Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Intro to New Blog

Note: The following post is also the first post of a new blog called:
WOODS AND PRAIRIE - strategies for stewards
It's more technical (and less fun?) than Vestal Grove.

Please check it out and comment at: http://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com

What Trees Should We Cut?

First, some rules of thumb:

Easy decision: In a real prairie, cut all trees. Prairie can’t grow under trees. No real tree is truly happy degrading a prairie.

Medium decision: In an overgrown but original savanna, cut enough trees of all kinds to get enough sun for enough grass for regular grassland burns. Probably best to cut some of all tree species, but try to save many young examples of the oak species best represented among the site’s oldest trees. In the long run, the fires will decide which trees will survive.

Hard decision: In an oak woodland, our burns will probably not be severe enough, under today’s controlled conditions, to kill mature invading trees. Thus we have to make God’s or evolution's choices ourselves. However unqualified and humble we are, there’s no alternative. If we want to conserve the vanishing oak woods biodiversity, we have to pick and choose.

Consider the degraded oak woodland shown below. Judging from the oldest trees (some of which predate Euro-american settlement by more than a century) the “original” dominant trees here were bur and white oak.  Thus probably most biota that needs conserving here (e.g. invertebrates, fungi, bacteria) is part of an ecosystem sunny enough for reproduction of bur and white oaks.

What goes? First, of course, all the buckthorn (still green in this photo). Second, we’d cut at least 90% of the shadiest invaders including maple and basswood (yellowish wide leaves on the right).

We spare some elm in the wettest areas, where all the big ones seem to be. We cut most of the cherry (which one study found to be the most invasive canopy tree of the region’s oak woodlands). Box elder mostly goes. We stopped cutting large ash years ago, because they’ll all die soon of the emerald borer. But little ash won’t succumb to the borer for many years, and they make as much shade as buckthorn – so we cut the little and pole ash.

Some people are surprised by the oaks we cut. See that pole tree on the left – the dark-barked, branchless, youngster with its top already in the canopy? That’s a red oak. They’re fast growing and survive a lot of shade. Yes, they’re oaks, which some people assume makes them holy. But after cherry, they’re often the major pest in a long-unburned bur or white oak woods. Neither bur nor white can grow under the dense shade of red oaks. We usually don’t cut the big ones (good idea? bad idea?), but the pole reds go into the bonfire with the buckthorn.

In this second photo, we’re looking at a bur and scarlet oak woodland that’s been burned for 28 years. The buckthorn was everywhere as dense as it still is along the edge (the dark green slash across the middle of the photo). We left all the “native” trees when we burned (top-killed) the buckthorn and herbicided its re-sprouts.

Is what we have here now healthy enough? The three big trees are bur oaks. But there are no sapling bur oaks in the grove (although there are hundreds where sunlight is ample, around the edges). The pole trees in the grove are red oak, cherry, hickory, and basswood. Should we have cut some of them earlier? Probably. Should we cut some now, so we don’t end up with a bizarre forest of shade survivors? Yes, it seems about time.

Your comments are very welcome.


But one little added note on the herbs, for those interested. The main species we see here are elm-leaved and blue-stemmed goldenrod, wild coffee, purple Joe-pye-weed, and a little bit of rue anemone. This 5-acre prairie grove has more than 25 species of sedges and grasses and more than 100 species of woodland wildflowers. Many rare butterflies and mushrooms have been found. It’s off to a good start, I mean recovery.  

Also, the photos in larger format, if you want to study them more closely:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Help design (and choose a new title for) an additional blog?

To the generous people who have asked, I have fallen behind on new blog posts because I’m trying something new.

Last fall I was about to “launch” a new blog that was more “technical” and “specialized” than the Vestal Grove blog. (I’ve tried to keep Vestal Grove accessible to any person who might be interested in ecosystems.) Then, in quick succession, I had to bury myself in preparations to do presentations for three major conferences, and then I started messing with drafts for the new blog. Now I'm about ready to resume both Vestal Grove and the “new blog.”

Would you be willing to help me think about possible titles (and goals) for a blog about getting better at ecosystem conservation through stewardship and restoration?

(Perhaps you can improve or have a better one? Or tell me which ones you like best?)

