I like our little tractor, a lot, although I like what it does more than I like operating it. All the bits about pre-warming the coils and managing controls in the right order unnerve me. There are clutches, hand-levers, and foot pedals for going forward or backward, going fast or slow, lifting (or dropping) the bucket in the front, and tilting it, and then everything to do with the brush hog in the back. The brush hog is like a huge mower, with one rotating blade under a lid. It has its own little wheel on the back, but there are still controls for how fast it whirls, and to raise or lower it.
My problems with the tractor are mostly personal. While the brush hog is pureeing the weeds, it may be pureeing other things I don’t want to think about. While I’m advancing forward paying attention to the topography, I have the bucket raised so I can see the ground. Then the bucket will snag branches or nearby metal roofs as I churn past in ignorance. And if I run the brush hog over something it can’t bash through, a shear pin breaks, which after much mumbling, we manage to replace. While sitting on the tractor seat, I get antsy, too: I could be doing something more physical, and less mental.
What I like about the tractor is the rumble that vibrates through my body, with the occasional shake. It lulls me like a train ride or like a nap in a moored rowboat with the occasional large waves smacking the side. And I Iike that 5 mph breeze that makes the debris stuck to my arms flutter. I like floating over terrain that I know only from walking, a more labored and jerkier platform. But mostly what I like about the tractor is the clean track that the brush hog leaves behind.
Our little tractor is our big gun against weeds.
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Our land is mostly forested, but a river runs through it. More correctly, a year-round creek, and a few year-round tributaries. Much of the valley and some of the terraces are open, which provides us with views and diverse flora, and provides wildlife habitat and corridors. Our game camera shows that we have cougars and black bears, elk and a few deer, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, possums, brush rabbits, and aplondontias (boomers, mountain beavers). The meadows have shrews, mice, moles, and pocket gophers. (Our cabin has too many mice and bushy-tailed woodrats—see Us vs. Woodrats). The creek has beavers and otters, two types of salmon, trout, crawdads, mussels, and a bunch of other fish and fauna. The creeks need more shade and more close-in conifers which will some day fall into the creek, giving coarse wood that is so needed to keep the river and floodplain functioning in ways to which the native fauna is adapted.
In these open places, we manage the vegetation. Otherwise, parts of it become massive single-species jungles or they may have natural succession toward early woodland species that will eventually become forest cover again. This management includes some plantings, and also a lot of weed control (see also Weeds Happen, Part 1).
Our first line of defense against weeds is avoidance: trying to keep the seed from getting here in the first place. For that, we clean the soles of our shoes after we’ve been in a weedy spot somewhere, and we ask our guests, sheepishly, to do so, too. But we can’t control everyone’s tires and backpacks, or the winds. The large mammals are thought to carry one of the local bad invaders in their hooves and fur, and many seeds sit buried in the soil. An experiment at Michigan State showed that some of the weed seeds that were stored away in 1879 could still germinate 130 years later.
Our second line of defense is our hand-powered, quiet means: stomping, hacking, pulling, and selective cutting.
- Stomping: I usually stomp about three circuits around a plant, but if the weeds are really dense, I sink into a controlled fall to crush more of them.
- Hacking with my little scythe: I bend over or kneel, pull the plant taut, then swing the blade. I leave the stubble still in the ground. I have, however, scythed through my glove and also through my jeans. Scything is a step better than stomping. It’s like tractoring, but I can do it selectively in places the tractor won’t go. But I can’t do a very big area.
- Pulling: I can pull the weeds up, removing stems, and hopefully, roots. On the upside, this method gives a clean look. On the other, it can result in my removing the soil from the plant I wanted. Quite often, I do this without gloves, and I end up with hands that have been sawed up by the berries that are interlaced everywhere.
- Cutting: I can cut the flower heads before the plants go to seed. I have to catch the flowers and put them into something—a bag, bucket, or pocket.
And the third line of defense is all to use our noisy means: the weed-eater with strings, the weed-eater with a metal disk, and the tractor.
