Living Lighter on the Land
A 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.
If 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.
Where 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. Then, 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!
How’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!
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.
It 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.
Our 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.
They 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.
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.
The 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.
Outdoors 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!
We have had a very good year for snow, and that means a good year for seeing the signs of winter wildlife. Have you noticed the delicate tracks of bird feet around bushes and shrubs? Have you wondered if the neighbor’s cat is visiting, or if that’s a bobcat? The internet is a wonderful resource for learning to identify tracks, with endless pictures for comparison. I will make a few recommendations here of books and websites that I find useful, but really, the best way to learn tracking is to practice tracking. I will share some of my experiences with you and hope to inspire you to spend time in nature this long weekend.
On the long walk up to the Armstrong House from my daughter’s bus-stop, we made first tracks in a lightly falling powder. Luckily, it was not enough snow for the plow. In the morning, a fox’s track paralleled our own! We followed it down to where it met a squirrel, right at the place where we often cross a stone wall to make a short-cut. The squirrel got away, that was clear, and the track resumed down the driveway. Later, on the walk back up, I saw that a young deer had entered the mix, and was probably just up ahead of me, leaving fresh track over mine and over the foxes. Who else was out and about in this forest? Animals are so very secretive…but they do leave evidence behind!
Another day, it had snowed steadily for 36 hours. The snow was now so deep that mice, voles, and other small animals could move freely in tunnels under a warm blanket of snow. Snow tunnels will measure a balmy 32 degrees F when outside, the wind is howling and the trees are cracking. Snow cover is very beneficial to animals. The forest feels pristine after such an event, with little sign of life other than the occasional, mixed flock of winter songbirds. I found a deep track coming out of a cliff face on the Armstrong Preserve, from a “cave” where I had once seen a large canine scat, full of wild grape seeds. I thought at first that I had found its winter den, but instead, the track led me on a long chase up and across a steep and rocky cliff face, from viewpoint to viewpoint on the preserve. Oh, to be a fox for one day!
My final story is this: I skied from Armstrong to Richards Preserve. (Where we have a Guided hike on June 20). Near the kiosk, I came upon markings in the snow that were completely isolated by a trackless surface around them. A squirrel’s track started from the base of a tree and extended out only a few steps to a an area of disturbed snow. Beyond that, five stripes cut into the surface on one side, five more on another. A mouse’s track came to investigate. Whooo was here? Whooo was eaten?
To share stories of your tracking experiences and to learn more, please join me in further investigations of winter wildlife at our upcoming guided hike, at the Halle Ravine Preserve: Saturday, February 28, at 10am. Directions and a trail map are available on our website at prlc.net. Updates and cancellations will be posted to our Facebook page..
An odd little bird flushed up from the ground in late November at the Armstrong Preserve, startling me with its distinctive shape and erratic flight pattern. It landed again on the ground and disappeared, camouflaged against the brown leaves of Autumn. It was an American woodcock, rarely seen in southern New York except during migration.
The Breeding Bird Atlas of New York has documented a decline in this sandpiper species over the last thirty years, especially on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley. Habitat loss and the prevalence of predators in suburban areas are a threat to ground-dwelling birds like the woodcock. They are still hunted as game however, with open season in New York from October 1 to November 14.
The woodcock’s preferred habitat is old field in transition to forest. This increasingly uncommon ecotype is also home to the now-rare New England cottontail rabbit. In Pound Ridge, woodcock have been known to breed in the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation and are likely to at PRLC’s Clark Preserve.
A recommended resource for identifying and learning more about winged wildlife is All About Birds, by the famous Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
A list of the Birds of Westchester County, compiled by Hudson River Audubon, is a good place to fact-check when confirming the identity of a questionable bird. They list the Woodcock as being common in spring (probably migrating birds) and uncommon in summer and fall. Winter sightings have been made, meriting an “occasional.” Their year-round range should expand north with a warming climate.
Author’s note on field guides: I am forever grateful to Roger Tory Peterson for his system of identifying field marks and also to David Sibley for his comprehensive descriptions. I still prefer them to apps in the field.
