After 16 years you notice the change. Yes 16 plus years of on and off management of the forest at my families land, better known inside our circle as the lake, and outwardly as Treasure Lake. My family has owned the property since late 1983 and lies just outside the major metropolis ti-state area of Cincinnati, Ohio. I have seen encroachment of the suburbs from all directions over the years but it never really reached this tiny corner of Boone County, Kentucky, USA. So as the ‘burbs grow, forests diminish, water quality drops, and biodiversity is tormented by the invasion of industrialism. But in those last 16 years at the lake, I have seen Paw Paw patches and spicebush thickets on the rise and big trees keep getting bigger. I have been witnessing the dying of random trees, the sprouting of new seeds of hickory and oak, and the changing mosaic as the ash tree dies out. It’s like the paw paw knew the ash were dying as they began to sprout by the weakening trees and now that the canopy break is in full swing, they are popping upwards rapidly.
16 years I have been wielding hand tools and power tools for managing succession in the 40 acres (16 HA) of forest that surrounds the 15 acre (6 HA) lake. It started with clearing old campsites, left over
from the properties recreational area inception in 1947, which had been abandoned at some point as the property changed hands numerous times. We did this initially so we could party out in the countryside relieving us of the monotony of suburban bars, college town forays, and city nights out. It was me and my brother and friends at first in 2000 before I headed off to Southeast Ohio to get my degree in Fish and Wildlife Management at Hocking Technical College in late summer 2001. In 2001, my grandfather had the lake rebuilt as this 1947 Army Core of Engineers dam had burst in 1992, a tough year for the project. With the lake being built and my spending more time out there and wanting to study nature more, but being so clueless on how, my good buddy Andrew Williamson drug me out of the city on a whim to go and study ecology essentially. The day we moved out there was 9/11/01 by chance.
From there each summer I would come home and apply the things I was learning and study ecology further through my families forest and lake. My whole education was always put through the lens of going back to my families land and making the property thrive and the business of pay fishing more ecological. So I would rally my friends who were quite keen to get out of the burbs for a bit and come and chop down honeysuckle and multiflora rose (“invasives”) and the like to open the ridge tops that jut out towards the lake. These spaces now are the campgrounds we have on successive ridges pointing south on the northern edge of the property. Since then, I and others have been mowing to keep the edge back but it manages to creep in from time to time on these campground spaces. The place really is a jungle in the growing season with its 12 months of even distribution of precipitation and intensely hot, humid, rainy summers there in the Ohio River Valley. I have also been thinning trees on the edges and valleys to augment the forest composition for biodiversity, to cycle biomass, and to obtain yields of poles in particular.
Thus I have been systematically and continuously cutting back invasives, as they do coppice. I also have been playing with the canopy to invite our native understory plants like Paw Paw and spicebush to emerge into the sub canopy as I remove their bush and bush/vining layer competitors (again bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose) and sub canopy layers like red maple (native but blankets like an invasive), box elder, black locust, and a bit of elm. The ash is dying because of the emerald ash borer and
of course there are deaths of trees from various reasons including the veracious appetite of the climbers that I let take their natural course as much as I can. My grandfather, before his passing, and also to support a tough economic time for the project, elected to harvest about 25 mature trees. I worked hand in hand with the forester to make sure there was not too much taken and it was done well. This created really large canopy breaks in some areas and altered the composition below as well of course. So in essence, I am making this 40 acres (16 HA) of natural food forest into a more cultivated food forest. I have only planted in a few trees like grafted paw paw, persimmon and jujube. That is an area of a broad valley where we dramatically opened the canopy for the harvesting of black locust poles for stage building for Pollination Fest and other pole necessities. We went beyond that initial harvest in 2014 and continued to harvest that and cycle biomass from youngish box elder to open even more light for the rapidly spreading native paw paw patches. I could have done it all in one year, especially with a chainsaw, but one of the keys I have been finding over these years is to go at a more natural pace by using hand tools as much as possible as to not create too much disturbance and invite another invasive in. In my month stint in late fall 2016, I split my time between a chainsaw, a brush clearing ax, and a japanese timber saw to do the work I needed in the forest. I was mainly going back over patches I had cut two to three years previous on steep hillsides, which needed this next intervention so other understory species besides the aforementioned ones could flourish as well like dogwood, redbud, and muscelwood. It’s a much more interesting forest when these native species thrive and the invasives have their little brambly corners to be the habitat they were intended to be when brought to the continent from Eurasia.
So the species composition has changed over the years and that is the feedback loop of watching the same hillsides and valleys for 16 years. It’s a more biodiverse place now with tons of potential for wildlife viewing of all sorts. So even if some of my agricultural experiments have failed, well the forest keeps on growing. I am excited for this years feedback loop as some of the Paw Paw patches had grown so thick I began to cut them back as to give more space to individual trees becoming much bigger. They spread via rhizomes and if they don’t have enough light they don’t produce much in the wild. I tried this in 2014 in one space near the edge of the lake where a patch was growing with basically an open canopy on this south-facing space. It dramatically increased the canopy space of these paw paw and i just reduced that patch, which had already been reduced in numbers once from 8 main trees and 2 smaller ones, to just 5 trees. There is quite a lot of canopy space for them to fill but i think it will happen quite quickly. I also played with this paw paw spacing and canopy opening in about five other paw paw patches, which are all wild. I am curious to see how quick they grow back into a closed canopy as well and wonder when i will have to thin those as well. Imagine having so many wild paw paws that you have to cut some down. I consider that an accomplishment.
This upcoming year i will spend more of the growing season there and will be doing heaps of chop and drop and adding in a few more grafted paw paw to get more pollination possibilities going. They are cross pollinated so this grafted genetics should help since these large patches are often just one tree that has grown rhizominously for years. One day i will top graft numerous varieties onto these existing wild ones and it will be a paw paw paradise. I leave you with that image. Thanks for reading.