Sunday, April 8, 2012

Space Invaders!

By this point, we've become pretty familiar with most of the yard as we've dug it up, planted seeds in it, or maintained it in some way or another. But one place that we haven't much dealt with yet is our back fence. From afar it looks like an overgrown row of shrubs and small trees, and from up close, well, it doesn't look much better. So yesterday morning we were strolling along, trying to figure out what to do back there, when our neighbor's nephew (the horticulturist we've mentioned before) appeared.

"Are you trying to figure out what you've got back there?" he asked. We had pretty much identified the whole thing as a mess, but accepted his help. He listed off a few plants, including mulberries, maples and wild raspberries, when he concluded with a chilling statement. "That right there is a Tree of Heaven."

In case you haven't met this beast, let us assure you, the Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus, is nowhere near as pleasant as it sounds. Here's a description from the National Parks Service (link)
Tree-of-heaven is a fast-growing tree and a prolific seeder, that  can  take over sites, replacing native plants and forming dense thickets. Ailanthus  also produces chemicals that prevent the establishment of other plant species nearby. Its root system may be extensive and has been known to cause damage to sewers and foundations.
Also lovingly nicknamed the Ghetto Palm, this is an invasive species, not native to the US, and it has a history of choking out indigenous or desired plants. Oh, and if you cut into it, it gives off a smell of rancid peanut butter. Quite a charmer, really. And we had a major infestation of it.

We certainly didn't want to harbor an invasive fugitive on our half-acre, so our first thought was to cut it all down. Fortunately we did a little research online before we took action, because Tree of Heaven, again from the NPS, "resprouts vigorously from cut stumps and root fragments." If we'd taken our shears to it all, it would have just returned with a vengeance. That meant it was time to go nuclear.

You know we don't like chemicals in our garden or even in our lawn really.We're trying to garden organically, building up the soil with natural compost. But in a case like this, where the invader literally could pose a threat to all our plants, we had to take drastic measures.

Concentrated Glyphosate. You probably know it better as RoundUp, the herbicide that will kill almost any plant it touches. This particular product is 41% the actual herbicide, and in nearly any application, it would be significantly diluted. This was no ordinary application, however.

We needed to kill this tree dead and then some. So we weren't interested in just spraying the poison at the base or on the bark of the tree. We needed a direct route to the roots, and the best way there is through the plant's own phloem and xylem. So we did end up using our pruning shears...

Followed immediately by a thorough application of the herbicide. Notice the use of protective gloves to keep this dangerous poison off our hands. If you ever are forced to use this stuff, be very careful!

The brush method worked well for all the smaller shoots and suckers, but unless we killed the parent tree, there would continue to be more. This became complicated because of two factors. 1) The parent tree was about 8 inches in diameter so the loppers couldn't possibly cut through it. And 2) It was literally growing through the fenceline, so ownership of the tree is a bit of a gray area. We opted to go for the hack-and-squirt method from the safety of our side of the fence.

We drilled a row of holes with the biggest drill bit we had, deep into the center of the tree. We angled these slightly down to ensure that they could be filled.

With the holes neatly drilled, we then proceeded to pour the concentrated glyphosate into each until they couldn't hold any more. This is a pretty big tree, and it's possible one dose won't do it in, so we also left plenty of room for a return attack. Hopefully this process is successful, and we can rid ourselves once and for all of this stinking (literally), invasive pest.

Keep in mind, this was truly a desperate effort, and our hand was forced into using chemical means by the vicious nature of the invader. We were loath to buy an herbicide, but truly felt we had no other choice to protect our homestead and the surrounding ecosystem. We won't make a habit of using this stuff, so don't expect to see much more written about it here. We'll be back to organics by our next post - promise!

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