Friday, 12 June 2020

Buckthorn Blaster Rocks Brush Clearing

Image of Buckthorn Blaster with gloves, loppers and pruners

Meet a revolution in cut stump treatment … in a 4 once bottle.

Some ideas are incredibly obvious, once you see them. The four once Buckthorn Blaster is just that kind of product. This simple herbicide applicator will change the way you cut and treat invasive brush on your land. If you are like me, you hate using spray bottles to apply herbicide to the cut stumps of wood brush. Most of us use the best two dollar squirt bottle we can find and curse a few weeks or months later when it quits working. I hate going home at with blue fingers on my gloves. I swear under my breath too many times every day when I pull the trigger and nothing comes out only to have the next pull shoot a stream of chemical out; most of which misses the stump. Expensive pressurized sprayers are bulky and must be frequently pumped up. The Buckthorn Blaster is a simple four ounce plastic bottle with a dense foam stopper that applies chemical to cut stumps much like a liquid shoe polish applicator. If you can polish you shoes, you can treat stumps with the Buckthorn Blaster. I use a 1:3 tryclopyr to bark oil mix, which is hotter than some folks but not as strong as others prefer. Both the herbed and bark oil are expensive. A 24 ounce spray bottle of cut stump mix cost around $10.00. It is common to go through half of that bottle during the course of a day. During the two hours I used the Buckthorn Blaster, I used just two ounces of chemical mix. The Buckthorn Blaster reduced the chemical use by one third. The number of stumps increased at the same time. Again, because the chemical only lands on the target stump I got more stumps treated between refills. More stumps with less chemical means 2-3 better invasive control in the woodlot. My spray bottle will often drip a little, especially when it tips over on uneven ground. The Buckthorn Blaster never drips. It only puts chemical on the stump where it is pressed. That means no off-target damage of nearby native plants. The small four once size makes it easy to carry in one hand while wielding a hand pruner in the other. When using loppers, I can hold the bottle while simultaneously cutting brush. Being more efficient means clearing more brush in less time. The bottle comes with three dense foam tips and a tool for changing tips.  Removing the tip to refill the bottle takes some care and can be a bit messy. That is my chief complaint but paper towels make the job fairly painless. The Buckthorn Blaster can be used with any cut stump liquid herbicide mix. I keep my bottle in a ziplock bag and toss it in my daypack, along with hand pruners, whenever I walk the property. It rides in the thigh pocket of my chaps when doing chainsaw work. What could be more convenient for taking care of that nasty shrub that pops up along the trail?

“More stumps with less chemical means 2-3 better invasive control in the woodlot.”

Finally, while the $8.49 price tag is a bit steep for what it is, the money goes to support the work of a really great organization. The North American Invasive Species Management Association (NAISMA) supports those battling invasive species of all types. They are a key sponsor of the Play, Clean, Go program that educates boaters about aquatic invasive control. For private landowners, Play, Clean, Go provides boot cleaning stations at public trailheads; encouraging hikers to clean their boots. That helps prevent the spread of garlic mustard and Japanese hedge parsley seeds. The NAISMA biennial conference brings together academics, practitioners, landowners and land managers to share the latest information about invasive plants and animals across the US and Canada. Consider joining NAISMA when you buy your buckthorn blaster. Tap into their deep well of conservation management experience.

[Update 8/9/2020] NAISMA now sells five packs of Buckthorn Buster replacement tips. I don’t know about you, but I treat hundreds of stumps from large boxelder to tiny buckthorn sprouts during a single day. the rough surfaces and jagged edges take their toll on the foam. The Buckthorn Buster ships with three tips, however, I find myself replacing tips daily when treating tiny sumps that poke holes in the foam. Fortunately replacement tips cost $3.99 for a five pack.

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.

Monday, 11 May 2020

common buckthorn

Rhamnus cathartica L.

Description:

Leaves & stems: Ovate or elliptic, with prominent veins curving toward tip. Mostly opposite leaves, 1-2.5” long, with tiny teeth. Leaves remain on plants and stay green into fall. Bark is gray to brown with prominent light-colored lenticels. Cut bark exposes an orange inner cambium layer.

Flowers: Inconspicuous, small and clustered in leaf axils. Fragrant, greenish-yellow, 4-petaled flowers that bloom in spring.

Fruits & seeds: Abundant clusters of round, black, pea-sized fruit. Ripen on female plants in late summer. Dispersed by birds and mammals. Fruits remain on plants into winter after all the leaves have fallen.

Roots: Extensive, black fibrous root system.

Similar species: Glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula; invasive) is similar to common buckthorn. Leaves are mostly opposite, with greater number of veins. Upper surface of leaves are shiny with undersides dull.

Alder buckthorn (Rhamnus alnifolia; native) is under 3’ tall with thornless twigs. Lance-leafed buckthorn (R. lanceolata; native) is less than 6’ tall, found in wet areas and on dry limestone slopes, and has alternate leaves, 2-6” long, gradually tapering to a point at the tip. Carolina buckthorn (R. caroliniana; native), found in the southern Midwest, is 10-30’ tall with toothed, mostly alternate leaves, 2-3” long.

Source:  Wisconsin DNR Invasive Species website.

Locations:

Found in woodlands, wetlands and prairies.

Impact:

Creates dense thickets where nothing can grow beneath it.

common buckthorn

USDA Symbol Common Name Scientific Name
RHCA3 common buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica

ITIS TSN: 28573

Category: Dicot

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Plantae

Subkingdom:

Super Division: Spermatophyta

Division: Magnoliophyta

Subdivision:

Class: Magnoliopsida

SubClass: Rosidae

Order: Rhamnales

Family: Rhamnaceae

Natural Community: Array

Coefficient of Conservation:

Duration Growth Habit Native Status
Perennial Tree, Shrub
MECHANICAL:

For very small patches of very young seedlings; pull, bag and remove.

CHEMICAL:

Garlon 4 is the most common chemical used. Most effective when sprayed in 1:1 concentration to cambium layer of cut stumps. Garlon 4 should not be used in temperatures above 80 degrees.

Glyphosate may be used in 1:1 concentration to cambium layer of cut stumps. May be used in temperatures above 75 degrees but is not effective in temperatures below 40 degrees F. Avoid treatment during spring as sap flow is moving in the wrong direction and chemical will not be carried to the roots where it does its work.

BIOLOGICAL:

There are not effective biological controls for Common buckthorn.

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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.

2018

November 2018

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Why Are Invasives So Bad?

photo of Phragmites also called common reed grass.

Phragmites creates stands so dense that wildlife cannot move though it.

For the past year, I have been fielding questions about conservation, biology and invasive species on the forum Quora. It gives me a chance to hear the questions and concerns that people have and give back to the community. Questions I think Conservation Digest readers might be interested in have found their way into the FAQ section of this website.

This question appeared last week. Below is my response. After reading it, I hope you see what motivated me to create the website and write this blog.

Invasive garlic mustard, honeysuckle and buckthorn have all but wiped out spring wildflowers from the woodlands of southern Wisconsin. Japanese knotweed crowds out everything along stream banks where it becomes established. Wild parsnip causes serious chemical burns when the sap gets onto the skin. Cattails take over wetlands reducing open water for waterfowl and displacing the native sedge, reeds and wetland wildflowers. Phragmites (common reed) creates such dense stands that waterfowl cannot use the wetland.

Those four sentences capture a small portion of the problems caused by invasive plants that plague natural areas in Wisconsin. They only begin to scratch the surface of the issues created by invasive species.

Check out our new webpage About Invasive Species to learn more about the problem and how to prevent new invaders from getting a foothold in Wisconsin.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

About Invasive Species

photo of Phragmites also called common reed grass.

Phragmites creates stands so dense that wildlife cannot move though it.

It can be really confusing when people talk about invasive species. What exactly are they and why should I care? These questions are especially important for landowners because invasive plants, and to a lesser extent invasive animals, can cause real and lasting damage. Because many of them have been around for years, a property owner may not even know they these unwanted guests or why they pose a problem.

Picture of common buckthorn leaves

Common buckthorn branch. Photo credit: University of Georgia.

