Living Lighter on the Land

For the Birds

winter-red-bellied-woodpecker-jennifer-wosmanskyDo you put seed out for birds in winter?  Millions of Americans enjoy this hobby, even those who might not otherwise be nature-lovers.  We string up suet for woodpeckers and scatter sunflower seed, millet, or corn to attract our personal favorites, perhaps the cardinal, or goldfinches.  Some birds are finicky about visiting feeders, and we delight in adding another species to our list – mine is currently at eleven for 2017, but should reach fifteen or so before winter is over.  I like to watch the Red-bellied woodpeckers, which are much more numerous this year than last.  They are expanding their range further north as our winters grow more mild.

coopers-hawk-adultWhen I visit my mother in Vermont in a few days, I look forward to seeing her regular birds, so different from mine:  crossbills and snow buntings, and red-breasted nuthatch.  I might see a Cooper’s hawk in either location as they too have expanded their range, to prey on the birds that we attract to our feeders!

Some of you may wonder, is it necessary to feed birds, and can it be harmful?  There are no conclusive data showing its benefit or harm to bird populations, although centralized feeding areas can be reservoirs for the spread of disease.  It is a good idea to scrub down your feeder periodically, and to offer fresh water if you are providing any.  The availability of water is a limiting factor for bird distribution, especially during freezes in winter, when I find dense concentrations of birds near flowing streams.  Will the birds starve if you stop feeding them or miss a few days?  Unlikely.  Their numbers are determined by many factors in addition to food, and birds are adapted to move and forage over a wide area.

It is more important to support birds with a healthy habitat of native trees and plants than it is to provide supplementary foods in any season.  Trees moderate our climate, provide shade and shelter and seed, and most critically, harbor vast numbers of insects.   Some birds are almost entirely insectivorous, like the Eastern 028bluebird, while others depend upon insects for short periods of growth and transition.  According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds rear their young on insects, especially caterpillars.  Many non-native plants do not support the kind or number of caterpillars that birds need, and when those plants become numerous enough to compete with native plants for space and light, the number of birds on the landscape will be diminished.  Even non-native plants that appear to feed birds, like Asiatic bittersweet, can be low-quality food sources that provide less nutrition than native plants.  We have seen a tremendous increase in the number and diversity of birds at the Armstrong Preserve and Education Center after we replaced our invasive non-native plants with native species.

Here is a list of things you can do to attract songbirds to your property, including suggested native plants for food sources, taken in part from bird habitat specialist Dr. Stephen Kress:

  1. Maintain a border of native trees and shrubs around lawns, and minimize the area of lawn.
  2. Create a brush pile.
  3. Remove invasive plants.
  4. Rake leaves under shrubs to create feeding areas.
  5. Clean out bird nesting boxes in early spring.
  6. Create a water source for bathing and drinking.
  7. Clean feeders with a 10% non-chlorine bleach solution.
  8. Keep cats indoors.

Spring and Summer Seed Producers = Red maple, American elm

Early Summer Fruit Producers = Black raspberry, High and Lowbush blueberry, Pokeweed, Shadbush

Autumn Seed Producers = Sugar maple, Eastern hophornbeam, the ashes

Autumn Fruit Producers = viburnums, dogwoods, Common elderberry, Spicebush

Winter Fruit Producers = Bayberry, Eastern red-cedar, Highbush cranberry, American holly, Inkberry,  chokeberry, Wild grape, Virginia creeper, Winterberry, Staghorn sumac

Herbaceous plants = asters, Black-eyed susan, thistles, phloxes, sunflowers, goldenrods

Nectar Plants for Hummingbirds = Jewelweed, Cardinal flower, Trumpet honeysuckle, Indian paintbrush, Tulip tree

 

Evidence of Geologic History at Bye Preserve

bye-geologyThe stony ground and prominent rock formations of Pound Ridge in Westchester County, New York elicit curiosity in many people, some of whom attended our recent guided hike focused on geology. I will summarize our tour of the geologic history that can be seen at the Bye Preserve, owned by the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy (link to map and directions).  Trails at the Preserve are open everyday from dawn until dusk.

