Ten Plants a Hike

A young Italian thistle plant.

January (and sometimes even December) is the beginning of what is essentially an eight-month season of invasive species removal work. Beginning with Italian thistle (pictured), work proceeds against a variety of non-native plants that threaten our trails and the lands they traverse. Although we’ve made great progress against Yellow Star thistle, Italian thistle is much more prevalent and dispersed, and it is now the primary species we are working to control.

The problem is that it has a big head start. It can be found in many areas of both the Sonoma Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve, and is especially prevalent along the trails on the Montini. Meanwhile, we have little person power to throw at it. Until now.

I have a simple ask. Every time you hike the trails, do us all a favor and pull ten plants. That’s all I ask. Ten plants. Anyone can do that. You can do that. Imagine this: if ten hikers do this for ten days they will have collectively pulled one thousand plants. That represents substantial progress.

And now is the perfect time to do it – the soil is damp and soft, the plants are small and can be just pulled and tossed aside, and their roots are not yet well developed. They are easy to spot, as they are bright green, and they have spiny leaves, whereas most other plants do not (see photo).

Tell you what, you can even tell it that it’s days are numbered as you pull, or “We’re coming for you!” Whatever floats your boat. Plus, I won’t actually make you count. I trust you. Just do what you think is likely ten plants and we’re good. But if you do what I think you might, soon you’ll find yourself drifting past ten with nary a second thought. And that’s just fine too.

Ten plants a hike, that’s all I ask.

A Long Day’s Journey Into the Fight

Those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you both!) know that I have, well, an obsession about ridding these properties of invasive species — particularly invasive thistle, as it can create entire “no go zones” for wildlife, and completely up-end the natural ecosystem. If you want to know more about why we fight it so hard, here is the chapter and verse about why we do what we do.

But at the moment, in December, we are still in the “down period,” when we can rest, and recuperate from the long removal season. You see, the thistle season begins in January — or even the end of December — and it extends well into August. Thus, we have eight months on, essentially, and four off.

So perhaps you can understand what I’m feeling as I spend my last few weeks as a free person before buckling down in January for another eight months. I’ve enjoyed hiking the last several months a lot. I’ll still hike during thistle season, but usually just when a friend can come along. Otherwise, I’ll be out there, pulling like always. I rush to say, however, that every year it gets better, and there may come a time when there is even no thistle at all. But we’re not there yet.

That’s why, if you see me out there in January, pulling Italian Thistle (pictured), you’ll know it’s a long game, fought over years and decades, and at least I’ve had four months off to simply enjoy the properties that we are fighting to save. And like I said, every year it gets better. Before very long, I believe, I will have 12 months to hike. I can’t wait.

The End of the 8-Month 2020 Thistle Removal Season

Thistle’s worst nightmare: my right hand. Thistle’s second worst nightmare? My left.

I’m calling it. Recently I finished clearing one of the last two meadows left with Yellow Star thistle (along Norrbom Road), and since it is drying out and becoming difficult to remove completely, I’m giving it up for this year. We started in mid-January. That means I’ve spent over 8 months going out nearly every day for an hour each day to clear first Italian thistle, then Yellow Star, except for the few “vacations” we’ve had in this time of shelter in place (to be clear, I was going out to pull thistle even during the shutdown of public properties, as I had permission to do so).

The good news is that we are winning. I’ve never cleared this particular meadow before, which means that other sites had been cleared so that now I can turn my attention to the two remaining meadows that still have Yellow Star thistle. Only one of them remains uncleared this season. I fully expect that within three years we will be able to state that there is no Yellow Star thistle to be found from Schocken Hill in the east (Sonoma Overlook Trail’s eastern border) to 4th St. East (the Montini Preserve’s western border). If you have recently visited other public lands in this valley perhaps you can appreciate the import of that statement.

