collards are even more content in the steamy days of summer.  Recommended cultivars: Georgia, Green Glaze, Champion

MUSTARD GREENS(Brassica Juncea)
Depending on the variety, the spicy flavor of mustard greens can vary from a fun dash of flavor to a salad mix to something more reminiscent of a chunk of wasabi, they  don’t mind hot summer weather one bit.  Recommended cultivars include Giant Southen Curled, Red Giant and Ruby Streaks