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Holding Back the Forest

May 23, 2010

Forest surrounding the back garden (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Several years after I moved into this house, some friends came to visit. Their three-year-old son stood in the driveway, looked around at the dense woods, and asked, “Why do you have a forest at your house?” I was puzzled by the question until another friend provided a plausible interpretation. She reminded me that my friends live in an urban neighborhood in one of Maine’s larger cities and that a big event in their son’s young life had involved going to a nursery, picking out a tree, and planting it in their yard. “He thinks that you planted all these trees,” she explained, “and he thinks you kind of overdid it.”

In truth, one thing I am unlikely to do in my gardening adventure here is to plant a tree, because gardening here involves a constant effort to hold back the forest. Maine is the most heavily forested state in the United States, with 90% of its land area covered by forest. Especially in winter, when the deciduous trees are bare and the white pines (Pinus strobus) and eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) dominate the scenery, I look out my windows and am reminded of the opening line of Longfellow’s Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”

But there is nothing primeval about this forest. According to the Maine Tree Foundation, the first European settlers in Maine also found the land about 90% forested, but they soon set about clearing it, both for farms and for timber extraction. (Those majestic white pines, for example, grow fast, tall, and straight and were much in demand for ships’ masts during colonial times.) By the 1860s, the forest cover had been cut back dramatically. As the country industrialized after the American Civil War, however, agriculture declined and abandoned farms were quickly reclaimed by the forest. That process of reclamation has continued for 150 years.

Today, although Maine is again heavily forested, very little of that forest is old growth. Most trees are younger than 100 years, and that is certainly true of the woodlands around my house. This property was once part of a farm and was probably a pasture. For decades now, the forest has been reclaiming that pasture; and I must be vigilant to keep it from creeping forward into the cleared areas around the house.

Here is the current crop of pine seedlings trying to reclaim the front yard. Pine seedlings at edge of front yard (Photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
Tree seedlings along edge of driveway (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) These seedlings of maple, oak and birch are moving in on the edges of the driveway.
I have planted tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) and Coreopsis verticillata along the side of the driveway in hopes that they will naturalize there; but if they’re going to have a chance, I need to cut back these tree seedlings that are crowding them. Daylilies crowded by tree seedlings (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

Woods behind the Blue and Yellow border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

Because it backs up to the edge of the woods, the Blue and Yellow border is particularly vulnerable to forest creep. New tree seedlings appear each year at the back of this border and need to be pulled up. Some escape my notice until they turn into saplings or young trees that need to be cut down. The squirrels participate in forest reclamation by making this a favorite place to bury acorns. When I weed this bed each spring, I must pay special attention to digging out all those sprouted acorns and oak seedlings.

Maple saplings at back of Blue and Yellow border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Oak seedling in Blue and Yellow border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

The woods may well reclaim this land someday. But as long as I’m gardening here, I will do what Mainers have been doing for generations, working to hold back the forest.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2010 11:05 am

    Very good information, Jean! I visited Maine and loved its forests, but I didn’t know that Maine was the most heavily forested state in the U. S.

  2. May 23, 2010 11:16 am

    the yard looks great. it is nice and private. My brother has a similar problem in Minnesotawhere he is trying to maintain a prairie yard. jim

  3. May 23, 2010 12:54 pm

    You never know what three year olds are thinking…that’s funny. I never really thought about how much work it takes to keep the forest back. Enjoyed your post.

  4. Nell Jean permalink
    May 23, 2010 4:54 pm

    The forest at your place, the woods at mine. Maybe you could rent a goat?

    Your little visitor reminds me of the time when children from the Big City (NY) came to visit my neighbor in suburban Atlanta. They had never seen a garden hose and found that to be the grandest novelty.

  5. May 23, 2010 5:37 pm

    You seem to have the same problem I do keeping the maples at bay – although for me it’s one huge red maple on our front lawn which seems to have at least a million keys on it right now. They are everywhere sprouting happily – until I get at them, that is.
    But seriously, what a happy task – to keep the forest at bay.

  6. May 23, 2010 6:06 pm

    My yard would turn into a spruce and birch forest if I didn’t pull the seedlings. I do strategically leave a few when they turn up where I want them to grow (which isn’t often). It’s just a great reminder how artificial a creation my garden is…I suppose it would be covered in dandelions and Campanula in about two seasons without my labors!

    Christine in Alaska

  7. May 23, 2010 6:14 pm

    Jean, that is precious about the child thinking you had planted the forest… Yes a forest will work night and day to reclaim what has been taken from it. I manage much of my land for the wildlife and leave some saplings for the deer far down towards the forest edge… that way they let me have my gardens. It is a shame that more old growth trees were not saved in the clearings throughout history.

  8. May 24, 2010 12:02 am

    I had no idea that Maine was so heavily forested. It must really be beautiful there. It does sound like quite a bit of work keeping the trees from taking over, but how lucky to have such beautiful surroundings. Our neighborhood is a bit older and we have lots of big evergreens, but so many new neighborhoods are completely cleared with just a few little trees here and there.

  9. May 24, 2010 3:32 pm

    Jean, this kind of opens our eyes to what some gardeners have to contend with every year. I never thought of this problem when I yank those little seedling maples and elms from my garden beds and grass.

    Eileen

  10. May 24, 2010 4:49 pm

    How cute, that he thought YOU had over-planted the forest. I’ve realized living here that forests can do that all on their own! We recently saw some aerial photos of a neighboring town from around the 1930s, and were quite surprised to learn that there are MORE trees now than before. Like you though, very little if any is old-growth, but it looks lush compared to 80 years ago.

  11. May 24, 2010 9:32 pm

    What a great example of how the forest reclaiming agricultural land. From your pictures it is easy to see why a child would think you planted a forest. Sadly, the desert ecosystem is quite fragile and does not recover well.

  12. May 24, 2010 10:46 pm

    I have a couple of white pines and hemlocks in my yard. This is about as far south as they will grow and they really are marginal here. I think they are gorgeous trees and can imagine how lovely a whole forest of these trees would be! However, I can appreciate the problem of forest creep! Our zoysia lawn is thick enough to prevent tree seedlings from sprouting, but other areas are vulnerable. The creepiest plant we have to contend with is bamboo. (and, of course, kudzu!)

  13. May 25, 2010 12:35 pm

    Your forest experience is so interesting to me. I grew up with only sagebrush around – kind of barren. A friend from Virginia told me about how they have to mow the lawn not only to keep the grass short but also all the new tree seedlings under control! I guess that’s your yard, too. It sounds kind of wonderful to me!

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