Italian thistle remains a different matter, especially on the Montini Preserve, where it remains prevalent. We had our hands full simply pushing it back from the trail this year. Also, Italian thistle seems to be coming in where we have been clearing Yellow Star thistle, so we need to be vigilant in those areas. The essential problem is that Italian thistle will grow anywhere, whereas Yellow Star thistle prefers open meadows, which limits its coverage.

As I close out the thistle season, I will move to Scotch broom. I even bought a special tool to help pull the largest, most established broom plants. There is one rather bad patch of it on the Sonoma Overlook Trail property, but that seems to be about all of it except for the adjoining Sonoma Cemetery. The issue is that it adjoins the Overlook Trail property, so it should also be removed to protect the trail property.

One other species deserves mention, as there has been a patch of Bellardia strung out along the very top of the Overlook Trail that Richard Dale, Executive Director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, cleared out this year. These are by no means all of the invasive species, but they are some of the most problematic, and certainly those that present an existential threat to these properties if left unchecked.

Later I will provide a final report on the 2020 invasive species removal season, but I thought that the end of “thistle season,” which has so far comprised the bulk of our efforts, was worth noting.

Completely Determined. Thoroughly Implacable. Absolutely Relentless.

Before: Note the white fluffy seeds.

Doing invasive species removal work has its ups and downs. Not long ago, I was down. But the mood tends to pass, and I picked myself up and got back to work.

And when I did, it was with a renewed sense of purpose: I refuse to be defeated.

I even know exactly how that works: you must be absolutely relentless, completely determined, and thoroughly implacable.

After.

This year I even upped my game. In previous years, by now I had stopped pulling Italian thistle, as it was going to seed. I thought that pulling it would simply spread the seeds. But this year, when I kept pulling it, I realized a few things:

  • It’s possible to pull it without spreading seeds. This can be done a couple of ways: one is to push the head of the thistle into the bag before you pull it. Another is to grab the thistle at the head where the seeds are coming away, pull it out, and put it all in the bag.
  • A large number of plants went dry without yet releasing its seed. These are easy targets.
  • I’ve even begun picking up the seeds themselves. Not in all cases, but certainly at times (see the before and after photos).

I’ve learned some other things: 

  • I have more determination than I ever knew I had.
  • I can make a real difference.
  • Being absolutely relentless works — it just takes time. Thankfully, that I have.

I see you, thistle, and I’m coming for you.

Little Patches Everywhere

A little patch of thistle in a meadow.

Today was not a good day.

Nearly every day since mid-January, I have gotten out of bed, had breakfast, and headed out to either the Sonoma Overlook Trail or the Montini Preserve to pull Italian thistle. I did this even during shelter in place, as I had written permission to do trail and land maintenance activities. Today, since we had achieved our goal of pushing the thistle back away from all of the maintained trails on both properties, I decided it was time to see what the upper reaches of the Montini Preserve looked like. By “upper reaches” I specifically mean the area north of the Rattlesnake Cutoff and Valley View trails. I had already been north of Rattlesnake Cutoff, and had cleared those areas fairly well. So it was really the areas north of the Valley View trail that I wanted to explore.

So today I went off-trail up into the hills. At the very upper edge I came to a patch that I started pulling. At first it seemed rather small, but as I pulled it kept going and going until I realized I would have to come back to finish it. I moved on, following the fence line. I came to another small patch of maybe a couple-dozen plants, then walked another ten feet of so and found another. Then another. And another. I soon came to realize that the hillside was essentially covered with it, but in small, lightly covered patches.

As I came back down the hill a different way than I had gone up, I began to realize the extent of the problem. Although trails (animal as well as human) are one vector of spreading, these infestations proved that it spreads in a lot of ways. Basically every way imaginable. I began to understand that to truly rid the property of this scourge it will take walking almost the entire property multiple times in a season. I really started to finally see what we are up against, and it isn’t pretty.

I have good days and bad days. When I’m discouraged I have a custom of asking myself this question: “Did I make a difference today?” The answer has always been “Yes.” Until today. Today the answer was “I don’t know.”