Thus Spake Zuska

Weeding the Forest

Sharon Astyk hates Earth Day. Really hates it. There she was, publicly hating it on its 40th anniversary, no less.

And most Earth Day programs send the same message. They say “you too can make a difference…and it will be convenient, mostly involve shopping and won’t change your life. Here, take some baby steps, change your lightbulbs, plant one tomato” and come listen to some folkie music!”

Well, that can’t be right, can it? Sadly, yes. As I commented on another of Sharon’s posts,

Just saw a tv commercial for a compostable potato chip bag. According to the commercial, I can totally save the earth by eating those chips! Curly haired blond children were frolicking over grassy bucolic hillsides, all because of the chip bag. It was amazing.

Those grassy bucolic hillsides, by the way, did not appear to be infested with either garlic mustard or multiflora rose, or any of the other pests on this list of invasive species in PA.

I spent Earth Day weeding the forest edge that borders the back of my property. Specifically, I pulled out a metric fuckton of garlic mustard, along with a several nice handfuls of Star of Bethlehem. The former is much more satisfying to weed than the latter, because you can generally pull out the entire plant and its whole root system, whereas the Star of Bethlehem needs to have its bulb dug out and good luck if you can. And I just discovered a patch of what I am pretty sure is multiflora rose, which has me gnashing my teeth in despair. A giant bucket of Agent Orange would not be a sufficient aid in doing battle against that enemy. I could scorch my hillside and leave it open to erosion and next spring, no doubt, that multiflora rose would be back.

But it is garlic mustard of which I speak today. Garlic mustard really sucks:

Garlic mustard also poses a threat to one of our rare native insects, the West Virginia white butterfly (Pieris virginiensis). Several species of spring wildflowers known as “toothworts” (Dentaria), also in the mustard family, are the primary food source for the caterpillar stage of this butterfly. Invasions of garlic mustard are causing local extirpations of the toothworts, and chemicals in garlic mustard appear to be toxic to the eggs of the butterfly, as evidenced by their failure to hatch when laid on garlic mustard plants.

Damn you, garlic mustard. Damn you to hell.

Here is what I found out about garlic mustard from the helpful folks at the Morris Arboretum:

Care must be taken to insure that the entire plant is removed and that all plant materials are bagged and moved off-site. A flowering plant can continue to mature and produce seeds even if it has been pulled up. Hand pulling and removal must continue yearly until the seed bank is exhausted.

And the seed bank will be exhausted, oh, sometime shortly after the apocalypse. St. Gregory’s Sack! So what does it meant to bag and move off site? Bag how, exactly? Clearly I am not going to put these motherfuckers in a yard waste bag – seeing as how they can keep on generating seed even after they’ve been yanked from the ground – and let the municipal workers haul them off to the municipal compost site – given the whispered rumors about insufficiently cooked municipal compost. It will not do to let them return to community yards next year as seeds strewn all through the compost. But if I put them in a garbage bag and send them off to the landfill, they’ll generate methane. Arrrggghh! Between the two, I am choosing the landfill.

Here’s some more advice on garlic mustard warfare:

Pulling is very labor intensive but effective if the upper half of the root is removed. Alliaria petiolata frequently snaps off at or just below the root crown when the flower stalk is pulled, leaving adventitious buds which send up new flower stalks. Pulling can result in substantial soil disturbance, damaging desirable species and bringing up Alliaria petiolata seeds from the seedbank. Soil should be thoroughly tamped after pulling to minimize chances for re establishment of garlic mustard or other weedy species. In general, cutting is a less destructive method of control than pulling but is effective only when the flower stalk is elongating, whereas pulling can be conducted throughout the growing season.

Weed-whacking is advised against, as you may also be destroying native species along with the dastardly garlic mustard. Not to mention polluting the atmosphere with your weed-whacker exhaust. So, it’s intensive hand labor that is called for.

I weeded my yard, and pieces of my neighbors’ on either side, and the edge of the forest in my backyard (though not all of it – I have to go back out for another round, and will have to keep after it all through the spring). But I know I am just tilting away at one tiny portion of a very large windmill. The patch of forest is nine acres, surrounded by houses, and I can’t weed them all.

