Seeing the Forest in a New Light

Julie Falk
Adams County Master Gardener

The old adage "Can’t see the forest for the trees" probably applies to most gardeners during the growing season. Moving our focus from the individual flowers and fruits of summer, we can now look up at the larger environment in which we garden. Although we generally plant in open space, some of you may be fortunate enough to have groves of trees under your care. In Pennsylvania, we have a characteristic way of seeing our forest, but viewing it through a slightly different lens can reveal beauty and value that might otherwise be missed.

"Penn’s Woods" were densely forested when the first Europeans arrived. We once called that type of primeval woods a "virgin forest". Since there is scant untouched woodland in the eastern United States, today it is more common to hear the term "old-growth". Old-growth forests usually share some agreed-upon characteristics: the majority of the trees are old, perhaps 150-200 years of age; there is a well-developed understory of tree species that prefer to grow beneath the tall canopy. Old trees that have fallen lie on the forest floor, and the "light gaps" created by their death are home to seedlings and saplings of diverse age and type. Old-growth is surely useful for watershed protection, wildlife habitat and climate control – but I love it for its beauty. To me, standing in an old grove is as spiritual as being in the grandest of cathedrals.

Pennsylvania has a long and proud tradition of forestry, so most of our woodlands are managed for forest products. They are useful in a different way, but they don’t have the awesome trees, the mossy logs, or the general lushness of old-growth. Without these characteristics, one also sees fewer species of flowers, mammals, birds and insects. The state of Pennsylvania has identified twenty areas of old-growth, mostly in the north-central part of the state, with a website describing "An Auto Tour of Old Growth Forests". The Alan Seeger Natural Area is fairly close to us, in the State College area. It is a 390-acre parcel along Standing Stone Creek that was probably too inaccessible to be logged back in the 19th century. Some of the oldest and most magnificent trees in the state are growing there. It would be a great destination for a woodland hike next spring, as would some natural areas in the Tuscarora State Forest.

This 1924 photo from the Skyland area at Shenandoah National Park
 shows how large areas were once cleared

Woodland trails along Shenandoah's ridgeline today
demonstrate the reward for allowing forest to regenerate

The Gettysburg area doesn’t have any designated old-growth forest. We do have some very fine woods that have been protected in the national military park since the Civil War, and some nice second growth forests in areas like Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve. If you are lucky enough to own a woodlot, I hope you’ll consider fostering its natural process of growth and succession. At first, I found it hard to imagine that a cut-over landscape could ever recover very fully. But there are some spectacular examples of regeneration in the Appalachian Mountains. Both Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park contained heavily cleared landscapes by the time they were dedicated in the 1930s. Old photographs show that large patches of native forest were obliterated by logging and grazing. If you take a trip down the Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway today, the mountains are beautifully forested. Though the woods are not "virgin", they have been allowed to recover many of the features that characterize old-growth or mature second growth forests. The regenerative power of nature in just a few decades is truly amazing.

So what’s a gardener to do? You can foster the development of tomorrow’s mature forest by doing just a few simple things. Plant native species of trees and flowers, and place them in the correct habitat for their needs. Value the understory trees as much as the big oaks and hickories – the smaller ironwoods, pawpaws and striped maples each have a role to play in nature’s complex web. When a tree falls, let at least some of the deadwood decay on the ground, and appreciate the beauty of the mosses and ferns that spring up. Try to control invasive non-native weeds like honeysuckle and multiflora rose that prevent the native seedlings from growing in the light gaps and around the woodland margins. Gardeners are patient people. We can just sit back and let nature take its course. The woodland patch we nurture today could be old-growth in a few generations!

Read other articles about trees

Read other articles by Julie Falk