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 Invasive Broom

One small portion of where the action happened.

Sorry, the title is a bit over the top, but titles should be dramatic, or at least evocative, I assert. In reality, it is the end of invasive broom this season. We will likely need to return to the big patch I removed recently in subsequent years, with vigilance and due diligence. But at least, for now, it’s gone. This is the first time this has happened on the Sonoma Overlook Trail property.  The Montini Preserve has never had broom, as far as we can determine.

Accomplishing this took several weeks of effort, an hour almost every day. I even began to get a repetitive stress injury from pulling too much with my right arm, and had to back off a bit. Pulling broom is harder than pulling thistle — so much harder that I had to buy a special tool to pull the largest plants. Called the “Weed Wrench” (see photo to the left), it is a rather imposing chunk of metal that mechanically allows you to grip the broom at its base and lever it from the ground. Although they call the one I bought their “light” version, I think it could be designed to be a lot lighter than it is. But whatever, at least it works.

One day, when doing this work, I returned to my car to discover I was without my keys — they had fallen from my pocket as I was pulling. I had to go  retrace my steps at least three times, from my car to the patch, around the patch and back, before I finally saw a sparkle in the forest duff from the tiny, bright green flashlight on my keychain. I was grateful.

I’m also grateful that we are making significant progress on fighting invasive species on these properties. We are winning, as every year it gets better. We are still far from the end, but I think I’m beginning to at least see that it’s possible to win. For a number of years, I had to take it only on faith. Now I have experience and a sense of surety. We can do this. I know we can.

The Beginning of Scotch Broom Season

Scotch broom: vanquished foes in the foreground, those yet to be pulled in the background.

This year I’ve decided to make our invasive species removal program extend all year. Thistle season can begin as early as late January and extend into August, until it can no longer be usefully pulled. But you can pull Scotch broom virtually any time of year, so I am turning to it now at the end of thistle season.

We have a large patch of it on the Overlook Trail property, at the edge of the cemetery. I will work on this patch until it is completely gone, then look for other infestations. Although most of it can be pulled by hand (some small enough that you can pull multiple plants at once), while others have gotten big enough that I need to use the special tool I bought to lever them out. Since they aren’t going to seed now, I can just drop them and let them die in place.

Let me know if you want to join me, since misery loves company!

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.