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  • Dave Tobin

Re-establishing a diverse habitat of native trees

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

White tubes scattered over hillsides shelter young saplings

Can a tiny island of native trees and shrubs be re-established amidst an ocean of invasives?

That is our long-term experiment. Will it change the wildlife population? If so, how quickly?

Seven years ago, I asked a state DEC forester to visit our 23 acres of woods and scrubland in Marcellus and recommend ways to improve the wildlife habitat. We walked the property and he developed a map and a rough plan that could guide us. And he told us there were programs that could help pay for what needed to be done.

Three years later we began working with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service’ EQIP Program to strategically reduce invasive shrubs and to plant native shrubs and trees. A noble idea and a lot of work.

First, the invasives: buckthorn, multi-flora rose, Chinese honeysuckle. Why are they invasive and what does it matter?

These three species thicketed most of our abandoned farmland, filling former pastures and meadows and the understory of established woods. There were parts of our property we’d never been on, so impenetrable was the wall of thorns and branches. Scattered trees of ash, black cherry, wild apple, black walnut and black willow stretched above the thicket, because they had established themselves before the thicket formed. But few, if any seedlings from these trees could get established because, first, they are voraciously browsed by deer, and, secondly, the invasives are the first plants to leaf out in spring and among the last to lose leaves in fall, giving them a big growth advantage over other plants, which they shade and crowd out.

The invasives are not without benefit—each of them produce small berries that wildlife enjoy. So what’s the downside of letting them grow?

When buckthorn, honeysuckle and multi-flora rose dominate the understory, they form a kind of monoculture, producing three food sources that ripen at roughly the same time. Plants that could be yielding fruit in other months—and that did a century ago—aren’t growing here. Furthermore, with only three species rather than the hundreds (including bushes, trees, grasses, wildflowers, mosses, fungi,) the acreage lacks the thriving, complex plant diversity that inhibits the rapid spread of pathogens and damaging insects.

This invasive-dominant environment is all around us, up and down our road, all across the northeast. The diverse tree forests that flourished and regenerated themselves three and four generations ago will not come back given the current imbalances created by deer and invasives.

We’ve been clearing invasives and spraying their stumps with herbicide for five years, which has opened ground for us to plant native trees and shrubs, each one protected from deer by a six-foot tube slid over the sapling. Each plant gets a mycorrhizal dip, a fertilizer pack, and a weed-barrier mat, steps the EQIP program requires.

So far we’ve planted 1,600 shrubs and trees, with another 1,000 to go. We’ll plant 500 in May and another 500 in 2024. A good 75 percent of what we’ve planted continue to thrive, with some of the first year's planting of tamarack, elderberry, and red maple stretching above our heads. We've also planted serviceberry, high bush cranberry, sugar maple, white oak, swamp white oak, tulip poplar, black cherry, hackberry and norway spruce. Those are coming along more slowly.

Casual observation tells us the property is richer with bird, animal and beneficial insect life. Rabbits and birds favor the brush piles. Honeybees thrive, and with new regularity we see ermine, mink, Coopers Hawks, Woodcocks, Bluebirds, Tree and Barn swallows and woodpeckers of all sorts. We'd love to connect with a researcher who could help us measure these changes.

What will this place look like in thirty years? Will the native species be established enough to fend off the invasives? Mark your calendar and come take a look in three decades.

In the meantime, there's work to do. More planting, as well as keeping these young shrubs and trees thriving. How that's done will be a topic for a future posting.

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