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.

 

 

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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2017

October 2017

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Bring in the Hit Squad

Picture of young garlic mustard plants.

Young garlic mustard plants are especially easy to treat in the late fall or early spring when native plants are dormant. [Conservation Media, llc]

Are you struggling with tough invasive like garlic mustard and reed canary grass? This is a great time to put a serious hurt on these super species. It is also among the most economical times to get your revenge.

By now, native plants have gone dormant. The landscape should by and large be brown and tan. For landowners, who are battling any number of exotic weed species, the remaining green is a bitter reminder of their problem.

Fortunately, this green also represents a unique opportunity. Since native plants are safely sleeping beneath the soil, landowners are free to use non-selective herbicides that would otherwise harm beneficial plants. Chief among these is glyphosate, which is cheap and highly effective.

Those living plants that are sprayed now will either be killed outright or severely weakened so that they are unable to survive the stress of winter. By contrast, application made in spring or summer might stress but not kill something like reed canary grass, which could substantially recover before the arrival of winter.

Glyphosate is short lived, breaking down in the soil in just a couple weeks. This means that wildflowers and native grasses that emerge in the spring will be unaffected by fall spraying.

I still avoid broadcast spraying in most situations because it is wasteful. Spot spraying is way easier when your green target weeds stand out so well. This tactic is especially useful in situations where weeds are scattered among more rate native plants I want to protect.

Depending on weather, this window can be short. Snow and hard freezes will force even hearty weeds into dormancy. Herbicides tend to be more readily taken up on warm sunny fall days. 

Herbicide needs to be part of an integrated weed management approach that includes management tools like controlled fire, cover crops and mowing. As always, follow label directions to minimize the amount of chemical used while making sure it will do its job.

April 2017

Friday, 14 April 2017

Bag ‘Em Danno

Garlic mustard can be pulled or cut, as well. Plants need to be bagged and removed as they produce allopathic chemicals that will continue to suppress native plants if the dead garlic mustard is left not he ground. The other reason for bagging and removing garlic mustard is that plants that have flowered will use their remaining nutrients to produce mature seed even after the plant is pulled.

Folks who live in southeastern Wisconsin can participate in 2017 Garlic Mustard Pull-A-thon. Sponsored by the Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium, Inc. (SEWISC), it is an annual fundraiser event, that encourages youth and adults throughout southeastern Wisconsin to protect their woodlands by pulling this invasive plant.  The goal this year is to pull 10,000 pounds and raise essential funds for the fight against invasive species!

Head to the Wisconsin DNR website for more information about controlling garlic mustard.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Fired Up Over Garlic Mustard

Photograph by: Paul Bolstad, University of Minnesota, Bugwood.org

My favorite method to control garlic mustard is with prescribed fire. Not only does it kill the weeds and their seed in the soil, it stimulates fire adapted native plant seeds to germinate. Not only will the fire control garlic mustard, but it suppresses the invasive shrubs that have degraded so much of our woodlands in Wisconsin.

photograph by Mark Horn, Conservation Media LLC

Unfortunately, you must have a trained and well equipped which most private landowners find too difficult to find or expensive to afford. Garlic mustard also often grows in areas that lack enough ground fuel to carry fire through the weed patches.

While it may be too late to arrange a controlled burn this spring, now is a great time to begin planning for next year. The Wisconsin Prescribe Fire Council is a good place to start

Head to the Wisconsin DNR website for more information about controlling garlic mustard.

Tuesday, 04 April 2017

Torch ‘Em

 

picture of propane weed torch

Propane weed torch shown here without pressure its pressure regulator.

For those who refuse to use herbicide to kill garlic mustard and other invasive plants, there is the weed torch. It uses propane flame to kill young garlic mustard plants. Early spring is also a good time for this method as desirable plants are less likely to be burned.

The cost of a torch rig is around $200.00, which is quite a bit of money considering its limited usefulness. The torch assembly is also difficult to transport.

Some people strap the bottle to a backpack frame, but I am not comfortable with that arrangement. Others use a two wheel cart that can be difficult to navigate of narrow trails and steep slopes.

Head to the Wisconsin DNR website for more information about controlling garlic mustard.

Monday, 03 April 2017

Ready, Set, Spray

This week is your chance to Roundup garlic mustard before spring wildflowers start to appear. This invasive plant from Europe forms dense mats in woodlands and along edges that poison the soil crowd out spring wildflowers.

Early spring is a great time of year to get ahead of this serious invasive pest. Plants are small and more easily killed by herbicide. Native plants are still dormant and will be for a couple more weeks.

Roundup (glyphosate) is a non-selective herbicide which means that any plant that gets sprayed will die or be seriously injured. It breaks down in sunlight and the soil within two weeks. This means spring wildflowers that sprout in late April and early may will not be hurt.

To be fully effective, glyphosate must spend enough time on the leaves to be absorbed. Make sure that leaves are dry and that there is no rain forecast for twelve hours after spraying. This gives the herbicide time to get transported from the leaves down into the roots where it does kills the plant.

Follow label directions, typically a 3-5% solution depending the formulation of glyphosate. In this case more is not better; it simply wastes money. Leaves will only absorb so much and the rest breaks down in the soil as the plant dies. Likewise, only spray leaves to the point of runoff; again the rest is wasted money.

As always, there may be some desirable plants nearby that have already sprouted or are likely to appear in the coming days, so only spray areas where garlic mustard is actively growing.

New garlic mustard plants may sprout later in the season, but since it is a biennial they will not bloom or set seed until next year.

My favorite method to control garlic mustard is with prescribed fire. Not only does it kill the weeds and their seed in the soil, it stimulates fire adapted native plant seeds to germinate. Unfortunately, you must have a trained and well equipped which most private landowners find too difficult to find or expensive to afford. Garlic mustard also often grows in areas that lack enough ground fuel to carry fire through the weed patches.

Head to the Wisconsin DNR website for more information about controlling garlic mustard.