Thanks for the Good Work!

I just want to give a big shout out to all the folks out there doing valuable work on the ground, particularly in the “danger plant” realm.  I keep hearing about small community groups doing their part to keep wild parsnip and wild chervil OUT.  Out of their neighborhood park or off the school grounds or such.  Along road corridors too, which does not come without risk, so THANK YOU!!!  You’re making a difference, and I do know there’s not a whole lot of support out there.  Local champions have to be the lead.

I’ll remind you here to do one final sweep in the fall months until you get a good hard frost.  I have seen wild parsnip still flowering on 24 October, so it does not ever give up.  We have to carry on with the same such determination.  Again, I applaud your work!

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What’s ahead as Summer gives way to Fall

I enjoyed as always the Summer Conference put on by the good folks of NOFA MASS.  That’s the Northeast Organic Farming Association.  A great gathering, well organized. Someday… someday… I’m going to make it up to Maine for Common Ground, a September event.  But not in 2019… no, this fall I have two presentations lined up for the annual NAISMA conference in early October.  NAISMA is the North American Invasive Species Management Association, and they meet this year in Saratoga.  So I hope to learn a lot and will share what I’ve encountered in the world of wild parsnip.  Will also put some thoughts out there on why we’re better off focusing on Rehabilitation of landscapes rather than seeking to Restore them.  Maybe I can figure out how to share those presentations later.

For now, enjoy an interview I did with James Ehlers on Peoples Voice Radio.  There’s a play button on a small time-lapse bar above all the descriptive wording; the interview begins after a few minutes of introduction.  Some powerful and relevant poetry was a nice touch to the conversation – there’s a second poem at the very end as well.  We covered a good bit of ground…

Here’s the link:


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Some Numbers from the 2018 Growing Season

Every project site is tracked for visit dates, hours of work, re-growth rates on target species, and quantities pulled or stump-cut.  Many years of data helps guide future work in the interest of precision and efficiency.  So in 2018, totaling all complete pulls from all 28 “danger plant” sites, I end up with 41,946; that’s for wild chervil, wild parsnip, and giant hogweed.  Partial pulls or break-offs don’t count, not on this team.

Moving to the shrubs, the buckthorns in particular, I totaled 15,371 pulls on four sample properties (approx. 250 acres).   Stump-cutting or girdling of larger shrubs added another 1413 to the total.  The final piece in the effort equation is stripping of re-growth wherever a shrub has tried to re-sprout; that figure is much more difficult to track over a workday since one may address multiple species and varying degrees of re-sprout.  I’ve learned that I’ll typically strip a couple hundred shrubs in a typical day of pulling.  Potato forks, Felco pruning saws, good loppers, and a good stretch routine…

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Photo of a Parsnip Hotspot

Here’s a late-summer picture demonstrating the use of weed drying stations in management of wild parsnip.  See all the Christmas trees?  If you scroll down a few posts, you’ll see the same tree farm as a field of gorgeous yellow.  Lovely, unless you need to work in and among the lower-growing young trees.  So while I think of weed drying stations as a spot for piling plant material for sun-baking, a hotspot is simply a weed drying station that MAY contain some plants with viable seed.  It needs monitoring, absolutely, but I’ve achieved the goal of pulling them all into one specific place.  No seeds dropping all over the 9-acre property.  So we add onto weed drying stations all summer long, but at some point, viable seed becomes an issue.  That’s when we exercise real caution not to spread seed, but we still pull the plants and consolidate the risk in one station: a hotspot.

Wild parsnip pulled from the rows of Christmas trees and piled for drying.

Wild parsnip pulled from the rows of Christmas trees and piled for drying.

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So…. what’s a Hotspot?

Well, here we are in late summer noticing all that we’ve accomplished but lamenting the fact that we simply did not get certain areas completely swept clean.  Do we give up on those places, run away?  No, I say there is still time.  But while one of my chief goals each year is to break seed formation, we have to figure out how to deal with those plants now carrying viable seed.  Think wild parsnip – the seed heads are just standing there (actually they don’t care if they’re standing upright, they’ll still get along just fine when mashed to the ground) waiting for dry days and a good wind to scatter them about.

