Good Oak News

Sunday, October 27, 2013

American Pokeweed: Feast or Foe?

Popping up out of nowhere

We've been working with the Village of Shorewood Hills for a couple years now on rehabilitating a slope that they have set aside as a stormwater control area within the village. By the time we got there in the fall of 2010 it was an area of weedy trees and invasive brush, dominated by a canopy of black locust, with mostly bare soil on the ground. The ground layer plants that were present were mostly invasive species such as burdock, canada thistle, reed canary grass, garlic mustard and dames rocket, but a few scattered patches of native plants remained from the original seeding done in 2000. One thing we did not see when we first started working on the site was American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana).

We've done some regular but limited management work on this slope in the past few years. A prescribed burn, some brush removal, annual control of garlic mustard, dames rocket and other weeds, and a couple rounds of interseeding. Overall the site looks a lot better today, but it's still a work in progress.

The one plant that has responded best to all this treatment is the American pokeweed. It has gone from being absent, or perhaps a small, trivial population, to covering more area on the slope than any other species. It clearly dominates the entire lower 1/3rd of the slope.

This leaves us to wonder, is it healthy to have this much pokeweed? Should we begin to manage pokeweed alongside summer weeds like bull thistle and burdock at this site? I personally have always admired pokeweed as a resilient pioneer species. Its large size, colorful stem and tropical appearance make it an interesting find on any site. But land-managers around southern Wisconsin are becoming concerned about the rapid increase in abundance of this species in their natural areas. I decided to do a little more research on this species to develop an informed decision on how we should approach managing it... as a weed or a native warrior, and I found out some interesting things.

Poison, meal, medicine and dye

It turns out pokeweed is a poison, a medicine, and an edible wild plant, all in one.

The roots, stems, and leaves of this plant contain high amounts of toxic compounds such as phytolaccine, phytolaccatoxin formic acid, tannin, and resin acid. The berries also contain trace amounts of these compounds, which cause diarrhea, colic, bloody stools, possible anemia, and occasionally death. The young leaves contain less toxin and were used as food by Native Americans and early settlers.

Some people still eat this "poke sallet" today by choosing leaves from the plant when the stems are still green (before they turn purple) and boiling them twice, dumping out the water from the first boiling to remove the toxic compounds. The stems can also be cut, covered in cornmeal, and fried like okra (I assume after being boiled once first). According to the site, Eat the Weeds, "Nutritionally, pokeweed is a powerhouse: A half cup of the greens provides 35 calories (10 from fat), no cholesterol, three grams dietary fiber, and 90% of your daily need for vitamin A, 60% of vitamin C, 8% calcium, and 6% of iron." Eat the Weeds has a really good write up about the edibility and cultural impacts of pokeweed consumption so the above link is a worthwhile side trip.

Pokeweed was even sold as a canned vegetable in the southern US until recently. And the popular song from the 1950's, Poke Salad Annie, was written about a poor girl who gathered and ate this plant.

The compounds produced by this plant don't just make the plant difficult to eat, they also have potential use as medicines. Native Americans discovered the medicinal effects of this plant early on and used it to stimulate the heart and to treat cancer, rheumatism, itching, and syphillis. It was also effective as a laxative and to induce vomiting. Compounds found in the pokeweed plant are being examined by modern medical science; particularly the 'pokeweed antiviral protein' (PAP) is being explored for the medicinal value at treating cancer, herpes and HIV. Other compounds in this plant may enhance the immune system and have additional anti-cancer effects. See for more fascinating medical info.

On top of all of that, the juice from the berries was once used to make ink and dye, and is still used today to make red food coloring. This pokeweed ink was used by Thomas Jefferson to scribe the Declaration of Independence.

An Ecologically Valuable Plant? Just ask the birds.

The brightly colored berries are an important food source for many songbirds including eastern bluebirds, rose-breasted grosebeaks, cedar waxwings, northern cardinals, hermit thrush and many other birds which typically consume berries, (including, but not limited to these listed on Illinois Wildflowers) as well as small mammals. We noted a pair of cardinals and woodpeckers feeding on the pokeweed at our last visit to the slope.

So What's the Prognosis?

Pokeweed is considered by some to be just a big weed. But its clear that the plant has value feeding wildlife, perhaps on our own dinner plates, and in our medicine. However, it can get overpopulated at times and shade out other more conservative native speices and may need control work to balance the system. It can be particularly overwhelming in small areas. On the other hand, considering the alternatives in such sites are often invasive weeds such as garlic mustard, dames rocket, burdock and thistles, the pokeweed is often a better option than the alternative.

I think the key to this issue in southern Wisconsin is the below image:
Image courtesy: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2013. Taxonomic Data Center. ( Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2013. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

Southern Wisconsin is on the very northern edge of the range of this plant, it thrives in warmer, more moist climates to the south and east of here. It's only in the past decade or so that we've been finding it in abundance in southern Wisconsin. It is likely that this insurgence of pokeweed is a result of global warming altering our local weather patterns in such a way that benefits pokeweed. Consider also that the species responds positively to disturbance, and you have a species that we can expect to be common on natural sites into the future. Perhaps there are various parasites and pests that curb the growth and abundance of pokeweed where it is more common further south that will slowly move their way north to slow this species down in our area. Or perhaps due to habitat fragmentation, these potential control agents won't be able to make the trip.

As a point of comparison, American pokeweed has become an invasive plant in some areas of China. According to this study, it is a sucessful invader in forests composed of black locust. Black locust is an invasive plant in Wisconsin. Though native to the southern US, it must have been imported to China for its timber value. It is interesting to note that our work site also has a canopy of black locust, so there appears to be some association between these species. Perhaps pokeweed is immune to the allelopoathic toxins that black locust releases? This would make sense since they evolved in the same environment. The other interesting thing about this study is that they found that where indigo bush, a native leguminous shrub, was found it was able to exclude the pokeweed, though it's not clear why.

