Thorns, Thorns Everywhere!
June 12, 2011 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I am going to inherit neglected piece of land that is covered in wild blackberry bush. There are fruit trees and currants somewhere in there, but I can't get to them. I don't know where to start with this - I would like to make this piece of land manageable, but I don't want to use herbicides and kill everything in sight. Are there any earth-friendly/permaculture solutions to this?
posted by leigh1 to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You could rent a Bobcat and tear up the brush that way; it'll still kill stuff, but not chemically, and you can shred the refuse or whatever into mulch.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:41 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Any people with goats live nearby? Goats eat blackberry bushes, and some breeders will lend a goat. Or you could just get a couple of goats for good (they're happiest in twos, a wethered male and female). Pygmies are adorable, one of my friends has a couple and they're like a hoppity mix of cats and dogs that butt heads. Bonus: organic manure fertilizer.
posted by fraula at 11:45 AM on June 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

Contact your county extension office, and/or if your state has a university with an ag program, contact them. They can help with questions like this, since they're going to be familiar with your local climate, terrain, and native/invasive flora.
posted by rtha at 11:49 AM on June 12, 2011

Depending on where you are you might be able to *hire* a goat to clear your land.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:54 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I understand not wanting to use chemicals - but are you against using tools to clear and till the land?

I would start with a machete and a chain saw. Hack your way around the property a bit. Make a few trails, get the lay of the land. Clear as much brush as you can by hand.

Then I would rent a brush cutter. A brush cutter would chop up blackberry (and other small tress and bushes) without any trouble.

Then, if I didnt want the blackberry to grow back, I would rent a tiller. Once the land is tilled, then you can do as you please.
posted by Flood at 12:07 PM on June 12, 2011

Around here blackberry is a declared noxious weed. Goats are a solution, but they will not stop at eating the blackberry. You will need to check what else is there, and where it stands on the goats culinary preferences ...

Whatever you do, do it quickly, for your neighbors' sake - while your blackberries fruit, the birds eat it and spread the seeds, giving the neighbors your problem.

You may also find that your neighbors have been reluctant to move against a longstanding neighbor, they may be less reluctant to remind a newcomer of their neighborly (and legal?) obligations ...
posted by GeeEmm at 12:14 PM on June 12, 2011

The answers are going to depend on the size of the land. Clearing blackberries off of 1/10th of an acre is a different job than clearing off 200 acres. Goats work well, but that only makes sense if you can get them locally. Unless you have a lot of land that needs clearing, it probably won't make sense to truck them in from a long way away.

However, the key question is not how to clear blackberries (to which the answer is always "miserably hard work") -- the real problem you need to solve is how to keep them from coming back. Blackberries love, love, love disturbed land. So if you go in, clear them out, maybe tear up the ground a bit with machinery (or till it, as someone just suggested), and then walk away for a few years, you will come back to a reinvigorated and vibrant blackberry patch. You'll need to plant other vegetation, and maintain an active weed control program to keep suppressing the blackberries and other invasives until your preferred vegetation can establish itself. In theory you can shade out the blackberries with large trees, but they are quite hardy and can handle conditions that would discourage lesser plants.

Alternatively, cut some paths and treat it as a blackberry farm, and enjoy the prime picking. Blackberries are good eats, and for all that they are invasive weeds, they add a lot of value.
posted by Forktine at 12:15 PM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

rent some goats!
posted by supermedusa at 12:25 PM on June 12, 2011

Response by poster: This is a big piece of land. I don't think that goats are an option. I'm aware that blackberries love disturbed land, so I'm worried about going in with machinery. These blackberries are small and sour, so I don't have much use of them. Any other ideas? Thank you very much for the suggestions so far.
posted by leigh1 at 12:29 PM on June 12, 2011

leigh1, can you tell us how big the area to be cleared is? Is it shaded? What kind of trees are growing in and around it? Is it accessible to machinery? What is your long-term plan for this piece of ground--orchard? Fruit trees and veggies?

