Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Woodland Restoration - aka Killing Buckthorn

What is a woodland and why am I trying to restore it? Great questions, I'm glad you asked :)

A woodland is a natural area where, unlike a forest, trees form an open canopy, with a ground layer made up of shrubs, grasses and flowers plants.  (In a forest the canopy is all closed off and it's pretty undisturbed on the interior)  Anyway, a woodland can have plant composition and appearance which are very different from it's surroundings (for instance, the woodland space I'm working to restore is between houses with grassy lawns). Woodlands are very susceptible to invasion by exotic species because it has a high amount of edge environment - waging wars on lots of fronts.

The first steps are deciding if the woodlands need restoration or simply better management. Woodlands management means means taking care of what’s already planted and encouraging continual growth and improvement. I think of "management" as a weak form of restoration, improving the site but largely keeping most of what's there intact.  Restoration represents a much more intensive,hands-on effort. Restoration, as the name implies, restores a degraded natural woodland, to a desired plant structure and species composition.  These areas to  be restored have the building blocks required for the woodland, but perhaps not the right mix, quantity, or quality. Plus there may be building blocks that need to be removed from the foundation and thrown away - for example, invasive species. Restoration is coddling the baby woodlands back to health by removing exotic species control, seeding and planting new items.

So - how did I decide? I took an inventory of the site. I mentally mapped it out and walked almost every inch of the land. I had a small patch to deal with so this was feasible and easy to do. What I was looking for / and what I discovered was:

Starting point - buckthorn hedge (trashy!)
  • Invasive species - too many buckthorn, honeysuckle, mustard ginger, poison ivy, poison oak to count. (check this site for how to identify buckthorn, they are trees that hold their leaves longest in the fall.)
  • Great woodland plants (keepers) - Good oak, maple trees. A nice Pagoda Dogwood too. I found two straggly apple trees (probably crab apple)
  • Decorative garden shrubs / flowering plants: This area I was told used to be a brilliant garden about 50 years ago. Sure enough in between the buckthorn I discovered a beds of vinca, iris, daffodils, tulip (mind you none of these last three were blooming), lilac, viburnum, grape hyacinth,  - lots to work with. Plus wildflowers - trillium, white trout Lilly, solomon seal, maybe morel mushrooms? and more.
  • Topology - Without the buckthorn - half of this will be shady, the part by the street with be part-sunlight. The north side is a flood-plain, the south side is generally dry. 
  • Diversity of the canopy - not so great, lots of dying ash and elm. Evergreens, while large, are also stressed.  

Poison ivy vine - two inches thick!
Under-story of buckthorn crowding out mature trees

You can see a bit of the challenge in the photos above. Very thick with buckthorn - and check out that poison ivy! The vine went all the way to the top of the elm tree and even though the tree was dead, the ivy gave the appearance of it being alive it was so leafy! Buckthorn is a real challenge in Illinois and as I'm close to the Forest Preserve I think there will always be a management issue. But for now, what all this meant - I needed to get on the restoration path. I don't think that I appreciated at the time the amount of work that I was signing up for! This was a decision that I made almost 5 years ago. I'm still working on it!

I would estimate that I have spent nearly a 10 solid weeks working on this project just clearing out the invasive species. Some invasive plants just keep coming back. Here's an update on my battle with Garlic Mustard. Sometimes a few helpers but mostly a solo gig. I work it in spring (before the poison ivy comes out) and in the fall when the buckthorn is the only thing that's green. It's slow but steady progress. Plus considering that this isn't my land, I need time for the neighbors to get used to the changes. Finally this year many are appreciative - however, there are plenty that are mad that I've taken out the "hedge" and privacy. I think they will be happy as the years pass - but they don't share the vision that I have for this space.

Wild grass with delicate flowers that appeared
Native wildflower returns to woodlands

This year the lilac bloomed, significantly, for the first time; the iris as well. 

I created a little flower garden on the south side - which is pretty much a cottage garden. I've been putting in all sorts of odds and ends, free items from CL, and seed bombs over time. It's a bit messy, but this way I can see what takes and I'm not spending my resources on it. 

On the street side - stay tuned. I'm going to be doing some major planting this month and look forward to sharing the (hopefully dramatic) results.

Anyone got ideas on plantings please do share with me. Or if you want a lesson in killing buckthorn - just shout, I would welcome a few hours of help :)

Teresa Marie

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