Nature’s Rush To Brush



There’s a stealthy invasion creeping up on us from all directions, but if you don’t live in an environment like mine, you may not be aware of it. It is called brush but not the kind you use to rearrange your hair.  Brush is thicket composed of bristly weeds, thorny bushes, and bloodthirsty or poisonous vines speeding along  toward us at about two inches per hour. Within the armies of brush are poison ivy, blackberry canes, wild grapes, multiflora rose brambles, autumn olive and saplings of honey locust, bamboo, mulberry, and, well, any tree fighting its way up through the jungle of shorter plants. If brush can’t get you any other way, it dries up, sets itself on fire, and attempts to toast whole states to a crisp. We don’t have to worry about that in Ohio. We just have to make sure little children do not wander too close to the thickets lest a vine of multiflora snake out and snatch the poor tyke into the underbrush, never to be seen again.

You can observe the green monster’s advance easily enough by driving down any highway where rainfall amounts to 35 inches or more a year. The median, ditches, fence boundaries, even the border evergreen trees planted with so much naive innocence, are now festooned with brush. Every year the brush tries to edge closer to the pavement. There is no telling how many millions of dollars and man hours have been spent to stop the monster. The onslaught is especially noticeable where highways pass through suburban areas or where the median strip or ditch traverses landscape that is difficult or impossible to mow. Jungle develops. Vacant areas between housing or shopping centers not particularly under the jurisdiction of anyone with a lawnmower grow so thickly even deer can’t get through it. In some places the brush has already begun to swallow up those permanent sound barrier walls. Add to all this jungle the millions of acres you can’t see from the road where former farm land has been abandoned because it is too unhandy to be profitable for big machine farming. No wonder coyotes are a problem in New York City now.

If you keep up extensive fences between open fields you appreciate the awesome mightiness of brush. Let it go just one summer and it is impossible to conquer except with  brush-killing chemicals because the fence prevents you from mowing it off. If you have a lot of fencerow, you simply cannot clip and hack it all back by hand every year. Your dripping blood, sweat, and tears are not enough, even at 8 hours a day. You will eventually sneak into the nearest superstore and buy Monsanto’s most expensive, hoping that none of your organic neighbors see you.

Actually there is a remedy— grazing animals in large numbers.  The reason that sheep became so popular here in Ohio (our school sports nickname is Rams) was because when the pioneer farmer cleared forest land before bulldozers, the brush counterattacked with awesome might before the stumps could be cleared away.  Flocks of sheep did the job of eating the new growth and you could sell the wool every year. Bulldozers do not grow wool.

I can remember exactly when farmers here in my home grounds decided they could make a living growing grain only and got rid of all their grazing animals. Immediately, the fencerows started growing up in brush. If you want to experience real misery, go out with a scythe on a hot August day and attempt to cut back the fence line brush and weeds on the edges of tall corn fields, like I had to do as a boy. Oh, yes, the wildlife scientists in their air-conditioned offices spoke glowingly of how beneficial the brushy fence lines were. Just like the hedgerows of Europe. Yes and it is a matter of historical record that the hedgerows of France stopped American tanks in their tracks.

Yes, all this is very good for wildlife. Yes, this is how nature returns the land eventually to forest. But a battle line has to be drawn somewhere. Pray that there is never a shortage of brush cutters and bush hogs.  And if you wonder why sales of Roundup are booming, it is because brush is on the move. Archeologists are still finding the ruins of magnificent cities under the jungle cover of South America. It took a very advanced human culture to build those cities, but in the end, brush won.


Gene, I’m a latecomer to your writing. And I’m grateful for that as it means I have a ton of reading waiting for me now!
What I really want to know (as I’m looking for my own patch of land) is where the “millions of acres you can’t see from the road where former farm land has been abandoned because it is too unhandy to be profitable for big machine farming” are!
Maybe I could snatch a few…

Why the hate for Roundup? My old back can’t stand a bush hook or weed eater any more. A gentle mist around the edge of the house and property and the chore is done until next year.

Well said, Gary. I know I’m a heretic–a step or two beyond contrary–but between the leaves that the goats eat, the flowers that provide nectar to the bees, and the berries than provide bird food for wild birds and free ranging hens, privet is my No. 1 cash crop!!

Honey bees,domestic cattle,dairy goats, most domestic sheep,Ringneck Pheasants are all
non native species that have taken up residence here in North America,it’d be a completely different place and poorer place without imported species.Things have a way of working their way into the system and we just need to be smart enough to utilize them.No better goat browse than Kudzu for instance.

I love weedy grown up fence rows they’re great wildlife habitat and a refuge for small animals against their predators.Where I’m cutting hay now there is an old Cedar tree lined fence row with broken branches that have fallen off and the whole thing is around 40ft wide running for over 400 yards with about every wild plant that grows in this area in it.Birds, butterflies,bees,turkeys,deer,rabbits and many other animals call this place home.What a shame really a crime it would be to hit it with Roundup and destroy this haven.Short Grass
Psychosis have crept from the surburbs to the countryside and wildlife has suffered as a result.I’ve even started going into woods and cutting down blocks of trees to get sunlight in so ‘brush’ can have a place to thrive for wildlife to have some habitat.Brush VS Roundup
I’m pulling for the brush.

You are right about brush!

I have been fighting the sprouts of osage orange trees for my entire life. I should wave the white flag. So many tires and inner tubes… If ever there were a place for herbicide, this is surely it.
I would like to put my sheep in the pasture with the sprouting stumps of prickly death, but I can’t seem to get the brush cleared enough to build a fence so the sheep can clear the brush… I’m not sure about the chicken and the egg, but the fence needs to come before the sheep to make the pasture for multiplying cows.

Also, one of the redeeming qualities of my 60 year old case bulldozer is that it isn’t currently growing wool. If I had to wrench and shear that would surely be a deal-breaker.

Jerry Eaton

Alien Invasive botanical species are the least discussed important aspect of land management in every setting. They are displacing native forest at (to me) alarming rates. We have well over a hundred species in Virginia. They are all disturbance dependent, meaning anytime the native plants are removed and the ground laid bare – they come. I wrote an editorial in our local weekly a few years back during the advent of the terrorist threat entitled: “Bio-Terrorism – it’s already here!” Then I went on to express my fear of these plants through their impact on the native forests and farms. I think these plants were largely unknown and it’s generally still that way.

But, just as Gene usually does when he laments any issue, it’s appropriate to offer at least some thoughts of a remedy. I submit that in the forest the best place to start is light disturbance, which in my case is the practice of restorative forestry through “worst first” single tree selection and modern animal powered extraction. These methods never remove more than 30% of the trees and is the ultimate low impact overland extraction technique. This is surgical silviculture to some folks and is not the easy way to harvest wood.

Another thought in response to the concern of immigrants and how to deal with their eventually earned citizenship is to fight fire with fire so to speak (although . In this case it would be establishing a bounty on these plants and collect them at landfills everywhere and pair people to remove them by hand). In particular it could be a way of alien illegal immigrants earning citizenship by harvesting/removing a measured amount of these plants.

Our most obnoxious alien invasive botanical is Oriental Bittersweet, a barked vine that is so aggressive that it will out grow any sapling and pull the main leader toward the ground dooming any potential future forest regeneration. Japanese ladder grass is next, it marching along roadsides and into forest at every opportunity to take over all ground and again kill seedling trees. Good luck with the grazing livestock, I have friends that do this commercially and have good success. It comes down to eyes to the acre of land and some of the best ones have rectangular pupils. Land has to be worth more as naturally intended. Globalization is not always a good thing.

Jason Rutledge

I use my goats also, However I don’t necessarily consider brush as an enemy, but potential goat forage. If I can’t fence it off as pasture; as in road right- of- ways or neighbor’s fence line property, I mow it with a scythe or hand pull and feed it to the goats This provides me with much needed exercise and the goats with good forage. However when it is 100 Degrees + Fahrenheit outside with no breeze and my scything muscles are tired or my hands are sore from pulling weeds and brush – as Gene referenced, sinful thoughts of Monsanto’s strongest certainly dance through my mind.

In our very dry, cold winter-hot summer climate native brush plants or more properly called shrubs, such as sage brush and the like are well-adapted and persistent even more so than native perennial grasses. Invasive Kochia which although a forb behaves like brush fills in the blank spots in spite of our best efforts to abuse it. The only natural force which controls “brush”, other than herbivorous animals and insects, seems to be fire as Gene stated and he is not exaggerating by any means. Where fire is prevalent grasses and forbs prevail, unfortunately these are in our area usually invasive plants which are even more problematic than the shrubs. Usually, they don’t have as much grazing value as the native plants they displaced and can persist under frequent fires,and are extremely flammable, even more so than the native plants. .

Because it is just plain hard work to keep “brush” under control,It would be easy to just let the “brush” go, but as Gene indicated that is simply an invitation for wildfire. As I write this the air is really smoky from such fires. Homes are regularly incinerated if the homeowners do not take measures to provide what is called a defensible space; meaning the brush is controlled and some green, flame-resistant vegetation or bare soil surrounds the home. Even with these precautions sometimes homes are still incinerated. So it seems that “brush” control is necessary just to keep a home livable.