So my advice would be to consider doing control work on pokeweed carefully. If you have a lot of other weeds in the area, it appears to be very effective at suppressing plants of shorter stature. There is no garlic mustard under the dense pokeweed patches on our slope in Shorewood. There's nothing else under there either though. So if you have it taking up a lot of space in a habitat surrounded by a lot of more conservative species, then you might want to control it, to speed the process of ecological sucession up a little bit. However, I suspect that a careful inspection of most sites where pokeweed occurs will reveal that pokeweed is the best plant among a list of awful alternatives. I'd speculate that pokeweed wouldn't compete well in more intact habitats against more conservative natives.

My other thought is that if you have a smallish garden, whether it be vegetable, perennial, or both, this species could be a bit too much for your landscape, so removing some or all of the plants makes sense.

If it Must be Done

If you're going to try to control this species, you'll need to know that it forms a large, deep taproot from which it can resprout if cut or only the upper portion of the root is removed. However, if removed when they are still small plants then it's possible to dig them out. The other organic option for control is mowing. However, studies have shown that mowing will knock it back for a growing season, but it will resprout at full strength the next year. So repeated mowing 2-3 times per year for 2-3 years would probably be needed for permanent control.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round-Up® and other common herbicides, has been shown to be effective at controlling this species. But because of the large size of pokeweed it will have to be applied with caution. For a foliar application, the best bet is to get it while the plant is still relatively small in spring to avoid overspray. The other option would be to use a "stump treatment" method, similar to what is used on brush where a 50/50 mix of the glyphosate concentrate and water are mixed and applied directly to a stump immediately after it is cut. This is time consuming but will nearly eliminate any potential for collateral damage. See the label of the herbicide bottle for specific instructions.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Job Opening: Ecological Restoration Manager

Good Oak Ecological Services is looking for qualified candidates to fill our Ecological Restoration Manager position here at our Madison location. This position is responsible for supervising all aspects of Good Oak's ecological restoration projects, including meeting with clients and educating them about the ecological health of their property, formulating feasible adaptive management plans, developing estimates and proposals, leading the crew conducting field work, and invoicing completed projects. Our restoration work includes: brush removal, prescribed burning, mechanical and chemical weed control, prairie establishment, shoreline and slope restoration, and erosion control.

For more information see the job announcement on our website:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Native Thistles: Pillars of the (Natural) Community

A great spangled(?) fritillary butterfly enjoying some nectar from a native pasture thistle.

Yesterday I took the crew out for a field day to some great natural areas so they could learn some plants and see what real, healthy, managed prairies and savannas look like. Along the way we were fortunate enough to see a lot of native thistles in bloom. We saw many butterflies and bees feeding on these thistles, and I explained to them that, in addition to being excellent pollinator plants, the seeds were valuable food sources for small birds (goldfinches love thistles) and that the fluff from thistle seeds is used by hummingbirds and other small birds for nesting materials. Later, researching online I found that goldfinches are so enamored with thistles that seeing them actually has an effect on their hormone levels.

Then last night I read this article about the reintroduction of the rare swamp metalmark butterfly into a restored wetland in the Chicago area. It turns out the swamp metal mark caterpillars can only eat our native swamp thistle and pasture thistle. These valuable members of our local natural community have a lot to offer, but unfortunately they have suffered not only from habitat loss that effects all of our native species, but also from persecution due to their similarity to the weedy exotic thistles.

Exotic Thistles: America's Least Wanted

Most people think of thistles only as weeds. And it's true that some of most common, troublesome and difficult to eradicate weeds include Canada thistle, plumeless thistle, bull thistle, and musk thistle. These are all exotic species, introduced accidentally as agricultural weeds which are now problems in cultivated and natural areas alike. There are a few more exotic, weedy thistles too, such as European marsh thistle, but they are less common in this part of the state. In any event, these weedy thistles have long been recognized as pests and are on top of many noxious weed lists. There are only 3 plant species listed under Wisconsin's noxious weed law and one of them is Canada thistle.

In Illinois, both Canada thistle and musk thistle are listed as noxious weeds (not sure why they skipped the more common bull thistle), and they only bothered to put 7 other plant species on this list. Canada thistle is in fact listed as a noxious weed in 43 states!

When we at Good Oak are managing natural areas we always make controlling thistles a priority. Every farmer has a deep seated hatred of thistles, and we don't want people thinking our prairies are just 'weed patches'. Because of this common disdain for thistles, and some local weed laws (more on this later) native thistles are rarely included in commercial prairie seed mixes, despite the many benefits they can offer to wildlife.

Native Thistles: Rare Natural Gems

Wisconsin has five native thistles. Let me introduce you to them:

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) is found in mesic prairie remnants, and sometimes more disturbed sites like woodland edges and yes, even pastures. You will occasionally find it in some better quality restored prairies.

Pasture thistle flower.
Pasture thistle.
The pale underside of the leaf on pasture thistle.

It looks a little like bull thistle at first glance, but the underside of the leaf is distinctively white, which is where this species gets its scientific name. A lot of overlapping silvery hairs create this bright white appearance. Bull thistle can be pale on the underside, but if you're looking at pasture thistle you will definitely think "whoa, that's white!"