Problem Plants

Invasive garlic mustard, honeysuckle and buckthorn have all but wiped out spring wildflowers from the woodlands of southern Wisconsin. Japanese knotweed crowds out everything along stream banks where it becomes established. Wild parsnip causes serious chemical burns when the sap gets onto the skin. Cattails take over wetlands reducing open water for waterfowl and displacing the native sedge, reeds and wetland wildflowers. Phragmites (common reed) creates such dense stands that waterfowl cannot use the wetland.

Those four sentences capture a small portion of the problems caused by invasive plants that plague natural areas in Wisconsin. They only begin to scratch the surface of the issues created by invasive species.

Staying with plants for a moment, think about how many millions of dollars farmers and ranchers spend every year controlling weeds. They pass along those costs to us in the price of our food. Pesticide drift causes both economic and health threats to farm workers and neighbors. Chemical residues are a problem for consumers.

Picture of zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels colony. Photo credit: USDA

Not Just Weeds

Moving past invasive plants, Zebra mussels cause millions of dollars of damage to power plant systems while reducing the electricity they can generate. Those same invasive mollusks consume the available food for native insects and shell fish causing the base of the food chain to collapse. The lakes they invade turn into water deserts.

Those who grew up in Wisconsin before 1975 will remember the curse of alewife. They are a small invasive fish whose populations exploded in the 1960s. Alewife consumed all the small fish and insects that form the bottom of the food chain. That effectively destroyed the commercial lake trout fishery in Lake Michigan. Fish biologists fought over how to control them and settled on introducing Coho salmon to the great lakes. While coho reduced the alewife and created a new game fishery, native lake trout stocks have not recovered as hoped.

Emerald ash borer (EAB) is an invasive beetle that is destroying  Wisconsin’s green ash trees. Homeowners, public works departments and park managers planted millions of green ash trees over the past half century. That makes them one of the most popular trees on the urban Wisconsin landscape. Whole neighborhoods to lost their terrace trees to EAB. Many parks have gaping holes in their shade canopies.

The emerald ash borer is also wiping out the native black ash, which Native American tribes in Wisconsin call basket wood. Ho Chunk woven wood baskets are purchased by collectors around the world. The loss of black ash means an important cultural and economic resource disappears from the state.

Long History

Invasive species are nothing new. Farmers introduced sheep to northern Wisconsin during World War II. Sheep brought with them a liver fluke that nearly wiped out the white tailed deer population in those counties. Dutch elm disease swept through Wisconsin in the 1960s doing away with a large percentage of our native elm trees. Recently, the pest has returned to attack many of those trees it missed the first time, as well as their offspring.

As long as people get on planes and ships, moving around the world and bringing living stuff with them, the threat for bad things happening will be there. Sometimes invaders are introduced on purpose because the they pose is not understood. Other times pest species sneak in as weed seed in grain, or insect eggs in pallets.

Picture of Asian longhorn beetle on human finger.

Asian longhorn beetle. Photo credit: USDA

Solutions Are Simple But Difficult

There is a way to stop them from becoming a serious problem. The key is early detection and eradication. In 1998, Asian longhorn beetles were discovered on the north side of Chicago. This is a pest that kills maples and other trees in genus Acer. The black and white beetle spreads with amazing speed. The beetles were traced back to pallets that arrived from China that were delivered to a local hardware distributor. Local officials jumped into action and in what was seen by some as over reaction, cut down 1,500 in northeastern Illinois. This quick response stopped the invasion in its tracks, so that by 2003 there were no new infestations.

Be Part of the Solution

You can help. Check out the Wisconsin DNR invasive species website and learn how you can identify them. Report suspicious plants or pests to the DNR using their reporting website. Citizen science is becoming popular in the state. The Wisconsin Early Detection Network is a program of the UW Extension Weed Science program. It encourages landowners to actively get involved in locating and reporting new invaders. The DNR will eradicate prohibited species preventing major problems.

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January 2018

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Great Brush Pile Burning

Author with leaf blower brush pile burning in the background.

There is more to burning a brush pile than dousing it with gasoline and throwing a match at it.