Talk with your local extension agency--or, even better, you nearest farmers--and see if there's someone in your community who could be hired to bring his tractor and Bush Hog to at least cut down some of the problem area. You could then ask him to come back with his tiller. Between those two things, though, you'll need a way to deal with the debris that Bush Hogging will create, so check your local ordinances concerning open burn pits and barrel burns (or see whether you can borrow/rent a trailer and take it to your local green waste facility). You can always try goats first, though, and escalate from there. I agree with the need for a plan to plant new vegetation; an open, disturbed field is an invitation to all sorts of weeds that you *don't* want. IIRC, fruit trees love clover. Depending on your soil and its condition, you might also temporize by growing a cover crop, like soy beans, to improve the soil and then till it under when you're ready to plant something else. Good luck; this is a big undertaking.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:38 PM on June 12, 2011

Goats work fine on large areas, too -- you just need to rent a herd, which will come with herders, dogs, etc. But it's not free; the cost is probably fairly comparable to chemical treatments, maybe higher, and you will need to have the goats back in for a couple of years to deal with regrowth, etc.

But again, unless the county weed board is threatening to take you to court for non-compliance, I would suggest waiting until you know what you are doing with the land before you start tearing things up.

Another possibility would be leasing the land to a local farmer, so that it isn't sitting there growing weeds. But someone will still need to do the clearing -- either you before it is leased, or the farmer, and the bill is going to come back to you for the work.
posted by Forktine at 12:46 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This piece of land is quite big, in a woodland type of environment, but not in a shaded area. It is accessible to machinery. I haven't visited it for quite some time, since it's a couple of hours drive from where I live. My parents planted fruit trees and currants, and I would love to keep them. Since I can't go there very often, I was envisioning a permaculture/woodland type of garden - something that will not need much attention, but would still be useful for me and the environment. I don't mind a wild garden, but I would prefer one that is not overtaken by one plant.
posted by leigh1 at 12:58 PM on June 12, 2011

You've said "big" and "quite big," could you try a little harder and estimate the size in acres or football fields or supply a Google Earth link or something?
posted by rhizome at 1:10 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Let's say about 20 football fields.
posted by leigh1 at 1:25 PM on June 12, 2011

20 football fields works out to less than 20 acres and could easily be knocked down by good sized herd of goats. You would need to protect the fruit trees from the goats (they will eat the bark right off the trunk) but this is exactly what goats are good at. You should google for goat rental in your area.
posted by buggzzee23 at 2:49 PM on June 12, 2011

How about contacting a permaculture training program and offering recent grads free use of the land to live and farm upon, the cost of all materials, (and/or cash payment) in exchange for helping you design and implement a plan that you can sustain over the long term? I'm not sure whether space for a yurt plus the right to sell anything they grew would be the right economic arrangement. You might need to establish a lease of a certain number of years, since it takes a few years to build good soil, so they won't want to put in all the hard work and then have to leave before enjoying the benefits. But it sounds like you need help making a plan, and you don't want to spend a lot of time there at the moment. Partnering with a person who is overflowing with ideas and energy but who needs a canvas for their new skills might help you both.
posted by salvia at 4:34 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you need to better define what you mean by manageable. Do you have immediate intentions for the property? Is there a habitable structure on it? Because unless there's some imminent need why bother disturbing what's there? Just because?

I'd take the approach of ripping it up with a Bobcat or other skid-steer sort of machinery. That'd be the best use of time/equipment. Using a manual brush cutter (and I have one) would be still leave you with the hassle of piling up all the debris. Better to rip through it and pile it up with a Bobcat instead. They're relatively cheap to rent and brain-dead simple to use.

But, seriously, what are the plans for the property once it's cleared? Remember those plants grew due to neglect, are you prepared to engage in enough maintenance to keep the whole thing from happening again?
posted by wkearney99 at 4:42 PM on June 12, 2011

Response by poster: I would like to have access to fruit trees; there are around 40 walnut trees, peaches, apples and plums. All produce from fruit trees now goes to waste. I would like to plant hazelnuts, and other fruit bushes that need little or no maintenance. I think I should be managing the blackberries now because I believe it will only become worse and if I don't do something, it will completely cover the land and suffocate all useful plants.
Thank you all for your answers; I'm sure this is not going to be an easy task, and you helped me to see what solutions are available.
posted by leigh1 at 5:02 PM on June 12, 2011

FWIW, my (quite limited) experience with goats as blackberry suppression has been that while they'll happily eat the young shoots, they aren't as eager about the older established plants and won't really do much damage to them until after they've eaten the easier fare (read: killed all your fruit trees). So I'd go with mechanical means (bobcat, team of laborers with loppers, whatever) to get rid of the brambles, and animals to keep them from returning in subsequent years.