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) is a plant of open woodland and savannas. Note that the leaves aren't very thistle like with only small thorns. In fact, without the flowers you might not think it was a thistle at all. They have more surface area to gather more light in these semi-shade environments. The stems are covered in fine hairs, and tall thistle shares the white leaf undersides with its cousin pasture thistle.
Tall thistle.
Pasture thistle and tall thistle are the only two species that you have any chance of finding outside of a high-quality natural area. If you simply remember to look for the white underside to the leaves, you can always differentiate these two native thistles from the various weedy exotic species. These two species also bloom later than the exotic thistles. Bull thistle and Canada thistle for example, bloom from late-June through July, whereas tall and pasture thistle bloom from late July through August.

Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum) grows only in good quality wetlands. The flowers are a darker, more vivid magenta color compared to most other thistles.
Swamp thistle.
Swamp thistle flower.

Hill's thistle (Cirsium hillii) is a state threatened species which you which you will only find in dry sandy prairies in the upper midwest. It's our shortest native thistle, typically around 18". It's also densely hairy to help it retain moisture in its dry sand-prairie habitat. The flower color is more of a true pink rather than magenta, even reddish.... unfortunately my poor-quality cell-phone photo below is not color accurate.
Hill's thistle.

Dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) is our rarest thistle, so rare in fact that it is Federally Threatened. It only grows on a handful of sites in Wisconsin, on stabilized sand dunes on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Its range is limited to the Great Lake shorelines of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, within a few-hundred feet from the shore. Its flowers are a pale pink, and its foliage looks nothing like other thistles with hardly a thorn to be seen. In fact the frosted-grey looking leaves look more like sage than any thistle.
Dune thistle flower.
Dune thistle's basal rossette (foliage).

Thistles: Nature's Grocery Store

As it turns out, thistles are extremely valuable plants to wildlife. Most of us think of flowers and we think of pollinators, and thistles are extremely attractive flowers to many kinds of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, hawk moths, and many, many other small creatures. Spiders, assassin bugs and other predators set up shop on thistle flowers; pollinators can't resist the flowers so they are great spots to ambush prey.

Two species of bumble bee and dozens of small green beetles collect nectar and pollen from a pasture thistle.

As much as it pains me to admit it, this Delaware skipper is enjoying a nectar drink from a Canada thistle. Even the exotic invasive thistles can provide some value for wildlife.
Butterflies love thistles. Fritillary butterflies like this one seem to be particularly enamored by flowers in this genus.

In addition to pollinators and the predators who love them, many insects feed on the foliage of thistles, such as the above mentioned swamp metal mark butterfly. Some of these insects are specialists that can only feed on thistles and no other food source. Others are more generalist and can feed on other, similar plants. John Hilty from Illinois Wildflower has put together this list of insects that feed on thistles on his amazing website.

With at least 23 species of insects that feed on the foliage and (I don't think I'm going out on a limb here to say) hundreds of insects (and one bird) that feed on the nectar and pollen, you can see they play an important role in our ecosystem. Even more so if you consider all the insects, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and especially birds that in turn feed on the insects that feed on the thistles. Thistles aren't only a pillar of the natural community, they are a big part of the foundation of the natural food pyramid.

Separating Good from Bad: 

Our noxious weeds laws are put in place for a reason. These weeds cause economic and ecological damage. Canada thistle in particular is extremely difficult to eliminate requiring an expert, targeted approach for success. But to be absolutely clear, none of our native thistles are aggressive, weedy species. They will not spread rapidly like Canada thistle or infest over-grazed pastures like bull thistle or plumeless thistle. They really can't tolerate the heavy disturbance associated with modern agriculture and dairy production and pose no threat of economic loss to farmers. Unfortunately, many weed laws treat all thistles the same, outlawing the exotic weeds and the already imperiled native thistles alike.

For example, the City of Madison's weed ordinances which can be found in Chapter 23, section 29, paragraph 2 states that “The term 'noxious weeds' as used in this section includes the following: Canada or other thistles...” while leaving out many more harmful weeds such as, oh, I don't know, just about everything listed on the state of Wisconsin's invasive species rule NR-40.

The state of Iowa lists any and all all plants in the Cirsium and Carduus genera (what we might call all of the true thistles) as noxious weeds, regardless of origin. At least Iowa is thorough in its noxious weed list to include harmful invasive plants like purple loosestrife, common buckthorn and poison hemlock among others. By comparison Madison's weed ordinance seems somewhat haphazard.

I don't have much say in Iowa or in other municipalities around the midwest that throw a blanket ban on any thistle of any kind, but I would like to help make an effort to improve Madison's noxious weed law. If we can be clear about what plants are an economic, ecological and/or health threat to our citizens then we come up with a sound list of plants that should be banned in our community. The state's NR-40 list is a good place to start. Throw in a few hazardous plants that are already on the list such as poison ivy and the ragweeds, throw in a special request for reed canary grass which has some economic value, but is an ecological horror show, and I think we would have a good law. Then if only we could get the city to enforce it...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Critical review of management of natural right-of-ways in Madison

Last week a small urban prairie that had been painstakingly maintained by dedicated for over 15 years was mowed down by City of Madison staff, for no apparent reason at all. The prairie will recover, next year, but this year we have lost habitat for pollinator (with honey bees, native bees and monarch butterflies all seeing dramatic population crashes in recent years), winter cover and resources for birds (songbird populations have dropped by 50% in the past 50 years in the US), we lost the prairie in peak bloom(!) and we'll never get to see what this unique growing season had in store for us for fall display of asters and goldenrods. Furthermore mowing down the native perennials may leave growing space for a variety of weeds and invasive plants... I'm most concerned about the exotic cool-season grasses that we've been struggling to control in the prairie.

Below is a letter that I wrote and sent as an email attachment to my alderperson, the alderperson who's district contains the Atwood Community Prairie, city engineering staff, the Atwood prairie volunteers and members of Madison's Wild Ones chapter. Mayor Soglin will be getting a hand-delivered letter this afternoon. I thought I would share it here on my blog for all to see.