Mid winter is a great time for brush piles burning in Wisconsin. My wife Anette and I unpack the Forrester: first the sled; then the leaf blower, pump sprayer and torch fuel. Fill the chainsaw with gas and bar oil. No need to bring along extra as the saw will see limited work today. Some snacks, tea and juice will keep us happy through the upcoming afternoon. Finally, I tuck some dry kindling and a roll of old construction prints what will be our starter.

A mid January thaw during last week put the burn day in doubt. Forecast snow on Sunday night meant plenty of snow cover for the Martin Luther King holiday and our brush burning. A moderate snow, light winds and weather in the twenties meant we will be comfortable all afternoon.

The sled is half full and that is just fine with me. Anette grabs the rake closes up the car are we leave the county highway behind. The local snowmobile club came through this fall after harvest and dragged a beautify trail across the corn stubble. Access to the Vermont creek will be quick and smooth. I throw the rope across my shoulder and make fast work of getting to the easement.

Our first brush pile was made during two days work in early and late fall. The pile is made up almost entirely of honeysuckle and buckthorn with a couple small boxelders for good measure. The first task is blowing the snow off the pile and clearing a small ring around the pile.

It takes one calorie to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water one degree Fahrenheit. To melt that same pound of ice to liquid water requires 36,150 calories of heat. To take that pound of water from 32 degrees to its boiling point requires a mere 180 calories of heat. However, to boil off that heat and drive it out from soaking wet wood require a colossal 241,765 calories. This is called the latent heat of melting and the latent heat of evaporation.

That frozen wet wood on my burn pile needs to thaw out heat up and drive off its water, then continue up to the 700 degrees needed for wood to Ignite. Now consider that there is a cold wind trying to carry off the precious heat from my fire. No wonder it is so hard to get a brush pile to burn in the dead of winter.

Blowing the snow from the pile and around it suddenly makes a lot of sense. So does bringing along paper and dry kindling. These will make sure I have fuel that can easily light and stay burning long enough to dry our surrounding wood in the pile.

Torch fuel is a two to one mix of diesel fuel and gasoline. Diesel has a low ignition point but a high flash point which makes it much safer to work with than straight gasoline.

A wise friend finally put me straight about using accelerants on brush piles. “You don’t want the torch fuel to burn. You want the torch fuel to make the wood burn. Let it set there for ten minutes and see what difference it makes.” He was right! All my life I would pour fuel on a pile and light it, never understanding that the fuel was sitting on top of the wood and burning itself off without heating up the wood enough to get it to ignite.

Now I pour on a quart where I would have used a gallon. By walking away for ten of fifteen minutes, the diesel has time to soak into the wood. There is no big whoosh of flame, instead the dry kindling and paper take off and heat up the surrounding wood that is ready and raring to burn.

Snow on the ground means embers will not ignite surrounding vegetation, making it safe for a couple of people to burn several piles at once. Many towns are weary of issuing burn permits in the spring and fall when dry grass and leaves make spot fires from brush piles a real danger. Winter burn permits are easy to get and are easy to watch.

Anette keeps vigil using the rake to push remaining branches from the edges into the coals where they are quickly consumed.

I head upstream to a downed tree that needs to be cut and stacked. It takes a half hour to get the pile set, but because this is a black walnut that is not yet finished drying out, our efforts to burn the pile meet frustration. After several failed attempts, it is time to move on to a third pile.

Like the first pile this is one has plenty of honeysuckle, which burns easily, buckthorn that burns okay when dry and preheated, and boxelder that has laid there for several years. As this large tightly packed pile springs to life, Anette breaks out cookies, chocolate hot tea. The snow is flying all around; we relax and enjoy the now fading sun as it forces itself through the snow and cloud cover.

As the sun begins to fade, I once again take out the leaf blower. There is a large bed of coals and large sections of trunk burning in the middle of the fire. There remains plenty of brush around the downwind edge of the pile that I am in a hurry to dispatch. Braving the smoke, I rake the remaining unburned fuel into the hot center where it sits listlessly. The small pile seems to be waiting for an invitation to burn.

So I supply just such an invitation. My leaf blower comes out of the sled and springs to life. Its supercharges stream of air turns the bed of coals into a blazing forge. The coals become furious and through intense flames and heat that make short work of the remaining branches that threatened moment earlier to suffocate the those same coals.