Why would we let this happen?  I mean, they’re right there in front of us.  Would it not be wise to carefully scout the site and consolidate the outlier plants, those way out by themselves, into concentrated piles?  When seeds hit the ground on a new site, we instantly have a five-year project.  That’s the lifespan for many invasive species, give or take a year.  So unless we come along with a vacuum cleaner, we’ve allowed a long-enduring problem to commence.

So a Hotspot is an offshoot of the Weed Drying Station.  All summer long, I pull invasive plants and kill them with sunlight before they can seed up.  They go on a pile if need be, usually begun as a couple pallets on a chosen section of the property.  Or with Japanese knotweed, there may be several drying stations along a linear infestation.  Even if some of these plants carry viable seed, no worries, I’ve got them all in one tidy little place.  No need to burn (although it’s an option), no bagging, no trips to the dump.  I’ve piled my drying stations eight feet high.  The sun does pretty amazing work.  A hotspot is essentially a drying station we build toward the end of the season.  We know we’ve missed the boat for intercepting seed formation, but at least we can pile everything in one place.  No need to mess around with it any further, get as many piles pulled together as possible.  Next year we’ll just park a round bale (hay, you know, those big marshmallows) on top of the spot.  Nothing comes up through those.  Or we do a pass with the flamer torch.  Or we put down a small sheet of plastic.  No worries, we have five concentrated locations instead of five runaway, insanely uncontrollable acres.  Brilliant.

There is nuance to the world of Hotspots.  I personally always cut Japanese knotweed flush to the ground, but occasionally I’ll pull the root nodes or rhizomes where there’s no risk of erosion.  So then I have my knotweed cane hotspot, and my pile of rhizomes or root nodes in a hotspot.  The root material is a huge risk for survival and spread, even on a pallet, so it’s treated with much more attention.  I have to go out tomorrow and fix a hotspot location that kind of got away from me.  Many students involved, all very excited to be outdoors, and perhaps not fully grasping that bio-security aspect regarding the roots (and I think they just loved pulling up knotweed clumps).  But now……. I suspect one of the pallets is in danger of becoming a knotweed mountain!  I really don’t want that….  So yes, much nuance involved in Hotspotting,  but that’s another blog for another day.

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Three Things to Do in Fall

There’still time, yes. And there’s never time in spring, so let’s get this done.
Recalling that we DO want things to grow in most places, take some steps now to work for that transition…. moving away from invasive species and favoring an assortment of natives. While the ground is cold and wet, go ahead and install some desired plantings. I get great survival with installations in the fall, but watch out for dry spells. Put in a couple small saplings or shrubs, mulch them well, and they’ll have a good start on adjusting to the new space. Sprinkle wildflower seeds as well; I often just “dispose” of my old seed heads from black-eyed susan and bee balm by placing them in a spot that needs a little help. You’ll get a burst of plants in a year or two… be patient, and make sure you notice them when they emerge. Then you can avoid the inadvertent stomp.

Next task… if you have an area where smothering would help you in holding a line or suppressing a dense spot, think about placing sheets of cardboard. Cardboard is great, it lasts about two years, and if placed in the fall it gets locked in to the ground by rain and snow. Pretty effective, and you can always throw on some more sheets. I won’t say it’s attractive (although I’ve seen some pretty energized attempts to alter that), but I really like using a line of cardboard to keep poison ivy and other vines from creeping out toward sunlight. No, I don’t actively manage poison ivy, but when it’s up over the knees and crazy-dense, some level of control is necessary to access the other target species. So be it.

Final task for fall is to be cautious with the above two tasks. Realize as you plant and thrash around with cardboard that you are likely in a contaminated space. Wild parsnip, wild chervil, and purple loosestrife crank out thousands of seeds. They are in the soil or still hanging there on the seed head, waiting to drop down into your boots. It’s perfectly useful to throw seed heads into a bucket and dispose of them. Why let them germinate later? I actually stay out of places where I know purple loosestrife to be; it’s very difficult to avoid picking up loosestrife seed. But other seed heads like parsnip go right into the bucket and then to the campfire. Be careful, at this time of year dead stalks almost seem to be spring-loaded and seeds are just expert at getting around. You won’t get them all, but you’ll help yourself greatly, and you’ll remember the space well when you return in spring. The numbers will be much less overwhelming. Well done!

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The Heavy Seeders

Folks always ask me about wild chervil and garlic mustard, two seed-propagating plant species that tend to colonize woodlines, roadsides, and river corridors.  What is the window for control / removal?

