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Wherever the sun shines through to the woodland floor is where you want to pay particular attention as these are areas where young trees should be growing rather than invasive shrubs and plants. Photo by Dee Salomon

The Over-Under: A Bet On the Future Of the Woods

The Ungardener

I had put off writing about my number one issue these days — the drought — hoping that between writing and publishing it would rain. And rain it has; a most beautiful two days of showers.

Had the rain arrived a little earlier it would have helped the recovery of trees impacted by spongy month earlier in the summer. There would have been fewer brown trees in the surrounding hills and in our woods. The overstory, the layer of foliage in the forest canopy, is suffering. 

Now is the time to walk the woods and take note of the mature trees that have little or no leaves. If the woods are adjacent to your home, you will want to monitor them over the winter. Look on the trunk and under the lowest branches for spongy moth egg sacs. Their removal, even on dead trees, can be the thing that saves many trees from death next spring.

I bring this up as defoliated and otherwise weakened trees are falling with frequency — both in yards and in the woods. In your yard you might purchase a new tree to take its place; but in the woods, where you expect young trees — the understory — to grow into the area left by a fallen tree, you can no longer count on that to happen. As sunlight reaches more of the previously shady woodland floor, what will it help to grow?

To answer this question, while you are in the woods, take note of the other plant life you see in addition to the mature trees. How many young trees do you see? Which tree species? How tall are they? Some of this understory will be the future of your woods, but they need your help to be able to grow.

If you see young trees bound by bittersweet vine, cut and release the trees from the vine so that they can grow (you can pull young bittersweet out or use glyphosate to dab — not spray — onto cut roots). If there is grape vine covering the leaves, you can cut this as well.  Remove spongy moth egg sacs from the trunks and under the branches.

If, either instead of young trees or in addition to them, you see barberry, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, buckthorn or Russian olive (you can use a plant identification app or Google lens if you don’t already know what these look like) they are suppressing the germination and growth of native trees. As are garlic mustard, Japanese stilt grass and phragmites.

Remove these invasives now, and over the course of a few years new trees will germinate in their place. With a little attention, they will grow to become a healthy understory and, in a few decades, some will become the new overstory.

Ignore these invasives now, and then as large trees die your woodland will disappear and turn into an unattractive scruffy field of impenetrable invasive shrubs. Not just terrible for the environment but also to your property value. Why property value? In addition to the aesthetic value of a woodland, trees in even a small woodland mitigate wind damage to houses. A healthy understory without barberry reduces tick population upwards of 60% as invasive shrubs and plants damage soil quality and harbor mice (the main vector of ticks).  And who wants to take a walk in a field of barberry and multiflora rose?

The overstory relies on a healthy understory. And right now the understory relies on you. End of story.

If you would like information and instructions on removing common invasive plants, look for “Invasive Plants in Your Backyard,” 2020 edition, published by the Connecticut Conservation Districts,www.conservect.org.


Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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