january 2015 011Brush clearing has been the order of the day for the last few weeks, spurred on by the annual exchange of power tools at Christmas, and a desire for a bit of exercise that doesn’t involve a perky Zumba instructor with thighs like a nutcracker.

It is an exhilarating job once the blood has risen in the cheeks and the heart has started beating. Cold is of course a factor when initially motivating oneself in the morning, but it is precisely this cold that has laid the landscape bare and allowed me to quickly shape what is in the summer, an impenetrable understory.

My aim is to give more space to developing trees of merit such as beech and oak, encourage native flowering trees like redbud and dogwood, and make it possible for spring ephemerals like sanguinaria, mertensia, dicentra, asarum and May apple to carpet the woodland floor with abandon. I wouldn’t say no to a few patches of sunlight dappling the woods either.

Mulit-flora rose and greenbriar stand thorn-to-thorn - one slightly recurved, one straightforwardly wicked.

Mulit-flora rose and greenbriar stand thorn-to-thorn – one slightly recurved, one straightforwardly wicked.

My greatest adversaries are native and non-native brambles in various flavors. Multi-flora rose, greenbriar, wine berry, and to some extent blackberry and black raspberry, make thick leather gloves mandatory and complicate the process of hefting brush by the armful into the back of the trailer. Shrub-like barberry is also a thorny mess, but does not reach out and snag you with a ten foot lateral just when you think you’re free.

With the current tempestuous affair going on between natives and their lovers, we hear much negative press these days about invasive plants, but brush clearing brings you face to face with both sides of the story, and I can tell you that there is nothing more irritating and aggressive than the fully native wild grape in all its sneaky, insidious glory. Though I do admire the ability of this vine to use its wits to attach to a sapling and hang on for the next forty years until sunlight is reached and its canes are as thick as my neck, it is murder to cut and disengage them.

My favorite method is to cut a vine chest high, tell my children I have a new swing for them and instruct them to always keep their feet pointed towards the ground. This brings a delightful terror to their play and results in the battered vine coming down, child and all, after a season’s use. No doubt the state will rule this as child abuse within the next few years or mandate an $80 helmet to pursue such reckless activities, but until then I’ll pit child against vine and revel in the fact that the child always wins.

Vines and brambles, though numerous, are not the end of the story. Saplings must also be thinned to promote the health of the woodland, and, thanks to the romantic gesture of my husband at Christmas, I am a chainsaw-equipped warrior. I have had such fun with this new tool (equipped with a thousand safety features), and have welcomed the opportunity to hone my ID skills in the winter landscape where bark, buds and branching replace leaf, blossom and fruit as clues to identification.

Mungo stands at high alert - ready to chase all branches thrown towards the trailer.  ALL branches.

Mungo stands at high alert – waiting to chase anything of woody origin thrown at the trailer.

A tree is a beautiful object, and cutting one down elicits some sadness, but when you see how quickly the forest naturally replenishes itself, especially when thinned, the job is somewhat easier. A tiny sapling might someday become a $1200 capital funds expenditure to fell, so it is wise to make sure they are sited precisely where they should be at a tender age.

Property owners without woodland should be just as diligent. Granted it is difficult to imagine the baby tree a developer planted at a mature height of 40 or 50 feet, but try your best and act according to your needs for the future, not according to how perfectly formed it is now. Likewise, the wild grape growing along a fence will eventually tear that fence apart, and black raspberry left to seed itself in a corner of the garden will not settle for a tiny piece of the pie. Whether on a quarter of an acre or on ten, there is always potential for rampant woody growth when property owners turn their backs.

Taking some time in the winter to eradicate the baddies, encourage the goodies and get some good, cheap exercise in the bargain makes for a win-win situation. It’s not working hard….it’s working smart.