The Green Monster In Our Backyard


I used to worry about all the diseases and bugs that threaten our forests. Right now, the white ashes are dying. Something sinister is killing black walnuts west of the Mississippi and has now been reported in the east. White oaks and the maples are supposed to be under attack too. Out west, fires are laying waste to hundreds of square miles of forest. In some areas here in the east, overpopulating deer are chomping all the newly sprouting tree seedlings. I hear of more gypsy moth outbreaks, which once laid waste to eastern forests for awhile. Seems like bad news all around.

But when I look out the window at the tree grove we live next to, I have a hunch things aren’t as bad as the news sounds. If we did not mow the lawn regularly and did not constantly hoe tree seedlings out of the gardens, we would soon be engulfed by what we have started to call the Green Monster. Even though all the old and medium-age ash trees in the grove are dead, there must be ten thousand new ash seedlings crowding up everywhere they can find a shaft of sunlight. These little trees have trunks about the diameter of a human finger, not big enough for the emerald ash borer to tunnel into, and my bet is that the borers are going to starve out now that they have killed all the older trees. These little ones will come on to make a new stand. That is what happened to the elms. For awhile all the bigger ones died, victims of Dutch elm disease. But seedlings came up and the saplings hung on until they could produce a crop of seeds— which they will do when the trunk is no bigger than 3 inches in diameter. Those seeds sprouted and by the time they got big enough to succumb to the bug that spreads the disease they had dropped another seed crop. Meanwhile with less to eat, the bugs dwindled. The result is that today in our grove there are quite a few elms growing vigorously again.

Our climate is a tree climate and as long as that remains the case, I bet we will always have plenty of trees. Their resilence is amazing. The white oaks drop acorns once every two or three years, thousands of them. The deer feast on them and for awhile I feared that they were eating all the acorns that the worms, blue jays, wild turkeys and squirrels etc. didn’t get. But this year, despite all that predation, hundreds of oak sprouts came up. We mowed the ones in the yard time and again and they grew right back, five times at least before they gave up. Some acorns half-eaten by worms, still sprouted and grew.

The speed at which our hardwoods grow in their early years is also amazing. Clean out a fencerow near a woodlot and it will grow back to jungle in two summers’ time. A mulberry can grow from seed to 15 feet in two years, no problem. I transplanted a kind of shadbush or Juneberry growing in the Green Monster out into the open lawn about 300 feet away so it would get more sunlight. It has blue berries on it that make good pie if we can get them before the birds do. This year I noticed a black walnut sapling about six feet tall growing up inside the bush. I cut it off with the chainsaw. It grew back to the same height again in just three months— only now there were three stems instead of one.  Then I noticed two white ash saplings hidden in the bush too, also six feet tall. The nearest seed-bearing ash, now dead, is about 150 feet away.

Jerking some sweet corn for supper, I found a black walnut seedling growing between the corn rows. I guess a squirrel planted it for winter food deep enough so the tiller did not disturb it, but our squirrels must be very forgetful because walnuts are growing up everywhere. So are the other common hardwoods. Oak, mulberry and walnut put down deep tap roots very quickly and hold on for dear life if you try to pull them out. If you cut them off at the soil surface, they pop right back up again. In old Cooper Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, abandoned for about five years now, they say a walnut tree already 12 feet tall, is growing up behind home plate. And in the grand train station in Detroit, one of the largest ever built but now abandoned, the trees are growing through the roof. If you quit mowing or cultivating anywhere woodland grows, the trees will come.


I live in a place that is not exactly natural woodland, actually prairie, but even here, without fire and regular grazing, almost any area left alone for 5 or 10 years will become a Red Cedar (Juniper) forest. I don’t know if someone that owned my place in years past was fool enough to plant them or if the birds did, but we have the eternal scourge of Tree of Heaven, a close relative of Sumac. In a patch of ground between the barn and chicken house where I was too busy to mow early in the year, we have now literally hundreds of trees 6-8 feet tall with trunks bigger than my thumb from one year’s growth. The area was clear this spring. I think they will rot off quickly as fence posts, but they grow so fast, it might be worth it in a place where genuine hardwoods are scarce. We have a few black locusts around, and a lot of catalpa, but if I don’t watch it, the Damned Tree of Heaven is going to shade them all out! On the Prairie!

