Buckthorn oblivion

We put up the fence in our backyard 17 or 18 years ago, when our two oldest kids were little and the other two hadn’t come along yet. Our property extends to the bottom of the slope behind the fence, but since the fence went up I’ve mostly ignored the horticultural goings-on back there.

So, there’s this plant called buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, an ecological threat in Minnesota and much of the rest of the midwest. You may have heard of it. I’d certainly heard of buckthorn, too, but most of what I heard mentioned its invasiveness in natural areas. I don’t usually think of my suburban yard as a natural area, so I didn’t pay much attention.

Fast-forward through several clueless, happy years to 2016, when I realized that all of those little seedlings I was weeding out of my flower beds were buckthorn. Where were they coming from? Probably from the 15-foot-high buckthorn thicket that was steadily growing behind the fence.

Most of the greenery behind the fence is invasive buckthorn

About 80% of the lovely greenery visible behind the fence is buckthorn. Here’s what it looks like up close:

Our invasive buckthorn thicket

If there was ever any sort of vegetative ground layer, it’s gone for now. I’ve spent some time over the past few days beginning to cut back this thicket. I’m using this method (scroll down to the subsection entitled “Light weapons and a long timeline”). I already had Trimec in the shed. I ordered the blue dye and sponge applicator bottle from Amazon.

Buckthorn fighting tools

Treated buckthorn stumps (the dye faded quite a bit in last night’s rain):

Herbicide-painted buckthorn stumps

Here’s my brush pile so far (plus more waiting to be retrieved from behind the fence):

Buckthorn brush pile

It’s a big chore, but I’m looking forward to seeing what shows up (besides lots more buckthorn seedlings) once some dappled sunlight can reach the ground again. I’ll probably also toss some native savanna/woodland seeds back there to help things along. I’ll post an update or two down the road.

 

Why “House Without Hostas”?

Hostas. What’s not to like? They’re hardy, handsome, reliable, varied. As far as I know, they’re not an invasive species in Minnesota. I don’t have anything against hostas. In fact, I have several in my front and back yards right now, so my family currently lives in a house with hostas.

We're still a house with hostas for now

I chose “House Without Hostas” as my blog title to reflect my personal goal to gradually replace most of the non-native plants in my yard with plants native to the Twin Cities area (east-central Minnesota). Native plants are tough, attractive, and, most importantly, vital to the birds, insects, and other animals we share our space with.

An older friend observed the other day that it seems like there aren’t even half as many butterflies as when he was a boy. But when he was a boy, there was a lot less hardscaping and turf grass. More land was covered by woodland, orchards, unkempt meadows, and farm windbreaks. Pesticides and herbicides were used, but not to the extent they are today. There was more tolerance for yards to be a little weedy and disheveled, at least around the edges. With bagging mowers, leaf blowers, and pump-sprayers in every shed, our standards have risen.

Most of us go with the flow, planting whatever catches our eye at the garden center, maintaining our lawns, cleaning up yard waste every fall. But did you know that cleaning up leaves and dried stems in the fall is yet another blow to butterfly populations? I wasn’t aware until recently that many butterflies overwinter in garden duff as eggs, chrysalises, and even caterpillars. In my zeal to get things cleaned up in the fall, I’ve likely been sending baby butterflies to the compost site along with the fallen leaves and dried plant stems.

Goldfinches eat the seeds of my cornflowers, and some bees and maybe even a few hummingbirds visit my hostas. But do these plants host the native insects and the moth and butterfly larvae that provide food for animals higher up the food chain, especially birds? We know that monarchs need milkweeds, but many of us don’t realize that other species also have what are known as “obligate larval host plants”; Karner blues depend on wild lupines, fritillaries need violets, skippers utilize wild grasses, and several species need oaks, ashes, wild cherries, or willows. (Interesting note: It was Vladimir Nabokov who identified and named the Karner blue butterfly. It seems he was as passionate about lepidoptery as he was about writing.)

See this post for more information on wildlife host plants and whether cultivars and “nativars” are as beneficial as “straight species.”

A little history (with before and after pictures!)

We bought our house in Arden Hills, a suburb just north of St. Paul, in 1998. Here’s what it looked like when we moved in. (We had already cut back the shaggy bushes on top of the retaining wall.)

House-front-before-1998

House-back-before-1998

Within the first few years, we had buried the power lines in the back yard, pulled out the overgrown bushes in front, and had the gray rocks from the retaining wall hauled away by someone who saw our ad on Craigslist. We had new rocks installed to create a rock garden by the driveway, and this is what things looked like somewhere in the early 2000s.

House-front-after-2001

House-front-after-2001b

As time went on, we had the warped board-and-batten siding replaced, put up a fence, put in a boardwalk on the west side (where it’s always soggy in spring), made some adjustments to the back deck, and smothered the lawn and put in wildflowers on the east side.

Continued tweaking over the years brings us to the present day.

House-front-after-2017

House-back-after-2017

House-side-after-2017

Getting better, and it only took 19 years! In addition to swapping out some of the non-native plants, I hope also to expand planting beds, add structure with more shrubs and native grasses, and continue to reduce the size of the lawn. I’ll share more about projects past, ongoing, and future in upcoming posts.