Monday, 08 June 2020

All About the Show

Image if showy orchid

While not the biggest, the showy orchid makes in color and beauty for its relatively modest size.

If last week was all about the squirrel farm damage and chaos caused by invasive plants, this week was the flip side of the coin. 

Gone to Seed

Image of garlic mustard in seed

Garlic mustard in full seed is especially impressive by the light of dawn. Soon those pods will burst; each plant casting hundreds of invasive seeds.

This is crunch week for clearing garlic mustard. Plants are done blooming and ripening seed heads. In a week or two, pods will dry and split open. As they do, seeds will be thrown several feed away. Many will take root and begin growing within weeks after hitting the ground. Others will lay dormant for up to five years., waiting for favorable conditions.

Image of large construction bag filled with garlic mustard.

Much of the seed will wash downhill with the next rain, spreading the infestation downstream and across property lines. That is why it is so important to pull, bag and remove as many plants as possible before those seed pods burst.

 

Blooming Trees

Lots of flowering trees made their appearance this week. Among them were three rather similar looking mid-story shrub like trees. The pagoda dogwood, maple leaf viburnum and nannyberry all have clusters of small simple white flowers. All three provide important food for pollinators in the spring while birds eat their berries throughout the summer.

 

May 2020

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Woodland Looking Like a Wreck

Image of oriole and indigo bunting at backyard feeder

The newly open squirrel farm feeding station attracts the most brilliantly colored woodland birds around.

For the Birds

This week saw an explosion of spring flowers and activity across the squirrel farm. We hung the bird feeders as soon as we moved in a month ago but resisted the urge to fill them right away. We did not want the local wildlife to become dependent on handouts. Nearly every day, however, we saw bird arriving for the spring and checking out the empty feeders with obvious disappointment. This week we relented after neighbors told of the beautiful birds that frequently their backyards.

The response to our offerings was immediate and overwhelming. Unlike the house sparrows and chickadees that dominated our yard in Madison, visitors to the squirrel farm feeders include bluebirds, nuthatches, orioles, gold finches, rose breasted grosbeaks, downy woodpeckers, wood thrush, and hummingbirds. The brilliant colors of these beautiful birds remind me of a tropical zoo display more than any backyard I have ever known.The surrounding woods pay host to cardinals, bluejays, wrens, warblers, red winged blackbirds, red tail hawks and pileated woodpeckers.

Disaster Zone

On the other hand, the squirrel farm woodland is now officially a wreck. Shortly after moving in, I began cutting down buckthorn and treating the stumps with Garlon 4 to keep them from re-sprouting. At first, I looked for fairly open spots and began stacking the brush into compact piles for burning later. Trees begin to push sap up into trunk and out to branches as the days lengthen and weather warms. That upwelling of sap prevents herbicide from moving down into the roots where it does its damage.

So, once sap began to flow my tactics had to change, as well. Instead of killing the trees, my aim switched to preventing them from making seed. Instead of cutting trunks off neatly at the ground and treating the stumps, I started lopping trunks off around waist height and leaving them untreated. Though the tree remained alive, without branches, it could not flower and produce seed. Of course, that choice means I must return in late summer and cut those trunks and treat the stumps to kill the trees. But removing the tops prevents millions of seeds from entering the seed bank to plague the woodland for decades to come.

One retired guy working part time to clear five acres of buckthorn thicket in less than a month meant that all those tops were left where the dropped. The result is a woodland that resembles a battlefield. For the next couple months, it will be just me and the ticks turning that chaos into a scattering of well organized brush piles.

Image of forget me not flowers

These stunning blue flowers are quickly becoming the scourge of the north woods.

But wait, there’s more

Adding to my manmade disaster is that of invasive garlic mustard. The squirrel farm sports more than a half acre of dense stands along with scattered patches and pioneering individual plants. I filled a large construction bag of the plants each of the past three weeks. Most of the outlying individuals and small patches are removed and will not make seed in 2020. The large patches along the small ravine remain. With luck I will remove all or nearly all of them before the seed pods burst a month from now.

Joining the garlic mustard is another invasive plant more common in north country woodlands, the forget-me-not. With lovely little blue flowers, these common garden plants overrun woodlands, especially along river banks and other sunlit edges. The Baraboo hills are at the southern edge of the tension zone between northern woodland and sand country and the prairie and savanna plant communities that dominate the southern third of Wisconsin. Life in the tension zone means having the diversity of both native and invasive species. The infestation is currently confined to a 1,000 square foot area of woodland east of the road and south of the driveway. My challenge is to clear this patch in the next three days. Rain and warm weather will soon make the woodlands mosquito hell, so time is not on my side.

On the Up-Side

The squirrel farm is much more than a neglected woodland thicket. More amazing spring ephemeral wildflowers made their appearance this week. Yellow forest violets brightened the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood, also called pagoda dogwood trees unfurled their leaves. Seedlings around their bases ensure that lovely mid-story trees will supply us with gorgeous flowers, while their dark purple berries will help woodland birds feed their young throughout the summer.