Yours is an excellent question Chris Nerland and I recall what I think is an excellent answer in Northern Woodland Magazine from a few years back. Happily, those folks put it online and I managed to find it:

The Northeast’s Ecological Outbox:

    Thanks, Stephen. I knew about the grey squirrel problem but the others are news.

    Many of the animal species named in the article like Grey Squirrels,Muskrats and Raccoons have become problem species here in the SE US also because of the exploding populations.They used to be controled by trappers and hunters but low fur prices and less people willing to hunt and eat wild animals the populations get out of control.Whitetail Deer
    are the biggest single problem I have trying to grow crops with the Shenandoah National Park nearby and thousands of acres of private land that no hunting is allowed the deer population has exploded.Coyotes supposedly introduced to reduce deer herd numbers haven’t made a dent in the deer but have steadily reduced the number of goats,sheep,calves,house cats and small dogs.Have also seen more Field Mice cutting hay this year than I have ever seen too bad the Red Foxes that were getting my chickens didn’t go after the mice rather than my chickens,we’d of both been better off.

I have a question. We hear about all the invasive species coming to North America (many from China/Asia). Do we ever send invasive species over to THEM? Seems the traffic should go both ways. Maybe there are gophers taking over the Mongolian steppes even as we speak, or Junebugs eating their way through Vietnam, or Virginia creeper covering Shanghai.

The health of the forest entails many things, and unless we try to grasp all the factors, forest management is tough. Even though most ash trees are dead or dying in our area, I still have several in my woods that seem ok. The only thing I can think of is that the high population of several types of woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches are controlling the ash borer to some extent.
Oaks, maple, and ash are some of the most persistent weeds in my blueberry and asparagus beds, maybe because I mulch these heavily with leaves each fall. I know that these leaves provide enough nutrients that fertilizer use is unnecessary.
Living in Pennsylvania, I always marvel at the tremendous amount of potential construction material and fuel we have everywhere. Marcellus shale gas is all the rage here now (but the price of home heating gas just went up 7 percent – go figure). In time the gas will run out and our most obvious and abundant energy source will still be covering our hillsides. I and several of my neighbors still choose to heat with wood. There is no heat that warms the body – and soul – like wood. We pay close attention to anything that affects the health of our woodlands because it is fuel for our spirits.

Thanks, Gene, for recognizing that problems exist without the Chicken Little response so many seem prone to. I’ve never understood how an outburst of melodrama helps to address a problem. I agree with Eumaeus that we need to be aware of what we can do to limit the spread of disease, but, when you’ve done all you can, you have to trust to God (or Nature or Gaia or whatever you want to call it) that life will find a way.

Trees that reach a very old age and get really big are not really that common in nature around my area,usually something happens to them before they are 40-50 years old.On the Mountain on my farm thats not been logged well before my lifetime if ever there are very few really large old trees most are less than 40 years old but there are lots of them and when a big one goes down its immediately replaced by dozens of contenders for the same place in the Forest the big tree occupied.Of course very few probably only 2 or 3 will survive for over 30 years.Thats the way nature works the weak,the crippled,the poorly rooted etc all fall by the wayside for the strong to be ones to carry on the species.This is the way the animal and plant World is supposed to work constantly evolving from one thing to another constantly fighting for their place on this earth.Humans will find this Law of Nature also applies to them too one day.

Hope. With the infinite changes, you always give me hope. Thanks.

Yep. We’ll always have trees if we want ’em in Ohio and Indiana. Question is, will we have the kind of trees we want? Will we have ash trees to make ball bats out of, will we have amer. chestunts to harvest and eat (i know you’re out of the natural range there) or walnut veneer? For people who can’t tell a serviceberry from a bush honeysuckle, this may not matter. It is all a ‘green wall’ to them. But for the animals and people that depend on certain species to live or make a living, it matters. In which case please do be concerned or at least aware of tree diseases and invasive species so that you don’t exacerbate a problem. Sure, it may be something that we’re going to live with for the rest of our lives but that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to slow the spread and not unintentionally take firewood and insect problems to another state…

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