Among the gazillions of email newsletters I receive is that of They recently encouraged me to take their Earth Day 40 challenge. (If you register, you could get coupons to shop at Gander Mountain, REI, or Eat’ n Park! How awesomely green is that! C’mon Sharon, sign up!) Okay, aside from the “consume more!” coupons, the list of 40 action items is actually not bad, possibly not even by Sharon’s standards as far as an Earth Day program goes. It does seem to be trying to encourage changes in behavior over time, and links are provided to helpful sources of information. Still, a move from “anything goes” in the exotic species pet trade to “choosing your exotic pet wisely” hardly seems like a big leap forward for saving the planet.

iConservePA also has a list of suggestions for groups. Among them is “tackle invasive plants at a nearby park or natural area.” I wonder if I could get any of my neighbors – any of them at all – interested in weeding the forest with me, at least the parts of it that border on their back yards. Perhaps this is an acre I could stake, though it’s certainly larger than an acre. It’s a patch of woodland that’s been allowed to remain woodland, though surrounded by houses, in commemoration of some Revolutionary War battle or other that was fought among the trees or something of the sort.

There are at least a dozen deer living in this tiny patch of woods and they are destroying any native understory plants that might be struggling for survival there, but it still might be worth trying to battle the garlic mustard. In any case, it could be an excuse to go around and introduce myself to the neighbors – most of whom, years after moving into this house, I still don’t know. Contemplating doing that, I ask myself what holds me back, and the answer comes that perhaps they will not share my values, will not be interested in environmental issues, will resent an intrusion on their privacy. Well then, I can go back to weeding the forest alone.

Even though I am pretty sure that in the grand scheme of things it will make no difference and that the battle against garlic mustard is a losing one, it seems like maybe I should just try. Even if just one other person becomes interested in weeding the forest with me, well, at least I’ll have someone to help me properly and sufficiently curse the garlic mustard.


  1. #1 Lora
    April 23, 2010

    I realize that there is likely more than enough garlic mustard for this to be a really helpful suggestion, but it is edible–sauteed in a little olive oil, salt, hot sauce to taste, some chopped peanuts on top, it’s not bad. Or with Sharon’s cheese sauce/sweet potato recipe. Also pairs nicely with sun-dried tomatoes & chevre.

    This may be a dumb question, but is it useful for livestock feed at all? My chickens think I’ve just handed them winning lottery tickets when they get a bushel of garlic mustard, and they can destroy an 8×8′ patch in about four hours. I put 8 layer hens in a portable “tractor” and move them around any weedy bits of the yard, and it’s pretty much bare dirt by afternoon. Re-seed with the cover crop of choice. There are no garlicky-tasting eggs, either. I think goats will also eat it happily. Is there any particular reason it isn’t mowed and used for critters? Even our hated Asian Bittersweet will croak if consistently mowed for a few years, and I’d imagine there are farmers who would be happy to get free feed. Just a thought, I am sure not the best I’ve ever had.

  2. #2 Brian
    April 23, 2010

    I should preface this by saying that I know shit about plants. Literally, beyond the fact that they’re green and they grow, nothing.

    So when I’m trying to figure out what’s a weed vs. what’s an ornamental plant, I’m lost. Or so I was until recently. I now have a foolproof way to tell weed from nonweed.

    Pull on it. If it comes right out, it’s an ornamental plant. If it snaps in half, or is otherwise a total pain in the ass to remove,it’s a weed.

  3. #3 GoatRider
    April 23, 2010


    A weed is a plant you don’t want, in a place you don’t want it.

    I’m not trying to maintain a grass-only monoculture in my yard. But if a plant seems to think it’s more important than grass, and starts to muscle aside the grass, then it’s gotta go. One plant that definitely plays well with grass is Dutch White Clover. If the soil is weak, the clover will push aside the grass, but it puts nitrogen in the soil. When the nitrogen gets high enough, the grass takes over again. Win!

    Any other plant gets a couple years trial, but when it starts acting like Microsoft, it’s gotta go.

  4. #4 Maria
    April 23, 2010

    Garlic mustard is delicious! You can eat the flowerheads before they set seed. I’ve never tried to eat the seeds, but supposedly it’s possible – links to some recipes.

    Maybe the weeding party should be followed by an Iron Chef Garlic Mustard potluck?

  5. #5 scidog
    April 23, 2010

    we work with The Friends Of The Mississippi in Minneapolis to pull heaps of this stuff every Minnesota Nice go’s right down the drain after a few hours when i suggest they get the punks out of the workhouse and get them pulling this weed..word is they may have a bug of some sort that is the plants–and just the plants–natural enemy that will eat it like the one now controlling Purple Loosestrife.