The oak seedlings and round saplings scattered across the property offer promise, hoping to compete with their more aggressive neighbors like cherry, walnut, locust and boxelder. It will up to me to place my thumb on the scale of the oaks, until there is enough surface fuel to begin prescribed burning in a few years. Once fire turns to the squirrel farm, the fire tolerant oaks and hickories will regain their dominance and those shade tolerant species like maples will retreat.

Mushrooms!

This week also brought our first morel mushroom harvest. First to arrive this week are the half-free morels. Neighbors claim the squirrel farm is a bountiful store of morels, the rains and warm weather we are getting this week make us truly hopeful.

 

 

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

A spring morning amble

Image of woodland in the early morning light

View from the front porch of the squirrel farm.

It is about time that I acknowledge maybe the biggest difficulty I have writing, especially about land stewardship; particularly living on the squirrel farm. My office has a large window behind which sits my desk. The heating vent sits on the floor in front of the window. I am sitting here at my desk hot air blowing at my feet staring out the window with geranium plants flanking my face, competing with me for the precious light outside. How can I sit here on such a beautiful spring morning when all I want to do is go outside?

The last frost date for this part of the state is right around May 15th, so it should be no great surprise that the air outside this morning is a frigid twenty five degrees. That same air is really dry, so dry that while we are getting a hard freeze, there is no frost. The sun has risen high enough over the south ridge that at 7:15 am, we are fully bathed in that rich golden sunlight that photographers call the golden hour.

When I am walking the land and losing myself in the small and infinite world around me, I have no notebook to record the experience. Even if a notebook is tucked under my arm, I have no desire to pull it out and lose the moment trying in vane to capture it. This is the paradox of the naturalist, of every erstwhile wander and those watching the robin and peewees plying their trade just outside the window.

Out the door

I am not, by nature, a particularly literate person. I am a landowner who wants to give back some of what the Wisconsin outdoors has given to me. Today, that means pouring another cup of coffee, showering and spraying down my cloths with permethrin before heading out the door. Two days ago, while digging a trench, I acquired my first tick of the season. While that critter was a dog tick, the unwanted harbinger put me on notice that tick season is here. As the mercury climbs, the ticks will become active … and hungry.

By 9:15 am on this spring morning the temperature has climbed to 38 degrees with bright sunshine and little wind. The first bloodroot make an appearance just north of the driveway. Their leaves, nearly three inches across, spread out to grab sunlight and power the impending flower production sure to arrive in a matter of days. Boxelder and buckthorn leaves are opening. The spring sap flow halts dormant season cutting and stump treatment. While dormant trees readily take herbicide like Garlon 4 down into their roots, the emergence of leaves means flow will be moving away from the roots. Any chemical applied now will be pushed right back out.

For the next two six weeks, the only hope of preventing this year’s seed crop will mean cutting the stumps at waist height. I will need to return later in the summer to remove the trunks and treat the stumps once the normal leaf out period is over and the roots are once again ready to take nutrient downward once again.

Image of rock wall viewed from atop the wall

Rock wall marking the section line is nearly wide enough for a cart.

Surprise me

The aim this spring morning is to take a slow stroll through the woods to see what spring on the squirrel farm wants to reveal about itself. I make my way north from the driveway along an old stone wall. It is only 3-4 feet high, but for most of its length, the wall is wider than it is tall. The road we live on begins to veer away to the west less than 200 feet past the driveway. The area was platted and parcels sold off thirty years ago, but this wall is much older. There are red oak trees growing out of it flanks that first sprouted nearly a century ago.

Making my way deep into the woodland, the wall stays on my left hip. I turn to look over my right shoulder I look directly at our living room window and am reminded that homes and roads here no longer obey cardinal compass directions, as farmers who settled this land did. I pull out my smart phone and open the compass app. Sure enough, that rock way runs directly north and south, and it suddenly clicks in my mind that this is no random wall, it marks the section line that once would have declared the boundary between two settler farmsteads.

Not all surprises are welcome

There is so much more to learn; nearly every step reveals something new. Depending the slope along the wall, my way is blocked by dense black locust saplings. I will need to cut, stack and burn them this fall. Black locust are native to Wisconsin. Oak and hickory savannah covered this land prior to settlement, and black locust were not typically food there. Farmers planted them to harvest as supply of young trees for fence posts. Fast growing, rot resistant and straight, locust posts filled an important need.

Today, their nasty thorns and prolific seed production make them most unwelcome. Because black locust is a legume, nearly every tool I have to control locusts comes with its own drawbacks. Fire stimulates seed germination. Pulling saplings out by the roots opens the soil (encouraging erosion) and causes locust seeds to germinate. Mowing kills top growth, but the black locust simply re-sprout. Most effective herbicides persist in the soil and kill nearby native plants. Getting this problem under control will be a long and unpleasant slog.