I think rtha's suggestion of contacting the agricultural extension and salvia's of trying to work out a deal with someone are good.
posted by hattifattener at 5:52 PM on June 12, 2011

When you get to the point of being able to plant hazelnuts, talk with Oikos. It has taken three years, but my Oikos hazelnut twigs are now 4'- and 5'-high bushes. I think you'd appreciate their catalog offerings, especially the native and edible fruits.

If you talk with your local ag extension, ask them about the effect of walnut tree roots on other plants. IIRC, the roots carry something that's bad for a number of common garden vegetables, though this may not be an issue with fruit/nut trees.

In March, I chopped down my raspberry canes with a sawblade-equipped weed eater. Perhaps you could rent one for a weekend so you can cut a path to the trees you want to preserve, and mark them out with orange construction tape? That might help in the future when you're indicating what it is that you want to preserve (especially if you get someone in there to help you figure out how viable those fruit trees are).

I posted about gleaning a while back. Perhaps you can contact one of the linked organizations and see whether they'd be interested in harvesting your unused fruit?

wkearney99, I have to disagree--skid loaders have a learning curve and are not to be rented lightly. While a skid steer of some sort might be helpful in scooping up brush and creating a critter-friendly thicket, the machines are not like bumper cars. A friend who has driven everything from tanks to 18-wheelers drives a skid loader over bumpy ground VERY cautiously, and he's always extra careful with the forks. If you rent, get a quick but thorough lesson and be safe. Cleats around the tires will help if your land is muddy or wet.

The trick with brush cutting, I have found, is a) to have a plan to deal with it before you start lopping, sawing, or otherwise uprooting it, and b) to dispose of it as you go along and not, for God's sake, after you've cut everything and now there's a big rain coming in. Cut and move. It really is OK to devote one section of your property to the big brush pile of doom if you choose not to burn it; put feeders in front of it, and consider it your birds' new hangout. But don't leave it lay willy-nilly because weeds will grow up and over it and YES, you'll be sorry.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:44 PM on June 12, 2011

First pick out treatment zones - small managed plots 1/4 or less of your property. Walk each area to get idea of what it has now (trees,etc). Try not to disturb soil around blackberries. If you roto-till blackberries or where they have been you are blackberry farming because next year you will have more than ever dreamed. Get a bulldozer with a brush rake if you can. They can be used to rake along top removing brush and often pulling blackberries by the roots. Clean the area of brush & burn or compost slash in manageable piles.

Next year you will have lots of blackberry sprouts that are small and easy to kill with small amounts of herbicide and a hand sprayer. Maybe Crossbow herbicide. Blackberries are often weak just before first frost and sometimes fast-degrading Roundup is used. Study up on exact herbicide and method for killing blackberries. Take care not to use near soil that feeds desirable plants and trees.

If you really want to get rid of blackberries it will take a combination of attacks, land clearing, slash treatment and careful targeted herbicide use. Blackberries can be hard to control. I've been fighting them for 25 years on my 140 acres. If it ain't the blackberries, its the Canada Thistle, lol.
posted by nogero at 10:31 PM on June 12, 2011

I'm sorry to say, but really, blackberry is a tough noxious weed. You will have to use chemicals, hand removal is virtually impossible.
posted by wilful at 3:54 AM on June 13, 2011

Your best resource is probably a company that hires out guys with BushHogs or other heavyish equipment - they're already experts in how to best solve many similar problems. It would make sense to go walk around the property (clad in very heavy thorn-proof canvas) and flag all the trees you want to keep, so that you have a really clear idea of what you want, what the job really involves. Once you can explain to an outside party exactly what needs to be done, the size of the plot, the density of obstacles to be avoided (i.e. is this big swath of junk with a few clumps of good trees, or an old orchard that he'd be steering through medium-dense regular spacings, or what?), then you'll be in a good position to sit down with an expert and find your best solution.
posted by aimedwander at 10:45 AM on June 13, 2011

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