How much do you love your land? Judging by real estate prices in our area, the residents of Pound Ridge and northern Westchester County value their lands highly. They love it for its scenery, for the tranquil feelings it inspires, for the privacy it offers, and for opportunities to feel connected to the larger web of life. Many of our residents feel a responsibility to steward their property in a way that preserves these cherished values for future generations. They may also feel obligated to protect irreplaceable ecosystem services that our lands together provide, such as water filtration, flood control, wildlife habitat, and air quality control. As a private and not-for-profit land trust, PRLC is committed to stewardship of the land we own (now totalling 360 acres) and to helping other area landowners live lighter on the land. We offer a series of eduational workshops and guided hikes in addition to the information contained in our website and in this blog.
Recent work on our preserves has been largely focused upon building resilience to change in our forests. Functioning natural communities are always in flux but are also generally quite stable when they are large and interconnected across a landscape. In the fragmented northeast, change is occurring at an acclerating rate, even faster than our climate. It may be time to take the gloves off, or put them on and get to work on addressing some of the most potent threats to our local ecosystem. These include an influx of invasive, non-native species and an overabundance of deer, along with cascading effects that limit forest regeneration, wildflower abundance, and overall plant, bird, and insect diversity.
PRLC’s land management strategy is to prioritize the values of a particular property and to outline both short- and long-term plans for protection. For properties within the Croton Reservoir watershed, we partner with the Watershed Agricultural Council Management Assistance Program for advice and technical support on promoting forest health. Several of our preserves now have management plans to guide stewardship over the next five to fifteen years. At the 70 acre Clark Preserve for instance, we have worked steadily to control Japanese barberry (an invasive shrub) within an area of potentially healthy forest. As a followup, volunteers fenced and planted a test strip with native shrubs and small trees that better support wildlife. Species planted include Purple-flowering raspberry, American hazelnut, Spicebush, Winterberry, Northern bayberry, Witchhazel, Black currant, and Northern bush honeysuckle. All of these are native to Pound Ridge and will grow in part-shade under a forest canopy. Indeed, many of them can still be found where deer can not reach them.
Similar work to establish and protect native forest understory was conducted at the Carolin’s Grove and Armstrong Preserves this year. At Carolin’s Grove, we enclosed three 100 foot perimeter circles with deer fencing to promote the growth of young, naturally occurring trees within a blowdown (an area of forest damaged by Superstorm Sandy). These small exclosures will foster the growth of “daughter” trees from the mothers that still stand, and will hopefully carry us into future generations. In the meantime, we have work to do on controlling the deer population outside of fenced areas.
At the Armstrong Preserve, we recieved a grant to support the installation of a 500 foot perimeter deer fence in an area of older-aged oak forest. Young oaks are a delicacy to deer and are rarely seen these days, while older oaks are top providers for a whole chain of forest creatures. The Armstrong deer exclosure is featured as an outdoor learning environment at the Armstrong Education Center and is sure to be a big draw for visitors desiring a rich forest experience. You are invited to tour this and other outdoor learning environments at Armstrong, including restoration areas in a woodland meadow and vernal pool, any day between dawn and dusk. For more information, please contact the PRLC Land Steward & Educator Krista Munger.
“Anyone who has a garden, park or orchard tree has an opportunity to ensure that it offers protection, brings beauty and bears fruit for future generations. In short, every one of us should aspire to be a forester.”
― Gabriel Hemery, The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century
We greatly expanded our growing area this spring and summer at the Armstrong Education Center and have been reaping the fruits of our labor, both in the organic vegetable garden and in our native plant gardens. These gardens are used to demonstrate sustainable land use concepts such as local food production for humans, honeybees, and other wildlife.
The plants have enjoyed our lovely fall weather and produced a late abundance of fruit and blossoms. This summer was persistently cool and cloudy, which allowed for an extended planting season but also delayed or stunted blooming. It also encouraged plant predation by insects. Our vegetable gardens sustained heavy damage early on from Colorado potato beetles and the Squash vine borer (see my earlier blog post about how to keep squash producing into fall). Later, we had difficultly controlling the Mexican bean beetle and caterpillars on the cole crops. Not even our resident bull frog, pictured here, could keep them in check. Because we strive to strike a balance with insect populations as part of the web of life, we use only organic methods in our gardens and attempt to deter them mainly through crop rotation and mulching.