In their favor, the shrubs do provide wildlife habitat and forage, so it seems brush control is a matter of managing for balance. . Specifically, if grazing is well-managed a more or less natural ecosystem complete with shrubs, forbs and native perennial grasses can be maintained Alan Savory preaches this regularly with his Holistic training philosophy.

Therefore, I’m keeping my scythe sharp so I can go out and cut back some “brush” this morning and keep my goats well-fed. It is supposed to be over 100 degrees again today. so I know the sweat will be dripping from me in short order. I;m reminded of the Bible story in Genesis wherein Man was kicked out of the garden and told that he would live by the sweat of his brow. It would make more sense to go out and do this in the early morning or late evening when it is cooler. I do that also, but there is just too much brush to only scythe during those hours.

If I read the Bible correctly it seems to me that King David learned his fighting and governing skill while tending grazing animals. I wonder if he knew he was practicing good management to keep brush in balance while simultaneously producing meat, milk, manure and wool etc’. Based upon such scriptural lines of evidence coupled with Gene’s references to ancient cities buried in brush, it would appear that keeping “brush” at bay has been one of mankind’s prominent tasks since the Beginning.

In temperate climates, brush, vines and trees have always pushed back against cleared land, but it seems to me that they have been much more aggressive and successful in recent years. Here in the Northeast, it is now common to see roadside trees entirely covered with vines and creeper, something that used to be much more of a Southern phenomenon. Poison ivy is no longer confined to the margins but is now taking center stage. The persistently vigorous appearance of tree seedlings and broad-leaf weeds in regularly mown lawns is remarkable. Climate change? Carbon dioxide? I’ve heard some whispers of these possibilities.

Marsha- Queen of Buzzard's Glory August 13, 2015 at 5:27 am

P.S. Please don’t throw me in the briar patch, Brer Fox!

Marsha- Queen of Buzzard's Glory August 13, 2015 at 5:23 am

Ahh yes, the multiflora rose, foisted on the farmers and touted as “the living fence” by the Farm Bureau who had the mistaken impression that the lovely ‘fences’ in Europe just sprang up in neat rows, I reckon. They said it would not reseed itself. But of course, they were ignorant of the fact that the seeds were scarified in a bird’s craw (am I correct in this belief?) and now… well, now, it’s a horrible scourge here in SE Ohio. At least Kudzu doesn’t have thorns, does it? Shame on those who promote this kind of thing (“Roundup Ready?” “Chinese ladybug?) as controllable and useful.

Hi Gene,
I’ve been rebuilding an old farm here in New Hampshire for a couple of years now. Brush and trees have grown past the stone farmers walls and into the hayfield. I’ve cut the offending vegetation back along one wall and I am planting a mixture of Black Walnut and Butternut behind the stone wall but near enough for the future drip line of these trees to intersect with the wall and hayfield. These nut trees put out a naturally occurring herbicide through both their roots and their leaves that will act to suppress the brush and poison ivy. My plan is that my hayfield will be a little less labor intensive and I should have plenty of nuts for the pigs, myself, and some wildlife!

Another vote for goats for brush control!

At least that’s what I keep telling my sentimental fool self when I keep the “elder++ does” long after they’ve given their last milk and last kid…

If you’ve already got a hedgerow (so the goats don’t have a landing zone to jump into), two strands of electric is all it takes to establish your “line in the sand.” Put the bottom strand up about knee height, so the goats can (carefully) graze under it, keeping the pioneers from shorting out the fence.

Goats do a very nice job and seem to love to browse along the fence rows thus keeping them fairly clean. Another plus is that goats seem to love all the things we hate: multiflora rose, privet, poison ivy, vines of any type, cedar and any other sapling. That said, the tangle of green wildness and all that they shelter are quite nice too.

Great article, I’m thinking sheep or goats also. I wonder of Alpaca would be just as effective, I’ve always wanted an Alpaca Farm!

I hate Roundup but it’s the only thing I’ve found that can keep autumn olive at bay here in S. Indiana. I judiciously put it on the just-cut stumps, but it’s still taking over any open unmowed areas on our 27 acres. Sheep or goats may be the only way to go!

Spraying vinegar would work just as well as roundup and is a lot cheaper and non-toxic.

As we were cleaning up edges of the farm here, I went around back of our produce wash-house and … yes … the virginia creeper had found its way up the back side and was headed over the roof. I told Andy … it wouldn’t take long for this stuff to take over an entire city, would it? We keep a 5′ swatch of wood chips all around our house. The other day I walked around back (where we rarely go) and those creeping vines were inching their way across, through, and under those nourishing wood chips, heading for the house. I swear, I think they KNOW if they can just find a wall to climb, they will find Heaven!

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