Fending Off a Vegetation Invasion: Overrun to Overjoyed

Reader Contribution by Sarah Joplin
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Early stages of a flower glade
Photo by Sarah Joplin 

We’ve all had our breath taken away by the truly awesome transformative powers of nature. Think tornado strike images of communities leveled overnight, buildings rendered to rubble, floodwater-made moonscapes or landslides suddenly shapeshifting neighborhoods; habitation buried in an instant. Mother Nature has remarkable powers to envelop, transfigure and destroy.

There are, however, pervasive metamorphoses that nature ushers at a slower, even imperceptible pace. We’re not talking an evolutionary timeline here but rather the steady advance of vegetation deemed “invasives”. These are not dramatic overthrows, but instead quiet assaults that first encroach and eventually overwhelm a landscape. Such is the case with Eastern Red Cedar trees overtaking hardwood forest, underbrush and even pasture land throughout parts of the Midwest and specifically here at Redbud Farm.

Invasives Threatening the Midwest

Invasive species are highly problematic in a number of respects. For instance, according to the Missouri Department of Conversation, a 20% Redcedar overtake reduces forage for livestock and wildlife by 75% in a given area. The expanding reach of these trees increases risk of wildfires; they displace upland game animals, grassland bird species and small mammal diversity as they overrun the land as a monocrop. Further, there is a stark 90% reduction in undergrowth plant diversity in Red Cedar woodlands. With erosion resulting beneath these woodlands, surrounding watersheds have seen up to a 40% decline in streamflow. And Red Cedar is only one of the invasives threatening the Midwest. Others include Winter Creeper, Sericea Lespedeza, Multiflora Rose, Bush Honeysuckle, Johnson Grass and the Common Teasel. These all pose real threats to the environment, the agrarian economy and thus Midwest society as a whole.

When my boyfriend and I arrived in the Fall of 2010 to steward the more than 100 acres of family land largely neglected since my father’s passing 7 years prior, it was showing signs of my negligent absentee land management and upkeep: fence lines collapsing and overgrown, pasture overgrazing by my land tenant, banks of ponds trodden by livestock or breached by floods, and a poorly-maintained barn. All of these were troubling enough, but a most striking presence was the density and expanse of the Eastern Red Ceder groves.

Clearing invasive Eastern Red Cedars along driveway by Sarah Joplin 

Developing a Farm Invasive-Eradication Plan

My reaction to this imbalance was confirmed when we had the arborist from the Conservation Department assess the property. He found that the top priority of care for the forested 40 acres of the land was to thin if not eradicate the cedars. Red Cedars just don’t play well with others. Instead, they were doing what they do: impeding the health and normal growth of the hardwoods, and contributing to erosion on the hillsides. The arborist took note of a would-be glade edging the driveway entrance which was largely overtaken by the cedars. I commented that my memory of earlier days on the property held a far different vision of this glade area and indeed the woods in general.  Glades are generally found on south-facing slopes and have thin soils with bedrock on or near the surface, typically surrounded by woodland. Ours is an Ozark classic and it was clearly time to mount an assault on these advancing trees in an effort to re-establish an ecological balance.

Our good intentions of limbing, felling and repurposing these trees ourselves in DIY fashion soon proved impractical, even if that was the ONLY project we planned on doing for the foreseeable future. This work is laborious at best and any progress is painfully slow. Mind you, we’ve done our share, but the extent of the undertaking proved daunting. Nevertheless, we shunned the thought of bulldozing. Instead we chipped away (literally, using the cedar chips for mulch) and ruminated on how to proceed.

Several years passed in this fashion, as we undertook refurbishment of the two-story barn, all the while with the cedars growing and slowly spreading. Whereas humans procrastinate, Mother Nature is ever the opportunist. Even when we did manage to cut over 300 seedlings off one hillside, so many that tendonitis ensued, this only represented a mere 3 acres of upkeep and that’s not to mention how quickly they regenerate.  I’ll admit, we were overwhelmed and felt defeated by this growing menace. A number of the trees along the driveway had to be limbed so we could even make it to the house. We were under siege!