Imagine that your arm represents geologic time, with your armpit being the Big Bang and the tip of your middle finger representing today.  The dawn of life occurs just above your wrist.  Between your wrist and the middle of your palm, all of the bedrock that shapes this land was formed by a process known as the tectonic cycle:  erosion of mountains, deposition of materials in layers, subduction (movement of the earth’s crust), and volcanism.  There was something on the earth’s crust prior to the formation of our bedrock, of course, but we cannot see evidence of that now.  Geologists have discerned that an ancient Acadian Mountain Range once rose east of us, to the height of the Himalayas, and then eroded into particles that were later metamorphosed into our bedrock.  Add folding from the movement of tectonic plates, deformation by glaciers, and erosion, and you have a punctuated record of history etched on the landscape.

Fordham gneiss bedrock exposed on the surface

metamorphic-sedimentary-layers

Metamorphosed sedimentary layers, eroded and tilted

 

 

 

 

 

 

In its western half, the Bye Preserve is underlain by Fordham gneiss, which formed in the Precambrian era, 1.1 billion years ago.  This layer measures up to 500 feet thick and is extremely resistant to weathering.  There are many kinds of gneiss, and it is variable in color from brown to buff and can be pink or green.  Fordham gneiss contains quartz, biotite mica, silicates, garnet, and other minerals.  Bedrock along the eastern side of Bye belongs to the Hartland Formation, which is half as old and is a mixture of gneisses, schists, and amphibolites.  It formed when shales and sandstones from a deep ocean metamorphosed and retains its layers of alternating color.  Many of these rocks were inverted when the Hartland Boundary Fault displaced older layers and brought in new rocks.

muscovite-mica

Muscovite mica

Granite

 

 

Subsequent to the last great tectonic shifts in the Paleozoic era, the bedrock at Bye has endured at least four episodes of folding and associated metamorphism, which is visible in many rocks where layers are curved rather than straight.  The first stage of folding produced large ENE-WSW trending ridges and valleys, while the second stage trended NNE.  Later stages produced tight folds that reoriented earlier folds.  Where rock is resistant to bending, brittle faulting may occur, which produced the Mill River Gorge just northeast of Bye Preserve and the Mianus River Gorge as well.  In the midst of these changes, magma intruded the bedrock at Bye and produced a very pretty white-to-pink granite that is rich in quartz and mica.

Metamorphosed layers, block faulting

Metamorphosed layers, block faulting

Folding

Rock tumble from brittle fault

Rock tumble from brittle fault

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More recently in geologic time, between your furthest knuckle and fingertip on our imaginary time scale, the glaciers of the Ice Age left their mark.  An ice sheet more than one mile thick ground back and forth across this landscape for nearly 100,000 years in freeze/thaw cycles.  Each advance brought in new rock from afar.  Each period of retreat caused mass deposition, flooding, and a rise in sea levels.  Bye Preserve is now only ten miles from the Long Island Sound and was at times submerged by ocean, although fresh water has played a greater role in carving this landscape. We can see evidence that great torrents once ran in the boulder fields that line two now-intermittent streams, scouring away soil such that even today, only ferns and moss grow there.

The last glacial ice disappeared from Pound Ridge about 12,0000 years ago, leaving behind piles of sand, rock, and even huge boulders on the surface of our scoured bedrock.  These are the clues from which we can piece together millions of years of history on the land.  To end our story, I invite you to sit with a favorite rock and to ponder what it has endured to bring you both to this moment in time.

variation-in-gneiss-rocks-moved-by-glacier

Variation in gneiss moved by glacier

glacial-erratic-boulder-with-lichen

Glacial erratic boulder with lichen

Boulder showing evidence of glacial tumbling and erosion

Intermittent stream bed showing many phases of geologic activity

ferns-and-moss-in-a-rock-strewn-valley

Ferns and moss in rock-strewn valley

upturned-metamorphic-sedimentary-rock-with-glacial-scarring

Upturned metamorphic sedimentary rock with glacial scarring

 

faulting-caused-by-the-expansion-of-freezing-water

Cracking caused the expansion of freezing water

 