Prairie Doc

Strategies for Stewardship

Trying to be a Good Steward

Healing Stewards

Better Living for Nature

Biodiversity Builders

Handcrafted Ecosystems

Birth of a Healing Discipline: learning to restore ecosystems

Battlefield Medicine for the Ecosystem

Restore and Restock: by and for ecosystem stewards

A Time to Heal: idea exchanges of, by, and for ecosystem stewards

Cut, Sow, Reap, and Burn

Cut, Plant, and Burn

Slash, Seed, Burn, and Ponder


Rebirth of Ecosystems

States of the Art: Eco-restoration

State of the Ark

Eco-Upgrade: better skills for stewards

Eco-Upgrade: evolving insights in ecological restoration

Blundering Toward Bethlehem

Better Stewards


Better Eco-medicine

Improving Stewards

Eco-Restoration Practice

Perhaps the brief description could be something like:
“This blog starts with ongoing eco-restoration experiments in northeastern Illinois and invites participation by everyone interested – especially people participating in this very new healing profession or discipline.”

Or might you suggest something better?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Accepting Defeat - as a strategy toward victory

The battle against invasive species is a new phase in ecosystem conservation. The depth of our strategy and analysis is still shallow. We have done a better job at raising the war cry than at planning the campaigns.

“Obscene, in fetid patches clustered,
Defiant stood the garlic mustard …”

Thus began a poem by then North Branch poet laureate Jim Cutler. In the early days, garlic mustard and wild parsnip seemed daunting. At one point chest-high sweet clover filled all the major openings of Somme Prairie Grove. Today it’s largely gone, as are the evil clover and parsnip.

Back in the daunting days, we wondered at times whether to fight or give up on various species. Kentucky bluegrass was everywhere, but its actual impact seemed modest. We ignored it. It’s fading out.

For a while we pulled wild carrot. But it wasn’t our top priority, and we noticed that it went away on its own within a few years wherever we didn’t have time for it, so we stopped wasting troops on carrot.

When we started, this was all buckthorn. We pulled the alien Japanese hedge parsley here – to make sure
that the native species could find spaces to thrive. Was that work necessary? Or were we wasting our time?
Some of us waged campaigns against thistle. But restored plant diversity defeated it too without our help. We now ignore it. Yes, I cringe when there’s a flair-up in a newly brush-cleared area. But I know it will be mostly gone in two years or four.  We devote our thistle time to more important things – like gathering seed.

But what do we do when unfamiliar new “invasives” show up? Potential invaders present a different sort of challenge. When Japanese hedge parsley appeared, we worried. We studied in in the scientific literature without learning much. We looked nearby and found areas where it seemed to have taken over completely. We thought: perhaps the best solution is to eliminate it quick, while there are just a few plants. To ignore a new, possibly scary species – which may or may not turn out to be harmless – is a gamble.

We had made that gamble wrong – with white sweet clover. Just a few plants at first, we ignored them. Soon the dastardly stuff was waist-high over many acres. Grrrr.

Then sweet clover became a nightmare. We scythed, pulled, and taxed people’s backs. It challenged our energy and resolve at the hottest time of the year. I remember episodes of heat stroke and chiropractor bills. But we beat it, and it’s mostly gone.

I now wonder if we perhaps made the wrong choice with Japanese thicket parsley (Torilis japonica). In that case, we made the opposite gamble. We tried to wipe it out. It even had its own poem:


That’s the whole poem, a sub-haiku by North Branch steward Laurel Ross. We hated the nasty little parsley for many years. Worse than sweet clover, it hides in the shrubby edges where the mosquitoes are the thickest. Even worse, unlike sweet clover and garlic mustard, which we could just dump in out-of-the-way piles, this menace clings to animals, which then bring it everywhere. I stuffed it into bags, saved them in the garage, 
Japanese parsley, the white stuff here, seemed ready to totally invade.

and burned the evil mess in bonfires when summer weed-pulling season gave way to fall and winter brush-cutting.

After two decades of annual mid-summer hard work, in 2012 we gave up on Torilis. Was that decision a wise strategic retreat? I shudder a bit as we face our eco-reality check over the next few years.

This year I find it luxuriant in many places. Much thicker than ever. Next year I anticipate it will be worse still. And yet I have some confidence it will fade away to very little over time. Yes, it will fester for a while where new brush has been cut and the ecosystem is an open wound for a few years – while diversity builds from our planted seeds.