Back on what was once a trail leading to the house, nuthatches flit from trunk to trunk, feeding on the newly emerging insects. A pair of wood thrush hop across the lawn near the house. Every walk in the woods so far is a new adventure. I cannot wait to see how the land responds to its new steward. Perhaps the care I provide can begin to match the wisdom the it will impart in exchange.

April 2020

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Get Active in the Woodland this Spring

Image of boxelder bud opening

Boxelder, while not a welcome guest, is among the first trees to leaf out each spring.

Spring in the woodland brings promise and challenge. Yesterday saw the first violets of the spring on the squirrel farm, a five acre woodland property my wife Anette and I  recently purchased. These blossoms, however, are in our lawn where the abundance of sunlight and relatively dry soil no doubt hasten their display. Anette spotted our first pileated woodpecker in the top of a dead elm along the driveway.

Last week, a male bluebird set up residence in the backyard. He enjoys using a five foot tall stump in the middle of the yard as his primary perch. From there, he has a 360 degree view of his domain; his proud stance and fluttering wings announcing him dominance to any would be rivals.

Invasive shrubs threaten the squirrel farm

While the cool April holds back many from breaking their winter dormancy, garlic mustard thrives with some plants already setting flower buds. The property has patches up to twenty feet in diameter, with a larger stretch along the banks of an intermittent stream. Scattered plants elsewhere on the property promise an uncontrollable problem if the infestation is not dealt with in the year or two.

Image of buckthorn on brush pile

Cut buckthorn and wild grape vines fill a brush pile waiting to burn once the snow flies.

Common buckthorn is another serious problem at the squirrel farm. Because we were not able to get into the woods until a few weeks ago, my first priority was to cut and stump treat as many large, seed producing, trees as possible. Leaves are now beginning to emerge. That means sap is flowing. Because the roots are pushing flow upward, the stumps will not absorb the Garlon 4 and carry it down to the roots. This translocation will only resume once the trees have bloomed and leaves have fully opened. That will not happen until sometime in mid June. My hope is to have buckthorn cut and stacked for burning when the snows arrive in December.

Image of bush honeysuckle

Honeysuckle leaves open as this woodland invader prepares to menace another growing season.

Another invasive shrub is the bush honeysuckle. Yes, the squirrel farm also has it share of this bad boy of the woods. Because it emerges even earlier than buckthorn, I got to deal with only a small portion of the bushes scattered across the squirrel farm. And like buckthorn, it will need to wait for late summer and fall for removal.

Image of mayapples

Mayapples unfold their umbrella of leaves to greet another spring.

Spring brings the promise of better times

Mayapples began emerging last week and are now beginning to spread their umbrella shaped leaves. Heavy shrub growth has changed the character of Wisconsin woodlands over the past forty years. Many spring wildflowers that were once common are all but gone from or woodlands. One of the most robust woodland spring wildflowers, mayapples can persist in deep shade that prevent many of their native neighbors from thriving.

My challenge is to remove those invasive shrubs and open up the canopy enough to allow native woodland wildflowers to return. Once light reaches the ground other woodland flowers and grasses will once again take up residence.

Those ground layer plants, along with leaf litter will provide enough fuel to permit returning fire to the land. Southern Wisconsin was, until European settlement, a landscape dominated by fire. Lightning and fires set by Native Americans regularly burned the prairies, savannah and open woodlands the covered much of the lower two-thirds of the state.

Image of gooseberry

Gooseberry bushes are an important woodland inhabitant. They provide valuable wildlife food.

A fire dominated land

The squirrel farm was dominated by red oak, white oak and bur oak. Because of the slopes and rocky soil, those trees were probably scattered so widely that their branches seldom touched. Oak trees have relatively thick and corky bark. The wildfires that regularly visited the squirrel farm prevented shrubs from getting established. Likewise, fire killed maple, cherry, black walnut and other tree species whose bark could not tolerate fires of even low intensity and short duration. Grasses and wildflowers bounce back quickly from fires, their roots taking up the nutrients left in the ash.

As a result, the squirrel farm probably resembled a park like setting; the hillside dotted here and there with large spreading oak trees. The stream would have hosted shagbark and possibly bitternut hickory, owing to the moist soil and higher humidity. The abundance and variety of grasses, sedges and wildflowers would have provided food for a wide range of bugs, spiders, and all manner of insects; both crawling and flying. These would have supported abundanant wildlife, small and large.

Our farming neighbors will continue to make sure that the deer population is kept well fed with corn and grass. The landowners who neglect their woodlands will keep squirrels supplied with hickory nuts and black walnuts. My mission will be to provide homes for badgers and bobcats; grouse and woodcock. A healthy plant community makes abundant wildlife possible.