Not like we see today. Not at all like we see today.
The Ashe Juniper that is overtaking the Hill Country has always been here, but in localized breaks that were protected from fires. The specimens were much bigger than what most people have ever seen.
I've lived in this area for eighteen years and just recently have seen several true "old growth" trees in one area. They are gorgeous, tall, and so big around that it takes two people to reach their arms around the trunk. The tree that we commonly call cedar has had many uses over the years, and still does.
Starting in the mid eighteen hundreds the native cedars were harvested for building materials and charcoal production. The research I¹ve done on the history of the area is that the Hill Country was approximately 60% grassland and 40% tree covered with Oaks, Elm, Juniper, and many others. The grass was very dense and tall. At the same time the Junipers were being harvested the grass was over grazed. Chain dragging and other clear cut clearing methods were performed to make more grazing area. This went on for decades. Settlers in this area added one more important variable that has had an important impact to the over infestation of cedar: we stopped the natural prairie fires. Add all this together and couple it with a very opportunistic species that is extremely well adapted to the area and you get millions of acres of young bushy cedar trees. It is well known that this is detrimental to the amount of rain that makes it down to the ground and the water that stays in the ground.
I have spent years clearing the young cedar in different areas of our ranchito outside Wimberley. We have used every common method: chainsaws, Bobcats, bull dozers, cedar choppers (fencepost harvesters,) and a Hydro Ax. Oh yea, I¹ve run over a few with a pick up too.
In my experience dozers produce the most collateral damage. In this area there are so many rocks underground that come up to the surface with tree roots when the trees are pushed over. It is easy to spot an area that was cleared with a dozer. Nearly all the common clearing methods end with burning. Weokgfvhn32 had a burn scar in the middle of our pasture for five years that no grass, not even weeds, would grow.
Methods that mulch are the best in my opinion. This returns the bio mass back to the soil. The mulch layer helps in moisture retention and aids the process of land restoration. More about Hydro Axing, Native grass seeding, and Land Restoration will have to continue next month.
Recently we cleared a two and a half acre lot in River Crossing on 281 north of San Antonio. It had been for sale by owner for over a year. In the week after clearing the owner received two calls on it; this was more response than he had in six months.
If a piece of land is over infested with Juniper, clearing will have many positive effects. Water conservation, other tree improvements, and grass restoration have been discussed in previous articles. Other important aspects that will increase are the usability, curb appeal, and value. The increase will be more than the cost of clearing, particularly if it is done correctly in conjunction with a land restoration program.
Another project we are working on is a 60-acre job that was so thick it was useless for grazing, the owner¹s desired purpose. This project is showing amazing results that we are very proud of. Pictures of both mentioned projects are available on our website, restoreyourland.com
If you have land for sale you will find that a professional clearing job will expedite a successful close. Many people have difficulty visualizing what a property will look like with a mass of trees in the way. Even after seeing many properties it is often a pleasant surprise how beautiful they become with a little work. Oaks and other trees appear that seemingly were not there.
On the flip side, if you are looking for a piece of land in the Hill Country, use your imagination. Buying an over infested property can save money. Consider taking an eight-foot stepladder to determine if there are views obstructed by the cedar, as often is the case around here. Costs estimates can be provided for use in figuring the overall cost of the land.
Lastly, as a shameful plug, clearing and land restoration make wonderful Christmas presents. Everyone involved with Greater Wimberley Construction, Inc. wish you and your families and friends a fun, safe, and spiritual holiday season. We are thankful for our initial success and look forward to working with more of you next year!
Why mulch? Watch the Garden Channel for a little while and they will explain why mulch is good.
Water retention and the extreme reduction of erosion are the main reasons in this case. Over a few years it will build new soil and a healthy base for grasses and other beneficial species.
Millions of acres in this area are covered with one species of plant: Ashe Juniper. It is a native species and is well adapted to an arid region. Unfortunately, due to civilization interfering with natural controls it has taken over much of the area. This is adding significantly to the lack of ground water and our overall water problems. Once again, the primary reason is the foliage of the cedar tree holds so much rain before any can hit the ground. Walk through a dense cedar covered area in a rainstorm. You will be amazed at how dry you will stay under the cedar trees.
If it rains less than a quarter inch you probably will be completely dry. Now look down at the ground. It will be completely dry also. If a large machine is brought in to mulch the trees in place the same material that was preventing the water from hitting the ground now serves the exact opposite purpose. It holds the moisture in the ground. The mulch also shades the soil and lowers the soil temperature in the summer reducing the baked barren soil we see so much of around here. Erosion is stopped by the pieces of wood physically holding the particles of soil that were flowing down with the water. This collection of soil particles not only stops erosion in its tracks, but it slowly builds new soil from the upstream erosion, new vegetation, and the decomposing mulch.
A common question we hear is what to do with the mulch? Well, for the reasons explained above it should be left. If there was little or no native species of grasses then the area should be seeded. The results of this land restoration will not be as immediate as the new views created by clearing the cedar, but they may be just as rewarding. The New Year is a good time to plan for a land restoration project!
It is well known and undisputable that the Ashe Juniper is overtaking the Hill Country. Is this necessarily bad?