I have been angry about this subject for a while, which I am sure is evident in the text of the letter. But in retrospect, I really want to add that I really appreciate that the City of Madison is trying to add native plants to our urban landscape. "Green" efforts like these are truthfully going to be critical for the survival of our local flora and micro-fauna in the long term, and they also create an opportunity for people to come in contact with beautiful native wildflowers in their everyday life. Not to mention the psychological boost contact with nature gives people the urban air pollution these plants can help reduce and the erosion control and water filtering work they can do if property employed. Unfortunately, they're doing an extremely poor job implementing these projects, and in most cases, failing completely. So here is what I had to say.

Frank Hassler
President/Chief Ecologist
Good Oak Ecological Services
205 Walter St.
Madison, WI 53714
(608) 209-0607

August 21st, 2013

To: Mayor Paul Soglin
Alder David Ahrens
Alder Marsha A. Rummel
City of Madison Engineering Staff

Cc: Atwood Community Prairie volunteers
select members of the Madison Chapter of Wild-Ones
Russ Hefty, Conservation Resources Director

I am spurred to write to you today by the misguided mowing of the Atwood Community Prairie. I want to be clear that that action is only a single incident in what I believe has been years of mismanagement of natural areas along our City of Madison bike paths and stream corridors. You can consider this letter to be an angry letter from a citizen or a free, independent consultation. As I will explain in this letter, with the neglect of these natural areas the city violates both state law and City ordinances, and wastes a significant amount of taxpayer money on projects that are regularly failures. Some of these projects further promote the spread of invasive plants and noxious weeds in our community. Because I live on the east side of the city I will focus on sites near my home which will provide more than enough examples of the issues about which I am concerned.

The way these areas are (mis)managed causes significant ecological harm, but with changes to management strategies I believe theses areas can provide significant benefits to our ‘endangered’ local wildlife and plants, provide educational and recreational opportunities to city residents and naturally beautify our city. Madison can be a model for how other communities in our region should manage their right-of-ways.

Volunteers arrived at the prairie on Tuesday, August 13th for a workday and late-season social gathering only to find this.

The Mowing of Atwood Prairie

The Atwood Community Prairie was established in the mid-90’s with seed mix provided by the city, and has been dutifully managed by volunteers ever since. From what I can tell, the original seed mix was cheap and of low quality. However, the volunteers worked hard over the years weeding and spending their own money on plants and seeds to enhance the prairie.

Even in the past 6 years that I have lived in Madison I have noticed great improvement in the prairie. As of early last week, it was at peak bloom and absolutely full of native flowers. Then it was mowed.

So far communications between the prairie volunteers and city staff seem to indicate that it was mowed for visibility reasons. As you can see from the photos above, with sidewalks and several feet of mowed grass on either end of the prairie (up to 10’ total), there is no reason to think that there is a safety hazard associated with the prairie vegetation at this site.

Another reason given for the mowing was to control the growth of woody plants and to facilitate snow removal along the bike path. However, prescribed burning and regular maintenance by volunteers prevents tree saplings from getting established. The herbaceous vegetation here easily collapses under the weight of snow that has fallen or been plowed onto it, making mowing unnecessary for these reasons.

According to the DNR, Wisconsin has lost 99% of its original prairie habitat and 99.93% of its oak savanna. Small urban prairies like this one are critical habitat for pollinators, winter habitat for songbirds and other wildlife, and they are an overwintering site for for many beneficial insects such as solitary bees. Mowing this prairie in the middle of the peak season not only robs the public of this beautiful amenity along the bike path, it also takes critical resources away from our already imperiled local wildlife.

South and north ends of Atwood Community Prairie, respectively after mowing. Note that the vegetation at the ends of the prairie where it could plausibly cause visibility issues has been left standing.

Noxious weeds and invasive plants commonly allowed to persist and reproduce in stream and bike path right of ways, despite state laws and City ordinances demanding that they should be “destroyed”:

- All three species listed as noxious weeds by the state, Canadian thistle, hedge bindweed and leafy spurge can be commonly found flowering, reproducing and spreading along Madison bike paths and stream corridors. State law (66.0407) requires that “The person having immediate charge of any public lands shall destroy all noxious weeds on the lands.” (

Leafy spurge is allowed to spread both by roots and by seed along the Capitol City Trail immediately south of Livingston Ave.

Canadian thistle and reed canary grass go to seed on this section of bike path between Dixon St. and Milwaukee St.

Hedge bindweed blooming along the Southwest Commuter Path immediately east of Doty St.

- Additionally, species prohibited as noxious weeds by the City of Madison’s own ordinances, including common ragweed, giant ragweed and stinging nettle are commonly found along bike paths and stream corridors. City ordinance 23.29, paragraph 2 states that “Every person shall destroy all of such noxious weeds on land which he shall own, occupy or control...” (

Giant Ragweed and stinging nettle are both common along the Capitol City Trail, see here together behind Olbrich Park. There are many, many more examples of these noxious weeds on trail and stream sides.

- Many plants listed as Restricted under NR-40, Wisconsin’s invasive species rule, are common along the bike paths ( Additionally, reed canary grass, which is not yet listed on NR-40 (for economic reasons), but is arguably the most destructive invasive species in the state, is abundant, and dominates most stream corridor areas and is common along bike paths. (Examples too numerous to provide photographs of them all).

- If mowing is intended to control weeds, it should be noted that doing so this time of year has very little impact on the majority of weeds found along the bike paths, and likely increases their spread by seed, and in the cases of some of our most difficult weeds to manage like Japanese knotweed and leafy spurge, by vegetative cuttings moved around the city on mowing equipment.

