Bradley Sisters, Bradley Method

“Bringing back the bush involves two quite different kinds of time. The first is time spent working…the second is the time spent waiting…This time costs patience, but no money at all.” — Joan Bradley

I’ve never felt like I had a good answer to the common icebreaker question asking who you would have dinner with if you could sit down with anybody, dead or alive. It’s a strange combination of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, of incredible people who have lived and are living, and also a feeling that I’m not good with people, and should probably stick to learning about them from books because I wouldn’t know how to make the most of an opportunity to meet them.

Nor would I choose to have dinner with people like Joan and Eileen Bradley, with whom I lived in a different time and on a different continent, if I could choose to go for a walk in the park with them instead.

Joan and Eileen Bradley — NSW National Trust

Joan and Eileen Bradley were sisters, both born in the 1910s in New South Wales, Australia. New South Wales is on the east coast of Australia — it’s the state where Sydney is located, and they did in fact live near the city. Neither married; they lived together their whole lives as far as I can tell, Joan holding a career as an industrial chemist, Eileen helping at home and working for a dentist (though not their father, who was also a dentist). After World War II, they traveled to England, Wales, and Scotland, where they toured on their bikes. Later in their lives, they operated a decorating business out of the home that they shared. Not much information is available about their personal lives, but even these small facts seem to set them apart, as women of that time, living apart from what society likely expected of them. Not to mention women of many and varied interests: Joan was also a carpenter and photographer, and both wrote books about the birds they saw around them and the bush regeneration work they undertook (“bush”, in Australian parlance, meaning a wooded area), of particular interest here.

They walked their dog every day, Eileen in the morning, Joan in the afternoon. This is the kind of habit that seems to me most likely to introduce keen observation: when you repeat the same or a handful of trails over weeks, years, you can observe seasonal and other changes over time that you could never see if you only went somewhere once. Land, as with any person or living thing, cannot be wholly represented by its state at a moment in time. Time and place are too intertwined to consider one without the other.

Nor can the human brain see everything that there is to see — ever, but certainly not when seeing something only once or a few times. Our brains are adept at noticing patterns though. The nearby park where Joan and Eileen went for walks was like many others around the world: overrun with invasive species. And as around the world, their municipality made attempts to handle the situation, largely with wholesale removal and clearing of invaded areas. This type of clearing is sometimes followed by the replanting of small, sparsely placed natives, the idea being that these native plantings will grow, spread, and fill in the gaps.

Joan and Eileen saw this happening, and because they walked there every day, over a long period of time, they could also tell that these attempts didn’t work. Weeds came back. Land does not remain bare, and invasive seed banks laying dormant in the soil are a thing to behold, often dense and able to lie in wait for decades for an opportune moment to emerge. So the sisters started pulling invasive plants, by hand or with small hand tools, a bit here and there as they were walking by and through anyway, the way I imagine retired people now picking up trash off the side of the road as they walk. Maybe an hour a day. Not much, but also more than your average dog walker would be willing to give to land they do not own.

And so, over time, what is now known as the “Bradley method of bush regeneration” was born. It boils down to this: the first priority is to maintain areas that are clear of invasives. Keep them clear, remove intruders. This doesn’t take much, other than attention. Removing a small, shallow-rooted unwelcome addition is a brief act, assuming you notice. From these yet un-impacted areas, begin removing invasives from the least impacted areas, moving slowly to the most impacted areas only once native plants have regrown and edge up to the next area you plan to clear: sometimes this means waiting. Waiting for the native plants to work their way up behind you, not removing the invasive ones from the next section until they’ve done so. This part is important: land never stays bare for long, and research has shown that after a concerted effort to clear an area of invasives, often the first thing to grow back is another invasive species — this is known in the industry as leaving a “weed-shaped hole.” Ensuring that native plants are nearby and primed to move back in can help reduce this risk, but it’s understandably not a popular strategy when it’s nonprofits or municipalities doing the work. Humans aren’t known for our patience, and when we are donating money or expecting to see our tax dollars at work, we want to see results. Though it’s perhaps how we got ourselves into this predicament in the first place, people do move faster than plants left to their own devices — hence the small, widely spaced natives that are put in place in the wake of a clearing effort.

In the book Joan wrote on the topic in the 80s she was clear that she did not consider her work to be the removal of invasives, but rather encouraging the growth of the natives — bush regeneration, not clearing. The difference is subtle, since there is wide overlap in the activities undertaken, but having this frame of mind must shift your behavior: if your only goal were to remove the invasive, it wouldn’t matter much if a native plant or two were trampled as you worked your way to it. Not so, if your priority is to allow native plants to grow well how and where they will. Treading carefully begins to matter more, and if you’re waiting for native plants to fill in the spaces before you move on anyway, what’s the hurry?