- The weed-eater with strings: This handy tool cuts light-weight grasses and forbs (non-grasses that aren’t woody) rather easily, at least in theory. I wear a vest-like harness that distributes the weight, which isn’t all that much. Swinging it back and forth is a pleasant activity. The equipment can go anywhere I can go, although it’s dangerous to swing it uphill of me, so I have to keep above the weeds.But truth be told, the weed-eater with strings is aggravating much of the time. Grasses and berries get wrapped around the shaft. The strings snap off on plants that are too tough, and when it contacts wire or rocks. The shorter the strings, the less effective they are, both because the area they whirl over is smaller, and because the tips of the strings are slower.* Our weed-eater has a hub we can bonk onto a hard surface that should release more string, but the string gets snagged on itself and won’t come out—probably because we wound it ourselves. We think we are winding it perfectly, but it still gets snarled. I bonk, nothing happens, I remove the weed-eater from my harness, take off my eye and ear protection, use tools to push in tabs until I can wrest the bobbin cover off, and then pull and prod the string. It may work, or I may have to go back to the shop for an escalating series of tools.And so the gentle swaying job, reminiscent of winding up to throw a discus, or the dramatic rocking of an ornery child, becomes an angering chore. The one-hour tank of gas stretches to an hour and a half or more. I’m hot and sticky, and spend the end of the tank hoping to hear the engine skip so I can go in.
- The weed-eater with the metal disk: This tool has the same advantages as the weed-eater with strings, plus it handles woody brush and there are no strings to break. I like it more.But it is heavier, and I have a bad association with it from the time I hit the dog with it on one of those backswings. He had to get staples in his skin—lots of them. I fell into the creek and got a concussion from the handle. (We lock the dog up when we use it now, although I don’t think he’s interested in being nearby.) And when I hit a rock, I see sparks sometimes—which reminds me, that this time of year I should only use it in the morning hours, and then do a fire watch for the hour after I’m done.
- Which brings me back to the tractor, which I like, especially when my husband drives it.
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Here is a run-down on the weeds we worry about, and a few that we don’t.
Invasives against which we are most aggressive:
- Reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea). Do you know it? It has culms the diameter of a pencil, and grows up to 8 or even 9 feet tall in dense swards** that don’t leave any bare ground at all. It takes over wet places, like vernal pools and streambanks, which are among the key habitats we are trying to restore.The true control will be to shade the areas out, but we need to get the vegetation established that can do so—and also, there are places that we want to keep open. If the area is conducive, we use the tractor. Cutting it should also keep more water in the ground, should make it a little less robust, and should decrease seed production. Cutting also gives us access to our property, because to walk through the intact plants is like walking with elastic bands on my legs that pull me back.In other areas, we use the weed-eater with the metal blade, but we need to be very careful because a misstep, or hooking a berry vine, can cause us to hack into the plants we are trying to protect.But a lot of the time, and especially across the creek, we simply stomp it. At least the trees get light that way.
- Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). To the unaccustomed eye, this thistle is a dainty version of something bad. To a person who has experienced it for more than one season, this thistle is wily and formidable. The single-sex clones grow at an alarming density and spread at an alarming rate. Imagine a floor with 1’ tiles on it, and now imagine an endless meadow verging up into the forest with 3’ tall thistles coming out of the center of every tile. The stems are connected underground by an extensive and deep set of rhizomes*** that store a lot of energy, so whacking the top off won’t kill them any more than pulling suckers off a recent tree stump will keep it from sending up more.Goats or scything or weed-eating or mowing alone can’t control a big established infestation. We need to add an herbicide. I’m convinced that against this species, the herbicide is better for ecosystem health overall than the alternative, the stand of thistles. We use the brush hog before they go to seed, then spray the re-growth a month or so later. We have to do that for a few years, and then stay vigilant for the weak shoots that somehow see light, and for newcomers.
- Herb Robert (aka stinky Bob, Geranium robertianum). This soft little plant can be very invasive into our woodlands. We hand-pull 100% of the plants we see, even at the cotyledon stage. Its control gets an hour or two of my time every weekend for much of the year I tiptoe through the area to avoid mashing the natives, with the hope that a healthy understory will help keep it at bay. On a typical weekend, I’ll get about 75 plants, of which maybe one will be blooming. We throw the flowers and seeds in a bag, and after crushing the rest in our hands, we leave the remains somewhere to dry and then rot.Other weeds at our place that are in the always-rip-up-and-dispose-of-seeds category are tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), black knapweed (Centaurea nigra), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).