 

 

Assessing the Impact of Deer Browse on Forest Regeneration

Browse Line by Andy Jones

Browse Line by Andy Jones

Forests in Pound Ridge and surrounding areas are under siege by one of the gentlest of animals, the white-tailed deer.  Deer are keystone herbivores and eat from five to seven pounds of vegetation per day.  In summer, deer dine richly on the buffet of tender plants provided by home landscaping.  In winter, our subsidized deer herds turn to the forest to browse buds, tender saplings, and even tree bark.   At ideal densities of 10-15 per square mile, deer browse checks the growth of plant life without hindering forest regeneration.  At higher densities, they can strip the understory bare.  With deer density in Pound Ridge as high as 65 per square mile, we face the loss of wildflower species first, and then the pollinators that depended upon them, and then the birds that can’t find shelter or food, and finally, the forests themselves as trees are not replaced.

deer_exclosure-areas-definedIs the situation really so dire?  Scientists and natural historians have documented all of these effects, including our friends at Mianus River Gorge who found that tree sapling diversity in a local protected forest decreased from 15 species to 4 over the last thirty years, due to overbrowse by deer.  Local land managers seek solutions, but first we must know our problem.  I will describe here a simple method for assessing the level of deer browse in virtually any patch of forest in Pound Ridge.  Rather than counting deer or deer density, we are going to measure the effect of deer browse on each plot and use that as a baseline that guides future management.  This methodology was developed by Thomas Rawinski of the United States Forest Service, who shared his knowledge and skill with us in a training session this summer.

We begin by choosing a site for our study plot(s).  The circular plot covers 100 square meters and must include at least ten measurable saplings of one of the indicator species.  Measurable means that the sapling is still below the average browse line and therefore vulnerable.  Indicator species include any browsed species with beech and sassafras preferred followed by the shrubs; maple-leaf viburnum, sweet pepperbush, alternate-leaf dogwood, red elderberry, choke-cherry, and even the invasive burning bush.  I do not mean to imply that deer prefer these plants – rather, they avoid them – so that browse levels reliably indicate the severity of deer pressure on forest growth.

Barren understory in midsummer

Barren understory in midsummer at Armstrong

Once the indicator plant has been selected and the plot margins delineated, we set out to find the ten tallest measurable saplings of our chosen species.  Then we average those ten measurements to find the definitive “tallest” for that plot.  In itself, this doesn’t tell us much.  Over time though, we can discern trends and hope to associate those with management actions.  We can also make comparisons among plots to measure relative levels of browse across landscapes.  For example, Sugar maples at Armstrong were browsed down to 8.9 inches, while those at Halle measured 8.1 inches.  Deer pressure may be more severe at Halle than it is at Armstrong.

We can avoid the costly and time-consuming task of measuring deer density by using this simple approach to assess deer impact on our preserves.  We will measure again next year and compare our findings both within PRLC holdings and with a larger community of land managers and report back to you then.

deer-impactsFor more information, please see http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/2014/NA-IN-02-14_WhitetailedDeerNEForestsWEB.pdf 

 

Fall Mushrooms at Armstrong Preserve, Pound Ridge NY

We had a great turnout for the mushroom hike at Armstrong Preserve on October 23, 2016 and turned up some interesting finds.  The most distinctive was a single specimen of the Dog stinkhorn, Mutinus ravenii, so-named for its shape and strong odor.  We also found a few edibles, noted in the captions below.  Please use caution when foraging for wild mushrooms and refrain from eating any that are not verified by an expert.  Please also note that collection of mushrooms, along with plants and animals, is not permitted on Pound Ridge Land Conservancy preserves except during our guided hikes.  If you would like to join our email list to be notified of future mushroom forays, email PRLC’s land steward or call our office at 914-205-3533.

Thank you to our event participants for the photographs, and happy hunting!

