Felton Library Friends Restoration Team members visited Linda Skeff’s house to understand best methods for removing invasive English ivy and restoring the beauty and health of the native redwood forest. Linda restored the ivy ensnared forest around her home to a place of renewed life and native redwood forest beauty. Over coffee and muffins she described to us how her forest has, over the years, come from being infested and choked with ivy to burgeoning with new life of native species like big leaf maple, tan oak, wild ginger, sorrel, leopard lilies, young redwoods and Douglas fir (not to mention native fauna like birds, newts, and salamanders).

“It was more open when we first bought it our property,” Linda explained. “But since removing the ivy and going through the restoration process, the forest had regrown. There isn’t one tree out there that I haven’t touched in some way.” Linda explained to us how ivy, the kind that many people allow to grow in their yards because it is easy to grow and low maintenance, is NOT native to this area, in fact it is a terribly INVASIVE species.

“The ivy kills trees, it chokes them, causes fungus to grow and causes the trees to rot and die while they are standing.”

Not only does the ivy kill trees, it blocks out any form of native life in its path. The birds can’t scratch in the duff for bugs and seeds because they can’t get past the ivy. And many insects don’t like ivy either. The ivy chokes all the nutrients out of the forest for itself. In essence, anywhere ivy is growing, the forest is suffocating.

“When you take out the ivy, you bring back the birds”

Linda explained to us the process of removing ivy, a daunting but ultimately rewarding task. She described how to pull out the ivy, which many may think is a Sisyphean task. “You start from the edges,” she explained. “Not where it is thickest and most dense, but where the native plants are still alive, they may be choking, but they are still alive and you can rescue them by pulling out the ivy at these edges first.”

She went on to explain that you need to do more than just pull the surface roots of the ivy. “If you don’t pull those deeper roots, you will be pulling it up again and again.” Each of those smaller vines is fed by a larger, stronger (and tougher to pull) rooted vine underneath that also needs to be pulled out. “I don’t consider the ivy pulled out until three years after I have started, I go back every year and pull out whatever comes up where I previously pulled it out.”

Linda explained that the biggest problems with ivy occur when it “goes aerial”. Once it has climbed a  tree and produced berries it has more means of spreading, with berries getting eaten by birds but also by berries (hence seeds) dropping to the soil. This is when the ivy really takes off and starts growing everywhere, wreaking havoc with native ecosystems.

Linda explained to us that one of the most important components to take care of when restoring the forest after ivy removal is the forest floor itself. After removal of the ivy, the soil is bare and the ivy, which is full of allelopathic chemicals, has deterred any other kind of plant growth and inhibited the growth life in the soil and the buildup of duff (duff is the partly decayed organic matter found on the forest floor).  Linda learned the importance of duff in restoring the forest.

“Keep the duff to retain the moisture and repel the weeds.”

Linda regularly feeds her forest with supplements of wood chips and redwood needles. She is a passionate advocate of forest duff and explained to us the importance of maintaining the duff for micro-organisms that exist and help break down the wood and return nutrients to the soil. She described how she aerates the soil and creates habitat for newts and salamanders (some of which are endangered) and other forest organisms by weaving together branches and needles, leaves and twigs, and wood chips to create pockets of air and moisture and mimic processes found in the understory of an old growth forest. She also helps this aeration process along by combing the duff by hand. Air is a critical component of soil. In fact, like a skin, soil has pores, which play a major role in water and air movement through the soil, all of which are essential for healthy root and plant growth. Furthermore, soil microorganisms reside in these pores where they help to break down plant material and release nutrients back to the forest. The forest floor around Linda’s house feels spongy and moist, protected and alive.

Canopy Considerations

Linda prunes the trees around her home to maintain the canopy height and width of trees as they fill in the forest. Some trees are kept small to keep the forest from becoming overcrowded. Some are pruned so that they grow taller and provide the right kind of shade that she is seeking. She also shakes her trees to remove debris and reduce potential fire hazards from the canopy.

Linda also pointed out to us the importance of keeping fallen dead wood or “nurse logs” on the ground as they allow for microbial growth and shelter and support young trees and other fragile plants as they grow. Snags, or standing dead wood, full of insects, are important sources of food for birds.

A Few Words About Fire and Fences

Fire is a natural process in the redwood forest. It isn’t a matter if it happens, but when it happens, Linda explained to us. When Linda was in the initial phases of restoring her property she nearly lost it to the Brookdale Lodge fire in 2009. In fact, the old wooden fence around her property almost became a death trap but she was lucky to have some help. One of the first things the fire crew did was take down the fence around her property and put it in the dirt to keep it from acting like a ladder of flames for the canopy above. The Santa Cruz Mountains are full of fences, Linda reminded us. All of these fences will act as fuel to any fire, and they will bring it higher into the canopy and closer to our dwellings.

We wrapped up our visit with Linda’s encouragement that restoring the land around her home has been well worth the effort. Through her efforts, she has seen wildlife return in bounty. She expressed concern that with climate change, the wooded corridors between parks, where many of our houses are, are not open or inviting enough for wildlife to make use of to be able to move about in order to adapt to change. But, she said, “Backyard gardeners can do so much to restore the land and make it better for birds and other wildlife to move through and thrive in, making it a healthier place not just for them but for all of us.”

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