PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson
August 15, 2017

Some farming projects are onetime or very irregular events, such as building a barn or drilling a well. Other projects must be executed on a regular schedule, whether seasonal or daily—for example, planting the garden in the spring, or feeding the livestock every day. Another situation that needs periodic maintenance and attention relates to fields.

One of my routine farming projects is my ongoing quest to keep young trees from invading my fields. Because these fields are bordered by forest, it’s only natural that little trees should try to take advantage of the wide-open, sunny spaces on the edges of the fields and start marching outward from the forest. The problem? It’s not enough to merely cut them down and call it a day—keeping them at bay requires diligent attention and follow-up effort several times per year.

If you’re also having trouble keeping trees out of your fields (or if the edges of the surrounding forest have gradually crept outward unnoticed over time), here’s what I do to reclaim lost ground and keep the fields in good shape.

1. Cut Back To The Boundary Lines

First I establish where the true boundaries of the fields and cut down every small tree that has encroached on those boundaries. On my farm, the boundaries are clearly marked by mature trees (and also by rock piles left over from clearing the fields), so finding the original edges of the fields is the easy part.

The harder part is cutting down the numerous trees that have crossed the boundaries and invaded the fields. We’re not talking dozens of trees, or even hundreds. We’re talking thousands, ranging in size from a few inches tall (barely more than seedlings) to some rather large ash and maple trees several inches thick and more than 20 feet tall.

While I have left a few of those nicer trees (the ones that were barely past the field boundaries), I cut down the rest using my trusty pruning loppers and my hand saw. I could have used more powerful tools, such as a chainsaw, but using manual tools let me work carefully and cut the trees down as close to the ground as possible, sometimes even cutting them below the surface of the soil, an important preparation for my next step in reclaiming the edges of these fields.

2. Tackle Brush With A String Trimmer Mower

After cutting down the trees, I next tackle the remaining grass and brush using a hand-pushed string trimmer mower. A mower like this will do a good job and give you plenty of control to progress at your own pace, which can be valuable if the terrain is rocky or if you’ve left some small tree stumps behind.

Once you’ve trimmed all of the brush, you should be able to focus on potential trouble spots that could make subsequent mowing difficult—rocks and small stumps being the main thing to watch out for.

3. Maintain With A Riding Lawn Mower

The only problem with cutting down hundreds or thousands of trees is that they try to grow back—and believe me, they can do so vigorously. One spring I cut down some weed cherry trees on the edge of a field, and to my complete shock they grew back to six feet tall by the end of the year.

Because trees can be so vigorous in resprouting from their roots, you must take action to keep them at bay. One option is to dig up the roots of all these little trees, but because in my case they’re growing right next to a long line of old, mature trees, that wasn’t possible.

Instead, I’m working toward mowing the edges of the fields several times a year with a riding lawn mower. This approach isn’t perfect—I need to smooth out the ground a little more, remove some stray rocks and make it easier to mow as close to the edges of the fields as possible—but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and I’m able to keep the little trees from getting too large despite their resilience in resprouting.

4. Experiment With Alternative Approaches

The steps outlined above describe the main ways I battle these invading trees, but I also actively seek new techniques to make the process easier or more efficient. For example, faced with a bunch of short seedlings six to 12 inches tall, I’ll consider skipping the first step (cutting them down with pruning loppers) and skip directly to mowing them down with my string trimmer mower, which is powerful enough to shred these small trees and leave almost nothing behind.

Much larger and more powerful mowers are also an option in some cases—for example, a mower pulled behind a large tractor. However, mowers like these are unable to do the job as cleanly as a smaller mower, and with that much power, you want to avoid any rocks or stumps that could damage the mower.

Needless to say, maintaining the edges of these fields is an ongoing quest that requires careful attention every year. But the results are absolutely worth it.

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