  6. #6 Gray Gaffer
    April 23, 2010

    There’s a variant of Bamboo, I heard it called Chinese Bamboo, that can take over spaces. It did in my yard back in England, so I guess it could also here in the Pacific NW, the climate is similar. This plant has a deep taproot system, several feet deep. If you don’t get absolutely everything, forget it. It grows so fast, and requires very little left to grow from. We burnt a pile of it on a bonfire when we cleared out our patch. The next day I spotted a piece of root, maybe 1/2″ in size, well charred, yet already sprouting. By the next week the patch was almost all back.

    Now, we were in a “special place” – about 3 miles downstream from the county sewage treatment plants’ effluent, and the river flooded the land every winter. Everything just grew there. Everything. Stinging nettle root mats 20′ on a side and 2′ thick with roots the size of my fore-arm. 6′ tall Scottish Thistles. And of course the bamboo.

  7. #7 Zuska
    April 23, 2010

    Lora, the areas that I want to weed are not suitable for grazing by either chickens or goats. They are already damaged by over-browsing from too many deer (meaning way too many for the acreage). The deer have already destroyed most of the native plant understory of the woodland and woodland edge, and garlic mustard and other non-native invasives that deer aren’t interested in have sprung up in their place. My idea is to clear out some of the invasives and re-introduce natives. Ideally I would put up a deer fence to protect my patch of woodland edge but the geometry of my property makes this a real challenge.

    Brian, I used to know absolutely nothing about invasive plants. I took a pruning class at the Morris Arboretum, and while we were walking around the arboretum, the instructor spied some garlic mustard, cursed it, ripped it out, and showed it to us all. That precipitated my learning about invasive plants. I had never heard of them before. You can learn a lot about them by googling, and most states will have information – the PA state page I linked to in my post above has a good list with links to photos and info about how to identify and get rid of common invasive species.

    A real tragedy is that some of these invasive plants are still being sold in the nursery trade in some places. Japanese barberry is one such plant, there are others. Before you plant anything in your yard, do a little research.

    It pays even to do a little reading about “native plants”. There’s a nursery in my area that has a “native plant” section in which “native plant” means anything that is roughly considered to be native to the U.S., but really, a native plant for eastern PA is not something whose native range is the northwest. A good book to read about the importance of planting native plants is Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

  8. #8 Paul S.
    April 24, 2010

    Ah, invasive plants! What would we do without them? Rest a little easier and spend a lot less time weeding, probably. I’ve been lucky not to have any serious problems with either garlic mustard or Japanese Knotweed, another one that’s very, very difficult to get rid of. I found a single garlic mustard plant growing in a flower bed last year, and fortunately I had read enough about how much of a problem it is, so I dug it up and sealed it tightly in a double bag before taking it to the local landfill.

    The garden I take care of (actually my father’s, not mine) does have a problem with multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet, though. The bittersweet is especially bad around here – birds love the berries, and new seedlings are always springing up. It grows relatively fast, grows up and over shrubs and even tall trees, and one website I saw said that it could become the “kudzu of the northeast”. The rose and the bittersweet both constantly grow back from roots left in the ground, so really the only non-chemical thing one can do is keep pulling and cutting back shoots as they appear. Supposedly deep-rooted invasive plants can also be wiped out by covering an entire area of soil where they are growing with a thick, heavy layer of black plastic or cloth or similar material, and leaving it on for something like 3 years, which will basically kill all perennials and seeds by not allowing anything to get any light, while also baking and drying out the soil. This is obviously pretty extreme, though, since nothing at all can grow on a considerable area for several years.

    Sorry to babble on, this is just a topic that I find really interesting for some reason, though pretty unpleasant to have to deal with in reality!

  9. #9 ginger
    April 24, 2010

    in one word. Fox porn/fetish. I myself cant get enough of the fox fetish and leather scene. Ladies, trust me, a slave in fox furs is the best. He can ram you harder than a goat or boar, and you would of never expected a fox. . Don’t be ashamed of screaming when he wraps his fluffy tail around your little cat place. I of all women would know. Just try something knew, strap on the sword of justice and get to work,. You wont regret it.

  10. #10 SargassoSea
    April 24, 2010

    Thanks, Zuska, for reminding me to check into the invasive species in our area – got some creeping thing destroying the grass.

    Also – thanks to you ginger for being so completely off topic as to be, well, creepy!