- In my summation, not only is the city failing to “destroy” these noxious weeds, but in fact they have spread and increased in abundance during the past 6 years that I have lived in Madison. I believe the city is causing significant ecological harm by allowing these invasive plants to persist and spread to destroy the native plantings that the city has invested significant funds into establishing.

Recent projects to establish ‘natural’ buffer zones along shorelines have been nearly complete failures:

The shoreline restoration along Starkweather Creek from Milwaukee Street to MATC campus shows the following faults:

- less than 10% coverage by desirably native plants (that were part of the original seed mix), the entire stretch is dominated by reed canary grass and canada goldenrod.

- This is clearly the result of poor site prep and limited/poor quality maintenance that were inadequate to meet the goals of the project.

- Once established, these natural areas should stabilize and require only light regular maintenance. Unfortunately these areas are never allowed to reach this state due to a lack of proper oversight.

- In order to rectify this situation now, the area will need an intensive effort over several years to control weeds and get good quality vegetation established. This will cost many times what it would have cost if the area had been prepared, installed and maintained correctly in the first place. Good results could have been achieved with much less effort.

- Poor planning and accepting low bids for maintenance contracts from firms that were not qualified to do the work will leave the city either with this failed project or great expense being put into rectifying the situation.

Though a few native big bluestem grasses can be seen in this photo, almost every plant in this photo taken along Starkweather Creek, just north of Milwaulkee St. is either reed canary grass or Canadian goldenrod.

- Similarly, the Olbrich Park shoreline on Lake Monona has less than 10% coverage by desirable native plants. There is certainly more coverage by noxious weeds than by the plants that were seeded into the area. The reasons for the failure of this planting, and the work required to rectify the situation are similar to the above.

- Establishing prairies is indeed a challenging activity, requiring experienced land managers and an adaptive approach to managment. However, a few ‘rules’ of successful prairie establishment are that thorough site preparation to eliminate weeds before seeding is critical to success, and that careful monitoring and aggressive weed management are necessary during the first few years of establishment.

The vegetation establishment of the slope erosion control project along the bike path Starkweather Creek spur behind Olbrich Park is off to an extremely poor start, and destined to fail if action is not taken immediately:

-Though I was initially pleased to see the tangle of invasive brush removed from this area and the rampant erosion issues here addressed, it is clear that poor site preparation and a complete lack of vegetation maintenance on this slope will result in a failure to establish the native prairie plants that were seeded here, and the site will end up dominated by noxious weeds and invasive plants if corrective actions are not taken within the next few days.

- It is clear from abundant weeds including barnyard grass, foxtail grasses, velvet leaf, common ragweed, giant ragweed, and others, that the topsoil used for this project was not “clean”, but instead was dense with weed seeds.

- Since seeding has been completed here, no maintenance work has been done. Annual weeds up to 6’ fall now dominate the seeded area. Typically one would plan on doing 2-4 mowings in the first growing season of a planting like this. The shade produced by the dense annual weeds has undoubtedly killed many prairie seedlings which only grow a few inches above ground in their first growing season and require direct sunlight for growth.

- The edge of this slope along the bike path has since been mowed. However, the dead plant material is so thick it completely covers the ground, smothering all vegetation below. Also, most of these weeds have already developed seeds. Mowing at this stage does nothing to control the reproduction of these weeds, and may in fact increase the amount of viable weed seeds that reach the soil.

- At this stage the only possible course of action to prevent a complete failure of this planting would be to cut down existing vegetation, and remove it all from the site so as to limit the amount of weed seeds that are able to drop on site. I strongly urge that this work take place within the next few days.

- I strongly urge that this area be re-seeded, be covered with fresh erosion matting in spring of 2014 and that a regular maintenance regime (including regular mowing of annual and biennial weeds and spot herbicide treatment of perennial weeds) be carried out for the first several growing seasons in order to promote good establishment of native plants in this area.

This area, seeded in the spring of 2013 is completely dominated by annual weeds. The only plants that are visible in the area which were part of the intended seed mix are the annual oats (brown in color, center of photo).

Extremely poor maintenance of most rain gardens:

The City of Madison proudly touts its rain garden program, and continues to expand the number of rain gardens around the city. While this program is well intentioned, many of the rain gardens are poorly maintained, if at all. Many critics of rain gardens consider them ‘weed gardens’ and by not maintaining the rain gardens properly, especially in the first few years of growth, the city is proving these critics right. I find this particularly frustrating because I believe that the establishment of rain gardens and other methods to cut run-off into our lakes and streams is critical if we are to improve the quality of our waters. Below are a few (among many) examples of poor rain gardens that need to be rectified:

- Goodman rain garden has weedy trees (boxelder, hackberry, walnut) 4-5 years old. Meaning that the contractor hired to maintain this rain garden has failed to do an adequate job for many years in a row. Crown vetch, reed canary grass and other invasive plants have gone unmanaged at this site for 3-4 years, despite the fact that I alerted city staff to this issue about 3 years ago. Ragweed (the pollen of which causes hay-fever allergies) has been allowed to bloom every year for at least the past 5 years (these would have probably been eliminated from the site by now if they had been managed early on). Lack of care is obvious and embarrassing, especially considering the interpretive sign describing rain gardens at this site.

Above: Many weedy trees displace native perennials in the Goodman rain garden. Removing these trees should be a simple, basic part of maintaining the site, which has been neglected.

The invasive crown vetch persists in the Goodman rain garden just beyond the mower’s reach, and has spread significantly over the past several years with no effort made to control it.

