This may be a problem unique to the Southeast (I am in North Florida) but much of my woodland property quickly gets smothered in undergrowth if left "untended". I know that some purists would say that this is beneficial for creatures and the environment but frankly it is something that I constantly try to control and keep from happening. If left alone for a year or two,.. thorny smilax and blackberry, wild grape vines, wax myrtle, saplings of all sorts, etc., etc., make the property completely impenetrable. A heavy duty scythe used through the property every few months has proven somewhat effective in controlling things. I use chain saws and a power trimmer with a blade for the heavier stuff. Nonetheless it takes constant effort and endless repetition. Really the aim of my efforts is to end up with a property that is sparsely wooded with nice sized trees and with a relatively open accessible area underneath... I have decided that the problem is that "nature abhors a vacuum" and so unless I introduce some alternative in there to grow in the area I will have to deal with the nasty tangle of things forever... To that end I last year tried introducing Boston ferns into about an acre of the property. I must say that I am extremely pleased with the result. Some literature claims that the plants are "invasive" (even though they are native to Florida) but frankly that is the quality that I am looking for in this situation. They rather quickly get established and with the help of an occasional scything seem to spread and smother out the competition. Initially I planted the ferns by getting unwanted plants from people in town and dividing them up and planting them every few feet. I have more recently gotten so enthused about ferns that i am trying to collect and distribute around spore laden leaves of the many different sorts of ferns that live in the woods nearby and am thinking that those which are best suited for these conditions will prevail. The results are impressive and beautiful,... (An interesting fact is that some of the literature says that the spores of the Boston Ferns are not "viable". I will know in a few months whether that is the case as I spread a lot of them in a new area).
Honestly, I would see if a forestry mulcher is available for rent at a local box store, or from a tree service. If you could simply mulch what comes up, it would create a fungal-dominant barrier that would, at very least, make it easy to both spot any undergrowth and make the soil loose enough to make hand-weeding pleasant. It would also maintain the moisture levels in the soil, making it even more suitable for the ferns you want.
Maybe if you chopped it all down and then went at it regularly with a mulching lawnmower before any of the woody bits got well-established, you wouldn't need to rent larger equipment.
Incidentally, hostas are also known to do really well in shaded locations. They are attractive, most are edible, some are even tasty, and they flower. They grow in dense beds, crowding out competition. Some comfrey also does well in the shade, and is used as living root barrier in some cases.
But let us know how you proceed, and good luck.
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Have you ever thought of raising pigs? You can separate your wooded area into paddocks and rotate the pigs on a set schedule. If you rotate them often enough you will not have any smell or mudhole issues, and they will increase the fertility over time. They will leave you with a nice clean understory, and they may even dig down to eat those smilax roots. I have dug up several smilax tubers weighing over 100 pounds, so I understand your struggle.
David, I love your fern solution. If you like how it looks and the ferns take out the plants that you don't like to be cutting down constantly, I think it's great.
We're in the tropics and during the rainy season things here go nuts as well, so I understand where you're coming from. We have about half an acre under a small mango forest that is also full of ferns, and indeed nothing much else grows there. These ferns growing to a maximum height of about 3 feet, but mostly 2 or less, are a blessing to deal with as compared to the woody wildness we encounter in other places.
I like your ferm approach. May try some of that myself. I know exactly your pain as I am in North Florida too and have impenetrable thickets along the borders of treed areas. The one exception is the road edge bordering a patch of wetlands. The anaerobic condition keep those woods clear of underbrush.
I broke my grass blade scythe on grass that was out of control. Using a machete where needed to penetrate thickets, then mowing down and mulching everything small enough for the mower to chew and bag. Slow work, but it works to open things up. Need to thin the volunteer pines and open things up more before trying to plant anything in there.
I am thinking pigs as mentioned below. I want to raise some anyway, and temporary fencing moved maybe once a week is what I am thinking... but to keep them clear once cleared, maybe I'll so some hosta areas. I love hostas. Ferns mixed in would be nice though.
Meanwhile, had some free pigs offered to me today. Not quite ready for them though. No water on property yet. The pigs in question are trapped wild pigs which are apparently crossbred with released domestic pigs. Am tempted, if they are young enough. Not tempted by big ones though. Don't want to try to tame 100+ pound pigs.
David Fraleigh wrote:Really the aim of my efforts is to end up with a property that is sparsely wooded with nice sized trees and with a relatively open accessible area underneath...
As an alternative, or in addition to your other efforts, I would highly recommend you consider joining your local prescribed fire council. Although there is an element of risk involved and skill is necessary to do it properly and safely, prescribed burning is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to accomplish the conditions you're describing, and you'd end up with a higher degree of diversity in the understory than a fern monoculture.
Many prescribed fire councils offer fire training. Mostly they exist to pool resources, allowing everyone to accomplish more together than they would be able to alone. You help out on my burn this week, I'll help out on yours next week - that sort of thing. Living in the Southeast, and Florida in particular, you're living at the epicenter of prescribed fire culture in the US. These skills used to be common knowledge among the general public back in the day. Most other regions lost this heritage long ago and are only lately starting to regain it. The Southeast never really lost it completely, mostly because it's the only non-mechanical treatment short of herbicide that can actually keep the undergrowth at bay, and your weather conditions are more forgiving of minor foul ups than other parts of the country.
To maintain the desired conditions you describe, you'd need to burn your land once every two to three years. The most time and labor intensive part of the process would be putting in a fuel break around the parts of the property you wish to burn. That could take hours to days depending on the size and condition of your property. The actual burn itself can be done in an afternoon with a handful of knowledgeable people and a contraption or two for moving water around.
Today I will do what others won't, so tomorrow I can do what others can't.
Will, Thanks for your suggestion of using fire as an undergrowth suppressing tool... I fully agree with you as to its effectiveness. I love what it can do and currently use it on a small scale around the edges of a pond. It has the advantage of actually killing much of the competing underbrush... I went to a workshop on using fire and learned that much of the South East used to be longleaf pine woodland resulting from uncontrolled wildfires but also from the efforts of the native indians and early settlers to keep areas clear by intentionally torching them. The resulting pine-grassland-palmetto areas are a delight for animals and people. Over the years I have tried it a couple of times and learned a few lessons,.. First, how quickly it can get out of control.., Level of humidity and wind affect it unimaginably and If not done often enough the "fuel" can build up to such a level that the fire burns too hot and kills much more than one wants. Frankly the question of liability concerns me the most as I worry what my intentionally started fire might end up doing to my neighbors if it gets away from me. And finally the thing that really makes it unusable in my situation is that it really only works for those "fire-tolerant" species of plants... I do love those pine-palmetto-yucca-grasslands but in my case I have hickories, oaks, maples and I have learned the hard way that they can not tolerate fire at all. Any sort of fire around their bases will almost inevitably weaken and doom those trees to a slow lingering death...
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