A few minutes running around the edge of the fire with the leaf blower moves the mixture of snow, leaves and twigs at the margin out into the snowy barren reaches beyond. A wide patch of charcoal black mineral soil now separates the two worlds and provides a safe barrier for the remaining wood to finish consuming itself.

We pull back across the field and wipe off the snow from the bottom of the sled. It slides into the back of the Subaru as the last rays of sunlight fade.

 

2017

September 2017

Friday, 01 September 2017

Labor Day Resolution: Work Smarter, Not Harder

As Labor Day weekend approaches, my father’s admonition to “work smarter, not harder” comes back to me. I was talking with a friend last week and he mentioned that they had begun pulling buckthorn on their newly acquired property in Columbia County.

There is no other way to say it; pulling buckthorn is hard work. In the following days, I thought about the many buckthorn projects that dot my past twenty years of conservation work in Wisconsin. Along with the blisters and sore muscles came hard earned experience that changed the way I look at habitat restoration in general and buckthorn clearing in particular. First is to avoid the “activity trap.” We see a problem and want to tackle it head on.

More to the point, we see the most obvious problem and take it on with the first or only tool we know. Years ago I learned that being successful means doing right things right. That means before doing anything, it is important to know that you are doing the right thing.

Doing the right thing can only happen once you have looked at the situation strategically. Why do you own a substantial piece of property? Usually there are several reasons, such as: having access to productive hunting land, getting away from urban life, giving your children an opportunity to learn about nature, or secure long-term income from forest crops.

If one of those reasons is that you want to preserve the natural heritage of your property, then protecting native plants and getting rid of invasive weeds and brush are important goals.

It might not jump out at you right away, but the best way to achieve those goals is to preserve and protect the good stuff first. None of us has enough money to do everything at right now. Once you ensure the best pieces of your land stay in good shape, you can take on the lower quality sections. Using this strategy makes sure the whole property stays at least as good next year as it was last year and hopefully a little better.

With a prioritized list of tasks, you will know you are doing the right things … and in the right order.

Then you are ready to decide whether you are doing things the right way. If there ever was an case of, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” pulling buckthorn is it. There are a range of methods for removing buckthorn, pulling is the most tedious and labor intensive.

Buckthorn produces both male and female trees. Once they are mature, male trees produce pollen while the female trees produce fruit with seeds. So, when it is time to tackle that big stand of buckthorn, the first targets should be the mature female trees.

A wise man told me that, “when you dug yourself a hole up to your neck, for heaven’s sake put down the shovel.” Buckthorn seed is viable for more than seven years; so the sooner you eliminate the seed producer trees, the sooner you will start running out the clock on that seed bank.

Clearly, mature buckthorn trees are too big to pull with anything but a bulldozer, so we are talking chainsaw work. Cut trees as close to the ground. This will prevent tripping hazards and damage to equipment once the grasses and wildflowers grow up. Treat stumps with Triclopry at the cut stump rate on the label. Add dye to the solution so you can see where you spray. Use a small hand sprayer and only apply the herbicide to the outer ring of the stump where the sapwood is found. This will save you a lot of chemical and limit collateral damage.

If you are cutting this fall, haul and stack the trees in the tightest brush piles you can manage. Run your chainsaw through the brush pile to reduce the size because this will make the piles burn much easier. Burn the brush piles once there is snow on the ground. The wood will have had time to dry out and snow will prevent embers from starting a wildfire.

After the first snow is also a good time to spread seed for next spring. Once you open up the soil by removing the buckthorn, you will be amazed at how quickly things pop there next year. Chief among the spouts will be baby buckthorn seeds. If you do not get native seeds started, you will end up with a stand of new buckthorn even more dense than what was there before.

Because there will be buckthorn seedlings sprouting up next year, consider doing a controlled burn of that section of property in the following fall after the summer grasses and wildflowers go dormant. Fire will kill the new buckthorn seedlings which will still be green but will not harm the native plants that will already be sleeping for the winter.

To my friends getting started on their new property; best of luck and enjoy the journey. Hope these insights will help you see more success sooner. Stepping back and getting to know your land and playing out your plans into the future will allow you to make better decisions and achieve your goals.