But over the years, Torilis seems to have revealed itself as a Georgy-Porgy that only does its mischief against weaklings. “When the big boys come out to play” – if it could – it would run away. Instead it strangles, starves and dies against the better-adapted competition.

I found the battle hard to give up. We had put so many years of agony into combating it, just in case. We were successfully holding the worst populations at bay. But we weren’t coming even close to wiping it out from the site. And it was occupying our time.

A strategic retreat seemed best. We accepted defeat in a battle – with some confidence that the larger war would go better if we focused our forces more wisely.

Teasel, crown vetch, purple loosestrife, reed canary grass – these are serious killers of rare ecosystems. We now battle the last of them at Somme with all our might – unencumbered by trivial visions of victory over Torilis.

As with human medicine, the diagnoses and prescriptions we use in restoration are partly art and judgment. Priorities and assessments change. We learn, and many of our ecosystem patients get healthier, richer, and more beautiful by the year.    

Monday, July 29, 2013

Planning Notes for 2014

Updated Feb. 15, 2018 - but including the public comments (at the end) made in response to the original post.

This post is intended for people who are interested in the details of ecological restoration. It consists of five “cases” – with photos that exhibit problems or opportunities and comments on possible solutions.
The initial "Diagnoses" and "Prescriptions" were written in 2014.
In 2018 we comment on what we've actually done and learned since then.

First, a definition of a word used often below:
conservative – a species that is most common under long-evolved natural conditions – and rarely is found away from them. In fine prairie remnants, the conservatives are among the most common plants. In most “restored” or degraded prairies, they are rare or non-existent. A more detailed note on conservatives is at the end of this post.

Case 1

Diagnosis: Weeds here are under control. Yet few conservative species are established. Most of what’s here are short termers – species likely to mostly give way to others, for better or ill, before long. The early goldenrod, for example will likely be replaced excessively by big bluestem (present now in small numbers) if nothing is done but burn.

2014 Prescription: Broadcast seed of conservative species. Especially important are little bluestem and prairie dropseed – to head off the big bluestem. One place to sow seed of conservative species is the denser early goldenrod areas. These areas are ready.

2018 Comment: We do some of this, but not enough. We haven't sufficiently remembered this good advice at seed-gathering and seed-mixing time. We need to map opportunity areas more carefully this summer, plant some and hold back some as controls, and monitor the results. We are putting the needed mapping and seeds goals on our 2018 summer and fall priorities calendars.

Case 1A: close-up of a different part of area 1

Patches like the one shown above strike me as receptive to our most-prized conservative seed. There is currently little aggressive tall grass here. The commonest plants shown (early goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, fleabane) are among the quickest to move out of the way for quality species. Sow such classy species as cream false indigo, Leiberg’s panic grass, white and purple prairie clovers, prairie dropseed, alumroot, shooting star, prairie gentian, yellow stargrass, prairie cinquefoil, etc.

However, if you look closely at the photo above, you'll see quite a bit of gray dogwood and grape. Shrubs and vines may be holding this area back, especially if it doesn't get burned frequently. Woody plant shade may be progressively killing off most seedlings in most areas until the next burn - at which time the whole process starts over with more fleabane etc. Perhaps we may want to laboriously cut and herbicide those prairie-killing shrubs. Or perhaps you we to schedule this plot for annual burns until a more competitive herb flora wins out. 

2018 Comment: We've watched this area and are more impressed than ever that "burn-off-and-regrow" shrub dynamics are ruling this area. Is that a good or bad? Certainly shrub dynamics are a component of the savanna dynamic. But are we missing half the species here that once made up that dynamic? Some say the principal shrubs were hazel and oak. Perhaps the grasses and forks that grew with them in this context aren't here now. And if so, is this now just a "retarded" weedy area that's stuck? We should install a transect of permanent plots and monitor plants here over time, to see if this area is changing, and how. Then we'll be better equipped to decide whether some change in protocols might improve it.

Case 1B: close-up area 2

This patch shows quite a bit of young big bluestem, dense patches of mountain mint, young ash trees, and dogwood shrubs. A patch like this may be less prime for conservative seed. Given how little seed we have of the high conservatives, we might want to seed this area sparingly. Perhaps it’s a place to add somewhat aggressive species like rattlesnake master, prairie dock, and compass plant – to increase the diversity of niches that the high conservatives will use to gradually become established from better areas nearby over the decades.

