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Will I regret it if I leave an overgrown pasture to its own devices?

 
                                      
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I am intending to cultivate a diverse forest garden with an emphasis on natives.  My assumption is/was that leaving the blank slate/pasture alone for a few years would have no worse effect than to provide some extra habitat for wildlife and allow succession to begin turning the land into a forest for me.

I am sure this has been discussed, so any links to old threads I couldn't find would be appreciated.  Fresh answers would be even better.

Context: My partner and I purchased, installed the required utilities, and moved onto 7.5 acres of very compressed pasture that had been used for horses for years.  By the time we had jumped through all the hoops and moved in, the grass and weeds were quite high and a low priority.  We're in Southwest Washington state, if that helps.

We're still in the observation phase of our permaculture designs and I'd like to leave the land alone until I have more detailed plans.  I am devoting some attention to it now because the elderly neighbor who we bought the property from has asked what we're trying to accomplish with these questionable land management practices.  I think he's just trying to be helpful and isn't actually likely to lodge complaints, but it's spurring me to do my homework and make sure I'm not going to regret leaving the land to its own devices. 

Any advice?

Thanks in advance!
 
                            
Posts: 158
Location: Abilene, KS
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I'm sure you'll get better responses from others, but I had a phone conversation with our county's state forester today about our property.  Ours had been a working dairy farm years ago, and we had unbelieveable weeds, some 10 and 12' tall when we bought the place.  He said the high nitrogen that was probably in the soil from all the manure would cause the weed boom, but to try to control it with short mowing, light discing if necessary and a cover crop, if possible.  But I have my own set of issues here, too.

An organic farmer that lives here told me that it would take about 10 years for my property to return to natural prairie.  But!  Before I met him, I planted an aggressive grass (orchard grass) and it's seeding everywhere.  Although our back couple of acres looks a LOT better now, I wish I had checked into this before I created another problem.

You might try contacting your state forestry department and see what advice they have for you.  Your elderly neighbor probably would like you to do what he would do...in a perfect world.

Oh, by the way, we burned the area after all the weeds had died, but still standing.  That did help by burning some of the weed seed.  Each year it looks better, just more orchard grass, but we finally got 80% or more of the weeds out.
 
Travis Philp
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Posts: 965
Location: ZONE 5a Lindsay Ontario Canada
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Straylight, have you identified what plants are in this field? Generally I think leaving land alone is alright but exceptions are there. Do you have the means to cut the vegetation back? Mowing it once or twice a year and leaving the trimmings where they lay could speed up succession.
 
                                      
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I do have the means to mow, including a scythe, which may be necessary for the taller weeds.  It's good to know cutting helps with sucession! Thanks!
 
                  
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What you decide to do really depends on your goals for the forest garden--you said you wanted a "diverse forest garden" --what does that mean to you? What kinds of things do you want from the garden?
Once you have decided on your goals, you can direct succession towards those goals. Your first objective should be improving the soil. Compaction will be a problem down the road if you don't try to remedy it now. You may want to till and plant a cover crop first, (include some fast growing deep rooted plants like daikon radish to break up the deeper layers) then look into using a subsoiler instead of tilling the next year. This device cuts and lifts the soil to allow water to penetrate without destroying the soil texture.
Once your soil has improved, create habitat for your desired species and reduce competition from unwanted species. This can be done in many ways, but I would like to know more about what your goals are first....
 
Dave Zoller
Posts: 35
Location: Kentucky
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do be mindful of osage orange. it's a great plant for some things, but the young ones have spines that'll pop a tractor (or wheel barrow) tire and once established they're fairly near unmovable.
 
Travis Philp
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Posts: 965
Location: ZONE 5a Lindsay Ontario Canada
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I second what Lydia said.

And I highly suggest doing a plant inventory of the field before mowing whether you chop or not...you might find something which is better left standing, or that you'd like to transplant somewhere else.
 
                    
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Straylight, Im in SW washington- Up the Kalama river. Let me know where you are and I can dig up the plant surveys from the county extensions, etc. Ive dont a pretty thorough regional inventory. From there its pretty easy to define outliers and get a idea of what might be on the property. Obviously a line of sight survey would be best, but this added to that gives good parameters for ID on plants that you might not even know where to begin.

after that a functional survey of those in the real mix would be good, then some soil testing to see what CAN go in. Im pretty familiar with the region, been here for over 20 years. welcome!
 
                            
Posts: 158
Location: Abilene, KS
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mule tree wrote:
do be mindful of osage orange. it's a great plant for some things, but the young ones have spines that'll pop a tractor (or wheel barrow) tire and once established they're fairly near unmovable.