This progression from least to most impacted calls back to the generalized invasion curve: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Focus on prevention and eradication where you can. If this method sounds slow: yes. Certainly when compared to mechanized clearing strategies that span days, or weeks if the area is large, but never years. Unless you count the need to return every year, which is exactly the thing Joan and Eileen were attempting to dramatically reduce. And they seem to have been successful: they claim to have recovered 40 acres using this method, that by the time they were done, only needed attention to keep it clear of new invasions a couple times a year, but never a concentrated effort like the first. This took them about a decade and a team of people they came to call “regenerators,” a term I find endearing or hopeful. Maybe both.

Volunteer opportunities abound to remove invasive species. Even given the amount of time I invest in this project on my own land, I’ve been known to participate. A group of coworkers took a day off last summer to volunteer pulling blackberries along a city trail: for many of them it was their first introduction to how to identify a blackberry, and to how cruel and embedded their root systems can be, but I did also get to point out salal and Oregon grape to some of them, and the man leading the volunteer effort taught me about snowberry and Pacific ninebark, two native plants I hadn’t yet met. There’s a land trust nearer to me that has work parties on the first Wednesday of every month: there is something different about working together with a group of people toward a common goal, about having people to chat with while you wrestle (gently, if you can) with root balls bigger than your fist.

Volunteer parties usually go something like this: the person leading the effort hands every volunteer a shovel or a mattock, and points out one offending plant to remove, and a few of its identifying characteristics. Here at least, that plant is usually, but not always, Himalayan blackberry. Even if there are other invasive species around, one is chosen, because that way, volunteers who know nothing of the plants they are seeing are less likely to choose incorrectly and start pulling something other volunteers had carefully planted not so long ago. It is hard enough already to teach a volunteer to distinguish between the invasive blackberry and the native one. The invasive has five leaves and the native three, in theory, but to the casual observer a young Himalayan blackberry appears to only have three also, and its uniquely ridged pentagonal stem shape is also too subtle for the gloved and untrained hand. There are other differences between the two plants. In the end, even though we’re more used to thinking of computers as the thing skilled in this area, pattern recognition is something that human brains are very good at, but only given time to establish those patterns.

Joan and Eileen would shake their heads at this strategy anyway, rightly reminding us that if you remove one invasive plant but leave another behind, you’ve just created a wonderful new space of soil and sun for that other one to move into, and you’ve probably done no good at all in the grand scheme of both place and time. But volunteers set to work, with varying levels of success: removing plants, yes, but maybe or maybe not with the roots to go along, and only most of the time the right plant at all. We do this for a couple hours, and then the volunteers disperse back to wherever they came from, or if they all came together, to get lunch or a beer.

One-time or infrequent volunteers seem unlikely to me to be successful at implementing anything approaching the Bradley method, given the intimate knowledge of the plants it requires, which takes time to build — knowledge of what belongs and what doesn’t beyond just one plant that does not. It requires care, to not trample the things that do belong, and more care still to not just have a go at getting the roots, but to truly get all of the root, and maybe also the seeds and even the smallest cutting or root fragment, which could re-root and still thrive. These volunteer work parties also require an area significantly impacted to keep a dozen people occupied for several hours in a small enough space to allow them to engage with each other, share tools. Areas, in short, that are unlikely to be the least impacted, as the Bradley sisters advocated for starting with (the areas lower on the invasion curve, where there is a hope of having a lasting impact).

Still though: I think these volunteer efforts are important. If what we are trying to return to is a healthier ecosystem, humans must be a part of that. Maybe it’s idealistic, but it seems to me that even if no invasives are removed, it can only be a good thing to get a group of people outside, together and with a shared goal, learning something of the plants around them. It can only be a step toward a healthier balance between people and the land we inhabit. And some invasives are removed. Even in places where a single tree can live for hundreds of years, changing too slowly for the human eye to see, much else changes quickly around these largest of specimens. There is always more work to be done, and so something I regularly remind myself of after a day’s work is: it’s not everything, but it’s also not nothing. And not nothing is indeed, something.

“I hope I haven’t dampened your ardour by repeated references to care, discipline, caution and calculating progress over years rather than months,” said Toni May, who in the late 70s worked with the Bradley sisters. That Toni had to say this at all alludes to something visible throughout human history: we have a penchant for quick, visible results, and are not any good at all about prioritizing the long-term future. Even when we attempt it, we prove equally ineffective at accurately predicting the impacts of our actions in a way that allows us to be successful. As someone who wants more than nearly anything else to exhibit these things, the idea that “care, discipline, and caution” would dampen enthusiasm is heartbreaking in itself. And yet, I see it in myself too.

