By Rhea Hamilton-Seeger
Get your shovels sharpened, I have a challenge for you.
Last November I wrote to you about the highly invasive Phragmites australis, a tall, plumy grass that at first glance makes you want to cut it and take it home.
I had the distinct pleasure to hear three of Ontario’s top phragmites experts at an information and demontration session in Goderich recently. The situation with the spread of this plant is far worse than you or I could imagine. And learning how bad it is was a crucial part of the day; it strengthened our resolve to seek it out and remove it before it gets a greater foothold here in our part of Ontario.
There are hundreds of acres of coastal wetland in the Lambton area, which is not that far south of us here in Huron, that are literally dead zones with no other living plant, amphibian, bird, you name it, in that area. There are large stands already here in Huron and it’s travelling up into our watersheds.
When you are faced with a wall of this plant, you quite quickly understand the problem but it is greater than any one individual. This is now a municipal, provincial and federal problem.
A stand of phragmites can stop everyone from enjoying their favourite stretch of beach, stream or river. Once into drainage ditches, the flow of water stops. This plant can push up through roads where it is heavy in the ditches. A little work now saves big money later.
There are good, well-organized people working on the roles the provincial and federal government can play. Some of our own municipalities are aware but I did not see any at the workshop. I understand there have been presentations to the county roads departments. They play a crucial role in the spread of this plant. When digging in ditches and roadways where the plants are present, it does not take much material in the tire treads to be transferred to a new area to infest. That also holds true for ATV recreational users.
So my challenge to you is to keep your eyes peeled for this plant, contact the landowner, and encourage its removal. We have spotted a stand of Phragmites taking hold of a spring-fed area, uphill from the Maitland River. We have to approach the landowners to alert them. Human intervention is the only way. While you can apply herbicides you have to be licensed and for good reason. There are some areas where spraying would be detrimental to the rest of the environment. The idea is not to kill everything else in the process. The number one effective way for smaller sites is simple spading of underground roots.
This works in small areas, on coastal dunes and at the sediment level in wet sites where the phragmites is sparse.
Our demo at the Hindmarsh Farm, south of Goderich, started with a sharp shovel. The sharper the better! You select a plant and aim the shovel at a 45 degree angle so that you slice through the stem and the root below. Don’t wiggle it back and forth. Simply cut, and pull gently out. If you have to pull or tug, then you need to cut again. Some stems are sideways and not up and down. The idea is to deprive the plant of air and sunlight. Gather the plant material, on a tarp if necessary to avoid dropping roots or seeds, and dispose of it by burning or by rotting it in a garbage bag. Do not compost it. While I was listening to how easy this plant can populate an area I was thinking about as gardeners we all have our nemesis in the garden. Think twitch grass, bind weed, or gout weed. Now imagine them on steroids and you have an inkling of how invasive this species is.
The best tip of the day was learning how to differentiate it from other grasses. The leaves wrap around the stem. If you carefully pull a mature leaf off the plant you will see a cuff at the base of the leaf called a ligule. Along the edge of the cuff are fine white hairs.
Our speakers also tempered their presentation with photos of before and after where crews have gone in and tackled large patches. It can be eliminated but it will take a lot of work and time is of the essence.
We have an expert in our own backyard with Karen Alexander of the Lake Huron Coastal Conservation Centre in Goderich. Karen knows first hand how phragmites have evolved along our shoreline. In 2011, Karen started mapping the infestation along the shoreline from Sarnia to Tobermory. She has seen first hand the damage done to sensitive wetlands and to areas we all like to enjoy and now cannot.
For more information refer to the Coastal Centre website https://www.lakehuron.ca. To learn what’s already been done and what needs to be done see http://morelmag. ca/article/taking-mighty-phragmites-australis
When we were not getting excited about phragmites, I did get into the garden. I have found that the cooler summer temperatures and moist days have slowed my tomatoes. The plants on the patio are further along than those in the garden. This may not have been the year to plant directly through the six-inch layer of leaves to the soil. The soil has not really heated up and while the plants have grown a bit they appear to be waiting for some magic pill or in this case a ‘ray’. My consolation is that the water table is up and the trees are looking full and healthy after a few years of spotty rain. This is what makes for interesting stories being grown into the trees. Years from now someone may look at the rings of a freshly cut tree and see the weather was wet this year and dry for 10.
Happy Gardening. Remember to start slipping your favourite geraniums this month for a winter of joy.◊
Rhea Hamilton-Seeger and her husband live near Auburn. She is a skilled cook and gardener.