As Raven Sterling strides along the Reed Creek Greenway, she points to a line of what look like logs, each 2 to 3 feet long and about 8 inches in diameter. “English ivy. One of the easiest nonnative invasive plants to deal with,” she says, “It’s generally a shallow-rooted plant. You just have to get back to the main roots, and the plant is not going to come back.” The usually thin vines seen in landscapes can become giant as they climb trees unabated, as in this case.
English ivy was one of the reasons Sterling started Raven Invasive Plant Management in 2019. She’d recently moved from Barnardsville to Asheville and was distraught at the sight of this pernicious weed covering native trees. She posted an offer to help her neighbors address this pest in their own yards on Nextdoor. “Many people were saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize English ivy was a bad plant,’” she says. Nine people responded. “I started doing the work, and that was four years ago.”
Sterling focuses on removing invasive plants physically instead of using chemicals. Recently, the company donated its labor to the Montford Neighborhood Association on the Reed Creek Greenway Cleanup Project. “I hope this donation and greater awareness of the plight of our trees and natural spaces due to invasive plants will encourage others to adopt a portion of the greenway for nonchemical remediation,” she says. “We can do it together.”
Xpress joined Sterling for a walk along the Reed Creek Greenway to discuss the cleanup project, the worst invasive plants in our area and how to remove these weeds.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
Xpress: Can you give me a brief overview of the work you’re doing along the Reed Creek Greenway?
Sterling: Occasionally we will need to pull out our chain saw to cut a large vine, but for 99% of the work that we do, we’re using hand tools. We went through the area, cutting the large vines that were on the trees, which you have to be really careful with. You can only cut through the vine itself. You don’t want to cut through the bark or the cambium layer of the tree. This can damage the thing that you’re trying to save. I don’t encourage anyone to just start chopping vines off trees without knowing what you’re doing. We do this work very intentionally. We cut all of the larger vines, and then we remove the roots of those plants.
In that area, we dealt with English ivy, some of the biggest oriental bittersweet I’ve seen and wintercreeper. By the way, all three of those plants you can still go into a nursery in the state of North Carolina and purchase because our laws are not strong around nonnative invasive plants.
What we’re trying to do is to keep those mature plants from going to seed again. We’re stopping that process to prevent another year of birds eating those seeds and spreading them all over neighborhoods.
What do you think is the worst offender among invasive plants in the Asheville area?
As I’m standing anywhere outside, the worst plant is the one that’s killing the tree right in front of me. It is a site-by-site answer, and it could be five at one site. They are all horrible. They’re all outcompeting native plants that we rely on, that our wildlife relies on. They’re all horrible plants that cannot be allowed to thrive here. You probably saw the Bradford pear trees blooming all over Asheville. It’s horrifying when you see a patch of Bradford pears [a weak tree that lives only 10-20 years] going up a mountainside, and you know what it’s going to look like 15 or 20 years from now and there are no native trees left in that area.
If you identify something like that in your yard, what is the best way to remove it?
It depends on the plant. If you have a giant paulownia tree, the princess tree, in your yard, you’re going to deal with that very differently than you’re going to deal with a patch of English ivy. It’s going to take different tools, different resources. First, you need to identify the plant and know the offensive plants in this area. And if it’s English ivy, take plants out by the roots as much as you can. If you can’t do the work or don’t want to, then find a professional, someone who knows what they’re doing. Just start dealing with it. Many of these plants go to seed, and it’s the primary way that most of them reproduce. Stopping them from going to seed should be the No. 1 goal and then removing the plants and monitoring them. These plants are very good at what they do, which is reproducing themselves and creating monocultures. You’re not going to go in there one time, take them all out and think, “My job is done here.”
How can we be proactive to keep these invasive plants out of our landscapes?
Be connected to your land. We have to be stewards of land. We see land as property. Many of us are so far disconnected from the land that we don’t recognize it as a living organism that we all depend on. If you have land, you need to be on it, you need to know what’s growing there. Identify invasive plants and remove them. It’s your responsibility as a landowner. Then, ideally, focus on planting native plants. Native plants are what our wildlife rely on. When a flock of birds descends on a patch of nandina, they eat the berries and fall dead to the ground because they’re used to landing on American holly. They didn’t know the difference. They just saw the bright red berries. That’s the problem. We often plant nonnative plants in our landscapes, knowing nothing about them, knowing nothing about the toxicity of those plants, not even knowing they’re invasive. Understanding plants on your land is really important.
When you talk about having wildlife in the landscape, what do you mean?
When I talk about wildlife, that’s a really broad term for most life on the planet that is not human and not plants. People fail so often to realize that and to respect it. For me, it goes down to the microbes in the soil, the little insects that are in the soil, up to the larger insects that are eating those insects, to the birds that are eating those insects to all of it to this web of life that we’re a part of. I very much see the symbiotic nature of this giant organism that we’re a part of that is our Mother Earth. The decision not to use chemicals is really a reflection of my appreciation and respect for all forms of life.