I nearly killed an elderberry tree once, and I still think about it. Calls for care and caution aside, removing the root balls of Himalayan blackberries is not a gentle process. Vines must be cut back and disentangled first, to prevent being impaled in the process of attempting to reach the root ball. And then the root balls themselves, well. They can be larger than my two fists together, long runner roots traveling off of them for ten or more feet, entangled with the roots of other blackberries or trees along the way, firmly rooted and entwined. I have a mean looking shovel that I use for the most desperate of these situations: it has serrated edges and a sharp cutting edge (Joan would shake her head at this too, I am trying to use this shovel less), and I girdled an elderberry tree with it. It was an accident of a moment, as many accidents with long-reaching consequences are. I revisited the elderberry tree regularly over the next year. Its leaves drooped for a while and I thought it wouldn’t make it, but it did re-sprout the following spring. I allowed myself briefly, to hope, until a nearby alder tree fell in a spring windstorm, crushing it. I can see new growth though, my shovel and a falling tree are no match for its resilience.

All that to say: the spirit, the care with which you kill something matters.

The Bradley method can make invasive species removal sound idyllic, more like caring for your vegetable garden; slow and gentle. It can be. Probably should be, where possible. But let’s be realistic: it’s not always possible. The plants do not invade gently, do not hold loosely to the earth in which they find themselves planted.

Nor do they go quietly, leaving nothing of themselves behind: all plants go to seed, but some do so more dramatically, more successfully. When a single holly tree or scotch broom plant can disperse tens of thousands of seeds each, that can lie dormant in the ground for decades, the calculus shifts too, and the line between prevention and removal gets fuzzier. It’s more straightforward with holly: start with the female trees. The males will still form impenetrable hedges, but they move more slowly, disperse less. They will still be there next year, only a little bigger than the year before. If you leave a female, it will still be there too, but so might hundreds or thousands more, having traveled far and wide on the soles of your shoes or in the belly of a bird. Less so with scotch broom: you’ve just got to get it all, and even so, you’ll need to go back next year, and quite possibly for the rest of your life, since the seeds can survive in the ground for sixty years or more. Alas.

It’s possible for an invasive plant to leave more than seeds behind too — some plants leave behind allelopathic compounds in the soil, chemicals which inhibit the growth of anything else. Where the soil itself has been altered, become hostile, even time may not be enough, at least on a scale that most people are willing to wait. We can help it along, if we are willing and know what needs to be done, but it does mean restoration may require more of us than patience. Joan and Eileen may have simply been lucky, if the plants they were removing didn’t leave a legacy like that.

Joan talks most of lantana and privet in her book, but lists of invasive species in New South Wales where they lived include some familiar names: a rubus and scotch broom, both of which I know not to be gentle to remove, and which make me feel a strange connection to these women I wish I could go for a walk in the park with. But others are unfamiliar to me, and perhaps in that unfamiliarity, allow me to return to an idea of whimsey: mickey mouse plant, ground asparagus, turkey rhubarb, mother of millions. These names make me want to know these plants. It makes me want to know them in the places they came from, the places in which they belong and are part of a thriving community.

That’s the thing though: any plant can seem magical, whimsical. It’s in getting to know the thing that we learn its true nature, and learn the ability to see it for what it is, and perhaps learn to appreciate it as part of a whole, to appreciate the context from which it came, in which it’s kept naturally in check. All of this is part of knowing the thing itself.

Bradley, Joan, Bringing Back the Bush: The Bradley Method of Bush Regeneration (New Holland Publishing Australia Pty Ltd, 2002)

Davis, M., Chew, M., Hobbs, R. et al. Don’t judge species on their origins (Nature 474, 153–154, 2011)

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press Inc., 1949)

Merriam-Webster, Dictionary, Online 2022

Ostrom, Elinor, Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms, (The Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 14, №3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 137–158)

Tallamy, Doug, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press, 2020)

Poland, Therese M.; Patel-Weynand, Toral; Finch, Deborah M.; Ford Miniat, Chelcy; Hayes, Deborah C.; Lopez, Vanessa M., eds. 2021. Invasive Species in Forests and Rangelands of the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the United States Forest Sector. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer International Publishing. 455p.

Sullivan, Abigail, and York Mara, Abigail, Collective action for changing forests: A spatial, social-ecological approach to assessing participation in invasive plant management, (Global Environmental Change 71(1):102366, 2021)