what is the best way to clear brush under trees?

larysanadia(19390)July 20, 2004

In a month I will be moving into a new house that backs up to a tree line. The trees are covered in vines and a heavy underbrush (20 feet deep). I don't see any poison ivy, but lots of thorns (and ticks). I am not experienced at this, but I would like to clear the brush and plant some native plants and shrubs. Should I...kill the brush with a spray, pull it out, use a chipper to make a manageable size, and spread on the ground to decompose? Please help!

Larysa from Southern PA

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joepyeweed(5b IL)

easiest way is to burn it off. i dont mean get out a match and light a fire... its a prescribed burn done with the appropriate preparation and under the right weather conditions. there are crews who are trained to do this. you may want to find a local NRCS office or the Nature Conservancy in your area to look for some reccomendations. its not uncommon - in a wooded area - in the spring after a burn for native plants come back all on their own.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2004 at 3:42PM
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lycopus(z5 NY)

Burning might not be the way to go in PA, especially if it is a forest. Oaks are resistant to fire but if you light up a maple/beech forest with dense underbrush that could seriously get out of hand and destroy all the trees. Cutting brush with loppers or hand saw in the fall and treating the cut stumps with herbicide is the way to go in most cases. Chipping the remains and using that for mulch is a good way to recycle. You might want to try to identify the plants you consider brush before cutting. Some of it may be desirable and have the appearance improve when the remainder is removed.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 1:30AM
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Here is some advice that is often given in this forum: Take your time and get to know your property and its plants before you do anything rash. You may find that some of the 'brush' you want to remove consists of desirable natives. Unless you find that the whole brushy understory consists of undesirable species, I recommend that you use selective removal, rather than using wholesale slaughter such as brush-hogging or broadcasting herbicide.

Regarding brush removal methods, burning 20-foot tall brush and vines under a tree canopy (in PA) is neither practical, safe, nor effective. My preferred method for removing brushy cover is to cut with loppers or chain saw and treat the stump with a herbicide such as glyphosate ('roundup') or triclopyr ('brush-b-gon'). This approach is selective and will minimize damage to desirable non-target plants. If done properly, this also eliminates the stump sprouts that will inevitably occur after brosh-hogging or fire (and often after herbicide application on foliage).

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 10:11AM
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waplummer(Z5 NY)

I agree with John that you need to identify the brush before going hog wild. Leave the bushes you want to use. If they are too dense some can be cut. E.g., we had a lot of hawthorn, some was removed and some was saved.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 11:51AM
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Thank you so much for your advice. Any good book recommendations for plant ID? Also, how difficult will it be to remove the vines growing on the trees? I assume that if I cut them at the base of the tree, they will eventually die. Some of them are 30-40 feet up (about 10 trees). Thanks again...this website is excellent. larysa

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 12:09PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

i think i was midunderstood: i did say dont just light a match.... but rather than indescriminately removing brush... you could intelligently do so as part of the process of setting up a burn plan ... i kept my answer short - as you cannot learn all you need to know to burn over the internet - but meant it more as an option that you may want to research. part of the preparation of a prescribed burn is to selectively remove brush and trees as appropriate to keep a fire in control... and involves the correct weather conditions etc. etc. ... and needs to be done by someone who knows what they are doing. if you contact someone who knows what they are doing - they will evaluate the area and tell you wether its appropriate for a burn or not. but if you dont investigate it all - you have done alot of back breaking work and used alot of chemicals that could have been minimized...

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 12:28PM
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Flowerkitty(Z6 or Z5 SE MI)

John_MO has good advice. when we moved to our property I started ripping down vines. I was tearing down good vines (creeper and grape) and leaving the troublemakers (nightshade and multiflora). Halfway through one dense section I ran into a screaming bunch of tiny birds nesting in the vines. Marsh wrens. That stopped me. However, when winter came the hawks had a field day as the wrens stayed in the remaining vines which were no longer enough protection as the hawks picked them off. This year there are only a few left. Another heavy thocket turned out to be a refuge for some beautiful foxes. Luckily by then I had put on the brakes. THere was so much going on I didnt understand. I am slowly learning what works. After reading garden web, I no longer try to rip vines off of trees but cut them off at the base. Less damage

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 1:30PM
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leslies(z7 No VA)

If your woods are full of bad plants, you have some unpleasant decisions to make. On the one hand, as flowerkitty says, some birds and small aminals make use of the cover provided by bad plants. They could equally well use cover provided by better plants, but it will take a few years to get these to maturity and in the meantime, you may have homeless birds/critters.

On the other hand, if your woods are full of bad plants, then there are all these bad plants and they probably should be eradicated.

