Every Tree Matters: A Rant on Riparian Buffer Maintenance
Note: A real person wrote this post—me.
I’ve been planting trees professionally for almost 40 years. I’ll bet I planted half a million trees before most of you reading this post were born. In addition, Jeanne and I have our own riparian forest buffers (swaths of trees planted along waterways): a six-acre buffer that’s 19 years old and the new buffers at Whiskey Creek Regenerative Farming that we planted in December 2021.
The 19-year-old buffer is a well-functioning riparian forest buffer I have written about several times. This post, however, is about the newly planted buffers and the diligent maintenance required to achieve our goal: tree canopy closure in seven years. Tree canopy closure is when the upper branches of one tree touch the branches of a neighboring tree. Every tree matters; as many trees as possible must thrive to achieve closure.
A Successful Buffer
The three most important aspects for a successful riparian forest buffer are proper tree planting, proper shelter installation, and diligent buffer maintenance, especially during the first three years.
Two growing seasons ago, Jeanne and I had 3,000 trees planted on 9.89 acres along the streams on our newly purchased farm in Churchville, Virginia.
We worked with our professional foresters to make sure we planted the right trees, the right way, in the right places, with effective shelters. Then came the hard part: diligent riparian buffer maintenance.
Why is Riparian Buffer Maintenance Important?
Voles, deer, and invasive plants are the main threats to newly planted trees. Keeping the tree shelter in place is imperative for keeping voles from girdling trees and preventing deer from browsing the trees. Stone mulch around the shelter or herbicide treatment around the shelter will reduce vole damage and the toxicity effects exuded by Tall Fescue.
We can’t perform the necessary maintenance on all the buffers without help, so we hired tree maintenance companies to assist us. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay provided funding to help pay for it. There are other funding sources for buffer maintenance and volunteer organizations looking for buffers to maintain.
The Biggest Lesson of All
You can’t just plant the trees and walk away. I lament when I drive past a neglected buffer with broken shelters and invasive weeds. I ask myself, why can’t the owner walk out there and fix that broken shelter? The first three years after the trees are planted are the most critical. Get help caring for them; you can’t do it alone. We do maintenance ourselves, a lot of it, but we are grateful for help.
Buffer maintenance is much more than tree shelter maintenance. The pros call it TSM, but it should involve maintenance for the tree as well, not just for the shelter—I’d call it T&SM. Buffer maintenance has three main aspects: tree shelter maintenance, tree maintenance, and invasive weed control.
Tree Shelter Maintenance
This is the easy part of buffer maintenance. You just look for broken shelter stakes or a tree emerging from the bird nets. But you have to be in the buffer and walk around to identify these problems. In our first growing season, we removed over 400 bird nets because many tree species grew fast and emerged out of the five-foot shelters.
Tree flopping, with certain species such as Willow Oak, Sycamore, and Black Walnut, is a problem with five-foot shelters. This year, we removed the shelter and pruned the flopped trees back to their breaking point or pruned upper branches to lessen the weight at the top of the tree so that it didn’t bend over. On five-foot shelters, I recommend taller stakes and three cinches, with one at the very top for fast-growing species. Stroud Water Research Center (SWRC) is one year into a study of possible ways to reduce tree flopping, so keep checking its website to learn more.
Bird nets work, but make sure there is a one-to-two-inch hole in the center; that way, a tree growing faster than you can check it can emerge from that hole. If the growing tree can’t get through the bird net, it will be deformed.
Tree Shelter Removal
SWRC found success by simply leaving the shelter on and letting the tree remove the shelter as it grew. I prefer to remove the shelter when the tree can support itself. This is usually when the tree trunk is one and a half to two inches in diameter at the top of the shelter. Attach it to a low branch once you’ve removed the shelter so it dangles. This will prevent deer from rubbing on the tree.
Weeds love tree shelters too. I wish we had put pre-emergence herbicide in the shelters when we planted our trees in the new buffers. Multiflora Rose, Chickory, Honeysuckle, and other invasive weeds that may grow inside the shelter can get taller than the tree, robbing it of water, nutrients, and sunlight. This deprivation greatly affects the vigor of the tree and can even kill it.
Pull the weeds, and prune the tree if necessary. In most cases, we had to temporarily remove the shelter to perform these tasks. Below is a series of five pictures showing this process.
Invasive Weed Control
In addition to killing trees, invasive weeds that have taken over a buffer create the worst image for buffer programs. Farmers and other landowners who see a poorly managed buffer will not want to participate in riparian buffer programs. And allowing such overgrowth is not being a good neighbor because the weed seeds drift over to nearby properties and sprout there.
After July 15, when the grassland birds have fledged, we mow between the rows of trees where we can. Mowing reduces weed pressure and removes vole habitat. It also makes it easier to walk in the buffer to closely inspect the trees and spray or remove invasive weeds.
For the first two years after planting, we hired pros to come in and spray a glyphosate product around each tree shelter. This greatly reduces weed pressure for the trees.
Tips for Landowners
- Understand that maintenance is essential for a successful buffer, especially during the first several years after planting.
- Invasive weeds give buffer programs a bad name, and allowing these plants to grow is not neighborly. Control invasive weeds.
- Get help. Hire professionals, or seek out a volunteer group to help.
- You are responsible for your buffer. Do whatever you can to make sure your trees survive. Inspect your trees and take action.
- Inspect what you expect from the pros.
Tips for Pros
- Make sure clients are aware of all the options available.
- Make sure the client understands your definition of TSM. Does it include tree maintenance?
- Will herbicide also be sprayed on invasives not in the shelter spray zone? Make sure the client understands that.
- Make sure to leave gates and the latch precisely as you found them.
- Does every tree matter, or are you just after a certain survival percentage?
More Information About Riparian Buffer Maintenance
You can find more information about riparian buffer maintenance on the Stroud Water Research Center website.
Tree Maintenance Companies