Environment & Conservation

The Woodland Understory

“The plants have enough spirit to transform our limited vision.”

Rosemary Gladstar

Included in our many diverse habitats, Strawberry Moon Farm treasures 3.5 acres of established woodlands. These wooded acres are my favorite places to explore. In the months of autumn, winter, and early spring, when the woods are not so dense with growing things and I am not so busy in the garden, I walk amongst the trees almost daily. Though 3.5 acres isn’t a huge forest, it’s enough that I can get a little bit lost in them if I’m trying. It’s enough that I can find myself completely surrounded by beings older than myself. Over the years I have learned how to identify most of the tree and plant species on the land. I’ve been delighted and amazed to find that many of them produce incredible foods, medicines, and other useful supplies. These woods have given me peace, insight, and sustenance. It is time for me to give something back to the woods. I intend to give them back their understory.

What Is The Woodland Understory?

When most people think of the woods, they think about the tall trees. But woodlands are made of many layers, and each layer is vital to the health of the whole. The word understory refers to the lower growing shrubs, brambles, herbs, and vines that grow beneath the tall canopy of the forest. This low layer of vegetation is often the most neglected, most damaged, and most threatened. Although some people plant new trees after old growth has been cleared, rarely does anyone come back to re-establish the native understory layer once those new trees have grown enough to form a canopy that can cover them. Invasive plants take over, and this precious habitat for native herbs is quickly filled by more aggressive species. Because of this, many of our native woodland plants are now threatened or endangered.

I am very excited to announce our newest project, to restore the woodland understory with native plants at Strawberry Moon Farm!

Project Details and Grant Funding

This week, I had the great privilege of signing the papers for my second grant award from National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS has been an invaluable partner to this farm, and in addition to funding our wetland reforestation project, they have also provided information, ideas, encouragement, and guidance. One of the ecology goals NRCS works towards is reducing the spread of invasive woodland understory plants, so they sometimes pay farmers to remove invasive plants such as Asian Bush Honeysuckle from their woods and hedgerows. The funding I received will help me in my endeavor to clear most of the honeysuckle from my woods and prepare the understory for replanting with native plants.

Money from these grants is often used to purchase herbicides to make sure the invasive plants are fully dead with no hope of return. I remain deeply committed to organic and least-harm land management methods, and I have been very up front about that with NRCS. We have agreed on an approach that uses no chemicals or sprays of any kind. It will be a more prolonged, labor-intensive approach, but I’m up for the task. My plan is to cut the bushes down to ground level, attempt to uproot as many trunks as possible, and then continuously mow over any re-sprouts so that they can no longer grow large or produce seeds. Some of the grant money I receive will be used to purchase new seeds and plants to give the understory new life after this transition. The seed of an idea for this project is one of the reasons why I joined the United Plant Savers and enrolled in the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine last year. Both of these organizations value the native herbs of Eastern North America, and I am learning as much as I can about these important plant allies in hopes of establishing thriving populations of them on this land.

Bloodroot In Bloom
Bloodroot, a precious native woodland herb

Thoughts About Invasive Plants

I’m grateful to the honeysuckle for stepping in to hold the soil together and perform the alchemical magic of photosynthesis. Perhaps no other plant could have done so without help. Human beings are meant to be part of nature after all, and wild spaces often struggle in our absence. But now that I’m here to step into the role of human being of this ecosystem, I am turning my attention to restoring balance in the woodland understory.

The land I live on was lushly forested and well managed by indigenous people such as the Miami, Lenape, Kaskasia, and Kickapoo tribes prior to colonization. When settlers pushed north from Kentucky to stake their claim on what is now Johnson County, Indiana, what they found was mostly forested swampland. They didn’t stop to consider how they might live in harmony with that kind of landscape, or what it could offer them. Instead, they made quick work of cutting down all the trees and burning everything in sight. They assumed such destruction was necessary in order to create open fields for the crops they were accustomed to farming. Perhaps it did not occur to them that people were already thriving on this richly forested land before they arrived, or that it was already the picture of abundance. Thriving forests require human management, and people had put a lot of work into those old forests that they thoughtlessly cleared.

Speaking as a person who works with this land every day, I can tell you with certainty that it still wants to be forested swampland. If I stop mowing a patch of ground and leave it to its own devices, it will be thick with baby trees within a year. The trees that grow up on their own are a result of whatever seeds blow in, and are not necessarily the most desirable species or even a very diverse mixture of species. One of the gifts human beings bring to the forest is the gift of creativity. We can look at a damaged field and think, “What if a great oak tree grew here, 50 years from now?” Humans have the power to imagine all the creatures that could raise families in the branches of that oak tree that does not exist yet, and all those that could gather acorns from below, and all the small plants that could grow in its shade. We have the power to plant seeds, to water them, to nurse them through their tender times until they are strong. And we have the skill to guard them against other plants and creatures that would snuff them out before they reach their full potential.

I used to be hesitant to weed out any plant from my garden. After all, every plant has special gifts, and no plants are bad or useless. However, I have grown to be more comfortable in performing my role as a human being of the ecosystem. I see now that removing one plant can be an act of care for another plant. To do so is to be a steward. Careful selection can bring beautiful growth.

I hope this project will bring forth something beautiful and new and ancient. It will take several years to complete, and I’ll update you from time to time on my progress. Wish me luck, and stay tuned!

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy these other posts about our woods and ecological restoration projects:
Farming The Wetland
The Food In The Forest
Life in the Flood Plain
Farming the Woodland