You could take a gradual approach: Don't clear the whole woods all at once - do it one area at a time. Or do it one species at a time. All the multiflora roses this year. All the buckthorn next year.

As far as what's a good plant and what's a bad one, reasonable people may differ. Alien and invasive usually qualifies a plant as bad. Native, however, is not synonymous with good. I personally, in my woods, do not want virginia creeper and poison ivy murdering my trees, no matter how native they are. I don't care all that much if they're all over the ground, but they have to stay off the trees.

How do you do the clearing? You can do it yourself, or you can hire someone, or you can do a combination of both. I've been doing mine myself, but I only have about 5 acres and a good bit of it is OK shape. I have been cutting mainly in the late fall and winter (no ticks, no mosquitoes and the leaves are off the poison ivy) and spraying in the early spring because the cut bushes will resprout vigorously. In summer, I stay out of the woods. To do the winter cutting, get something you can tie around a branch - a yellow plastic grocery bag, a strip of bright plastic ribbon and use it NOW to mark one of the kinds of bushes you want to cut later. That way, you will be able to recognize it by its skeleton when the leaves are down. Then just go in with your loppers, hand saw and hand pruners and cut down everything that looks like your marked bad plant. Leave the cut branches to decompose on the ground - it happens really fast. Cut the vines on the trees if you decide to do that. Just make two cuts near the base and take out a section a few inches long. No need to pull the vine down - it, too, will decompose.

There is also a digging tool that grubs up shrubs roots and all, eliminating the need to spray regrowth, but I've forgotten what its name is. One of the other forum members will no doubt remember. I don't use it (a long story).

The trick to replanting the woods is to find things that wil shelter and feed animals, but will not feed the deer so well that they eat your new plants to the ground. When you figure out what these plants are, do post back on the GW - I'm still looking!

    Bookmark   July 21, 2004 at 3:05PM
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We had the same problem; moved into a home with a couple of acres of weeds 7 foot tall. We paid a local landscape company to "bushwack" it all down, right around the fall time. Come spring, all the native wildflowers came up...we found mayapple, bluebells, jack in the pulpits etc. We are still dealing with the bad stuff, but it is much more manageable.


    Bookmark   July 24, 2004 at 12:50PM
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It must be confusing to get so much conflicting advice although in fact almost all of it is good advise taken with a grain of salt. Someone for example, defined grape as a good vine. Here it is usually considered bad, but I do not see it that way in general because I make wild grape jelly. Burning is a really good way to clean brush but you may get into trouble with fire departments, not to mention risk burning your house down. This is in fact a semi-natural process, the ash is good for the soil and can release certain seeds. What Denise describes could well happen to you, in that if you do remove taller brush you might find you have native wildfloers already in your seed bank which have been shaded out. Bushwacking would work, however spraying is not something I could reccommend. Hope it turns out well for you.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2004 at 11:51PM
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Well, I have been doing that for years. I have about a half acre of oak/hickory savahnnah that was a disaster when I bought it. In addition to all the invaders, piles of rubble - shingles, windowframes, you-name-it.

I agree with another poster who said don't rush in to it. Get to know what you have, prune and nurture over time.

I used a chainsaw to lop down the large buckthorns (some with up to 4-5 inch dia trunks) and some elms, large pruning shears/loppers for the smaller, and chipped them. Anything too big to chip becomes a fallen log for salamanders to live under. I don't poison stumps - the area is small enough that I can just re-cut until they finally die. I used a heavy rake to pull up virginia creeper, which was thigh-deep over the entire woods, and chipped it. I was rewarded with emergence of mayapple, Jack-in-the-pulpit, solomon's seal, prairie trillium, and several others. But then the garlic mustard came. Seems the creeper was keeping it at bay. I pull that by hand - crawling on all fours! The results are visible - areas I did in earlier years are nearly clear of it this year. It is tricky though, as it is a bienniel. You just THINK you got it! Once it gets late enough in the season that it is about to go to seed and I don't have time to pull up the rest, I lop it off with a weedeater, and just plan on getting it next season. It is a multi-year project that way, but keeps me out of mischief. Black cherries snuck up on me - once the other stuff was gone, they started sprouting everywhere. What was a few "thickets" started turning into canebreaks! This year I treated those as described above for buckthorn. I keep a few in appropriate areas, but want to let light to the floor. My crop of jacks this year is astonishing! I attach a photo from a couple of years ago/

I have tried several times to protect baby oaks in hopes of getting some decent saplings coming along in more open areas, but something - deer or rabbits? gets them every winter.

I have added several truckloads of chips, plus all the chipping I do of scrap, over the years, and what was hardpan you needed a pick to penetrate is now spongy loam you can dig with your bare hands. Sure makes pulling weeds easy!