Fomes fomentarius-tinder polypore

Fomes fomentarius-tinder polypore

Ishnoderma resinosum

Mutinus ravenelii,dog stinkhorn

 

 

 

Panellus serotinus, late fall oyster, edible but not choice

Panellus serotinus, late fall oyster, edible but not choice

Under side of Panellus serotinus, late fall oyster, edible but not choice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phlebia radiata

Pholiota sqarrosoides, edible

 

Pleurotus ostreatus, oyster mushroom, choice edible

Pleurotus ostreatus, oyster mushroom, choice edible

Russula xerampelina, edible but not recommended, use caution

Russula xerampelina, edible but not recommended, use caution

underside of Russula xerampelina, edible but not recommended, use caution

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tyromyces chioneus

Tyromyces chioneus

 

 

 

 

Shall We Go On A Mushroom Hunt?

Mycophile or mycophobe?  Most people fall into one of these two categories, being either mushroom-loving or mushroom-fearing.  European and Asian cultures are generally mycophilic, passing on knowledge of favorite edibles and medicinals, along with hunting grounds for finding them, from generation to generation.  Americans tend to mushroom-phobic, being more concerned with the potential for toxicity, or perhaps simply lacking in knowledge due to the shorter history of our culture.

In this installment of the Living Lighter on the Land blog, I will provide a brief overview of fungal life forms in hopes of inspiring you to take another look, for this is the time of year to find them.  I also encourage you to join our Guided Walk and Talk in search of mushrooms, scheduled for September 21st.  Please email me to register for this free and family-friendly event.

Mushrooms, or fungi, are an exceedingly diverse group of organisms whose taxonomy and biology are bound by certain genetic contraints, which is why they can be described as comprising a kingdom of life.  They are known as the decomposers and are vital to ecological processes such as nutrient cycling. By transforming matter on the molecular level, making it available for trees and plants for example, mushrooms support all life on this planet.

Fungi come in forms both familiar and not, from the molds on our food to the classic polka-dotted parasol to vast networks of underground hyphae or mycelium.  They generally reside in the substrate upon which they eventually “flower,” or more accurately, fruit.  What we see are highly modified extensions of the hyphae which are formed in order to disperse spores, or reproductive cells, into the environment.  In this way, harvesting mushrooms is akin to picking berries from a bush.

Mushrooms can be divided into categories based upon their growth forms, and knowing these groupings is a first step for any budding mycologist:

      Slime molds   Sac Fungi   Puffballs   Jelly fungi   Corals   Bracket Fungi    Boletes   Gilled

Like plants and animals, fungal species have specific habitats and substrates that they are best adapted to and which provide clues to the kinds of fungi we can expect to find.  Most mushroom identification guides include keys to identifying species, and these will include details on growth form and environment, in addition to physical characteristics of the mushroom itself.

When I find a mushroom that I would like to identify, I take immediate note of the following:  the substrate upon which it grows, surrounding trees, fruiting habit (single, scattered, or clumped), and color, odor, and moisture level of the mushroom itself.  At home, the first thing I do is make a spore print: break the cap off (if there is one) and lay it gill- or pore-side down on a sheet of paper.  It works best to use a half black/half white sheet of paper, laying the mushroom down in the center, so that white or black spores show up against the contrasting color of the paper.  It might take a day or more for the spores to drop out.

While I wait, I make note of the following characteristics of the mushroom’s form (a good field guide can help to familiarize you with descriptive terms used for each factor):

cap diameter, shape, edge, surface texture and color

flesh thickness, brittleness, odor, and presence/absence of latex

gill attachment, spacing, color, thickness, depth, and margin

stalk size, shape, texture, color, hollowness, ring structure, cup structure

There is quite a lot of information that goes in to identifying a mushroom to species, and sometimes the differences between them are so subtle that genetic analysis is necessary.  Don’t be discouraged!  The joy of mushrooming is in experiencing the wonder of their ephemeral form and their place in nature.  With practice and the help of other mushroomers, you might one day enter the world of foraging fungi for food and medecine.  I recommend joining on-line groups such as Facebook’s Mushroom Identification Forum, as well as groups that meet in-person for forays, such as the Connecticut Westchester Mycological Assocation (COMA).

All photographs courtesy of the author.

