Glorified forest gardening

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 Photos care of Catskill Forest Association


Ryan Trapani remembers the woods of his New Paltz childhood

Each spring many people can be found clearing a small patch of land for their garden. There seems little outrage over such clearing of land for tomorrow’s vegetables. In other spaces, farmers clear land for pasturing their livestock: dairy and beef cows, goats or sheep. Gardening and farming have it easy. They are readily acceptable, since more people are familiar with the fruits of their labor.

Forestry, on the other hand, is less fortunate. A forester who cuts a patch of trees down invites all sorts of complaints and bad press that can grow not desired trees but town ordinances.


Forestry differs from gardening and farming in one particular manner: length of time. When a large cut is made, everyone and their brother are around to complain about it. Where are those same people three years later to witness the excellent wildlife habitat that grows in, or 15 years later to see the diversity and abundance in forest regeneration, or 60 or more years later to harvest a crop of timber for homes to live in? They are long gone doing other things — perhaps gardening. But the forester, the glorified perennial gardener, remains. Or so I hope.

The forest — the woods, as my friends and I called them as kids — was a great place in which to get lost. I rode my Mongoose BMX bicycle throughout the small patch of woods that extended over a mile or so to the village of New Paltz. It was easy for me to recognize even then that those woods were not something static. It was changing all the time.

Sure, our patch of paradise would never be submitted for national-park status, but it was special to me. There was always something new to find or somewhere to explore. For all we knew, we may have been the Five Ponds Wilderness Area of the Adirondacks.

Evidence of change in these woods were visible throughout. We found old apple orchards with vole screens still wrapped around their bases, foundations, stone walls, car and tire cemeteries, abandoned barns, former pig pens, and piles of Coors cans from one area and stacks of Bush cans from another. We were happy to find the cans. We brought them to town for cash. We made camps, built forts, and lit fires; one almost got away.


It was me that it was tending

This patch of woods wasn’t only a place to lose oneself in, but a sort of garden, too. I had nothing to do with the creation of this patch of woods. It was me that it was tending, changing and developing. This forest garden would eventually shape my life and land me into the field of forestry and silviculture, the art and science of tending trees.

How did it do that? Well, between building forts and lighting fires we got hungry. Instead of going home for lunch, we’d stay out there and look for something to eat. There was plenty of fruit. I knew where one mulberry tree was. I’d climb into its canopy and feed like a small bear for a while. My hands, shoes and clothes would be stained black, but I could care less. There were wild strawberries in one section, but they were frustrating to pick since they were so small. There were apples and pears, too, enough to keep my appetite satiated. But nothing beat the blackcaps (black raspberry); they were my favorite. We picked so many one day that we sold some at Stewart’s; probably illegal, but we didn’t know. We thought we were fruit farmers for a day, and we were proud of our harvest. We also saw a lot of wildlife: rabbits, many birds, my first turkey (in the 1980s turkeys were rare), grouse, deer, deer hunters, snapping turtles, and other creatures.

I went back to that hot spot where we picked those blackcaps, but few remained, and I wondered why. Still, the seed had already been planted. I associated trees and shrubs with good times, good eats. I wondered what else they might be good for. As I learned more about the woods I realized why those blackcaps had disappeared. I realized how silviculture could shape the forest to be more fruitful or fibrous (timber) or better for wildlife.

The woods where we played and explored had no perennial gardener — or forester — responsible for their development, no deliberate management that made them so fruitful. It was merely accidental. It had once been farmland, probably sometime in the 1960s or so. After it was abandoned many shade-intolerant species grew in: gray birch, eastern red cedar, aspen, white pine, mulberry, and volunteer apple trees. In one section, I learned, there was supposed to be a housing development. The roads were built, the land was cleared. When the development failed to occur, the berries grew in, especially blackcaps, as well as other young seedlings and shrubs used by an abundance of wildlife species. We used the roadway to ride our bikes.


Choosing your forest

By the time I reached high school, the blackcaps were already shaded out. Fruit trees were less vigorous. The forest had matured, and the more shade-tolerant trees were shading out less shade-tolerant trees that formerly bore fruit. Perhaps the changes ere better for timber, but it came at the expense of fruit and some wildlife species.

The events of that patch of woods are related to forestry. The abandoned farms and failed housing development mimicked a silvicultural clearcut. A clearcut, not to be confused with land clearing, involves cutting trees to enhance forest regeneration of shade-intolerant vegetation. The accidental clearcuts in this case were successful if the intention was to enhance fruit-bearing trees and shrubs along with wildlife habitat. Since no deliberate forest management occurred afterwards, some trees lost and some won as the overall forest matured.

A forester would have remedied the situation by marking crop trees. Crop trees could be fruit trees, or other desirable trees that met established goals. Crop trees could be then weeded by cutting those too close which competed for sunlight: perennial forest gardening. Or more drastic cuts could be made to start the stand over to benefit many of those plants, shrubs, and trees we experienced as kids. Leave your hand-pruners and hoe at home. Bring your chainsaw instead.

Mature forest is beneficial for some wildlife species and is required to harvest timber. However, the landscape — especially in the Catskills — is stocked mostly with mature forest. An aging forest exists at the expense of a younger forest — one that often bears more fruit and wildlife species, similar to the woods I stomped around in.

To this day I have yet to see blackcaps in such abundance, size and quality as I remember. Since then, I have only experienced one section of woods that has been as fruitful, one that experienced a large forest fire that released blueberries, chestnuts and blackberries for my happy hands (and bear paws) to pick. But that’s another story.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make your forest more fruitful — whether for yourself, wildlife, timber, maple syrup or more — please call that unfamiliar gardener or forester. We’re used to waiting, and we have thick skin for those unfamiliar to our gardening techniques: