Stewardship through the Seasons—Winter Woodland Care

Posted: November 30, 2017

Some stewardship activities can be done easily during the winter, with the bare trees allowing a different perspective.

We have yet to see any significant snowfall in Central Pennsylvania, but as we’ve seen most of the leaves finally letting go after the slow and subtle fall season—and with some recent colder temperatures—the season is feeling more winter-like. Undoubtedly, it is a wonderful time for quiet reflection and a nice respite from outdoor projects. It also can be a very insightful time for learning and caring for your woodland. Some stewardship activities can be done easily during the winter, with the bare trees allowing a different perspective.

Here are some selected activities for the winter months to help improve your woodland in the long run, including some you can think about and take action on while you’re enjoying a walk:

  • Cut grapevines from good-quality trees. Grapevines are native and an important food source for wildlife, but they sometimes grow in such abundance that they limit the growth of trees, shrubs, and vegetation. As grapevines spread through the crowns of the trees in the canopy, they reduce the light available to other plants and may damage tree limbs from their sheer weight. If you find individual trees or sections of your woodland that are dense with grapevines, cut the vines (once at eye level and once closer to the ground).
  • Check for hazardous trees and limbs near trails and structures. Occasional winter ice storms and heavy snowfalls can create problems as dying or dead trees may be brought down or large limbs left dangling precariously. Assessing risks ahead of time can prevent expensive and time-consuming damage to fencing, tree cages, and other structures, while also preventing potential injury.
  • Identify and mark any “cull” trees (with flagging and/or by marking on a map or aerial photo of your property). Just as the word “cull” is used in livestock care and tending, foresters use “cull” to refer to trees that are alive but may be growing in poor form, otherwise weakened, or appearing to be less vigorous than those growing nearby. While dead trees and downed woody materials are important to the forest ecosystem, leaving too many dying or poor quality trees can limit the establishment and growth of new trees and shrubs. By removing some of the poor quality trees in your woodland, you are giving other trees room to grow. You may even consider marking as cull any “wolf” trees—which originally grew in an open pasture and are often characterized by lower and broader-reaching branches. Removing these broad trees will allow other trees (especially young trees) better access to growing space and resources. Before you cut or girdle any cull trees, contact your local PA DCNR service forester for a free visit to help you identify cull trees or confirm your choices.
  • Identify and mark “crop trees” of various sizes and species. One of the goals of forest stewardship is to improve the quality of the woods through active tending. In a forestry context, a “crop” tree is any tree that you want to grow to maturity because it meets one or more of your goals for your woodland (e.g., timber production, wildlife food source, providing seed for the next generation of trees, etc.). In contrast to identifying cull trees to remove, crop trees are identified so that they can be kept and their growth be helped along. In thinking about which trees to identify, consider marking one of each of the species you have in your woodland—this will help to promote species diversity. A service forester and/or consulting forester can help confirm your choices for crop trees, depending on your objectives. Then he or she can help decide which trees around your crop tree need to be removed to create better growing conditions for the crop trees, as well as for forest regeneration.
  • Keep tabs on invasive plants. No matter where you are on the path to controlling invasive plants on your property—just getting to know which ones are invasive, or already having done some work—maintaining vigilance is important. Mark areas that need to be treated, prioritizing the easier-to-tackle small areas first, and monitor for the new individuals that may have just established. Some invasive shrub species like bush honeysuckle and privet are obvious in winter because they retain green leaves long after other leaves have fallen. Control efforts like cutting and mechanical pulling/wrenching can be more enjoyable in the cooler temperatures and open feel of a woodland in winter. A large area of bush honeysuckle can be cut now, making the necessary follow-up treatment in spring (cutting new sprouts then painting stems with herbicide) a little easier.
  • Gather information and input on your planned stewardship activities for the year. Whether you’re trying to learn which method is best to deal with a particular invasive or searching for someone trusted to conduct some of the work in your woodland, use the winter months to catch up on research and planning. Reading is a great way to learn, but there is also much value in talking to fellow woodland owners about whom they’ve worked with, what activities they’ve had success with or learned from.
  • Document the story of your land and your stewardship. Though not as apparent as the physical forest stewardship activities, telling the story of your land and sharing the stories—successes, challenges, shared memories, hopes for the future of the land—is an important way to help ensure the long-term care of our forests. The records, photos, and stories of what you love and value about the land, along with what you’ve done and how you’ve done it, can serve as a lasting legacy as land is passed on from current to future stewards.
  • Share your passion for woodland stewardship. If you plan to bring your neighbor a plate of holiday cookies, consider taking the opportunity to share resources about one of the stewardship activities you have planned for the year. It may serve as inspiration or motivation for your neighbor, or even evolve into an opportunity to share the cost of a service provider or to coordinate efforts on controlling invasive plants.

Your role as a caretaker of your land may feel daunting at times as the to-do list is never fully finished. Taking a broader perspective, however, you may feel inspired to remember that your active and informed stewardship of your own woodland unquestionably adds to the health of the 16.5 million acres of forest blanketing Pennsylvania’s landscape—in this way, your care adds to a multitude of benefits for all of us. Working with your local service forester will likely provide an added dose of inspiration and confidence. You can find your local contact on the DCNR Bureau of Forestry's website.