 

Native Ground Cover Plants for Southern New York Region

Home gardeners and land stewards are interested in growing easy-care, ground cover plants to protect soil and to prevent areas from becoming infested by invasive weeds.  Native plants are the best choice for natural environments because they are adapted to local conditions and better support wildlife.  If native ground covers have grown beneath your radar, or if you need suggestions for filling in a tough spot, read on for my recommendations to add beauty and value to the landscape in southern New York.

Ground covers are low-growing plants that tend to spread by rhizomes (roots underground) or by stolons (roots sent out along the soil surface).  Many of these plants are aggressive spreaders that may eventually need control if given too much space.  Sun-loving species can be shaded out to stop their spread.  Mowing also works.  Shade-loving plants grow more slowly and can be maintained with occasional cutting or weeding.

Plants for Shade to Part Shade

canada-mayflower-by-stefan-bloodworth

Canada mayflower by Stefan Bloodworth

virginia-bluebells-by-r-w-smith

Va. bluebells by R.W.Smith

Anemone canadensis, Canada anemone
Antennaria neglecta, Pussytoes
Asarum canadensis, Wild ginger
Chrysogonum, Green and gold – Part shade
Jeffersonia diphylla, Twinleaf – Part shade
Maianthemum canadense, Canada mayflower
Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells
Mitchella repens, Partridge berry
Packera aurea, Golden groundsel
Packera obovata, Golden groundsel
Phlox divaricata, Forest phlox – Part shade
Phlox stolonifera, Creeping phlox – Shade
Podophyllum peltatum, Mayapple – Part shade
Stylophorum diphyllum, Celandine poppy
Symplocarpus foetides, Skunkcabbage

Groundsel by S. and A.Wasowski

Groundsel by S. and A.Wasowski

Tiarella cordifolia, Foamflower
Uvularia grandifolia, Merry bells
Viola canadense, Canada white violet
Viola pubescens, Downy yellow violet

Ferns for Shade to Part Shade

Phegopteris connectilis, Long beech fern
Theylpteris novaborenscis, New york fern

Grasses for Shade to Part Shade
Carex pennsylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge
Elymus virginica, Va. wild rye – Part shade

Plants for Part Sun to Full Sun

New York fern by by S. and A. Wasowski

New York fern by by S. and A. Wasowski

Antennaria neglecta, Pussytoes
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Bearberry
Chaemacrista fasciculata, Partridge pea
Fragaria virginiana, Virginia strawberry
Houstonia caerulea, Azure bluets
Packera aurea, Golden groundsel
Phlox subulata, Moss phlox
Rudbeckia hirta, Blackeyed susan
Sedum ternatum, Stonecrop
Viola sororia, Common blue violet
Waldsteinia fragaroides, Barren strawberry

Ferns for Part Sun to Full Sun

Dennstaedia punctilobula Hay scented fern

Moss phlox by New York  by S. and A. Wasowski

Moss phlox by New York by S. and A. Wasowski

Stonecrop by R.W.Smith

Partridge pea by Jack Bodger

Partridge pea by Jack Bodger

Native Plant Propagation at Pound Ridge Land Conservancy Preserves, Westchester County NY

Richard Chianella

Nature lovers who garden are almost as numerous as gardeners who love nature, and they are teaming up for a great cause in our Native Plant Propagation Lab at PRLC’s Armstrong Preserve and Education Center.  With all the buzz about declines in wildflowers and their insect pollinators, now is the perfect time to share what we have learned over the last three growing seasons.   Join me for a tour of the Prop Lab and Armstrong’s native plant restoration areas and outdoor classrooms this Saturday, June 25, and read on for details on how to volunteer to raise plants for our other nature preserves as well as your home.

