blisters and buckthorn…a yard restoration update

It’s been about a month since I introduced the restoration project we’ve begun in our yard. As the heat of summer bears down on us, I wanted to update you and talk a bit about invasive species as that was the whole impetus for what we are doing.

When we bought our property, the biggest pull for me was the amount of unmanicured space it held for my kids to play in.
I’d grown up with a tremendously large range for roaming, my childhood home being surrounded by fields, ponds, woods, and I wanted to be able to shove my kids out the door and leave them to scrabble around unsupervised as well.
I was happy to find a scruffy sort of woods on our large lot and the unoccupied neighboring lot
and my children did play copiously out of doors building igloos and forts, rejoicing in puddles, camping out overnight, and generally horsing around with friends.

igloo party

My 90s rugrats, ready for a cocoa party in their back yard igloo.

Meanwhile, I left nature to its own devices as well,
paying little attention to what was transpiring in our “woods.”
I figured leaving nature alone to progress as it wanted to was the closest I could get to having a marvelously-uncouth, natural wilderness amidst this suburban space.
It became a dense, leafy zone that effectively enclosed us in our own private world during the summertime.
Sure, I heard people talking about buckthorn over the years, but I didn’t pay much attention. It didn’t seem that important and I had my hands more than full with our household anyway.


my yard before buckthorn removal; so lush and green, right?

A couple of years ago, though, a neighbor of mine gently schooled me on the damage my buckthorn was doing to the soil. We started looking more closely at what was growing in the ol’ back forty and I was shocked! mortified! aghast! at the percentage of green that was buckthorn.
Once I began reading about this nasty invasive online, I became even more overwhelmed.
Take it out at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, and you can cause increased growth?! How were we going to get on top of this?

We ended up calling a guy named Ed to help us, and it was just the best call we could have made.
We not only got the expertise we needed in removing a literal forest of buckthorn, but discovered Ed to be an avid, knowledgeable naturalist who could help us identify other invasive species on our property, as well as some excellent native plants that had hung in there all these years.
It was Ed who told us about the grants available to help us replant the area with native species, because once we’d pulled out all the buckthorn, yeesh! The barren remains of our lot led me to dub it Mordor. It was that grim.


The grim results after the bulk of the buckthorn was removed. Mordor.

All of this to say, believe me when I tell you that I have not one proud bone in my body when it comes to the care I have taken of our property! Only humility.
I have had to take a deep breath any number of times and tell myself that humility is a good starting point for growth of all sorts.
Best to face the facts head on and then plod firmly ahead.
I am deeply thankful for the 9 Mile Creek Watershed District and their partnership that has enabled us to do this work on a bigger scale than we could have afforded on our own.

So, why are invasive species so bad?
Invasive species — including microbes, fungi, plants, animals — tend to dramatically thrive and outcompete native species for various reasons.
In fact, invasives often cause whole species to die out, at times numerous whole species to die out, greatly decreasing the biodiversity of an area which is critical to its health and triggering further negative repercussions.
Because of the pervasiveness of these invaders globally, due to the way we humans have effectively dispersed them far and wide as our ability to transport ourselves over vast distances increased over past centuries, the idea of simply letting nature run its course without regulation or intervention is untenable. Their impact is ubiquitous.
In the case of buckthorn, its rampant growth eradicates native plant species, decimating native forests, which in turn drives out native birds and pollinators that rely on particular plants for food. It also negatively impacts amphibians and even mammals. Insidiously, buckthorn is an allelopathic plant,
meaning it emits chemicals into the soil which inhibit the growth of other plants. University of Minnesota researchers have also found that it distorts the nutrient composition of soil.
It has, apparently, a symbiotic relationship with earthworms, which are also an invasive species in Minnesota, and by this and other means causes degraded soil conditions which impact water quality throughout a watershed — thus bringing the Nine Mile Creek District into the equation.
A virtual cascade of negative impacts.


A close up of the buckthorn plants I am oh-so-weary of pulling!