When things get out of hand, my tried-and-true method for organic pest control in the garden is to make "bug juice," also known as "sick juice." I collect as many of the offenders as I can in a small jar with a lid. I puree these in a little water in an old blender that I have reserved for this use. Then I strain this liquid through a fine sieve and pour it into a spray bottle. I use the rinse water from the blender jar (after it has been sieved) to dilute the liquid further. Then I spray this on plants that are affected by that particular insect. This is basically biological warfare: the premise being that one of the bugs in the mixture will carry a disease that then quickly spreads through the entire population. This works on insects that have become overabundant on any kind of plant, including this native milkweed that has been infested with aphids.
See our website calendar for a list of events you can attend for hands-on education on how to manage your own property with a Living Lighter on the Land mindset. Learn how your activities can support the Pound Ridge's efforts to become a certified Community Wildlife Habitat, and please join our mailing list or like our facebook page for news and updates related to local conservation initiatives.
Chores still to be done at this time:
- Plant winter rye as a cover crop, or mulch beds with shredded leaves covered by straw.
- Plant trees and shrubs, and consider adding support until roots are set next year.
- Create a leaf pile for a steady source of Fall mulch and Spring seed-sowing medium.
- Harvest fall crops such as spinach, lettuce, and kale, and keep those beds covered at night.
by intern Kadijah Spence and Krista Munger. Pound Ridge Land Conservancy land stewardess, Krista Munger and interns are working in the garden to water, thin, and harvest.
Previous article about gardening
Now that you have planted crops according to the time line presented in the previous article it is time to water, thin and harvest. If you haven’t already transplanted plants started indoors, please do so as soon as possible. In the Armstrong vegetable garden, we have tomatoes, squash, peppers, and basil which were all transplanted the end of May/beginning of June along with carrots, beets, beans, lettuce and other greens. The seeds we use were purchased from or donated by Hudson Valley Seed Library. This link gives more information about sowing seeds directly into the ground.
Our strawberries are harvested on a daily basis and other greens are harvested weekly. Strawberries are best picked when the bottom is fully ripened and red. They hold the most nutrients when eaten picked and eaten fresh. Leafy greens can be picked until their juice shows milky white. We recently planted beets and corn. The beets only need one seed per hole and are spaced 3 inches apart. Where you have spilled too many, wait for them to grow a few inches and then thin them by selecting the smallest ones of the group. Corn resembles grass when young, so be careful when weeding. If you are unsure of a plant's identity, then leave it until it flowers and use a guide to identify it.
There are many ways to use the vegetables and fruits from your garden. One can add chopped up strawberries to make a special treat for the kids in the morning. A fresh salad made from hand-picked garden greens is a perfect way to start the afternoon. To get a bit creative, one can garnish meat with herbs from the garden.
For more photos of the garden, check out these links: Life in the Garden and Life in the Garden 2
Beginning the Fall Garden
To grow a fall garden in southern New York, buy seed now before it becomes unavailable. You will need to start seeds in midsummer to be ready for transplanting in early autumn. If you start them inside, seedlings should be hardened off just as they are in spring; gradually let them adjust to the stronger sunlight of the outdoors. We plan to start ours outdoors under an adjustable shade canopy.
Semi-hardy vegetables for our climate include beets, carrot, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, endive, Irish potatoes, lettuce and salad greens, radicchio, rutabaga, salsify, and Swiss chard. These will die back with the first hard frosts, so their fall growing season is short. The hardiest vegetables for fall gardens are bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, English peas, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard greens, parsley, radish, spinach and turnip. Using a cold frame, these vegetables can be grown right through the winter.
by intern Kadijah Spence and Krista Munger. Pound Ridge Land Conservancy is proud to welcome six new interns this summer.
Nick and Chris are students from Fox Lane High School's Aspire Program. They are here for their final school semester and are working to gain experience in the environmental field before heading off to college.
Ryland just graduated from John Jay High School and is very experienced in working outdoors. He is in charge of native plant restoration projects at the Armstrong Preserve and Education Center, and is sponsored here by a grant from the Rusticus Garden Club.
Shawn is enrolled in the Stamford AgriScience Program. Shawn works in the "Working Backyard" at Armstrong, taking care of the organic vegetable garden, native plant gardens, the compost and chickens.