Cardinal flowerThis year, our volunteer team of land stewards, master gardeners, and students raised more than 500 plants from seed and another 20 from cuttings.  We start by collecting seed from plants of known local origin in the summer and fall.  If we can avoid cultivars and garden escapes, we are more assured of the hardiness and overall suitability of the plant for restoration areas, which are tended and watered far less often than a typical garden.  We also know that local insects and birds will have evolved in concert with these plants and are best adapted to make use of them.  The seed collector may have to find and mark the location of a desired plant during its flowering time, and return later when the seeds have matured.  He or she carries a stash of paper bags and a marker to label each with the species name, location, and date.  Seeds are shaken into the bag, or entire flower heads thrown in and dealt with later.  Ethics dictate that only 5-10% of seed be collected from any one plant, and that harvesting be dispersed over a large and healthy population.

At home, the chaff is separated from the seeds to prevent molding.  All material excepting the seed should be removed.  I use a paper plate for this task, brushing and blowing the chaff to one side. Store the cleaned seeds in their paper bag until late fall, when we will attempt to mimic the conditions of nature by putting them into cold storage.  Consider the life cycle of the seed:  it will likely drop from the plant to the ground during fall rains, or pass through the intestinal tract of an animal, and then to the ground.  If it is lucky, it will land in soil and be covered by organic debris over the winter.  We bank the seed over winter in shallow trays of soil that are covered to protect from animals and stored outside.  Plastic take-out containers work well for this as they are sturdy and stackable;   just be sure to poke holes in the bottom for drainage.IMG_20160321_122115533

In mid-February, we bring the seed trays in to a heated space and watch for germination. At this point, we are artificially hastening their development so that theplants can grow large enough to be transplanted into the great outdoors in May, before hot weather sets in.   When the tiny seedlings break through the surface, they must be moved into the light.  I keep florescent grow lights on them for 16 hours per day and water them gently, every day.  Young seedlings thrive on consistent heat, light, and moisture.

IMG_20160411_115634987Our first major task is to transplant each individual seedlings into its own pot.  This is delicate work, best done with latex gloves or none at all.  A chopstick or knitting needle makes a useful tool for easing each tender stalk out of the cluster of young seedlings.  Use recycled plastic containers of any kind for pots (remember the drainage holes).  Fill them to the top with a light mixture of mainly leaf litter, with some compost and sand.  Carefully label at least one of the batch for reference (and old window blinds make great labels).  Water well, and keep the transplants under light and warm conditions for a minimum of two days.

hoop houseI do not have much heated space and so move the plants out early into makeshift green houses, where they at least have abundant sun and protection from wind and rain.  Conditions can be harsh however, ranging from freezing to 90 degrees on some days.  Daily watering is essential.  Growers with heated greenhouse space will grow plants at more than twice the rate that I can, or more, but a simple plastic covering is enough to keep them alive.  By last frost date, all plants can be moved outside of covered areas, although they will need to be dampened off (transitioned slowly) to full sun, wind, and rain.

IMG_20160619_164701432By June 1, our plants were ready to be moved out to fenced restoration areas in PRLC’s nature preserves.  One of our local partners, the Rusticus Garden Club, generously sponsored the hiring of a local college student intern to aid us in getting all 500+ wildflowers into the ground this month, and he will continue to water and weed planting areas through the summer.  Volunteers are needed at a number of our preserves to provide supplemental water and to assist with weeding until these plants become established.  We also welcome the donation of native plants, either from nurseries or areas that are slated for disturbance.  Please contact me at 914-205-3533 or by email at landsteward.educator@prlc.net for details on how you can help out at your favorite preserve.

Endnote:  Our efforts to restore native trees, shrubs, and pollinator plants to our nature preserves is a direct response to the incursion of overabundant deer and alien invasive plant species in Pound Ridge.  It is our hope that by creating reservoirs of protected plants, we can preserve current levels of biodiversity and provide continued seed stock for colonization of unprotected areas.  Deer management is therefore an integral aspect to our program.