2018 Comment: Yeah, fine, 2014 commentator. But we really don't know the answer unless we monitor with permanent plots. Tom Vanderpoel assures us that prairie clover and shooting star will help break down dense big bluestem areas over time. Yes, we've seen that too. We've also seen areas where the bluestem resists other species for, it seems, decades. We would benefit from more permanent monitoring plots in seeded areas of dense big bluestem, mountain mint, tall goldenrod, and other resistant areas, to see what species might do best there. 

Case 2

Here two high conservatives dominate (purple prairie clover and prairie dropseed).  Early goldenrod (which was dominant here years ago) has retreated to the frequency you might expect in stable, high-quality grassland. Although we see a little rattlesnake master, compass plant, and rough blazing star – the
overall diversity seems low. It might not work so well to sow the high conservatives of mid-summer here; the competition could be tough to overcome. Perhaps this is a place to sow spring species such as prairie betony, shooting star, and cream false indigo, which might then open up more niches.

On the other hand, this area is currently a great seed source for dropseed and prairie clover, so perhaps there’s no need to do much here in the short term. The best next step could be a variety of little inter-seeding experiments. First, find out which species will compete against these conservatives – before investing a lot of seed in an area, which might be slow to accept it.

2018 Comment: Ahh, yes. More experiments. Good ideas. So many plants and plots, and so little time.

Case 3
Two big questions here:
First, what do we do with the new planting shown below? It has good wildflower diversity but is weak on grass (and thus, unstable). As we study the vegetation that's emerging from the first seedings here, it’s hard to know whether this plot wants to be more mesic or wet-mesic overall. we’re thinking that we should especially sow dropseed and little bluestem in the drier parts – and switch grass and Dudley’s rush in the wetter parts. (At Somme, Dudley's rush seems especially common in many of the highest quality wet-mesic areas and is an especially "works-well-with-others" plant, that many conservative and endangered species thrive in when their seeds are broadcast.)
But, second, perhaps the biggest question here is what to do with all those trash trees in the background. This whole area was so dense with buckthorn that essentially no grasses or wildflowers survived. But in the foreground area, a grassy turf survived with only scattered invading trees, and when we cleared them, an on-the-way-to-quality seems to have come back. But under the large numbers of ash, cherry, elm, and box elder trees in the background, the quality is still poor. Strategically, it would take too big a big chunk of our volunteer time to cut and burn them. But there’s now no sensible community to try to restore on the former prairie or savanna land underneath them. So our short-term strategy has been to plant natural species that may keep out the invasives and then wait until we have more time or a better answer. If you look closely, you may be able to see brown leaves on some of the trees to the right. That’s where fire singed some of the branches. Maybe fire will do most of our work for us here, over time, while we invest our resources on other areas where the prescriptions are clearer.
2018 Comment: since 2014 we've cut a few big basswoods and box elders out of that wooded area and spread a bit more "Intermediate" light-level seed. Mostly we've ignored the area except for being happy that the burns have carried through at least some of it. Our impression is that vegetation diversity and conservatism is improving. But we have no monitoring transects here. It continues not to seem like a big priority, for now.