- Similarly the rain gardens at the end of Ivy Street, across from Sherry Park, are in very poor condition. The rain gardens were dug too deep and with very steep sides, which would have to result in instability and erosion on the sides of the rain gardens. Even though they were only planted about 3 years ago, it appears that they have received almost no maintenance and have many more weeds in them than native plants.

Though native plants are still present in one of the Ivy St. rain gardens, noxious weeds such as Canadian thistle and stinging nettle are pushing them out, with no effort taken to control them.

Though common ironweed (purple flowers) is prominent in the other Ivy St. rain garden, the bulk of the area is covered by various weeds and not the native plants which were planted there.

- A few rain gardens in the city seem to be in fairly good shape. For example, those located in Brittingham Park are fine examples - I suspect because they were installed and managed by qualified professional ecologists during their first several years of existence. Also their larger size may promote ecological stability. I suggest examining what has gone right in some rain gardens and wrong in others to develop a plan of action going forward to maintain existing rain gardens and establish new ones.


- More careful planning, preparation and maintenance needs to be done to insure success of various “natural” plantings on shorelines and right-a-ways around the city. The city should expect to invest more up front for more thorough site preparation, better seed mixes, and more intensive maintenance for the first few years of a planting in order to see a successful planting with lower maintenance costs down the road.

- Concerted efforts must be made to eliminate noxious weeds and invasive plants on public property.

- All field staff should learn to identify noxious weeds and invasive plants and be trained in targeted control methods. They should also learn to identify native prairie plants that are commonly included in seeding mixes around the city. Being able to identify a couple dozen weeds and a couple dozen prairie plants should be a basic qualification for anyone managing vegetation for the City, even if it’s just running a riding mower.

- The City continues to hire under-qualified landscapers to conduct installation and maintenance work in these natural areas within the city. The Goodman rain garden is a prime example. The City needs to develop a process to screen for qualified contractors to bid on natural areas management activities. With well over a dozen firms (including Good Oak Ecological Services) that specialize in invasive species control and natural areas management servicing Madison, there is no lack of qualified experts in this field in our region that could do good quality work for the city.

- City engineers seem quite competent in the field of civil engineering, but vegetation management is an entirely different field of expertise. The city should consider the following options: 1) Hire a consultant to help develop the vegetation management aspects of the RFP and to monitor the site preparation and maintenance work. 2) Hire additional staff with expertise in natural areas management and weed control specifically to plan and manage these reconstructed natural areas around the city. 3) Increase the funding and man-power available to the Parks Division’s Conservation Resources Director so that qualified personnel already working for the city can take charge of managing these areas. Please note that the Conservation Resource crew currently has insufficient resources to manage the natural areas they are already tasked managing. As such, the increase in resources to this group would need to more than compensate for the increase in responsibility.

- The city should get existing rain garden and natural corridors on track before attempting to add additional management units.


Frank Hassler
Concerned Citizen
Professional Ecologist

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Sustainable Landscaping Means to Us

A question worth asking yourself from time to time.
At Good Oak, we are trying to promote Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” across the landscape both on
wild rural properties and smaller urban lots. Leopold stated this philosophy, perhaps most succinctly, when he wrote in The Sand County Almanac that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the stability and integrity of a biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Unfortunately, most landscaping practices “tend to do otherwise.” The work practices of the so called 'green industry' makes it one of the most wasteful and polluting industries in our nation. The traditional landscape that has developed over the past 60 or so years consumes copious amounts of water and natural resources, produces significant quantities of air and water pollution, and offers little wildlife habitat while continuing to destroy and fragment existing habitat. In short, traditional landscaping degrades the health of our biotic communities, and ultimately quality of life for people as well.

So our alternative to this deleterious paradigm is what is being called Sustainable Landscaping. There are many aspects of sustainable landscaping and being sustainable in a particular landscape type means slightly different things around the country and around the world. I want to take a few minutes to explain what we at Good Oak think are key points to sustainable landscaping for sites in the beautiful Midwestern United States.

Native Plants: The plants that have been living in the Midwest for thousands of years are ideally suited to our local climate, even climatic extremes, and are co-evolved with local wildlife to provide the resources they need to thrive. Right plant, right place.

Edible Plants: Buying local foods is gaining in popularity as people realize the benefits to the environment and the community. There’s nothing more local than your own yard, so we like to incorporate fruit trees, raspberry beds, and even veggie gardens in our designs as much as possible.

Reusing Materials On-Site: It's quite upsetting to see traditional landscapers taking plants, stone, and soil from a job site and taking them straight to the landfill only to replace these with “new” quarried stone, scrapped topsoil, and mass-produced plants. We subscribe to the environmentalists Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle! We choose to rebuild an old stone wall with existing stone, clean and move decorative gravel from an outdated foundation planting into a new ‘dry stream bed’ feature, compost the plants that we remove from a site and replace them with plants that are suited to the soil conditions that already exist on site.

Local Materials: In the traditional nursery system, massive nurseries in the southern US supply all the plant material for garden centers and landscapers in the East and Midwest. These plants are grown in warm climates and shipped many hundreds and in some cases nearly 1,000 miles to local resellers. Landscaping stone can come from anywhere. Red lava rock for example is shipped halfway across the country! All of the materials we use come from about 1/10th that distance, with over 95% of the plant and stone material we use being produced or quarried within 100 miles of our Madison headquarters. In the future we hope to halve this distance. Using local materials not only supports our local economy, it also allows us to create landscapes which celebrate the unique beauty of our region.

Quality Materials: I have seen too many decomposing concrete wall blocks and too much torn and shredded plastic edging to use these materials in our projects. The initial cost of these materials may be lower, but you pay more in the end having to replace plants that were unhealthy or not hardy and materials that break down too soon and become trash. We use only natural stone and quality brick for hardscaping and healthy native perennial plants for our softscaping, creating durable and beautiful landscapes.

