Master Gardeners Keep Plant Invaders in Check

Like in a horror film, invasive plants appear to be taking over the earth. They blanket trees and the understory with a stringy coat of brown in winter and an impenetrable shroud of green in summer. As they quickly and quietly advance, they smother, starve and alter forever the precious original landscape below. They force native bees, birds and butterflies that are dependent on native plants to take refuge in distant habitat or die.

Clearly, our planet needs superheroes to do battle with these fiends. Locally, the University of Maryland Extension Talbot County Master Gardeners have stepped up to the challenge. The Master Gardeners, with a solid weed warrior project to their credit, are planning a campaign to keep aggressive weeds from taking over the county. They hope to inspire homeowners to tackle them in backyards. Together as a community, let’s conquer these invaders. The result? Our area will be even more beautiful, adding to our enjoyment of the landscape, boosting habitat for wildlife and enriching us with many other benefits.

On March 13, the Master Gardeners mustered more than 30 volunteers for a Habitat Restoration/Invasive Plant Removal Project at the Bay Street Ponds property that is owned by Waterfowl Chesapeake in Easton. The location was host to nine non-native invasive plants that had overtaken the well-known backdrop for Waterfowl Festival’s popular retriever demonstrations. Teams of volunteers, working in two three-hour shifts, used clippers and chainsaw, loppers and weed wrenches – plus muscle power and enthusiasm – to clear the site and restore the vista. Crews from the Town of Easton Department of Public Works hauled off copious debris.

Master Gardener Marilyn Reedy (left) and ShoreRivers’ Suzanne Sullivan apply a weed wrench to take out an invasive honeysuckle bush.

Afterward, Margaret Enloe, Executive Director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, reported, “I’m blown away by how much a dedicated corps of volunteers can do in a day. People had fun doing it and it’s wonderful to see such a visible difference. My appreciation goes to Master Gardener, Waterfowl Chesapeake, ShoreRivers and Adkins Arboretum volunteers and other Talbot County residents for bringing a renewed interest in the Bay Street Ponds.”

The project took shape five weeks earlier with the creation of an Invasive Plant Committee sanctioned by the University of Maryland Extension Office in partnership with Waterfowl Chesapeake, ShoreRivers and Adkins Arboretum; spearheaded by Master Gardener Lisa Ghezzi; and sponsored by Garden and Garnish Caterers. Committee members Carol Jelich, Joseph Jelich, Rita Mhley, Reenie Rice and Cathy Schmidt assessed eligible sites around Talbot County and ultimately chose the Bay Street Ponds as a demonstration site worthy of habitat restoration and offering visibility for long-term community education. On closer inspection, the group identified the invasive plant species that needed to be removed and evaluated proper control techniques according to their individual biology.

Master Gardener Debra Gibson attacks a mountain of porcelain berry during the Habitat Restoration/Invasive Plant Project at Waterfowl Chesapeake’s Bay Street Ponds in mid-March.

Non-native invasive species that had overtaken this site included white mulberry, Japanese honeysuckle, Amur shrub honeysuckle, English ivy, privet, porcelain berry, multiflora rose, sweet autumn clematis and Star-of-Bethlehem.

One of the most prominent invasive species on the site was porcelain berry, a woody vine that came here from Asia in the 1870s as an ornamental landscape plant. Once it is established, porcelain berry takes off fast in almost any growing condition – sunny or part-shady, moist or dry, rich or poor. A member of the grape family, it resembles a grapevine with its lobed leaves and twining habit. It is a prolific producer of speckled blue-pink-purple berries, but these do not yield fine wine. Instead, they attract birds, and two to four viable seeds can come from each berry that is eaten and expelled by a bird. In turn, each seed may produce a new plant that shoots to heights of 30 feet or more and uses non-adhesive tendrils to climb – pouring over the tops and down the sides of every kind of native vegetation nearby.

Volunteer Barbara Lane discovers an invasive white mulberry hiding beneath a valuable Eastern Red Cedar.