  11. #11 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 24, 2010

    Zuska, the assignment of some plants to the category “weed” is the patriarchy in action, and your nefarious “weed-pulling” makes you its tool. Can’t you bitchez get anything right?

  12. #12 brook
    April 24, 2010

    multiflora rose totally sucks, tear thumb (persicaria perfoliata) is even worse. You can at least see the multiflora rose before you get stabbed, tear thumb is low to the ground and its stem like shark skin – rub it one way smooth as a baby’s bottom, go the other and you just ripped your leg open. Maybe we can market the stuff as the ultimate green razor.

  13. #13 AnneTanne
    April 24, 2010

    Sometimes I’m glad I live in ugly little Belgium…
    Star of Betlehem an Garlic mustard both are native here, and far from invasive. Rosa multiflora isn’t native, but it behaves rather well…

    We only have a few really noxious invasive non-natives herbacious weeds, but in our small woody sites Red Oak and Black cherry are invasive.

    Western-Europe, with it’s temperate and rather moist climate isn’t so prone to invasive specious as countries with vast continental plains. (Although: the most important causes that so many European species are invasive in the US and Australia and New Zealand, is because the European farming methods (and sheeps, and cows…) have been introduced on those continents that weren’t used to that kind of grazing and trampling.
    On the other side: ‘earth disturbing’ farming practise is very old in Europe and Asia, and so the flora has adapted to it more or less.

    (And that is the other cause that ‘our’ species are invasive or you: In Europe, a large part of the native flora consists of plants habituated to soil that is disturbed. But only after the arrival of the Europeans in America, soil started to be disturbed on a somewhat larger scale. So, European species could established themself very quickly, whereas your native flora wasn’t used to such disruption, and had difficulties…)

  14. #14 Jim Thomerson
    April 24, 2010

    Natural plant enthusiasts should remember that, prior to 1492, deer lived on an exclusive diet of native plants.

  15. #15 Zuska
    April 24, 2010

    Prior to 1492, deer also had lots and lots of natural predators.

    Then the whitetail deer was almost completely wiped out by hunting. The re-establishment of the herd by carefully managed hunting practices was a success story. Sadly, the natural predators were mostly wiped out and there is little to keep the deer herd in check these days. Hunters simply can’t keep up with them and they overrun urban areas. Places like Valley Forge National Park find that the survival of the forest itself is threatened by the deer herd, which is completely destroying the understory, including any new trees that start up, that might replace the aging forest. Meanwhile the deer herd is far too large to be sustained on the size of the park land, and so the deer are starving and susceptible to diseases that happen when any population is overcrowded.

    People don’t understand this, and get very upset when talk of thinning the deer herd for the good of the forest and the deer herd is proposed – “oh my god, you’re going to shoot Bambi!” If something isn’t done, there won’t be any forest, and there won’t be any Bambi, for the next generations.

  16. #16 NomNomNom
    April 25, 2010

    one can find a list of noxious weeds for a particular state here:

    almost all bamboo is of foreign origin, the 3 exceptions are Arundinaria gigantea/ river cane, Arundinaria tecta/ switch cane, and Arundinaria appalachiana/ Appalachian bamboo (discovered in 2007); unless your bamboo is one of these (and they are none very ornamental) don’t plant it.

  17. #17 Jim Thomerson
    April 25, 2010

    I think you have oversimplified the history of deer with your claim of over hunting. I don’t know what the history is where your are. In Illinois the deer herd died out in two exceptionally hard winters in the 1920’s. Restocking from out side has resulted in the usual deer problems. The coyotes can’t keep up with them.

    A folder from the Menard Co.,TX, Chamber of Commerce, 1920, says there are no deer in Menard Co. Today dear hunting income, lease money, hunter purchases, sale of deer corn, etc. is a major economic activity in Menard Co., and much of Texas. Hunting in Texas is mostly on private land. A deer lease can cost you more than a grazing lease. There are various organizations breeding trophy bucks, and selling frozen semen.

    What happened? In Texas the screw worm fly was the major deer predator. The screw worm fly was eradicated in the 50’s. Also, the drought of the ’50’s educated ranchers to feed their stock out in the pasture year round. The deer like that.

    Deer are edge animals who thrive in mosaic ecosystems and disrupted areas. These areas are more common now than in 1492. They are the deadliest wild animal in North America. Deer vs car incidents are the reason. My cousin hit five in one year. She lost that part of her car insurance.

