When setting out to remove invasive species, bring loppers, a hand saw, burlap, twine, a handcart, and a good-natured assistant!
It was a little while ago when, inspired by a talk by one of Vermont's county foresters, we started this series of blog posts about how ordinary landowners can care for their sugar woods in a changing climate.
Since then, we have covered mapping invasive species and cultivating an ideal suite of tree species. That leaves removing invasive species and protecting riparian buffers and other critter habitat. We'll cover the former today, and the latter very soon.
You may recall that among the peskiest invasive species in sugar country are buckthorn, honeysuckle, and barberry, all three of which we found in our own woods over the summer. According to the Nature Conservancy, the best time to remove at least two of the three is fall, so we stayed our hand until now.
Thankfully, this delay gave us time to connect with Emily Seifert, a naturalist who spent several years as a Stewardship Manager for the Nature Conservancy, managing nature preserves by, among other things, monitoring and removing invasive species from the land. Emily knows a lot about the woody plants that have invaded the forests of sugar country, how to identify them, and how to safely remove them, so one cool morning, we set out on the homestead with our invasive map to have a look.
We are proud to report that Emily confirmed that we had correctly identified our invasives in all instances! Huzzah! We have not lead you astray! While you are likely to find, like we did, that honeysuckle and barberry are easy to identify, buckthorn is harder, and we are more than a little impressed with ourselves that we got it right. As we've discussed, mature plants will have fairly recognizable blue berries in late summer and early fall, but at other times of the year, and for immature plants, you have to really concentrate on leaf shape, color, and position. Emily recognized even our immature buckthorn immediately as such, of course, but passed along these hints for beginners: the underside of buckthorn bark is bright orange and even the immature plants may sport a thorn or two.
From left to right: the bright-orange insides of buckthorn bark, a buckthorn thorn where two twigs meet on a mature tree (to the left of the lower index finger), and the brown, hollow insides of an invasive honeysuckle stem.
Emily also taught us how to check to make sure that the honeysuckle on our property was invasive, as opposed to the native variety out there. It was. How did Emily know? The inside of the stem of an invasive honeysuckle is hollow and brown.
Having passed identification with flying colors, it was now time for removal and disposal. Emily agreed that it was best to remove invasive plants from the ground in their entirety - roots and all - as long as the infestation covers a modest surface area. (Root removal of infestations that cover a large surface area can leave bare ground ripe for other invasives to take root. Such removal on steep slopes can lead to soil erosion.) Emily said that for mature plants, however, cutting and covering with black plastic or a double layer of burlap was a respectable, next-best method. When pulling, Emily noted, it is important to get the entire root system as these plants propagate from the roots. Complete covering of all above-ground parts of the plant is necessary for the same reason, she said. Other notes? Pat yourself on the back for punctuality! Early detection and removal is key to controlling invasives!
We ended up using both methods. While we were able to pull up all of our honeysuckle, most of our barberry, and our immature buckthorns by the root, the roots of one barberry bush and our mature buckthorn tree weren't budging. So we lopped or sawed them off as close to the ground as possible, and covered with a double layer of burlap, tied on with twine or staked down with sticks. Our intent is to pull our map out and monitor those areas each spring and fall to ensure that our removal was complete and our covers stay in place.
From left to right: a "Charlie Brown" white pine has been replanted where an invasive shrub honeysuckle was pulled out by the roots, and a mature buckthorn is cut down and covered to discourage re-sprouting.
Emily reassured us that bagging our invasives and bringing them to the dump was not necessary, as we had feared it would be, and was, in fact, a last-resort method. And, while it doesn't seem to be in any of the literature on safe disposal of invasives, she agreed that destroying these woody weeds in a bonfire - our plan - was probably fine. Emily did caution us against taking the invasives off-site - in Vermont it is actually illegal to do so unless you really know what you are doing - and noted that composting invasives can result in more infestations if not done according to certain best practices.
So - taking care not to spread berries around as we went - another one of Emily's tips - we loaded our invasives into a garden cart, wheeled them to the fire circle, and had ourselves a campfire. Our efforts resulted not only in potentially healthier sugar woods, but also a sugar woods that is easier to navigate - honeysuckle and barberry can get so thick they make the woods hard to traverse - and less prone to tick infestation. According to Emily, studies show that dense barberry infestations give cover to carriers of ticks and thus can result in higher tick populations. Not only that, but, in the long run, our sugar maples now have a better chance of reproducing now that they aren't competing with a thick carpet of invasives.
So, with a little more hope, and a little more connection to the land than we had before, we look forward to learning more soon and passing it right along to you in our fourth and final installment on caring for your sugar woods: protecting riparian buffers and other critter habitat.
Invasive honeysuckle, barberry and buckthorn, getting ready to go up in flames at the family fire circle.
A very young red maple seedling rescued from the garden and waiting to be planted in our sugar woods. Cultivating red maples in your sugar woods can help diffuse the virulence of pests, such as tent caterpillars, that would otherwise wreak havoc on your sugar stand.