The Master Gardeners discovered that you can pull down and cut out porcelain berry vines. But that is just the start. In the removal operation at the Bay Street Ponds, volunteers left a foot of each vine above ground. A certified herbicide applicator will carefully spot-treat these vine stubs at the proper time to ensure the ultimate demise of their deep and vigorous root systems.

For your part, you can help the eradication effort by praying that Japanese beetles will eat more of their leaves; by cutting vines back to the ground and cutting away as much as can be reached above ground; by pinching off the greenish-white flowers that you find facing upward in summer; and by picking and thoroughly disposing of the berries before a bird dines on them and spreads their seed. (But note that while they are edible, we don’t suggest that you eat them as they are bland, slimy and altogether unappetizing!)

This is a war against invaders, and it will take more than one battle to complete the campaign.

At the Bay Street Ponds, the Master Gardeners found it rewarding to have released several native species that can now flourish. They are Eastern Red Cedars, Red Buds, several Box Elder, and a Holly. The Master Gardeners will continue to watch over the rehabilitated ground in concert with the property owner’s professional landscapers, to keep the invasives in check. The Master Gardeners will also tackle the removal of invasives from some additional plots on the property. The next step will be to refresh the site with beautiful new native plantings.

Margaret considers Master Gardeners and Waterfowl Chesapeake “a perfect marriage.” She looks forward to both groups putting heads together “to see how we can demonstrate conservation practices on the property.”

The Master Gardeners suggest the following habitat restoration/weed warrior campaign on your property:

(1) Learn more about invasive plants and their impact. Visit the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center: https://extension.umd.edu/hgic and consult Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas: www.invasive.org/eastern/midatlantic/

(2) Assess your property for invasive plant species

(3) Remove invasives and keep them in check

(4) Avoid planting invasive ornamental plants; instead, plant native plants to boost habitat equilibrium. Check Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay/pdf/NativePlantsforWildlifeHabitatandConservationLandscaping.pdf

(5) Spread the word. Engage your neighbors and work in the community to boost the effort

Get help with the details by contacting Master Gardener and Project Leader Lisa Ghezzi at 703-328-6322 or lisa.ghezzi@icloud.com. 

Rita Mhley is a Talbot County Master Gardener. Her camera and copy helped document the Invasive Plant Project.

What Is an Invasive Plant?

There were many plants and animals in Maryland when the first European settlers arrived in 1631. These flora and fauna are considered our natives, while those that came from the “old country” with the new settlers are non-natives. Whereas many of the new arrivals can be as beneficial here as in their original homes, others are thugs in our environment.

Lacking the natural enemies that kept their populations in check in Europe (or Asia, Africa, or elsewhere), non-native plants often outcompete the native species. That’s because the non-natives are often not grazed upon by local wildlife that prefer natives and they may have developed immunity to foreign diseases to which natives are vulnerable. Further, non-native plants often emerge earlier in the year than natives to get a head start on sun and soil nutrients and many die back later in the fall, which allows their seed to spread after native plant seed is gone due to wildlife feeding.

These unnatural advantages that many non-native plants have over their native counterparts allow huge stands of non-natives to destroy the integrity of an area’s original food web. Kudzu, the “vine that ate the South,” is a perfect example. The plants and wildlife that originally flourished where Kudzu has taken over are gone due to habitat destruction.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources calls a species, plant or animal “invasive” only if it is non-native and proves a “tremendous capacity for reproduction and distribution throughout its new home” and “also has a negative impact on environmental, economic or public welfare priorities.”

These distinctions mean that deer, which are extremely destructive native animals, are not considered “invasive” because they were here when the settlers arrived. Also, clover is not considered invasive although of European origin, because it is wonderful for bees and farmers’ fields (it’s a great natural fertilizer).

On the other hand, English ivy of “Ivy League” fame, is invasive because it kills trees and damages buildings.

You can find more information on the Department of Natural Resources’ Invasive Species pages at https://dnr.maryland.gov/Invasives/Pages/default.aspx.

Reenie Rice is a Talbot County Master Gardener and lifelong naturalist who enjoys sharing her plant research knowledge.

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