When clearing buckthorns, cherries, elms, etc, I generally pick a spot and pile the carcasses, let them dry for several weeks, before chipping. Sometimes I go right to it, but the chippper tends to clog more. Leaving them in place is fine too, but if you have a lot to get rid of you'll have a mess for quite a while. Piles of dead shrubs will stay for years. If you do that, lop off as many branches as you can, get them to lie flat. That will hasten decomposition.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 12:32PM
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Leslies is referring to the weed wrench. A handy tool that I have come to appreciate greatly.

Here is a link that might be useful: Weed Wrench

    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 11:09PM
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Fire is a valuable tool but should be done under proper supervision with permits, etc. as the people above mentioned. In many suburbs a burn permit is nearly impossible to obtain so find that out before you depend on that option. Before conducting a burn I would remove "ladder fuels" which such as vines and other things that climb high to help keep the fire out of the canopy. A powered hedge trimmer would be a relatively quick way to cut back many of the invasives that have thin stems and allow you to look a around a little better to see what is there and what you want to save or get rid of. I tend to leave the debris where it falls but sometimes it is too much and needs to be piled up out of the way. If you have a chipper it will help to reduce the volume of the debris but it is itself quite a chore and a bit dangerous so I would only go to the trouble of chipping where there is lots of woody big stuff that you won't have space for. I also reccommend that you get to know what it is you have growing on your land. I have a weed wrench too and can confirm it is a useful tool.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 12:10PM
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ladyslppr(z6 PA)

I think it makes a lot of sense to first try to identify the plants you have. There are almost certainly some desirable native plants in there, and probably lots of non-native, invasive ones, too. Once you learn to ID the shrubs, you can start to remove the unwanted ones. Buy a good field guide - I use one from the Peterson Field Guide series, and it is reasonably easy to use. For wildflowers, I think Newcombe's Guide is great. It takes a little time to learn to use the key, but I have found the key to work practically every time, and it is nice to have a sure-fire way to ID an unknown plant.

Shrubs can be cut off at the ground, then recut or sprayed as they sprout. It may take a while but they will die. Vines can be cut and left hanging in the trees. You can have to re-cut or spray the stump of the vine as it tries to grow new sprouts. I wouldn't cut all vines - most of the native vines are harmless to trees in most cases (you can always find some example of almost any vine growing over a tree to the point of damaging the tree), and the native vines add a lot of bird habitat, fruit, flowers, and general interest to the woods. Non-native vines are another story, and several species can be a major problem in PA.

Burning woodlands is not a common practice in PA. Farther south and west, fire has been a more common part of the woods than here, and the plants there tend to be more adapted for fire than the ones here. Prairies, some pine woodlands, and perhaps a few other local habitats in PA are adapted to fire, but generally not woodlands. The natural recurrence frequency of fire here borders on 'never' for broadleaf woodlands, hemlock forests, etc.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 12:33PM
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Forestry mowers on bobcats work best. Mulch it all up. It is environmentally friendly and quick. You can find contractors that are familiar with this process anywhere.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2011 at 2:34PM
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    Bookmark   February 6, 2011 at 2:48PM
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Just wanted to let all of you know an easier way to kill stumps without poisons. When I bought my last house, the back yard was completely full of 2 to 3 inch trees and briar thickets. I went to the back yard with no tools but a pair of hand shears. I had to simply sweat it out and do it by hand. We didn't have room to get any equipment into the back yard since we had a town lot. After cutting it all down I wanted to be able to use a lawn mower. So we took a drill into the back yard and drilled holes into all the stumps. Filled them up with salt. This pulled the moisture out of the trees and made them rot by the following spring. And it only costs a few dollars. The next year you could use your foot and just push them over. Just a tip!

    Bookmark   May 13, 2014 at 9:32PM
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I'd not use salt as described above. Nor do I believe its presence enhanced the decay process. Salt simply has no beneficial properties in the landscape. And there is no mechanism for it to be removed from same.

One word abourt prescribed burns: Yes, a useful tool in some plant communities, this really does not sound like one of them. The location in suburbia, right off the bat, spells trouble. But more fundamentally, if this is anything like the northern hardwood forest which covers so much of the NE half of my state, research has shown a fire interval of 400 years! So yes, these plant communities "do" burn, but very, very rarely.

I know joepyeweed knows what he's talking about. And in fact, crews under my direction will be setting some prescribed burns this very day. But that is within some artificial prairie plantings we've created around stormwater ponds. Completely different thing. And contrary to what all of the "native landscaping" guys will tell you, completely artificial in this setting. We were maple/beech/basswood here too originally.

Oh well....


    Bookmark   May 14, 2014 at 8:26AM
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