Respecting Rain Water as a Resource: The high coverage of impermeable surfaces in our urban landscape creates water flow issues ranging from wet basements to erosion on slopes or other sensitive areas. Traditional landscapers treat this water as a waste product and try to shunt it away to ditches, sewers ands streams as quickly as possible, often carrying pollutants into our streams and lakes along with it. At Good Oak we realize that water is one of our most precious resources. We find ways to reuse rain water such as in rain barrels or develop decorative landscape features such as rain gardens, swales, and other structures that capture rain water near where it falls so it can recharge our groundwater stores. In the future we’d like to offer permeable options to replace hard surfaces such as green roofs (featuring native plants of course!) and permeable pavers.

Reducing Emissions and Pollution While We Work: Most power equipment produces copious amount of air pollution, not to mention noise pollution. Sometimes these power tools can save a lot of time and thus save our clients lots of money. But whenever manual labor is cost competitive, we’ll always choose the broom over the leaf blower and the mattock over the stump-grinder. Fuel-thirsty trucks are necessary tools to move materials and our crew, but we do the best we can to reduce our fuel consumption. We train our staff in hyper-miling driving techniques and offer our staff a Sustainable Transportation stipend for using human-powered or public transportation to get to work.

Smart and Limited Use of Pesticides: We always try to use as little herbicide as is necessary when controlling weeds and preparing a site for planting and offer clients the “organic option" to manage weeds manually or mechanically whenever we think these are viable options. However, certain tasks, such as controlling difficult weeds like Canada thistle and leafy spurge, just cannot be accomplished without the skilled application of herbicides. When we do use herbicides, we always select the least toxic options available. Compared to the highly toxic 2,4-D that many people spray on their lawns multiple times per year, we’re making good progress. We flat out do not use insecticides of any kind. These chemicals have a higher toxicity to humans and other animals. Native plants tend to be little harmed by insect damage and there are always non-toxic options for keeping pests off our edible food crops.

Quality Work and Smart Solutions: Simply put: doing good work the first time saves time, money, and resources.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Now Hiring: Sustainable Landscaping Specialist

We are looking for a person with a lot of hands-on experience in landscaping and horticulture, and a passion for preserving and restoring our natural environment, to take on the roll of Sustainable Landscaping Specialist at Good Oak. This position will grow over the next year to become our Sustainable Landscaping Manager, in charge of all the landscaping work we do at Good Oak. If you're interested, you have until the end of this coming weekend (March 3rd) to apply. For more information, see our pdf file.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Quick Book Review: Shrubs and Woody vines of Indiana and the Midwest

Just got a new book today, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on it briefly before I get muddled down in day-to-day work. The Book in question is Shrubs and Woody Vines of Indiana and the Midwest by Sally S. Weeks and Harmon P. Weeks.

Overall, this book is great. Its filled with diagnostic photos of various features of many species of shrubs. Each species description covers a full spread of two pages so there is plenty of room for both detailed text and numerous images, including a range map focused on the midwest showing the county distribution for each species. This layout is excellent, and I expect it will be the standard for similar field guides in the future. Now that we're in the age of modern printing, we can largely leave the dusty old dichotomous keys behind. While a key is included in this book, I certainly find I have much better results identifying plants with visual (or tactile) characteristics, and the large number of high quality, detailed images in this book will certainly work well with the way my brain works.

I was especially happy to see that there is "Wildlife Uses" information for each speices, as this sort of information always helps illustrate the importance of our wild plants in the natural community. More importantly, the "Landscaping Value" information for each species encourages people to think about how we could use these plants in our human landscape. If we are to preserve the diversity of our region over time, it is essential that we begin to include these native plants more in our human environments.

This book does have some weaknesses however. Their treatment of some geneses is limited. They only include about half of the roses and blackberry species for example. Though they make this clear in their introduction to the genus, it could cause some confusion and misidentification for the end users. For the hawthorns, they don't even try at all, and basically say that 'these are too complicated for us to deal with'. Indeed this is a tough genus to crack, but its exactly the kind of information I was really hoping for when I made this purchase.

Another area of weakness is how they deal with non-native shrubs. Since (sadly) the majority of shrubs in our natural areas are non-native, this is an important group to deal with. Non-native plants are relegated to a short section at the end of the book, so if you're in the field thumbing through to find a species that visually matches the plant in front of you, you have to somehow know its non-native in order to go look for it in the back. For example, the two native buckthorns and the two invasive buckthorn species are 200 pages apart! The coverage of non-native woody plants is limited, page 399 is simply a list of some 20 non-native shrubs and vines that should have been explored in more detail, and I can think of at least a few that are common on the landscape or ecologically important that should have been included in this book in detail.

And one last nitpick on this subject; I was hoping to find some clarification between the invasive European highbush cranberry and the rare native American highbush cranberry here, but instead they confuse the matter considerably to the point that it would completely misguide anyone trying to identify them in the field, or anyone looking to use native shrubs in their landscape.

Despite these limitations, I'm going to give this book 4 out of 5 stars for the great layout and detailed information. I'm hoping that the authors keep working on this book, and can provide a more comprehensive and accurate second edition.

You can find out more information about the book here at the publisher's website, including a "Google preview" which will allow you to 'virtually' thumb through the book to see for yourself.

Happy Botanizing!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Visit Good Oak at the Garden Expo!

Come see us at the 2013 Wisconsin Garden Expo this weekend, February 8-10 at the Alliant Energy Center. We'll be in booth 513. We're excited to meet with you and discuss your sustainable gardening and ecological restoration goals.