In short, it’s a baddie.
Last year we removed all the trees bearing berries, thus eliminating the addition of all those seeds to the soil, and most of the bigger trees and saplings.
This year my husband and I have been painstakingly hand-pulling hundreds and hundreds of tiny-to-medium buckthorn stems. I’d say we are about 75% done with that process for this year.
We expect to remove these small buckthorn shoots every year from here out. Even after the seed bank in our soil is depleted, trees in neighboring lots will continue to disperse seeds to our soil. However it should be far, far easier to keep up in the years to come.
I’ve also removed garlic mustard, a Minnesota invasive that, now that I recognize it, I see everywhere, as well as Canada thistle, burdock, motherwort, invasive honeysuckle, and narrowleaf bittercress.
If you are in Minnesota, you can find great info on the “noxious weeds” we need to be most concerned about via the DNR here.


Another grim reaper: garlic mustard. Get rid of this stuff, friends!

The up-side of spending so much time on my hands and knees, nose in the shrubbery, on the buckthorn warpath,
is that I’ve been learning to identify the heroic native species that have been awaiting the opportunity to grow now that they have room and light to do so.
It has been a joy to really see these plants and recognize them as individuals, rather than vaguely noticing “green plants” around me.
Among other things, I’ve learned to identify false solomon seal, white avens, enchanter’s nightshade, black current, and have found quite a number of jack-in-the-pulpits to my great delight.
The easiest way of learning these is when Ed walks through the area and points them out to me, but another great way to identify them is with the iNaturalist app which is free.
I’ve had a grand time with this both in my back yard and up at the cabin on Lake Vermilion.


Learning to identify plants is important! This buckthorn is a baddie to remove, but…


Black currant on green bush.

…this American Black Currant is a fabulous Minnesota native species I’ll work to protect.

Just click a photo, upload it to the app, and in no time it will give you its best guess of what you’re seeing. Share it with the community, and often someone will confirm the identification in a few days.
I have identified many lichens, fungi, trees, birds, plants, and even a brown marmorated stink bug! It is a fantastic tool.

reindeer lichen

This extremely cool reindeer lichen grows on boulders at our cabin in northern Minnesota.

I hope that gives you some idea of what I’m up to with our project and a little encouragement to simply start wherever you are in doing what you can to care for this good Earth.
Even with our libraries mostly shuttered, I was able to find three excellent books for you and your kids to learn more about invasive species, so I’ll share those with you and be back later this summer with another update!

tracking pythons

Tracking Pythons: The Quest to Catch an Invasive Predator and Save an Ecosystem, by Kate Messner
published in 2020 by Millbrook Press
68 pages

In case I was feeling brave or tough taking on the invasive buckthorn in my yard, here comes an extraordinary, blow-by-blow account of people wrestling with something in an entirely different league — invasive Burmese pythons in South Florida. Care to tackle a hundred-pound thrashing, lashing, biting snake?! No thanks.

Good thing there are scientists in the field who are eager to do just that, though, because by one means and another — people releasing pets they no longer want, for example — Burmese pythons are thriving in an ecosystem ill-equipped to host them. These guys are ravenous eating machines with almost zero natural predators and have been decimating other populations. We are talking downright horrifying eaters, here. Trek through the marshes and learn all about Florida’s snakey problem, attempts at solutions, and how this particular team is working to understand and curtail the numbers of these massive invaders. A captivating read (pun intended!) for ages 8 and up.

aliens from earth

Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems, by Mary Batten, ill. by Beverly J. Doyle
published in 2016 by Peachtree
36 pages

Batten touches on a number of invasive species in her book with fascinating, well-told stories. What fuzzy little creature wreaks havoc on Australia and why was it brought there?  What does a love of Shakespeare have to do with our starling invasion in America? Where did those “killer bees” come from? You’ll learn a great deal in each brief entry. Batten lists suggestions of how we can help prevent the spread of invasives and adds the layer of climate change to the picture in her Author’s Note. Large portions of these page spreads are devoted to illustration work. That, plus a friendly, never-dry text makes this a read-aloud choice for younger listeners ages 5 or 6 and up, as well as a great selection for their older siblings.

the battle against invasive species

Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species, by Sneed B. Collard III
published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company

Focusing on a few main invasives — brown tree snakes in Guam, red imported fire ants in Texas, melaleuca trees in Florida, and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes region — Collard conveys an enormous amount of information in lucid prose. Here we really get a feel for the way biologists and conservationists are attempting to tackle these devastating problems as we dive further in to the hypothesizing, testing, and implementation of various controls. The most scientifically-informative of the books, yet written with zest, even drama, I’d recommend this for ages 10 to adult.