We have been cutting and burning hedge for a few years, and I have only seen one tree that had a few thorns.  But it sounds like you have had a different experience.  Yes, they're a sturdy tree, for sure.  But farmers here have torn out hedge rows for bigger planting areas with just tractors.  But when it comes to heating with wood, that's the best in my area.  And it's great for fencing.  Now Locust is good wood, but has tons of thorns.  Great cover for birds, and I believe some varieties have edible seed pods if you like to graze.

But since I know nothing about your region, you might not have either ones of these in  your area.
 
                                      
Posts: 172
Location: Amsterdam, the netherlands
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it really depends on what you want from the forest garden. just a native forest garden with natural and ornamental qualities? then leaving it alone is the best thing you could do.

If you want the forest garden to have more functions than it might be good to guide the land through its succesion. The pioneer stage consists of mainly annuals and some biannuals they will leave and make place for perrennials, bushes and trees, stuff that stays, if you let the land be it will turn into native forest, with trees and plants that dont necisarily benefit you. so this stage in succession i would guide. introducing the species of trees and shrubs and perrenials you would like to have.

you can wait with this, removing tree and shrub seedlings when they appear and give the annuals time to build soil and repair whatever deficiency it might have, learning about permaculture and observing what comes up to teach you about the land and soil conditions. (the living landscape is really nice book for the observation stage.)
 
Paul Cereghino
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Posts: 855
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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My NW pasture goes pretty quickly to evergreen blackberry and canada thistle, which can be lovely, but also changes how you relate to the field.  Cutting it once a year selects for different species, and multiple cuts for another set again.  Letting it grow selects for different species.  What is already there tells you who is already in position to benefit or be hurt by the management regime you select... so I'd agree with others on the value of first understanding who is there.

I also scythe.  The less you scythe the harder it is to scythe as thatch builds up... nothing like slicing through spring growth coming up through smooth raked ground that was cut in fall! 

In cutting a swath you create a roughly 4-8 foot cut area and a 2 foot pile of cuttings (depending on your vigor, skill and the amount of thatch you are struggling with).  By how you organize the path of your cutting you create a mosaic of cut pasture and pasture mulched by the cuttings.  By repeating the pattern you create a mosaic of two different management regimes (or even three: cut, mulched, and uncut).  The mulched portion of the site supports mulch tolerant species and creates future woody planting sites... the cut areas favor herbaceous species and grasses, with the timing of the cut further selecting for early vs. late seeding species.  The uncut area favors oldfield succesion usually to aggressive perennial rhizomatous species.

If I get time I'll throw up some sketches and pictures, as I too have been pondering this "managing an old-field with scythe as transition to forest garden" question and would like to share and get feedback.
 
Mekka Pakanohida
Posts: 383
Location: Zone 9 - Coastal Oregon
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Paul Cereghino wrote:
My NW pasture goes pretty quickly to evergreen blackberry and canada thistle, which can be lovely, but also changes how you relate to the field.  Cutting it once a year selects for different species, and multiple cuts for another set again.  Letting it grow selects for different species.  What is already there tells you who is already in position to benefit or be hurt by the management regime you select... so I'd agree with others on the value of first understanding who is there.


Hey, I have been noticing something about our lovely many blackberry plants in the NW.  I happen to be chop n' dropping a section of blackberry between 2 stands of trees.  The blackberry was a nursery for alders, elderberry, and salmonberry.  As the area of the blackberry was dying back naturally it was over green with sapling alders competing for sunlight as baby holly & conifers are still slowly growing through the baby alders.  Which I know the alders will give way in a 50 to 60 decades to the conifers and other natural plants.  Just sharing, it happens to be an area of my property I have been observing closely this year for expansion.

I got the same problem as Straylight, but I went a different route since the orchard was very poorly pruned at the start of their lives and then left alone for a long time.  I pruned as best I could & then stacked the pruning's to make swales that currently act as natural homes for various birds, and small animals as it decomposes.  The larger pcs are currently going to be used for biochar.  The plan for me is to make a large ring around the trees of cardboard & / or wood chops.  Then a layer of biochar that was inoculated, followed by a layer of composted manure.  Then a layer of mulch, and in that I am starting my guilds around the trees with the openings of the guild mounds to capture water.   

Soil conditions improved via the above method without the biochar.  This year since I have more trees, the above method will be utilized. 
 
                                      
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Wow!  Thank you all for your time!  So much food for thought and direction for study!

