Weeding to Renew a Dune

We recently became caretakers of a spectacular natural dune in Northern Michigan.  The biggest challenge we faced was that it had been neglected for decades and was completely choked with non-native invasive plant species that had nearly pushed out all of the desirable flowering plants native to Michigan's northern dunes.  With close to an acre of dune, we faced a herculean effort in front of us attempting to revive the depauperate natural flora.

What made it so critical in our minds to restore this property to its natural state was that despite the relentless successes of the invaders, several wonderful species of natives still survived somehow by a thread.  What was of particular concern to us was to resuscitate the few surviving chlorotic and stunted Common Milkweeds, Asclepias syriaca.  This much maligned and misunderstood plant is far from a lowly weed, but is rather a heroic surviver that nurtures the beautiful Monarch Butterfly and protects it from extinction.  The Milkweed is in fact the only plant on which the Monarch, after its epic annual journey from Mexico to Northern Michigan, can lay its eggs.  What makes it even more critical to preserve the Milkweed is that the female Monarch only lays one or two eggs on each Milkweed.  So, it became our mission to renew the dune on behalf of the few extra monarchs that might live as a result of our efforts.

A Monarch on another type of native milkweed, Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

Except for being extremely tedious, it wasn't particularly difficult to remove the thousands of Spotted Knapweed, Centaurea maculosa, that had overtaken much of the dune.  With their phytotoxic roots, Spotted Knapweed, will eventually weaken and kill most other plants in their path by slowly poisoning them.  Fortunately, with their relatively small taproots it was fairly simple to pluck most of them out by hand.  For the less compliant, more deeply rooted ones, we simply used the Radius Ergonomic Hand Weeder.  Unfortunately, their seeds remain viable for more than a decade, so we will return to this hateful task annually for many years to come.

A much more difficult task was to remove the hundreds of densely packed Baby's Breath, Gypsophila scorzonerifolia, a pernicious uninvited perennial weed from Russia.  It's truly daunting to attack these long-lived long-limbed interlopers with their enormous woody taproots; sometimes up to six inches in diameter and six feet deep.  While it's uncertain whether or not its roots are phytotoxic--although I suspect they are--they are so efficient in sucking moisture from the soil that they effectively cause most other nearby plants to wither and die of thirst. 

Two smaller infestations of Baby's Breath.

Even with a tool designed specifically to remove deeply rooted weeds and woody plants, it was not at all easy to extricate these aggressive Soviet invaders.  The best method is to sink the PRO Weeder's blade into the soil in several places very close to the taproot, wiggling it to loosen its grip.  Then, being careful to avoid severing its roots, you have to pry it slowly out.  That's right, you can, and are actually supposed to, use the Radius PRO Weeder as a pry-bar for plants.  I can tell you from repeated experience that the moment when the root finally releases it is always as unexpected as it is strangely satisfying.  We've never seen another weeding tool that would stand even the tiniest chance against this unwelcome foe.

With the Radius PRO Weeder, I was able to extract this Baby's Breath with its entire six foot long tap root.

In only a year the Milkweed have returned.  Their health and color is excellent.  These Monarch magnets have some of the sweetest smelling flowers of any native.  What an irony that "weed" is a part of their name.