When we first bought our 7-acre property, our forest was a mess. Overcutting 100 years ago left us with a dog-haired thicket of densely packed "pecker-pole" fir and a sparse spattering of pine.
To reach the ridgeline from our house, we had to bushwhack through the tangled lower branches of our unhealthy stand and negotiate through the sticks and debris which were over 12-18” deep and covered the forest floor. It was a dangerous tinderbox just waiting to ignite. There was a general absence of understory plants and certainly a lack of animal life. What would want to grow in a forest like that anyway?
After six years of active thinning, high-limbing, pruning, burning and raking, we have been able to mitigate for the neglect of the last century and now own a hillside covered with healthy, maturing trees, as well as pine grass and a profusion of wildflowers and small shrubs. We’ve built a small hiking trail to the ridge and the wildlife has returned in abundance. It has become a beautiful, managed forest.
In order to improve an overgrown, second-growth forest, there are a couple of projects to tackle. If the trees are tightly spaced (like on our property), you will want to thin them out before tackling any additional work. This is a great time to consider optimal tree spacing in regard to defensible space and wildfire mitigation.
There are specific guidelines for creating defensible space. Keep in mind that the spacing required between trees changes depending on the slope of the terrain. For steeper hillsides, you will want to remove more trees than on a shallower slope. If you are interested in doing some of the tree removal yourself, there are classes available in the area on chainsaw safety and proper felling technique. Look for a SAWW-certified instructor. Classes are available for beginners through more advanced students.
You can also seek out professionals to remove trees on your behalf. This is especially recommended if you are working around obstacles such as houses or power lines.
If you own a significant-sized plot of trees, consider commercial thinning. Many times, thinning work can be paid for via the sale of the harvested timber. You may not make money off of your forest stand, but you won’t lose money either. Seek out an operation that is bonded and insured. Generally, avoid operations run by a single individual and search for a company known to have a good solid crew of employees. Ask about the final condition that your stand will be left in once an operation has completed their contracted work. What time of year will they be doing the work? What type of equipment will they be using? Will the understory vegetation be affected by machinery and equipment? Will the slash piles be stacked for burning or masticated into wood chips and disbursed?
Once the forest has been adequately thinned, the lower branches of the remaining trees should be high-limbed to approximately 10-15 feet in height. A pole saw can be used for this task. Like all other forest health jobs, this work can be hired out but can also be handled by an ambitious land owner.
After thinning and high-limbing have been completed, you can start to do the fun part. Think about the understory plants you want to cultivate. Consider it your own personal arboretum. Your understory shrubs can be pruned just like any landscape plantings and you can encourage the growth of your favorite wildflowers, native medicinal plants and wild edibles.
Have fun with your forest and happy gardening.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Eron Drew is one of three columnists featured.