Restoration area at Armstrong Preserve, before and after:


2 2014 (2)3 Sunny side June 2016 2

 

PRLC Native Plant Propagation Lab 2016
Total Count and Distribution
Common name 5/21/2016 Armstrong Grove Clark Russell Halle
Count
Giant hyssop 8 2 2 2 3
Aster, heart leaved 20 4 8 3 5
Tick trefoil 10 6 4
Wild yam 5 2
Woodland sunflower 2 2
Tall Sunflower 3 3
Meadow rue 44 8 16 20
Evening primrose 27 8 6 3 10
Pokeweed 5 3 2
Scarlet smartweed 4 3 1
Bluestem goldenrod 7 3 4
Canada goldenrod ? 28 3 12 3 10
Meadow goldenrod ? 30 6 12 12
Gray goldenrod 36 6 12 3 3 12
Goldenrod Bridge St 10 3 4 3
Joe Pye weed 8 8
Common boneset 42 22 20
Dogbane 27 16 2 6
Swamp milkweed 1 1
Cardinal flower 36 10 6 6 6 8
Great blue lobelia 30 7 8 2 3 10
New York Ironweed 18 8 10
Monkeyflower 34 14 20
Baptisia 3 held over
Buttonbush 19 held over
Swamp rose 11 held over
468

When A Tree Falls in the Forest...

794A tree has fallen on your property.  What should you do?  From a conservationist’s standpoint, the best course of action is often to leave the wood where it lies.   Ecosystem health depends upon the nutrients provided by decaying plant matter, and downed trees are a major boost for the bottom of the food chain.  Their great storehouse of carbon sustains a host of mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic life forms that break down the molecular structures of organic matter and convert them back into the building blocks of life.  That is why dead trees make great nurseries for other plants, including replacement trees.  Take a look at the Late fall oyster mushrooms pictured here – they fed beetles, deer, and my own family for weeks.

How long does it take for a dead tree to rot?  Generally 70-150 years, depending upon the species, the size, and the climate.  Hardwoods like maple and oak actually rot faster than softwoods like spruce and pine, and both degrade faster with moisture.  It might be said that the true life of a tree is measured in living years (50-150 on average) plus 30 years as a standing snag, and another 70 years or so on the ground.

spotted salamanderIf this seems like a long time to wait, consider that in the meantime, the limbs from downed trees provide habitat to plants and animals that require cover on the forest floor, like wrens and chipmunks.  Salamanders, toads, and many mammals make burrows under logs, or live inside.  It may be possible to work these features into your landscaping scheme, or to obscure them with a native climbing vine like Virginia creeper.

blowdownWhere it is unfeasible to leave downed wood on the ground, you might stick with a living lighter on the land approach and move it in large pieces to rot in a natural and out-of-the-way location.  Smaller pieces will rot more quickly but require more time and energy to cut.  Do not stack unless you seek to preserve the wood for burning or other use.  Occasionally, treefall in wind storms is so catastrophic that the survival of nearby trees and understory is threatened.  Pictured here is some of the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy upon the forest in Carolin’s Grove Preserve in Pound Ridge, NY in 2012.

When so many trees are lost from the canopy in such a short time, there is great potential for lasting ecological changes including species loss, soil loss, and decline in water quality.  Our stewardship crew recognized that natural forest regeneration at this site was additionally threatened by excessive deer browse and the invasion of non-native species, and we decided to take action.  We hired a trained crew to spend several days cutting and chipping dead spruce in the Preserve, with a special focus on removing dangerous hanging limbs.  blowdown2Then, we installed a series of fenced areas in the new clearing and planted those with an assortment of native tree and shrub saplings.  This year, we plan to add more trees and pollinator plants.  We are already seeing the signs of natural forest regeneration.

When a tree falls in the forest, or even in your yard, it pays to think long-term about what course to take.  To learn how to select and plant native tree species on your property, attend our free workshop on May 7, 2016 (more information here) or volunteer with us on a tree-planting project in Pound Ridge this Spring!

 

 

 

 

For the Love of Nature

012How’s this for a paradox?  I am going to use my computer today to tell you about the many benefits of spending time outdoors in the natural world.  You likely already know this – you crave the sun on your face or the feel of soft earth underfoot.  Think of the joy in watching a child run after butterflies, or running after them yourself, and consider that this natural freedom and engagement is important to our overall well-being and humanity.

