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Photo by Dee Salomon

Autumn is Ungardening’s High Season

The Ungardener

While garden work is winding down, it is high ungardening season and those of us working in the woodland and meadow are busy with a myriad of tasks. I had a conversation with Cornwall Garden Club comrade Heidi Cunnick, who is a PhD of environmental science, to compare notes on our fall ungardening work and talk about our ‘to do’ lists for the next few weeks.

Moving saplings

Dee: So many trees have sprouted up over the past few years; in the woods they are welcome but around the house they are getting in the way of established planting. This week we moved an elm and several sycamores — all about six feet tall — from behind the house and replanted them in spots that could better accommodate them. I am always torn between the aesthetics of the landscape and the need for tree recruits; I get emotional about cutting down trees!

Heidi: I know how you feel but I am at a point where the removal of a few saplings and larger trees in the woods would either extend the view and create greater light-shade complexity, or allow a tree they are crowding to thrive. I look from the edge of the lawn and through each of the windows in the house to envision how the change in trees will change the view. Sometimes taking out just one small sapling can suddenly bring great beauty to a tree that was blocked behind it. This is the time to do this as in spring the birds nest so you don’t want to bother them. Gardens are more beautiful your eye can travel through the trees and when birds move through the open spaces.

Removing Invasives

Dee: This is also the time of year when some of the main invasive instigators are easiest to identify. Burning bush and bittersweet turn a bright pinkish red but also bright red are the berries of bittersweet. It’s like they are signaling ‘come and get me!’ But also, as you taught me, fall is actually the best time of the year to tackle them.

Heidi: I concentrate mostly on these woodies in October and my methods in the fall are different than in the summer. It’s helpful to know some plant biology here. In fall, plant sap descends from the leaf to the root and so a minimal amount of full-strength glyphosate or triclovir applied directly to the cut stem will be super effective. I use a Buckthorn Blaster applicator but a paintbrush also works well.

Dee: Herbicide always feels like a last resort so great to know that there is a time of year when it will be most effective.

Heidi: I have also been trying to rid my field of the invasive grass Reed Canary grass aka Phalaris and will plant native grasses after I do my best to reduce the Phalaris. My neighbor has goats and I gave them a sample of the phalaris to see if they will eat it — they will!

Dee: Cute, and certainly easier on the back than picking it, which is what I am doing with stilt grass where it has grown next to ferns and small trees. The blow torch worked wonders on the wide swaths of it in the swamp and in that space I have already planted about 100 plugs each of tiarella, (in the shade) and Acorus americanus or Sweet Flag, on the banks of the stream. I am filling in with seeds I collected of Solomon’s seal and transplants of Thalictrum from areas that are still crowded with stilt grass. I would say this year that stilt grass is enemy #1 — what is your scourge?

Heidi: In addition to the usual suspects, multi-flora rose, bittersweet and barberry, two plants that have come into the woods under my watch are wisteria and forsythia. They appear in the woods just beyond the border of our lawn. And yes on stilt grass. This proliferated really quickly in West Cornwall, in part due to road crews that cut the verges of the road. When it hits the forest, that is all you get. Hope people reading this heed the advice and act quickly.

In the woods

Dee: I love working in the woods in the fall. The scent is musky from the leaves and mushrooms and the migrating birds give me a new soundtrack. Which is helpful as I get through some of the more tedious chores like putting tree guards around saplings to protect them from young bucks and scraping spongy moths off trees. Is there anything fun on your list?

Heidi: Pick up a bale of straw from Agway is high on the list. I plan to use the straw to draw a meandering path through the woods. I saw this done at the Wild Gardens of Acadia on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Using straw for paths will allow me to more easily create the most ideal meander and identify where to plant a select few of the small native trees and shrubs I have been harboring in a nursery bed. I’d like to plant these at points in the path where, when they grow a bit, they will add to the enjoyment of a woodland wander.

Dee: That sounds like ample payoff for a year of woodland restoration; I look forward to walking on those paths next year!

Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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