Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let’s talk about brush.

This Northern cardinal is enjoying his vantage point. 
I frequently see birds flying from our bird bath to this pile.
Brush piles provide cover for wild creatures. When we filled out the application for Backyard Habitat designation, brush piles counted in our favor. As our backyard is larger than the average Jane's, much of it crowded with Ashe juniper thickets, brush piles are easy to come by. In fact, much of the property might be considered a standing brush pile.

I was excited to realize that brush piles are beneficial. They aren't unsightly, but serve as homes to birds, snakes, rabbits, mice, etc. This was a tectonic shift for a girl who grew up in towns where brush piles were signs of a lazy homeowner. It’s all in the perspective, isn’t it?

Boy, do we have brush piles. Everywhere. We have burned lots of brush in our seven years on the hill. But frequently the county issues burn bans due to dry conditions, and the brush starts accumulating in . . . well, piles.

Forgive the photo quality; this was taken on my cell phone.
Last year favorable conditions allowed us to tackle the biggest, baddest brush pile ever – 10 feet wide by 30 feet long. Trees surrounded the monster pile, and our water hoses could not reach. It had been lurking there at the front of our property for a good long while, and had dried to a crisp.  First we cut back surrounding trees and piled that brush nearby. We set the thing alight, not knowing how fast it would burn, and hoping an inopportune gust of wind would not strike. Terrifying.

It burned large, but under control (barely). After the main pile burned, we threw on the newly-cut brush. It was an all-day burn extravaganza. I kept expecting fire department trucks to come wheeling in, sirens wailing, either after calls from nervous neighbors or after a panicked call from us.

We resolved NEVER to pile brush like that again. From now on, we would collect brush in small piles and, if needed, drag branches to a central location a little at a time for burning or chipping.

When I go out to clear small areas, I look for a hidden spot, preferably on a drainage of some sort, to pile brush. I address another issue with this strategy – slowing down the flow of run-off in the next flood event (that’s how we roll here – drought followed by flood). These piles can stay.

Recently we have been creating new brush piles. After watching wildfires scorch Texas this year, we decided to push the brush line away from our house (see Snow White and me). We plan to rent a chipper and make mulch. Meanwhile, the piles shelter birds and other critters. All is good in Pickens Land.

At least that’s what I thought until yesterday, when I read in the newspaper that Travis County officials are formulating new fire control plans, one of which is to minimize brush piles. Wait – brush piles are good, right?  Well, in the case of a wildfire, brush piles are bad. I imagine a burning brush pile would deliver fire up into the canopy very efficiently indeed. Bad.

In the interests of protecting our house, I have exchanged one danger for another. Oh brush, I’m so confused! What should I do?

Everything in moderation, as they say. Brush piles are good, when small and not located close to your house (in retrospect, this seems rather obvious).  As I look out the window at trees gesticulating wildly in the gusty north wind, I’m thinking I should rent that chipper pretty soon.

Sorry little critters. You’ll need to move along to smaller digs before too long.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Black dalea (Dalea frutescens) is native to Texas, Okahoma, New Mexico and northern Mexico, and likes to live on limestone hills. I've not found it in the wild on my property, but it seems to like my flowerbed alright.  This small shrub (mine is about a foot tall) has fern-like foliage and lovely blooms (July to October). I pick this lovely lady for today's favorite!


  1. Such a gardener's conscience you have Cynthia! You have weighed all the issues well. We have brush from pruning too. In fact it is astonishing how much woody material needs removing. We put it in a field and mow it, with the lawn mower or with the flail on the tractor. (Larger pieces are cut up for indoor fires.) I share your nervousness about bonfires... It would be great to own a chipper cooperatively and share.

  2. We don't have as much brush here...thank goodness. This is an old, established neighborhood-type place. So most brush has already been cleared. But, lots of trees, with limbs that fall off.

    We have a fire pit, that was here when we bought. Not sure why, as it turns out there is a permanent burn ban here. We've piled up brush in there, and the wrens love it. It's going to become a planter, though. So those piles will be moved out. Maybe make a smaller pile, away from the house and trees.

    We were 24 here AGAIN this morning. This is just a cold spot, I guess.

  3. The dalea photo just glows!

    I too find it satisfying to pile the brush across a drainage. In addition to slowing the water and giving it a chance to sink in, the water deposits all the leaves it was carrying and a lovely leaf mould forms upstream from the pile. Then the good forest steward in me tussles with my greedy gardener side over whether the mould stays to nourish the forest or goes to the garden for the tomatoes.

    Last winter we built brush "corrals" around our shin oak clumps to protect them from deer. Maybe in a non-drought year that would have worked as well as the goat-wire exclusions we also built, but once the landscape dried out, the deer started working at the brush until they could climb in and eat the trees. I imagine them pounding that brush down with their sharp hooves.

  4. @linnie - we have a neighbor with a chipper who rents out, but a cooperative one would be a great thing, as the brush here is unending.

    @Linda - No matter how you look at it, a brush pile isn't lovely. A planter sounds lovely. No freeze here yet - high enough up to escape it so far.

    @Lona - That is a great way to use brush! I will have to keep my eye out for things that could use protection . . .

  5. Mom, you were PARANOID when you realized there was a possibility our house could burn down!!!