What Are All Those Plants in Three Pillars’ Field off Highway 67?

Reforestation underway with a vision for the future

If you’re local to Three Pillars in the Dousman area of Lake Country, you may have noticed an eye-catching transformation on our campus in beautiful fields along the west side of Highway 67, just south of Highway 18. What used to be farm fields were recently filled with little tubes that hint at some sort of new plant.

“So what are they? What’s Three Pillars doing over there?”

The short answer is that Three Pillars worked with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) and the Village of Dousman to turn that land into Environmental Corridor, so it’s on its way to becoming a beautiful hardwood forest with a floor of native grasses and wildflowers. The tubes you see are called “tree tubes,” and they’re protecting the 1,500 new baby trees from critters who would otherwise make a meal of their tender leaves.

The Environmental Corridor Swap
At Three Pillars, our mission is to meet the needs of older adults in our community through high-quality housing and services. We consistently look for ways to provide our current and future residents and staff with industry leading high-quality care, programming, and accommodations. We knew our local community needed an expanded level of assisted living to meet their needs, and we knew we had to build it.

Since the best location on our campus for the new CBRF Assisted Living (open in summer 2022) was protected Environmental Corridor, it was time to get creative. After a great deal of planning and working with local governing agencies, we settled on the solution that allowed us to build and meet the needs of the older adults who need us, while still protecting and honoring our beautiful nature-rich grounds. 

We swapped out 5.5 acres of our Environmental Corridor land (near Main Street) to be cleared and built on, while designating a new 9-acre plot (off Highway 67) to turn into new Environmental Corridor. 

Compass plant growing in field
Compass Plant

Vegetation Specialty and Reforestation 101 With Keir
So how does one simply turn a farm field into a hardwood forest? We turned it over to an expert who could make it happen: Keir Peckham, Vegetation Specialist and owner of Natural Landscapes, Inc in Hartland, WI.

We sat down with Keir, the man behind the whole project, to understand all the interesting details.

Keir remembers getting a call about this Three Pillars project back in 2019. His company, 
Natural Landscapes, was incorporated in 2001 and has performed countless projects through the years, from prairie installation to wetland restoration, and much more. With a reputation for impeccable plant knowledge and restoration processes, he was a revered expert. He’s planted ponds, installed prairies, and performed many wetland restoration projects with a focus on site-specific vegetation management.

What does that all mean? It means he knows plants, terrains, and regulations so well that he can plan and implement exactly what needs to happen to get the land where it needs to be. He plans what needs to happen to the soil, what will be planted, and how to care for it in the precise order and manner that ensures the site’s plants thrive while remaining free of weeds and invasive plants. 

As Keir puts it, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

He’s a self-described “nature boy” who grew up in wetland areas in Oconomowoc, where knowledge and respect for the land was imparted on him from an early age. His passion and expertise about vegetation is carried into his work daily. 

Three Pillars’ New Environmental Corridor
In the case of Three Pillars’ project, there are performance standards we needed to meet to qualify the newly-designated land as Environmental Corridor, so Keir came on board to help us do that. 

Over the course of several meetings, and with guidance from the DNR, the Southeastern Regional Planning Commission, and our local government, he wrote up the specs for exactly what needed to take place on the land. 

The newly-designated plot of land under mitigation is about nine acres, making up for the 5.5 acres that were impacted by construction. Part of this mitigation is considered reforestation, which makes up for the deforestation that took place.

Fun fact: About 100 mature trees were eliminated for construction, and we in turn are producing over 1,500 new trees. 

Each new seedling planted is a local Wisconsin ecotype, coming from vendors and nurseries in the upper Midwest area of Wisconsin or Michigan. The land now boasts several different species of native hardwood trees, including maples, oaks, hickory, cedar and tamarack in the lower wet areas.

With reforestation projects, it’s expected that not all of those trees survive, which is part of why so many were planted. Not all fragile seedlings will survive, but under Keir’s watchful care, he continuously monitors and replants if needed. 

