Friday, February 20, 2015

Cedar Maintenance Delayed

Seven inches of snow has temporarily halted Cedar Maintenance activities at Blue Jay Barrens.  I, along with a large selection of birds, am busying myself with activities near the house.

Two days before the storm, I was confident of finishing my planned maintenance work right on schedule.  The weather forecast on this day was calling for scattered snow showers as the next storm passed well to our south, so I didn’t expect any snow delays.  By the next day, it was obvious that the storm was tracking farther north than anticipated and we were in its path.  If the snow cover persists into March, as it is expected to do, the rest of my cedar maintenance will most likely be postponed until next year.  Fortunately, I completed work on this two acre field before everything was buried. 

This field is primarily a steep, rocky, south facing slope that presents the most torturous growing conditions of any barren on the property.  Misshapen forms and odd growth habits characterize the trees trying to survive in this environment.  Many individuals could not survive and are now represented by nothing more than weathered skeletons.

I’ve done quite a bit of clearing in this field, but there are still a considerable number of cedars left standing. 

Despite some patches of thickly growing cedars, enough sunlight filters through the thin branches to maintain a grass cover beneath the trees. 

Even in areas of maximum sunlight and gentler slopes, the grass remains short and sparse.  There is maximum opportunity here for some of the more drought tolerant wildflowers to flourish.

Growing conditions change drastically as you ascend the hill.  At the lowest level, to the left in the photo, is a gently sloping area where the eroded soil from the hillside forms a moderately deep foundation for tree roots.  Tall, thick trunked cedars crowd that area and block all sunlight.  A rapid change ensues as the slope increases.

At mid-slope, the incidence of dead trees increases and growth rates decrease considerably.  These cedars began growing decades before the lower slopes were retired from growing crops such as corn and sorghum.  That makes these trees at least twice as old as the much larger trees growing in the deeper soil.

At the upper end of the field, the slope continues on into the woods.  The land here was so steep and rocky that it could not be used for crop production.

The upper slopes of the field have some of the harshest growing conditions.  The soil is a shallow layer over limestone bedrock.  Evidence of this bedrock is present in the form of sand, gravel and rock fragments scattered on the surface.  This is the domain of the Leavenworthias and Drabas, along with a few other hardy barrens species.

Very few cedars managed to survive long enough in these gravelly conditions to attain any great size.  Those that did, have created shade islands in which a scattering of trees and shrubs have managed to survive.  Many of those don’t survive long and leave the cedars with a collection of dead trunks beneath their branches.

If it weren’t for a few seasonal seeps that provide water to isolated spots on the slope, there would be no deciduous trees here.  In these damp spots, Sycamores and Tuliptrees take root and prosper for a few years.  Eventually, the tree’s root system is collecting every drop of available moisture.  At that point the tree is vulnerable to any decrease in the water supply and perishes during a year of drought.  Dead stumps are monuments to their endeavors.

This three foot high Flowering Dogwood has persisted for over 30 years.  The top branches continually die and the tree regrows from points lower on the trunk.

The base of the trunk has the appearance of a mature dogwood.  This natural bonsai must have found the perfect source of water to support a little tree.  I remember leaving this little tree when I did my initial clearing of this field about 20 years ago.  At the time, it didn’t seem like a threat and I’ve always been cautious about removing something until I’m sure that’s the best thing to do.  I’m glad this guy was spared.

Harsh conditions also make bonsais out of the small cedars.  The branches of these little trees are constantly dying and being replaced by younger shoots emerging near the base.  The result is an old tree that only reaches a few inches in height.

Small cedars were sparsely scattered across the field.  They were most concentrated in the area of the old slip on the lower slope adjacent to a small tributary to the main creek.

The line of wet weather seeps that encouraged the soil slip, keep this area wet longer into the summer and provide a better growing environment for the young cedars.  Each clump of grass harbors its own tiny forest of cedar seedlings.

Overall, the field yielded less than a full bushel of cedar cuttings.  It has been over ten years since maintenance was done on this field.  Apparently, cedar colonization here is a slow process, so a repeat of this maintenance procedure shouldn’t be necessary for at least another decade.  Fortunately, I have plenty of other work to keep me busy in the interim.

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