- The invasive berries (Rubus bifrons and Rubus laciniatus). On the good side, they provide so, so many tasty berries this time of year, and also provide a draw to our property for the black bears that eat them. They have lovely rose-like flowers (they are in the rose family) that are visited by many bees.But they grow everywhere that’s open, as long as it isn’t already pure reed canarygrass. The seeds seem to be present everywhere (dispersed by birds and bears and probably rodents, too). The thickets are tall mounds of interlaced thorn-studded stems.Our first line of defense is the tractor, followed by the brush hog, and around specific trees, we just use clippers. A lot of people say that we can’t control it without herbicide, but the mechanical means give us smaller plants to deal with. In a few places, we use herbicide. If we haven’t already made an incursion into them with a tractor, a friend suggested we carry a 2×4 and throw it down, then walk on top of it, spraying the berries on both sides, then pick it up and throw it down again.My husband is the main berry defense person. He’s more intrepid than I am at driving into places one can’t see. There could be rocks, or fencing, or old abandoned farm equipment. For that reason, we ought to buy more than one shear pin at a time.
Invasives against which we are less aggressive:
- European bittersweet (nightshade; Solanum dulcamara). This plant is an invasive that nightmares are made of. It makes massive infestations on creek banks. We can pull it, but chunks of it regenerate roots. We are less aggressive against it (except for the occasional incursion when we try to remove every scrap of it from an area) because we don’t really have good tools to use against it. It is highly sensitive to some herbicides, but we don’t want to use them near the creek, even though they are legal.
- Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) are a level less noxious. In fact, all things being equal, I like the bull thistle flowers and their silky pappus when the seeds disperse. Teasel is fun in all phases: it has toad-skin textured leaves, ponds of water where leaves insert on the stem, flowers that start blooming mid-head and move in a double wave toward top and bottom simultaneously, and over winter, little seedlings that germinate on the receptacle rather than on the ground. Both of these plants attract many bees.We don’t go too far out of our way to kill these. Every few years I cut the flowering heads off all the teasels, and then carry them away. That keeps the populations low. The bull thistles—well, I do cut the tops off, and I dig them out with the hoe I typically walk with, but in a casual way. Bull thistles will be with us, here and there, just depending on how much good habitat there is for them, but I don’t think it will take over anything out there.
Invasives that we watch:
- We have another couple dozen invasive plants to watch (such as beggars ticks, sandspurry, and stinking chamomile—Bidens frondosa, Spergularia rubra, and Anthemis cotula, respectively). A few of them have tiny populations, and I wonder, should I really kill them off? The answer would be yes, except that we like the species diversity and the thrill of seeing them. Most of these are in driveways and gardens, or where we’ve planted trees. Their populations, I think, will be limited by the size of the habitat we give them.
Invasives we don’t worry about:
- And there are the invasives that are already out and about, and we won’t be able to control them if we try. These are plants like yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Queen Ann’s lace (Daucus carota), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), English daisy (Bellis perennis), chickweed (Stellaria media), western bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), and a bunch of the yellow composites.
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I would like to move on now to think about what I want to do when I’m done with the weed control: lie in the hammock, forage or garden, cook good food, read, write, check the game camera, soak in the wood-fired hot tub, sit back and chatter—or not—with my husband, do some sort of craft, pet the dogs.
So we grease the tractor, mow, pull, chop, scythe, and spray so that next year will be less bad than it otherwise would be, and so that perhaps the next year, and the year after that, we can lie in the hammock, cook, talk, pet the dogs, and feel good that wildlife (animals) and wild flora have a chance at keeping going in our neck of the woods in this big state in this big country on this limited Earth.
* Say the string rotates at a constant number of revolutions/second, regardless of how long the string is. The tip of the string goes around the circumference of a circle, which is pi*diameter. Say a short string is 1” and a long string is 6”. To go one revolution, the tip of the short string goes 3.1 inches (which is pi * 1”) and the tip of the long string goes 18.6 inches (which is pi * 6”) in the same amount of time. I want the long string!
** Sward is a continuous stretch of that is mainly of one non-woody species (like a stand, which usually refers to trees or shrubs).
*** Rhizomes are underground stems, not roots, like what irises and bamboo—and a lot of weeds—have.