In this blog, we have identified three simple steps backyard sugar makers can take to care for their sugar woods in a changing climate. We've covered the first part of step 1: eradicating invasive species (mapping invasive species on your property) and will cover the second part, removal, in its appropriate season (which is fall, thank goodness - it's been so dang HOT!) That leaves (2) cultivating an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protecting riparian areas and other habitat to support diversity of non-tree species. Today we are going to cover step two.
Cultivating an ideal suite of tree species sounds a bit intimidating - and it certainly can be as complicated as you'd like to make it, says Nancy Patch, County Forester for the Vermont counties of Franklin and Grand Isle. But it doesn't have to be that way. Remain calm and read on.
First, some background. It may come as news to you (as it did to me) that there are different types of forests, even here in sugar country. (Psst. Do you know how big sugar country is? See the map below to find out.) Well, there are. And the kind that has sugar maples in it is called northern hardwood forest. Chances are, you are in a northern hardwood forest if you see sugar maple, yellow birch, American beech and white ash. Eastern hemlocks and white pine are also commonly found there. The northern hardwood forest has sub-types; all of these sub-types contain basically the same suite of eight tree species with a couple of additions and/or subtractions. Five or six of these sub-types contain sugar maple. And the best site conditions for sugar maple occur in what is known as the rich northern hardwood forest.
A forest community is rooted (no pun) in its soil. And the rich northern hardwood forest, as its name suggests, has nutrient-rich soil that supports a highly-productive forest dominated by sugar maple, but also including white ash, basswood, sweet birch, bitternut hickory, black cherry, yellow birch, hophornbeam, butternut, and sometimes American beech. The rich northern hardwood forest supports a wide variety of non-tree species as well, including the easily-identifiable "indicator species" of blue cohosh, maidenhair fern, wild leek and duchman's breeches.
Left to its own devices, as in any other ecosystem, the flora in the rich northern hardwood forest balance in to a supportive companionship - a co-beneficial relationship - that, in part through its support of fauna, helps it resist pests and disease. Think companion planting in your garden - same concept. In other words, when the rich northern hardwoods forest contains its ideal suite of trees, it operates at its healthiest and most resilient level. When one or more species are selectively cut, or selectively planted, it doesn't. Health is good, obviously. And resiliency is what any living system needs to cope with change - including forests and climate change.
So, this means that your job as custodian of your forest is to figure out which sub-type of northern hardwood forest you live in, figure out if you have the ideal proportion of the ideal species of trees on your forest, and, if not, selectively cut, plant and/or cultivate so that you do. Easy, right?
Not, really. No. Finding out what sub-type you have will take some research, and the true answer lies in analysis of the soil, notes Nancy. And do you know how to take a statistically significant survey of the number of each tree species you have? Because I don't. Not to mention that foresters tend to work on the 250-acre level, so goodness knows whether a five, ten, or twenty-five acre plot of land can even be analyzed this way. I didn't even want to ask.
This is when it is good to know a forester like Nancy. "Homeowners can make an impact by just focusing on variability," she says. According to Nancy, it is enough to simply walk in your woods and catalog all of the species of trees you find there - including the understory (young trees). If what you find there is reasonably diverse - say around eight species - that's great. You can care for your woods by just not cutting all or most of any species down. If what you find is not monocultural (sugar maple only) but is non-diverse (only a few species of trees) "consider planting an oak or two," suggests Nancy. Oaks are great companion plants in northern hardwood forest; they are great habitat for moths, butterflies and song birds and provide a food source for bear, turkey and deer. They are also projected to do well in a warming climate (or a "climate-change winner" as Nancy says). If you do have a sugar maple monoculture, according to Nancy, "planting hemlocks and red maples can help diminish the virulence of tent caterpillar invasions." Just take a couple of hours to look around, find out how diverse your woods are, and act accordingly. I can DO that!
So, the other day, when I should have been typing (I had planned to be typing. I needed to be typing!), I just couldn't type. So I took the dog outside with The Sibley Guide to Trees. (What I wanted to have was Forest Trees of Vermont, but, alas, not in our local public library. It is now on my Christmas list.) And we ambled for a couple of hours. We saw mature red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, paper birch, eastern hemlock and American beech throughout our ten acres, and some white ash and northern red oak in the understory. Near the house, there were also big white pine and little quaking aspen, staghorn sumac, striped maple and smooth alder. With eight or more species of trees, I'm solidly in the "already have diversity" camp, which is great, even though I don't boast a piece of the rich northern hardwood forest. So I can help my woods stay resilient by just staying the course. Whew. Love it when that happens.
So if you should be typing, had planned to be typing, and need to be typing, but just can't, get out there in the woods and look around for a while to see what you can see - you'll probably be glad you did!
Sugar country is bigger than you think. People make maple syrup in their backyards in twenty U.S. states and most of Canada!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.