I say get after wild chervil all the time, you truly do not want this plant on your property since it’s a bit of a safety hazard for exposed skin.  So potato fork it out of the soil in critical chokepoints or gateways and regularly patrol “clean” areas.  People worry that they’ve missed their chance once the flowers have formed.  Wrong, you still have a couple weeks before the seeds are viable, and after that you have a month perhaps before seeds dry out and shake off.  Focus on flowering plants; once you develop some skills you’ll recognize the smaller first-year plants which you can skip over for now.  These species operate with the advantage of numbers… so success only comes if we break the seed rain and then limit introduction of new seed.

Nature operates so often with bell curves – there are always early bloomers and late bloomers.  So get those of course, and then do the heavy lifting removal work right up until you notice seeds falling or find them sticking to your clothes.  You can hear them fall, if you listen.  That’s a good time to back off and avoid unintended spreading.  Seriously, once they’re ready to fall, the seeds get Everywhere!  You’ll notice too that sunny spots are typically ahead of shaded areas, so do the sunny spots first and buy yourself some time.  Garlic mustard is tricky in two regards.  First, it’ll flower at four feet tall, but also at four inches tall in the same square meter of ground.  Then I’ve seen it do a second wave of flowering in late July / early August.  So you have to be thorough.

Finally, get after these seed-producing biennials in the fall.  That’s when first-year plants are prepping for the next growing season, and until the ground freezes they are easy-picking.  Also easy to find, because they tend to remain green.  For areas that are too heavily infested to reasonably manage, lay in some sheets of cardboard for a smother effect.  Weigh them down and then leave in place through next spring or longer.  Just be aware of bio-security… check your clothes and boots.  Or better yet, remove the outer layers on site and quarantine these items until you give them a good clean-up.


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Wild Parsnip, help with ID

The photo below is a good one for seeing what a large infestation looks like.

Lots of yellow, even overwhelming the Christmas trees for the moment.

And on both sides of the photo, individual plants stand out, particularly the flower heads.

The stem of wild parsnip is hollow and typically ridged on the larger plants.  Those are vertical, lengthwise ridges, but smaller plants often remain smooth-stemmed.

Once the plants are dead, the entire structure dries to shades of brown, and the seeds stand on their stalks like little watermelon seeds.


Another photo highlights a single plant:


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Don’t Stop Now…

Most landscapes are impacted by a dozen or so invasive plant species.  They all operate on their own calendar, and we scramble to keep up.  A clean, complete extraction of the target plant generally eliminates re-sprout, but most important early on is to limit the size of the infestation by breaking the seed cycle.  If you run out of time to pull individual plants, go ahead and cut, but come back through and check for late flowers.  Plants like wild chervil and wild parsnip will flower at 4″ tall, so a follow-up is vital.  Even if seeds are formed, you can go through and pull the plants or collect seed heads.  Just be sure to dispose of that material in a designated place.  And once the seeds are truly dry, once they easily shake free, it’s time to avoid that area or be extremely careful not to pick up seeds.  Seeds get everywhere, that’s what they’re designed to do, and even dirt on a shovel should be considered “contaminated.”

But until that seed-drop starts, it is absolutely permissible to continue your control work.  Keep pulling and cutting, just be sure to treat the vegetation with a new respect since it now carries viable seed.  I’m a big fan of hotspots.  No need to burn everything…. just condense these long roadside weed patches into single occasional hotspots or weed drying stations.  Much easier to manage a couple of those rather than an entire roadside.  You can always burn that spot or smother it later.

I tend to run tight on time in spring, so I’ll often try to get ahead of biennials like garlic mustard, wild chervil and wild parsnip with some pulling in the fall.  Until the ground freezes, one can often pull the first-year plants.  They’ll be the ones seeding next spring as second-year survivors, but not if they over-winter on the drying station.  If time is available, some work in the fall can make spring a lot easier.

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The first waves of parsnip are down.  More will follow, as shall I.

Was curious to know the seed count on one particularly huge wild parsnip.  I had ballparked 2500 as a good working average a couple years ago, but this trophy plant last week easily topped 15,000.  Impressive.

I’m able to pull thousands in a day, targeting the most mature plants first.  Since those will have viable seed earliest, it’s important to buy time and catch them.  Good sunny days dry out and bake the plants very quickly – no time lost to piling or removing from site.

More long days ahead!

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