What About Those Tubes?
The tubes you see sticking out of the ground when you drive by on Highway 67 are called just that: “tree tubes.” They’re biodegradable and protect the seedlings from the likes of deer, rabbits, or mice who would otherwise try to nibble on them. They’re crucial to ensuring the trees get to the size we need for this project. 

“Once the trees get to year two or three, they start really taking off and will leaf out over the tops of the tubes. By the time they’re that size, the critters leave them alone more, and they’ll be hearty enough to survive even if they’re grazed on,” Keir says.

Oak seedling under a tree tube.

Good Things Take Time
In the coming years, our new Environmental Corridor area of hardwood forest will be a breathtaking extension of our wooded campus. We look forward to the growth of this new area, the views it’ll provide our residents and visitors, and the new wildlife it’ll beckon in. 

However, we’re not quite there yet. Hardwoods are slow-growing trees. Keir reminds us that we’ll hardly see more than little green sprigs for the next several years. Once the trees hit about five years, nature takes over and they’ll really get growing. 

Not a Forest Yet, So What’s Sprouting Next?
Knowing this, Keir planned for every month, every season, and every year in between seedlings and full-blown forest. He knows the land and soil like the back of his hand by now, so he made a custom plan to help it thrive and provide different stages of natural beauty along the way.

Fun fact: Interestingly, the fact that this plot of land was previously being farmed was one of the major reasons it was chosen as a prime location for reforestation. The farmer took great care of the land, growing corn and soybeans in recent years. He did a fantastic job managing weeds, tilling, and practicing timely planting to successfully grow his annual crops, so the soil was prepped beautifully for native seeds to thrive while keeping weeds out.

At the conclusion of the farmer’s lease in 2019, Keir got started transforming the land into its soon-to-be-new identity: a beautiful, protected hardwood forest, with a stop as a mesic prairie along the way. He seeded most of the area with a mesic prairie seed mix of grasses and flowers (for the drier upland areas), and the few pockets of more moist areas were seeded with wetland plants (for the wetter lowland areas). 

Fun fact: Each season, the upland and lowland areas can change based on how much 
rain we get, so it requires constant monitoring.

First to come up was the annual cover crop, rye grass. Later, in early summer 2020, he added seeds of native biennials including black-eyed Susan and penstemon, which take root to keep weeds down and eventually create cover to protect the tree seedlings. As we may know all too well, weeds have a tendency to outcompete everything else, and Keir was not about to let them take over. 

Once the cover crop kicked in, the native seedlings started to germinate, and then installation of the trees in tubes began.

He explains, “Native vegetation has good systems—deep roots that can search for their own water. We wanted to let that vegetation get established first, and then begin planting the hardwood tree seedlings in October of 2020. It went perfectly according to plan and then some.”

Fun fact: Until our hardwood trees grow up, the area is considered native mesic prairie.

Great Things in Store 
Now that the plant installation work is complete, Three Pillars has partnered with Keir for another four years of vegetation management. He’ll watch over all the grasses, flowers, and trees, and replant as needed. He keeps an eye on the tubes and seedlings, repairing them if nature takes its toll. He’ll add more tree seedlings in early summer for anything that didn’t make it through the winter. He’s always on the lookout for invasive species like buckthorn, reed canary grass or teasel, removing them before they have a chance to outcompete any of our native plants. 

Restored wetland area with Cardinal Flower

Looking to the future, Keir tells us the flowers will change and become more and more perennial as the years go by, all the while the trees will grow taller and stronger. This year, we can expect to see a good batch of perennial wildflowers, and keep your eye out for more of Mother Nature’s artwork as this prairie thrives.

As the native perennials build up momentum each year and hold their ground, this land will become easier to maintain and take on a life of its own. Before we know it, a majestic hardwood forest will envelop this area, and we’ll all be able to say, “we remember it way back when it was just a field of tree tubes.” 

If you see Keir out working in the field next time you drive by, give him a wave and thank him for his work!