Sunday, March 31, 2013

Clean, Clear and Destroy

“I need to clean up my woods.”
“I need to clear out some brush.”
“I need to destroy some nature.”

These three sentences mean the same to me. Unfortunately, the people that say the first two usually don’t realize they mean the third one. I watched this week as some folks in my neighborhood paid a guy to clean up and clear out the edges (I hope it was just the edges) of their woods. He whacked a number of young native trees, including a female persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tree that had borne fruit the last two years. Yet he left standing a non-native mahonia shrub (Mahonia bealei), probably because, with its green leaves, it “looked” more like a desirable plant than that bare deciduous persimmon.

Tiny white persimmon flowers (Diospyros virginiana)

People that set out to “clean up and clear out” usually don’t know much about the plants that they are about to tackle. And certainly the day laborer or two that they hire to do it doesn’t know much about the plants that stand in the way of a tidy woodland. Unfortunately sometimes special plants get axed in the process. Down the road from my neighborhood, a developer marked with orange tape some saplings along the roadside. The next day, a crew came in and removed them all. A casualty of the effort was a tree-sized Viburnum prunifolium that was probably 20+ years old. It was the only one in the group; I had seen it bloom last year and gathered seeds from it in the fall. A more knowledgeable person could have advised him to leave that one; other bigger trees remained in the area. Just the small things were cut down.

The Viburnum prunifolium last spring, now cut down

I don’t mean to imply that areas should never be opened up or that there isn’t good reason to thin out plants that exist in abundance in order to bring order, light or diversity to an area. Red maple (Acer rubrum) lives in my yard with great exuberance.  If I didn’t control most of the seedlings, I would soon have very little else.

Here is what I would like to suggest to people that want to manage “wild” plants in their yards:

Learn – identify your plants. Learn what plants are native, what plants aren’t native, what their names are and what their growth habits are. The internet today provides wonderful resources for identifying plants. You can upload pictures on “name that plant” forums, search for information on plants you’ve identified, and get opinions from complete strangers on whether the plant is good or bad!

Evaluate – once you identify what you have you can determine what’s bad, what plants are over populated (like my red maples), which plants are scarce (like that viburnum), and what’s going to be trouble for your rambling youngster (is that poison ivy?).

Act – once you’ve decided you want to remove some things, tag things so that the wrong plants aren’t removed (you can buy a roll of flagging tape at home improvement stores), use spray paint (or hoses or even ordinary flour) to outline areas to be worked. Make labels for your plants so that you remember what they are (you can use that same flagging tape as temporary labels by writing on it with a sharpie, but make sure you don’t tag and flag at the same time lest your “good” plants get removed!).

If you still need help – ask! Find your native plant society or local garden club. Often more experienced members are kind enough to help out. But don’t take action without research. I wince every time I walk by the house whose woods were thoroughly “cleared” of the uncommon native groundcover known as ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum). It’s been 3 years – I don’t think it’s coming back.


  1. Couple of good apps for smartphones: LeafSnap and InvasivePlants both make evaluation a little easier. With LeafSnap, you can take a shot of a leaf (if they are on, of course) and get an identification. Its database started with the Northeast, but covers much of the east in general--and it's expanding.

  2. It is excrutiating to watch the mess people make of the indigenous pine barrens in my neighborhood.. Hurray for those who leave the trees, but then hiss boo as they clear out the native blueberries & sweet fern to plant Garlic grass.. I know how much effort it takes to become landscape literate even when you want to..I despair for the property of those who could care less. I've watched one house put up an unnecessary fence, sell the house. Sandy wrecked the fence. New owner cut down all nearby trees instead of removing fence...Arghh..