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Re-creating forest habitat

I have just purchased a new house in central New Jersey on an acre of property in a development. The builder left a good portion of the backyard and the sides alone. They consist of mainly young oaks (I estimate up to 40 years old). The forest floor is mainly leaf litter, sticker bushes, emerging trees, and some ferns. There does not appear to be much animal life and it is not pleasant to look at. My question is, should I leave it alone, or try to improve it by clearing out some of the undergrowth and leaves, and plant some shade tolerant berry bushes and other plants, which will attract wildlife. I plan on creating a habitat in the cleared section of the backyard along the woods edge, but would like to extend it into the woods. My goal is only to attract and sustain as much wildlife as possible. Under natural conditions, I imagine wildfires would eventually burn out the underbrush, but since that is unlikely to happen, how can I best replicate the process.

Backyard Expert - Cathy Nordstrum

Many people move to a rural area and the first thing they do is clear their lot of all the "debris." I commend you for taking the time to investigate the possibilities before rushing forward. Even though many of the plants on your property are not native and may not be ideal habitat, the forest has established a balance over the years and you should work with that.

You can work slowly to return the woodland back to a more nature and wildlife friendly area by first identifying the plants that are on your property. If you are up to the task, great. If not, seek out a person who is familiar with plants in your area (a member of the Native Plant Society or a steward at a park or preserve) to identify those plants that should remain and those that may be invasive or a nuissance.

Visit natural areas to see what plants belong in your woods. Then begin removing the undesireable plants and begin adding understory trees, shrubs and the ground layer to rehabilitate the land for wildlife use. Keep your leaf litter and allow subsequent layers of fallen leaves to continue building soil. Remember that this is a process that takes time, so be patient, have fun with it, and know that the wildlife will return. All the best to you on this worthwhile venture!

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