Henry David Thoreau experienced the healing powers of nature at Walden Pond, and John Burroughs at Slabsides.  Great thinkers from Aristotle to E. O. Wilson have used the term biophilia to describe what is in essence our deep love for life.  Cynics might point out that the environmental crisis suggests otherwise, but Wilson hypothesizes that there is an instinctive and inescapable bond between us and other living systems.  This is both biological and spiritual in nature, and it explains why we love our pets and our gardens and the notion of wilderness.  It explains why I keep getting pulled out my office door to find what bird is calling.  (I think we are seeing the first fall migrants on this cool morning.)

Just look at these happy faces on our preserve volunteers!

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If you’ve had enough time at your screen and want to get outside, stop reading now and go for a hike at one of our many preserves in Pound Ridge (map).  To learn more about ways to engage yourself and your family in free-range discovery and other games and activities for life-long love of nature, you can attend our free workshop tomorrow at the Armstrong Preserve & Education Center (directions), from 2 to 4pm.   The public is invited to share ideas and to tour the outdoor classrooms on the Preserve on what looks to be a beautiful summer afternoon.  Please contact me for more information or visit our website at www.prlc.net.

August 9 Nature Education and Play.

 

March 23, 20152 years ago

Getting Started in the Garden

Getting Started in the GardenIt has been a tricky start to Spring, hasn’t it?  Five inches of snow fell here on the vernal equinox, just in time for our workshop and volunteer work session on Getting Started in the Garden.  I was prepared for this with a list of tasks that can be done under cover as well as a few out in the garden and compost areas in our Working Backyard demonstration area at the Armstrong Preserve and Education Center.

Getting started in the garden tasksOur first task was to clear the hoop house and compost bins of snow so that we could work in them.  Five hardy student volunteers from Pleasantville High School assisted in preparing these areas for workshop participants and then listened in to hear how their work contributes to our mission and programming at PRLC.

Students from Pleasantville High SchoolThey were astounded to learn that the dark brown compost in our seed starting mixture was harvested in fall from the same bins now in need of mixing.  They took turns forking in a winter’s worth of kitchen scraps and chicken coop bedding.  In a separate bin, they stirred leaves that are breaking down slowly into a nice weed-free seed-starting medium.  Here they are petting our rabbit, who produces a rich fertilizer for the compost.DSC_0898

Speaking of seeds, we have experimented with a number of starting mixes, which are intended to provide optimal conditions for germination but not necessarily for growing.  Mixes that lack compost will not support growing seedlings, so the gardener must either carefully add nutrients or transplant to containers with soil right away.  Our philosophy is to mimic natural ecological processes as much as possible, so I sacrifice some seed and plant in a mixture that contains 15-20% compost.

We also try to use what we have on hand:  this year, a large brick of coir, or coconut husk fiber, which is commonly used in greenhouses for tropical plants.  It breaks apart like peat moss and both absorbs and releases water in the same way.  I either scatter seed across filled trays or place them individually in plastic cells.  Seeds planted now do better in plastic, but closer to May, I will use cardboard egg cartons that have been soaked and prepped with drainage holes.

IMG_20140907_133330701_HDRThe first seeds I plant under lights are celery, leeks, and onion.  Next, started in mid-March, are the Mediterranean vegetables like eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.  They need the extra time in order to yield mature fruit by late summer.  Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale produce will better harvests when started early, say at the end of March.  Most other vegetables can be planted directly as seed in the garden.

hoop house seedlingsOutdoors in the (unheated) hoop house, we re-seeded lettuces, kales, and spinach over and around the surviving fall plantings of spring onion, carrots, and parsnips.  Feel free to plant the following outdoors now:  peas, arugula, spinach, and maybe even cabbage, onion sets, mustard, and turnips.  Wait a few weeks to plant beets, carrots, chard, and radishes, as they struggle against insects in cool weather.

See my prior blog posts on garden planning and getting a jump start on spring for more information on seed starting and use a cold frame or hoop house to extend the gardening season.  You can contact me for a tour of the garden and working backyard landscape at Armstrong, and please share your knowledge and your questions at our  May 30 workshop on planting and productivity.  Happy spring!

 

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