Case 4
            The above patch of scarlet oak savanna seemed to be getting increasing diversity and quality – until recently.
            Around the tree on the right, notice wild quinine, butterfly weed, ox-eye sunflower, big bluestem, wild bergamot, rattlesnake master, and others.
            Then woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus or perhaps hirsutus) started wiping out much of that diversity. Perhaps this is a temporary stage, and diversity will come back? Or perhaps this sunflower is helpfully erasing species that aren’t so well adapted here, which will then be replaced by better-adapted species, if we broadcast their seed.
2018 Comment: In many areas, depauperate patches of woodland sunflower are spreading. It seems worth our time to monitor these areas to get to understand them better – and experiment by inter-seeding likely associates, if we can identify good candidates. (Check out lists of associates. The old Swink and Wilhelm was little help, but the new "The Flora of the Chicago Region" by Wilhelm and Rericha seems to have a lot more to study.)
Case 5
Diagnosis: About half the trees in the center isolated grove shown above are dead. Some died from fire and others from Dutch elm or Emerald ash borer diseases. The few oaks are fine. Because we hadn’t had time to focus on it, we’ve left this dying grove to “nature.”  Of course, “nature” isn’t happening here, and the result is an increasingly unsustainable weedy and brushy mess. It will soon be another buckthorn monstrosity if we let current processes continue.
Possible Prescriptions:
            We might plant some of our precious mixes of rare grasses and wildflowers around the edge. One mix is designed for the "Intermediate" semi-shade of the edge. A "Woods" mix might compete well in the darker shade of the interior). That could help keep the buckthorn at bay, but it could also be a waste of seed and effort. Throwing rare seed into nasty buckthorn re-sprouts is a recipe for failure. Also, the Intermediate species that would grow there in the short term would not be adapted to the less shady conditions that are coming – as these mostly non-oak trees continue to die from disease and fire. Why waste rare seed that would have more payback elsewhere?
            Perhaps we could broadcast the seed of some of the easier-to-get semi-shade herb species in the shadier, inner, non-buckthorn areas. We'd hope that those species would seal the wound and ward off the brush? Perhaps. Or we could plant natural shrub-copse species in hopes to build another native shrub island that we could experiment with (much appreciated by the significant bird species that nest at Somme).
            Or we could short-circuit the misery and cut the out-of-place trees this winter. That would seem easiest. We could then just plant the open savanna/prairie mix (as in the foreground here), which would then be easily sustainable with little added effort beyond regular burns. But we’re trying to restore the natural savanna here, and we already have more than enough of the “prairie” component.
            We could plant hazelnuts and bur oak acorns and protect them from voles, rabbits, deer and fire in the early years. Perhaps some of the box elders and basswoods can for the next 15 or 20 years provide the amount of shade that oak and hazel will someday provide, and the community can transition gradually from non-oak to oak. This challenging area still needs a lot of observation, experimentation, and thought.

2018 Comment: So here's what we've actually done. Nothing in the denser, interior parts. Discovered many possible components of a good shrub thicket around the edge (hazel, pussy willow, black haw, nanny berry, silky and gray dogwoods, bur and scarlet oak). We've cut back some of the dense buckthorn edge that was overwhelming these areas. We've caged one hazel from the deer. We cut one tall patch of buckthorn and planted plugs of two-year-old wild plum, ninebark, and indigo bush inside a large cage. In one wet edge, we cut the buckthorn and planted wet prairie seeds. But 90% of this mess is like it was in 2014. We progress. We learn. We hope.

Final 2018 Comment: This is how the Somme experiment works: We prioritize as best we can and keep trying to do what seems strategic. It's like that old juggler's trick of keeping a lot of plates spinning, and we run back and give a bit more attention to what seems to need it – except that, when we get some area or aspect right, it just keeps succeeding forever, as the world turns. And we stewards seem to be happier all the time as, more and more, rare bits of ecosystem thrive richly on their own. Year round, we walk through and notice new successes and opportunities. We smile inside and thank our lucky stars for the opportunity to do this wonderful work.

-            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            - 

... finally as promised ...

a longer note on ecological conservatives

In many ways, the main and most challenging goal of ecosystem restoration is to restore and maintain plentiful conservatives. If such plants and animals are diverse and common, all the others will be intermixed with them, and we will have achieved ecosystem conservation. Monitoring and analyzing the results according to floristic and animal quality is an important part of any conservation project or program.

In the most commonly used Floristic Quality Assessment system, conservativeness is ranked on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Examples of Chicago-region plants in the 0 range include ragweed, annual fleabane, and common milkweed. Typical alien weeds like dandelion would also be given a zero rating if these ratings weren’t reserved for native species.

Examples in the 9 and 10 range include prairie dropseed, white prairie clover, fringed gentian, prairie gentian, cream false indigo, prairie lily, Leiberg’s panic grass, prairie cinquefoil, prairie sundrops, heart-leaved Alexanders, and the prairie white-fringed orchid.

Conservative animals may or may not require conservative plants. But the ecosystem is less without them. Examples of conservative butterflies found by Ron Panzer to require conservative vegetation include the regal fritillary, Aphrodite, and the Edwards hairstreak. Birds of conservation concern may live for a time in large pastures of alien grasses. But they’ll live sustainably in large high-quality prairies.

Introductions to conservativeness and the Floristic Quality Index are at

Note to readers: We always appreciate questions and comments. Thanks.