Tag Archives: Restoration

The Finer Points of Forest Restoration

In May 2014, I had several acres logged to open up the high parts of the property to light and earn a bit of income. The hope was that I could expand my non-native plantings into the newly opened areas and increase the diversity of native plantings.  Mature Douglas fir forests on the property are usually closed canopy with a middle layer of tall evergreen huckleberry – in excess of 10 ft high in some instances – and salal beneath which nothing grows. In the absence of a natural disturbance regime (e.g. fire), selective harvest is the most effective way to increase habitat for local understory species such as sword fern, wood fern, lady fern in damp areas, Oregon grape, Indian plum, ocean spray, and thimble berry.
The results were unpleasantly messy:

Coral root habitat - after
Logged area behind shed.
DSC_0006
Logged area by the barn
  1. I got more light, but was left with large debris piles, not necessarily a bad thing in terms of hiding places for small animals and birds, but quite unsightly.

    Debris pile (background)
    Debris pile (background)
  2. All of the top soil got scraped up into the debris piles. This was really disturbing and not anticipated. However, the loggers that I worked with were not particularly sensitive to environmental issues, so I likely wouldn’t have gotten too far with trying to prevent this.
  3. The coral root transplants failed: plantings in both established populations and a single new area of similar soil type.  However, I did note that  even established patches did poorly this year.

    Corallorhiza maculata
    Corallorhiza maculata
  4. I opened up large areas to weeds, including Himalayan blackberry and reed canary grass.

    A tarp used to reduce reed canary grass.
    A tarp used to reduce reed canary grass.

On the positive side, I have a new place in which to create paths and blend natives of other US regions, such as witch hazel and corylopsis, with Japanese maples and rhododendrons to establish a transition between landscaped areas and natural areas.

To control weeds and reduce erosion, I  planted a mix of grasses native to western rangelands, including fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, and Indian rice grass. I’ve not mowed them this year as their flopping habitat seems to deter weed growth.

native grasses
Native grasses planted in areas scraped by logging equipment.

Since I’ve no large equipment and only myself as labor, the restoration of this area is a long, difficult task. I began by burning debris piles, although the largest one is about 10′ high x 50′ long and a tangle of limbs, small trees, soil, and a twisted scrap of metal roofing. I have been hauling scraped-off top soil from the pile to fill in around areas where I’m planting. I pull weeds by hand, and transplant small forbs such as foam flower, piggyback plant, bullrush and ferns around damp areas and old stumps (from logging many decades previous) where they will be sheltered and require less water. Despite proximity to a large shed with a faucet, it would be difficult and time consuming to extend hoses and water. In some cases I haul water buckets.  I’ve also planted mint in two low areas where water collects in winter, a long-ago result of an unintentional underground fire from debris my father burned.

The  low areas are difficult to manage as the top soil was lost years ago leaving several hundred square feet of clay pan that fills with several inches of water each year.  In summer, the clay dries and cracks, making it difficult to keep anything living there. I have been encroaching on these areas with loads of soil and plants such as yellow iris that appear to be tolerant  to wide variations in water levels. I transplanted these from a large clump in the lake.

One of two low areas that flood in winter and dry out in summer. A clump of yellow iris is visible to the right. These were under several inches of water but are now dry.
Pieces of an old dock my father dismantled and partly buried visible in front of a newly-planted maple. Cleaning up buried junk is another task I often face.

With large sums of money, I’d have dirt hauled in, but I must work at this slowly by hand. Without a full time job now, it has become a meditation to go out there each day to weed and water.  I see more this way: the birds, insects, and small plants and the cycles of the recovering landscape. It is a healing of both land and soul.

Soil Management

Soils Management

moss ground cover

The situation that I face here is somewhat unique in that the property immediately surrounding the house is forested. I am not, therefore, dealing with the concerns of imported, compacted soils that usually inform the decisions of the gardener on the urban lot. Rather, I am surrounded by disturbed native soils that have been cleared of native vegetation and allowed to grow all manner of invasives.

 

My decisions are thus: chop up the soil and add amendments to create a nice, smooth planting surface, or remove undesired species by hand and disturb only the immediate area necessary for planting.

 

As an ecologist, I identify strongly with the latter approach, particularly in areas where the soils have been allowed to settle and form a rich humus top layer. In many instances, the predominant ground cover is moss, through which small herbaceous plants grow protected from the damage of raindrops and the drying effects of the summer drought.

 

 

In other places, a dense layer of fir needles creates thin but effective mulch nurturing a community of microorganisms that keep the underlying soil moist and fertile. Often while I am installing plants near a natural border, I will take a scoop or two of the topsoil from an undisturbed area and place it in the hole in lieu of potting mixture. 

 

 

 

Removing non-native species, in particular Himalayan blackberry, while preserving forest soil integrity has become a time-consuming process, but it not without its rewards. In fact, I take a curious pleasure in wading into a thicket higher than my head armed only with gloves and bypass shears and clipping the canes down to the ground. Perhaps it is part of the simian nature to want to clip and pull things, much like chimps grooming each other’s fur. Whereas lawnmowing or watering are chores that quickly tax my admittedly limited patience, I can stand for hours complacently chopping briars.

 

The results in the areas where I have implemented this practice have been good. Leafy forbs such fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) and youth-on-age (Tolmiea menziesii) have emerged from areas once dominated by dense thickets of briars. Ferns appear to enjoy the light as well. Furthermore, as I trim, I do a plant survey of what lies beneath so that I can easily avoid anything that I want to preserve. Based upon my personal experience as a biologist, I recognize that the plant diversity here is quite low, and getting lower as more invasives enter areas that have been previously disturbed. There are, for instance, very few populations of fringecup left here, or of the few small clusters of coral root (Corallorhiza maculata) that I have located here. Finding and preserving them will be a big part of my personal conservation plan for the property.

 mushroom

Goats are another option, but these cute little cud chewers tend to prefer already open areas, perhaps a function of their innate desire to avoid predation in dense vegetation. They will not wade into a brush and blackberry canes unless constricted only to that habitat. Subsequently, I encounter them each day in their half-acre pen contentedly chewing their cud in a sunny dust wallow of their own creation while the briars threaten to take over the garden at the other end.

 

I will be the first to admit that this approach to soil conservation is slow, and as I do my six-month progress review with my camera, I feel as though I have achieved very little. In many areas around the house, the weeds still encroach, the areas I have landscaped have not reached maturity, or some of the plants have not met expectations and will need to be moved.  Meanwhile, I struggle to assimilate the principals of design and apply them to my unplanned, off-the-cuff ideas. In many ways, I am more comfortable when I step off into the back 20 leaving behind the world of the manipulated landscape and entering the forest ecosystem that I know and love.