And Deston thank you for the offer of extension info. Our land is between Vader and Ryderwood on SR 506.  We're almost exactly half way on the 6 mile stretch. Feel free to email me at brittobiason@gmail.com, especially if you need clearer info on the location.  Thanks again!

I'm reading up on natives and studying with the WSU Master Gardener trainee program to meet locals and learn in a county-specific way, but we really have only just arrived.  Actions that perserve flexibility are the only ones I'm thinking of performing immediately.  I'd like to think of any ideas at this point as being "hopes" and to base future actions on a soild understanding of pertinent legalities (hoping for a large pond) as well as informed observation. That said, we have noticed blackberries popping up fast enough for some concern.  There's also scotchbroom near the road which I am grateful for as a screen, but do not want to be overrun by.  A yellow flower is quite rampant. It shoots up to about three feet high by fall.  I may have found it under "rattlesnake flower" in a natives database, but wasn't convinced.  It certainly does stick to you as you walk by and then shake a seed pod to make a rattling sound.  I'll be doing some research, that's for sure!

This thread has proved very infomative for me.  It's been easy to turn a blind eye to the question of pasture maintenance, (when well, spetic and solar concerns were pressing,) but seeing it as the earliest stage of our future development is actually very inspiring. It will be good to feel truly intentional in inaction as well as in action.

Thanks again!
Straylight
 
Dave Miller
pollinator
Posts: 416
Location: Zone 8b: SW Washington
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I also live in SW Washington (Camas) and do a lot of volunteering at several nearby wildlife refuges (about 2000 acres total).  The refuges face similar issues with leaving the land in an "untouched" state.

The first thing I would do is get familiar with the plants on the Washington State Noxious Weed List: http://www.nwcb.wa.gov/weed_list/weed_list.htm ; These will be your "pioneer" plants, and if they get out of control, they will annoy you and your neighbors for years to come.  The key is knowing these plants and spotting them quickly before they spread too much.  Selective scything/mowing might be a good approach.  Or maybe get yourself a few goats.

Re: soil compaction, deep rooted plants are a good idea.  I would also guess that moles will be happy to help you out (they probably are already).  If you have no moles, then your soil may not have many earthworms, which is not a good sign.

If there are no large dead trees on the property, I would put up some structures on poles to simulate large dead trees - raptor perches/nest sites, bird houses of various sizes, bat houses.  This will help "put nature on your side" to keep things in balance.  If you do have large trees but they are all living, consider girdling a few of them to provide the same purpose.  If you are up for it, I would girdle fairly high up the tree, like 1/3 from the top.  This will kill the tree very slowly, which is usually what happens in nature.

I would also plan for some native oak (quercus garryana) forest/savanna in your zones 4 & 5.  Oak savanna used to be very common in this area when the natives did controlled burns on a regular basis.  When Europeans arrived, they put a stop to that, and the firs (which cannot survive fire like oaks) overtopped the oaks, shading them out and converting everything to evergreen forest.  I have found it best to plant oaks as acorns, protected by a planting tube (vs. transplanting seedlings).  They have a very deep tap root which does not like to be transplanted.  Also it is best to gather acorns locally, so ask your neighbor where the nearest Oregon White Oak (aka Garry Oak) is located, and see if you can collect some acorns there in the fall.

I would also start scouring your neighborhood/roadsides for native plant seeds and sprouts, and start growing them in pots (the bigger the pot the better).  You can usually find used pots for free on craigslist or freecycle.  Your county conservation district may also have a native plant sale coming up, which will have really good prices.

Well that's probably enough advice for now.
 
Brenda Groth
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Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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40 years ago there was some nearly vacant pastureland here on the edge of an aspen/alder woods with a couple of pine trees on it.

We put on a few more various evergreens, white pine, canadian hemlock, black spruce, and others and some of the wet spots grew up into alder. After thinning out a few aspens near the edge the aspens began to send runners out into the open field and colonize the edges as well.

Now the field is dotted with a lot of evergreens and a few alder and aspens..

This past year I put seeds of some other trees out into the property that I gathered from the wild or that were given to me...I hope to make a little more diverse planting over the next few years..but now there is about 20 % tree growth on it and those trees are about 40' tall..or taller on average. There is also about 30 % seedling growth of small evergreens and a few deciduous trees that have blown in from surrounding woods

It didn't cost us a penny, we didn't need the land for anything and it is approx 3 to 4 acres..we have a pond on the edge of this field/woods area that is about 175 x 75 ' ..irregularly shaped, and we are planting all kinds of trees adn shrubs and perennials around the pond..
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