Our college interns are Kadijah from Yonkers, attending Manhattanville College and Olivia from Waccabuc, who attends Marist College. Both are majoring in Environmental Studies/Science and plan to work in the conservation field. The intern team is joined by a number of volunteers who are dedicated to serving the environment, including returning intern Nick A., Sawyer, Nate, and our board member Al.
All of the interns and volunteers are increasing their knowledge of the outdoors and how to take care of the land. Nick and Chris worked as a team to build a raised garden bed, put up protective deer-fencing, re-route a trail, install stairs down a steep hillside. Ryland planted the newly fenced areas with seedlings grown in our native plant nursery, which is tended by all of the interns in rotation. He has also detected and removed a quantity of mile-a-minute vine, an invasive species which threatens native vegetation by smothering and outcompeting it. Shawn is learning the complex intricacies of our integrated garden and composting system in our "working backyard."
Olivia, as PRLC's Conservation Intern, is helping to execute a number of planned projects including invasive species removal at two of our preserves and trail enhancements at two others. Olivia will also help us to compile data measuring the success of our field work so that we can adaptively manage our priority landscape projects. An example is our longterm project to control the spread of Phragmites in fens at the Isaacson Preserve. A team of four went out recently to count the numbers of plants growing in established plots. They will return on July 12, from 10am to noon, for a Volunteer Work Session. You are invited to join them. It is a beautiful preserve.
You may have seen Kadijah at one of PRLC's movie nights, guided hikes, or volunteer work sessions. She works as an all-around assistant to Krista, PRLC's Land Steward & Educator and is learning how to prepare for and organize events and teams of volunteers. She also plants, weeds, waters and gathers the growing fruits and vegetables in the garden.
On June 18, 2014 Kadijah, Olivia, Nick and Chris joined a team of AmeriCorps volunteers organized by TIP-PR, The Invasives Project of Pound Ridge. They worked to control invasive species at a town-owned preserve behind the Town House called the Slade Preserve.
Below are the albums of the Issacson and Slade Preserves workdays. Please like our Facebook page for our frequent short updates on what we are doing and what we see!
April is Invasive Pest and Disease Awareness Month, and a task force of the United States Department of Agriculture seeks to raise awareness of the threat of invasive species to ecosystems, the economy, and to our own well-being. Their website has excellent photographs of two main villains in our area: the Asian long-horned beetle (ALB) and the Emerald ash borer. It says, “The ALB has the potential to cause more damage than Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight and gypsy moths combined, destroying millions of acres of America’s treasured hardwoods, including national forests and backyard trees.”
Citizen help is needed to stem the spread of known populations and to prevent new ones. Hikers and landowners have reported several new occurrences, and if caught early enough, some cases can be eradicated. In New York, the state has imposed a quarantine on moving firewood and certain other wood products from one location to another, and with good reason. The map on the right shows the known distribution of the Emerald ash borer in New York.
We have been hearing about invasive species quite a lot in our local news in Pound Ridge. Earthworms from Europe aredepleting our soils and forest health, Mute swans (also from Europe) alter water quality and displace native wildlife, and our sources of food for birds and insects are in decline due to competition from non-native species. We seem to have an ecosystem in peril, with the good, the bad, and the ugly in conflict. What can we do? One thing we cannot do is expect Mother Nature to fix the problem. Adaptation and ecosystem balancing occur on such a long time scale that to wait is to risk massive extinctions and the loss of ecosystem services like clean water.
We can, however, draw upon the power or nature to right itself. A healthy ecosystem naturally resists biotic invasion from pests, whether they be animal or plant, because all of the niches in the system are filled. It is difficult for an invader to gain a foothold among the fierce competition of a thriving, co-adapted community. The plants and animals that do become invasive were often brought here intentionally and sold for their pest-resistant properties (because our wildlife cannot eat them).
Recommendations: We must all do our part to support diversity in native ecosystems by protecting certain areas as wildlife preserves and ensuring that those areas are connected by corridors. This is a major concern of the PRLC. We can also greatly expand the boundaries of protected land by choosing to landscape public and private properties with native plants to whatever extent possible, and in place of lawn.
To learn more about the relationship between native plants and wildlife species, attend one or more of the events sponsored by PRLC and other community organizations in our four-part series, beginning April 22, Birds & Bees: Wildlife Needs. Please also see what our neighbors are up to as we work together to certify the town as a National Wildlife Community Habitat.