  18. #18 Cara
    April 25, 2010

    Pull on it. If it comes right out, it’s an ornamental plant. If it snaps in half, or is otherwise a total pain in the ass to remove,it’s a weed.

    My black thumb and I agree with Brian.

  19. #19 Cara
    April 25, 2010

    Also – thanks to you ginger for being so completely off topic as to be, well, creepy!

    It’s a troll using ginger’s handle. Do not feed.

  20. #20 Jim Thomerson
    April 25, 2010

    According to article in yesterday’s paper, the mustard is an annual and just needs to be mowed or weed whackered to keep it from setting seed. Nothing said about how often one needs to repeat the process.

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    April 26, 2010

    Garlic mustard is indeed an obnoxious plant, as well as a tasty one. Maybe this would the way to get your neighbors involved – have a feast ;-). Some roast venison would be nice with it, although I doubt you can get away with that ;-). Still, it seems like there must be a good recipe for Bambi stuffed with garlic mustard out there, with a side of Japanese knotweed.


  22. #22 Luna_the_cat
    April 26, 2010

    We have Giant Hogweed. This isn’t particullarly meant to be one-upmanship, but seriously, I would trade you. Giant Hogweed isn’t just Not Edible, it’s dangerous:
    Giant Hogweed is a phototoxic plant. Its sap can cause phytophotodermatitis (severe skin inflammations) when the skin is exposed to sunlight or to UV-rays. Initially the skin colours red and starts itching. Then blisters form as in burns within 48 hours. They form black or purplish scars that can last several years. Hospitalisation may be necessary. Presence of minute amounts of sap in the eyes can lead to temporary or even permanent blindness.

    People often fail to realise just how big a problem invasive plants are, in general. It could only help if you could convince your neighbours to start harvesting the garlic mustard for food, though.

    Good luck.

  23. #23 Zuska
    April 26, 2010

    Weed whacking the garlic mustard is not recommended in my state’s online site for how to control it because of the danger of also whacking any desirable native plants that are growing alongside the garlic mustard. That’s why the intensive hand labor is called for. You can’t just go in and clear cut without also clear cutting anything good.

    In addition, as I mentioned above, weed whackers emit tons of nasty crap into the atmosphere.

  24. #24 ginger
    April 26, 2010

    Uh, yeah, that’s not me at #9. You can tell because I would never have written “you would of never expected” or “try something knew”. Also because I am not so much about the furry porn.

  25. #25 Sunny Egoan
    April 28, 2010

    I have just noticed something called wild cucumber (I think) invading our desert scrub environs. Coastal to mountains. The breadth across the county is amazing. It has to have invaded, or at least hit full stride, over a <5yr interval

  26. #26 Jim Thomerson
    April 28, 2010

    I think I would consider the matter very carefully before eating a wild plant deer won’t touch.

  27. #27 Lab Rat
    May 1, 2010

    Over here (UK) we have ragwort and rhododendron. Both an absolute pain to get rid of, and both seem to have supernatural powers of reappearing. Good luck with your garlic-mustard stuff.

  28. #28 Gray Gaffer
    May 3, 2010

    So I moved to this moderately forested island in the Pac NW. Prior to this move I had been one of those horrified at the idea of thinning the Bambi herds. But here, I discover Bambi is a Pest.

    Remember Galaxy Quest, the darling little munchkins who turn out to want to eat everybody? Bambi is their second cousin.

    But I have to admit, Bambi can be very cute, especially when making friends with our young Siamese cat.

  29. #29 deang
    May 4, 2010

    I’m sorry I missed this post when it was new. Removing non-natives is such a hard job a lot of times, and often removing them by hand is the only way, especially for herbaceous species like the one you’re fighting. Where I live, a common lawn grass called Bermudagrass, originally from Africa, requires similar treatment, and it is hard, spreading by seeds, runners, and stolons.

    Besides plant nurseries not necessarily knowing what a native plant is, even native plant advocates, members of native plant societies and the like, sometimes don’t know. There’s a tendency in our local native plant society for members to focus on the word “invasive” rather than the word “non-native” and so end up discouraging all plants that are rapid colonizers, whether they’re native or not. Some people even claim that plants long known as native here are not native, simply because they wouldn’t want them on their property. I suppose the subject seems pretty arcane to those unfamiliar with it. Tallamy’s book does explain the importance to wildlife of native plants, though.

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