The tree¹s water consumption is the most cited and dramatic reason that it is indeed not a good thing. Educated people disagree on the specifics of this problem, and no claims will be made here about how many thousands of gallons of water are wasted by each tree, but it is significant.
Water consumption is not the only reason to discourage the overpopulation of Cedar. Look at a pasture that is being overgrown with Cedar. Native grasses are being killed out, which greatly increases erosion. Also this is reducing the native habitat and food source for many species of wildlife. Everyone is familiar with Cedar competing with Oaks, but several cases near here will demonstrate Cedar killing huge old Pecan trees by out competing for water.
Selective clearing can open areas for grasses and other species of trees. Also it can open hunting areas, clear fence lines, open up view corridors, or just make a piece of land usable again for walking, horseback riding, or grazing. Land that is not overgrown is more valuable for sale also.
Land restoration includes selectively clearing the Cedar, leaving any old growth trees that may be present and smaller specimens for privacy or wildlife cover. The mulch created by Hydro Axing acts as a band-aid to the ground immediately reducing erosion, and retaining moisture. A Hydro Ax (hydraulic ax) is a piece of machinery that can be thought of as a lawnmower on steroids. It will literally mow a tree up to twelve inches in diameter creating course mulch. During the process a native grass seed mix can be broadcast before the mulch has a chance to settle. This gives a good cover for the grasses to become established. This process is easy to complete and affordable and will benefit the land, its owners, and wildlife for years to come. Only small maintenance every several years will be required to keep the Cedar from returning. The mulched trees will not come back, but there will be some seeds in the ground. A few seedlings will come up and can be trimmed with clippers or a lawnmower.
There can be other benefits to land restoration as well. This is the time of year to plant wild flowers! We are adding wild flower seed to the native grass seed on several jobs now and can hardly wait to see the results next spring.
As we continue our business I am constantly reminded that over infestation of Cedar is not a good thing. Several properties we have cleared lately have had good specimens of other trees, Live Oaks, Cedar Elms, Pecan, and others, that have been near death. Some have been dead due to the cedar out competing for water and in some cases light. We look forward to the next few years when these trees that have been rescued will return to health and their potential beauty.
Lots of people in the Hill Country will make claims about how many gallons of water a day a large Ashe Juniper tree will consume. Several years back our county extension agent answered the question: Cedar trees are very disliked by many in this area, is there a legitimate reason for this prejudice? The answer was a long one. There are good things about these trees, but the sheer number of trees in an over infestation negates the positives. The biggest negative is the commonly known reason, water consumption.
There are primarily three reasons that the cedar is a water waster. When it rains the trees foliage will hold approximately a quarter inch of rainfall before it starts to hit the ground. At the end of the rain this quarter inch evaporates into the air without ever getting to the ground. Secondly, when it rains enough to get past the foliage the cedar tree is structured to pull rainfall down towards its trunk. Most other trees shed water at their drip line. The last reason that he explained has to do with the internal structure of the foliage. He explained that most trees have the ability to close their "pores" during hot weather conserving water. The juniper tree does not have this ability, leaving it to create an open wick to the ground transferring water all the time.
In fairness, other educated people interviewed have not concurred completely with the third reason cited. Some even feel that if you had an infestation of oaks or any other woody species you would experience the same loss of water.
The horticulturists that I have spoken with do agree with the benefits of mulching the cedar trees in place. The mulch immediately begins retaining water in the soil and reducing erosion. A good environment is made to reestablish native grass and the biomass of the mulched trees slowly composts and returns to the soil.
One hundred fifty years ago the Hill Country was mostly grassland. Forty percent covered with woody species, many types of Oaks and other trees, sixty percent covered with a thick stand of native grasses. These grasses were knee deep and much thicker than anything around here now, even areas that have not been grazed in at least a decade.
It has puzzled me for some time why we cannot restore land easily back to this condition. The reason is that the overall condition of the land has changed dramatically and topsoil has been lost. Historical accounts vary, but it is possible that the ground used to be covered with spongy vegetation, something I am still researching. This spongy mat of fine grass and moss described in one classic book is not talked about much but could have served an extremely important function: capturing and holding moisture in the soil. In this account, the soil, even in the hottest part of the summer, always had some moisture and did not get to the baked state that we see in most of the Hill Country today which makes it nearly impossible to establish a thick stand of native grasses. Even when we clear a forested area we need to be careful not to expose the ground that was protected from the sun by a canopy of trees to direct sunlight on the ground. This will bake the soil and make the restoration process much more difficult. This topic was discussed at a recent site visit with a representative of the Texas Forest Service. At this property, we are clearing some of the hardwoods as well as cedar to allow a restoration process to begin. Native grasses will be planted and clearings made to enhance the property for recreation, natural habitat, as well as forage for wildlife.
I will submit that mulching the woody species in place, primarily the Cedar, will replicate the service of the spongy mat that may have covered the ground. The mulch layer will catch the moisture and hold it. It also will protect the soil from sunlight, lowering soil temperatures and preventing the damaging effects of baking the soil. Erosion control is another important function that the spongy growth served and newly created mulch will serve. The process of rebuilding the lost topsoil will be immeasurably improved.