Clearing Out Invasive Species

And then opportunity presented itself. In the Fall of 2016, we had a bulldozer at the farm to repair one of the pond dams and decided to undertake a few other earthmoving projects. We had the operator expand a parking and materials area near the barn, cut a pad for a project pavilion we envisioned, and fell a few thorny locust trees (another invasive) that are frankly potentially lethal with their dagger-like thorns. While the dozer operator worked for a day or more, we decided it was time to proceed with clearing at least the entry hillside and would-be glade. In the interim years, we’d envisioned this focal point planted with a thicket of native wildflowers and as a nursery of sorts for regenerating the native oak, hickory and walnut hardwoods.

In what seemed like no time, the 5 or so acres was cleared along with corridors to remove the trees and create a giant burn pile (actually 3) to be dealt with come winter. Suddenly, the contour of the hillscape was laid bare. My boyfriend was surprised at the steepness and undulation revealed while I had my work cut out for me covering the exposed earth with hay and straw and praying that we didn’t get any heavy rainfall to wash away topsoil. Luckily, it was a warm, dry fall. Now it was time to render our vision for the reestablishment of the glade; seeding would happen after the frost.

Where to Find Native Wildflower Seed

There are a number of specialized sources for native wildflower seed. Some options, including at www.americanmeadows.com, www.ufseeds.com, www.naturesseed.com, www.highcountrygardens.com, www.johnnyseeds.com. We opted to patronize American Meadows.

For any vendor that you might choose, speak with them about your project and align your vision with the practicalities of soil type, exposure and rainfall specific to your location, budget, and planting density and you will find the right formula. Our initial mix included winter wheat and red clover which we knew would help hold the soil as it grew in late winter before the flower seeds would germinate early in the spring. The wildflower mix we chose included a variety of 24 different annuals, biennials and perennials. The mystery was what flower varieties would thrive, when they would bloom and what combination of flowers would appear. Hundreds of daffodil bulbs were also planted to enhance the mix. As each season has ensued, the delight of witnessing this growing landscape reshape and determine itself has been a gift.

Poppies and winter wheat by Sarah Joplin 

The delightful and unpredictable progression of red clover, poppies, coreopsis, cosmos, candy tuft, echinacea, baby’s breath, flax, gaillardia, sunflowers, bee balm, and ox-eye daisies has been amazing. The bird and butterfly populations have discovered the hill and are thriving. Of course, the deer ate every grain of winter wheat that sprouted. As the seasons have worn on, we’ve had a resurgence of native wildflowers which we didn’t plant as well: mullien, ironweed, queen Ann’s lace, goldenrod and milkweed. Each season has proven unique, the hills alive and ever-changing, always beautiful and providing bountiful food sources for pollinators.

Mowed path flower walk through established glade by Sarah Joplin 

To more intimately experience, smell, photograph and bear witness to the evolution of the blooming hillside, we’ve mowed flower-walk paths in varying meanders among the flowers. This allows us to be flanked with color and biodiversity without as much threat of ticks and biting bugs. The spring of 2018 was so spectacular that I just wanted to sit among the flowers and root myself there, bloom with the sun and sleep under the moon. Each time I walk this walk, I’m conscious of the resilience of nature; hardwoods are regenerating and native species, long dormant since the overtake of cedars, are reclaiming the land and asserting their presence.

Spring 2018 Coreopsis and Shasta daisy bloom by Sarah Joplin

Coreopsis and ox-eye daisies by Sarah Joplin 

Novelist, activist and farmer Wendell Berry has written that “Humans, like all other creatures, must make a difference; otherwise, they cannot live. But unlike other creatures, humans must make a choice as to the kind and scale of difference they make”.  As I look out across the landscape and note all of the maintenance that has yet to be undertaken, I’m keenly aware of the long vision of stewardship that encompasses understanding, respect, balance and preservation as well as the practicalities of yield, use and enjoyment. It is humbling to look at the farm through these eyes. I acknowledge that, after 30 years of calling the land home, I still have hillsides of understanding to attain. So, season by season, I prudently proceed to apply acquired knowledge tempered by the will of the land.

Sarah Joplinhas worked in art sales and publishing for more than 25 years. Having grown up on 50 acres near the Missouri River, Sarah’s extensive travels have made her appreciate her modest farm in Mid-Missouri all the more. Read all of Sarah’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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