Backyard Forest Restoration
During the COVID-19 lockdown, I've been spending a lot of time doing yard work. I'm mostly fixing annoyances I have ignored over the years. As I was doing that, I started to wonder if I could help return the wooded part of my backyard to what it was like before my area was developed. It is overrun with weeds and non-natives and one of the previous owners, or possibly one of my neighbors, dumped a bunch of concrete on the back of the property. So not only does it not have native plants, it also looks terrible. I decided I wanted to help restore the native forest plants.
My first order of business was trying to figure out what understory plants actually belong in the forests where I live. I live in an older suburb that was a swamp forest originally. Most of the original trees from that forest have been cleared. Fortunately, not all of them were cleared. There were clues on other people's property. Some yards still have massive old pin oak trees. Some of them are 4 feet in diameter at breast height and are over 80 feet tall. They dwarf the trees that were planted around them. My neighborhood is also very flat and prone to flooding in the spring. Pin oaks can handle seasonally flooded soils.
There is a park about 5 miles away from my house that is an undeveloped swamp forest. That forest is dominated by pin oak, red maple, and black gum trees. This is when everything clicked. My neighborhood has a seasonally high water table with huge pin oaks. I have a bunch of black gum seedlings in my wet back yard. That park would be a good place to determine what to plant in my yard. I like ferns and wanted to plant some in the wooded section at the back of my property. I wanted to make sure I was planting the correct kind so I took photos of all the ferns I saw growing at the park and did some research. Ostrich ferns, sensitive ferns, and christmas ferns are what grow natively here. I planted all three species, but I've had the best luck with the ostrich ferns. Every few days, I see new fiddle heads emerging. One is already starting to send rhizomes out and is spreading outside of the bounds of it's original planting. The sensitive fern and christmas fern are not thriving. The sensitive fern appears to be dying and the Christmas fern just doesn't seem to be growing. It might be a little too wet for them back there. If they die, I will plant additional ostrich ferns. Ferns also have he benefit of being deer resistant. Deer will eat them, but usually only if they are desperate for food. I hope they survive the winter.
I would also like to get some may apples and jack in the pulpits growing in the back for the spring, but those aren't the types of plants you can just go to a nursery and buy. I'll need to do some additional research on how to get seeds for them.
The other thing I have been doing is identifying invasive plants and trying to pull them. I pulled a bunch of daffodil bulbs. They have nice flowers, but they are native to Europe. They have no business being in a forest in Ohio. We have a ton of creeping charlie, creeping jenny, and English ivy too. The creeping charlie is spreading from the lawn, but it it is really thriving in the shaded woods. It's growing in a thick mat. I go out daily and pull several square feet of it and recheck areas I weeded in the past to check for new sprouts. I'm trying to avoid using chemicals because I don't want to accidentally kill my ferns or any native plants that are trying to reestablish themselves. We have some black gums seedlings, poison ivy, and Virginia creeper that are starting to grow in nicely. Why would I be happy about poison ivy? Poison ivy rashes suck, but it's a native plant. I'm only playing god with non-natives. Anything that grows natively will remain untouched whether it is a noxious or not. I'm being extremely cautious when I weed since it can be hard to see the poison iv when it is mixed in with the mat of weeds.
Once the leaves start dropping in the fall, I'm going to rake and blow them into the area I'm trying to restore. I noticed that the understory at the park has a lot of dead leaves. The woods in my yard don't. I'm hoping a layer of leaves will act like a mulch barrier and discourage the growth of non-native creeping vines, but not prevent natives from thriving. I'll have to wait until next summer to see if my experiment works.
I would love to get some pin oaks and red maples growing on my property. Right now, I have mostly silver maples and what appears to be black gums. The range map for silver maple shows my area as being a place where it is native, but I suspect these were planted in the 1940's or 1950's. They were popular trees to plant in suburban developments back then because they are tolerant of poor planting conditions and grow fast. I never saw them in the swamp forest park. I'd rather have pin oaks and red maples, but these trees are pretty well established. Some tree is better than no tree, so I'll let them be. Two of my big silver maples are succumbing to girdling roots. If one or both die, I'll remove them and replace them with pin oaks.
I tried to let a couple of pin oak seedlings I found in my yard continue to grow, but they were eaten by something within a couple of days of me finding them. I suspect it was deer, but one looked like it was dug out of the ground. I'm not sure if any other animals besides deer also like to eat tree seedlings. My back yard is also shaded by my neighbors trees and pin oaks need full sun to thrive. I don't want to spend a ton of money on trees from a nursery only to have them die in the ground because they don't have the correct conditions.
So that's where my restoration project stands so far. I've removed concrete chunks as I find them, I've planted some native ferns, I'm weeding daily to get rid of non-native creeping vines, I'm going to make sure I get some leaves back on the ground in the fall, and I'm trying to see what I can do to encourage and protect any pin oak or red maple seedlings I might find. In case it's not clear, I'm not a scientist, forest ecologist or restoration expert. I'm learning as I go and doing some research to find out what other people are doing that works. I'll try to add posts in the future to share what works and what doesn't.