Frank Hassler, Ecologist and Good Oak CEO, will be giving two talks on Sustainable/Native Landscaping. The first is on Friday at 6:45 pm. And in case you missed it, you can still make his second talk on Sunday at 1:45 pm.

We will be selling a small selection of native landscaping books and high-quality garden tools to represent some of the things we will be offering at the Sustainable Garden Center next year. Here's your chance to get the amazing hori-hori digging tool! And we'd love to talk to you about your ideas, hopes and needs for the garden center too.

Stop by, take a tour, and pick up something to get ready for the upcoming growing season. We're excited to meet you!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Coming in 2014: Good Oak's Sustainable Garden Center

Good Oak's Sustainable Garden Center

We've had a little buzz going around about our plans, but earlier this week we made the decision. We will be starting up Good Oak's Sustainable Garden Center in the spring of 2014. We have a lot of work to do over the next 14 months or so, working with our suppliers, reaching out to our community, and of course raising start-up funds! Here is what we want the garden center to be about:


    To provide the resources that enable people to manage their property in the most environmentally sound way possible, focusing on native plants and organic garden supplies.

Our Vision

    How an individual manages their land is perhaps the most important way in which they impact the environment. In a sustainable landscape, plants aren’t just there for their good looks, they are part of a natural system, having a valuable role providing food and habitat for people and wildlife. Sustainable garden products are produced in an environmentally sensitive manner and don’t degrade the environment in their use.
    Traditional garden centers are not meeting the needs of homeowners who wish to manage their property in an ecologically sound manner. Good Oak’s Sustainable Garden Center will serve a large, untapped market of individuals in the Madison area interested in native landscaping, habitat restoration, and home food production. Good Oak’s Sustainable Garden Center will be the best and only dedicated resource for sustainable landscaping in southern Wisconsin, serving as a community resource to help people make a positive change in their own back yard and create a landscape that they and their neighbors can enjoy.

Products we will offer include:
    • native perennials, shrubs and trees
    • starter vegetable plants, fruit trees and seeds
    • organic fertilizers, compost and mulches
    • wild bird & bee supplies (houses, feeders, bird seed, etc)
    • rain barrels and other rain water sequestering supplies
    • books and other reference material
    • quality gardening tools and equipment
    • locally crafted natural products, garden art and nature-themed art
    • locally grown Christmas trees, natural holiday decorations (seasonal)

    Our new retail location will also house our existing landscaping and restoration services sharing offices, shop space and landscaping materials. This expansion will enhance the visibility and efficiency of our existing services, increasing profitability. The garden center will offer limited online sales initially, with plans to expand in this area as the garden center division becomes more established.

We Need Your Help!

We want to make the sustainable garden center the best resource it can be. Please take a few minutes to fill out our survey so we can learn from you how we can best serve our community.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Brush Clearing, Before and After

     I love to look at the dramatic difference in a habitat before and after we've cleared brush. This site on Rocky Dell Road in Middleton is an overgrown hill prairie which we are restoring to a savanna condition.

     This site is unique in that it sits right at the very edge of where the glacier stopped its advanced about 21,000 years ago and started melting back towards the arctic. On this site we see both limestone bedrock and glacial erratics, stones carried here by the glacier. On the right side of the "after" image you can see two granite stones that were dragged here by the glacier from the Canada. Also in the "after" image, dead center, you can barely make out a large rock-outcropping in the distance. This beautiful hunk of limestone bedrock, about 6' tall, was completely obscured from all directions by the brush!

Click on the photos for a full-sized image!
     The difference you see between these photos is 2 days of work for a crew of 4. We are completely removing all of the exotic invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle as well as aggressive natives like sumac, prickly ash and raspberries. The biggest problem on this site are the eastern red cedars, which, though native, is well known to invade unmaintained hill prairies. A few scattered red cedars probably lived in places like that bedrock outcropping where fire couldn't get to them (there is one living right on top of the outcropping now). However, over the past 50-150 years, in the absence of fire and grazing they are able to spread rapidly across the hill prairie. All of the cedars we have cut down so far have been less than 40 years old, which makes me think that the last time this area was grazed was in the early 1970's. Or perhaps the old farmers maintained the area with spring burns up until this time to encourage a rapid green-up in the spring for grazing fodder. We are clearing about 95% of the red cedar on this site, but leaving a few for aesthetic reasons at the request of the current land owners.

     Note also that many of the trees you see are girdled but left standing. This saves time, effort and money and also provides habitat for wildlife including a variety of insects, red-headed woodpeckers, bluebirds and other cavity nesters. We girdled or cut down all of the elm, walnut and black cherry in this area. Even though these are native species with value for wildlife, they are not a 'natural' part of this habitat type. Furthermore, we actually cut and girdled about 50% of the northern pin oak, bur oak and shagbark hickories! In most places on the landscape there are no young oaks at all. Here, there were too many, a special place indeed! By clearing some of the oaks we not only increase the light reaching the prairie plants on the ground layer, we also give the remaining oaks more growing space so they can grow faster and be healthier. We may clear more trees in the future as the restoration of this area progresses, but I always think its best to be cautious in our approach to tree thinning.

     There are many diamonds in the rough out there in the landscape like this, ready to be restored. In particular you can see a number of hill prairie remnants along the bluffs in the Black Earth Creek Watershed where this site is located. We must act soon to restore these small fragments of our prairie heritage before the prairie flora and fauna are completely lost under the shade of dense brush. Tom and Kathy Brock have had tremendous success at this at Pleasant Valley Conservancy, and so can you! Don't have your own bluff to work on? Join The Prairie Enthusiasts for their workdays, sites like Mazomainie Bluff can use all the volunteer help they can get!