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Eco-Answers from the Pros: Restoring Woodland after Construction

When my builder built my house, he wiped out about an acre of land – mainly full sun on sand and rocks. Anything I’ve read said either to use a tractor or till in compost. Neither of these are practical for a homeowner, what do I know about operating a tractor, tilling an acre of New England rocky/bouldered/sandy. Wild cherry trees are attempting to pioneer the space, but it’s taking a looong time. Would you have any suggestions on helping it recover into woodland? I do go out with a cart and remove the annual spring crop of rock that comes up, but it’s not been anywhere near enough to help the sandy rocky acre recover. I’ve found little on recovering builder destruction and I see so much of it. Any direction, information or advice you may have for a homeowner would be greatly appreciated.

Plants adapted to rocky, exposed conditions will move in and eventually organic matter will build up and forest will return. But as you note, it will take a long time. Adding compost is likely to speed up the process and allow you to jump start planting. However, tilling compost into rocky soil does not seem practical or even feasible. A better method of adding compost would be to pneumatically apply it – basically, to blow in ½ – 2 inches. This would avoid disturbing existing soil and vegetation. The compost would provide a medium for seed to germinate, and the increase in organic matter and moisture would encourage growth of both naturally occurring species and planted species. If you do use this method of compost application, I recommend hiring a company that specializes in compost and is familiar with this method of application so that you can be sure you are getting quality compost (no weed seeds), an appropriate blend, and that it is applied to the right depth.

Seed can be incorporated with the compost (hand broadcast at same time) so that you get more immediate groundcover vegetation. Given the poor soil and harsh conditions, I would recommend a mix of native grasses and forbs that are adapted to dry, infertile soil (little bluestem, goldenrod, asters, round headed bush clover, butterfly weed, etc.). If you have a limited budget, focus on composting and seeding select areas. This will allow you to get some areas vegetated more rapidly while creating a seed source for the larger site and for the future.

Alternatively, or in addition to compost and seed, there are a number of native plants that are adapted to poor soil conditions, such as sweet fern, bayberry, native grasses, pines, and eastern red cedar. Planting select areas with small-sized plants would jump start re-vegetation, and again, provide a source of seed for the larger site.

Lastly, I would recommend working with a professional familiar with ecological restoration as well as design principles. Someone familiar with restoration will help you select species appropriate for the current conditions, but with an eye toward how that plant community might change over time since many of the plants appropriate for the current conditions will be shorter-lived, pioneer species. And a good design professional, of course, will help you select the best areas to focus your efforts so that you are shaping the future landscape to meet your needs—screening, creating attractive areas for sitting, or emphasizing specific views. This way, you are restoring the land and creating a landscape that you can enjoy into the future.

     ~Tara Mitchell, Landscape Architect, Massachusetts Department of Transportation

I would recommend spreading compost and hydro seeding annual and perennial grasses or meadow seeds over the area until it’s time to do more planting on the landscape. Homeowners can order grass or meadow seed and or mulch and at least get the area covered by themselves or hire a professional to help. Getting the bare ground covered quickly is the key so invasives don’t move in. I tell my clients Mother Nature is demure and likes to be covered, and if you don’t cover up the land, she will.
I’m happy to provide a consultation if that would be helpful.

     ~Trevor L. Smith, Landscape Designer (MCH, AOLCP, LEED GA), LandEscapes

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