Living Lighter on the Land
Hi from Krista- Your New Land Steward: On My First Day in the Garden!
Hi, I’m Krista Munger, the new Land Steward/Educator in residence at the Armstrong Education Center here in Pound Ridge. Tate is off to Alaska, and has passed his Living Lighter on the Land blog to me so I might continue to share with you tips, stories, and practical information guiding our work at the Center and in your backyard.
To introduce myself, I have worked as a biologist and educator in the Hudson Valley since 1997.
I hold degrees in conservation biology and in adolescent science education. From 2002 to 2005, I lived and gardened at the Arthur W. Butler Memorial Sanctuary in Bedford, NY. When my daughter was born, we moved to Woodstock, New York to be closer to the mountains, but now we are thrilled to return. There is an old saying that you can never come home again. I have also heard, “never look back”. Well– we have done both! I am happy to report that little has changed, except that ground cover is increasingly dominated by invasive species like Japanese barberry and Japanese stilt-grass and recent storm damage to trees and soil stability is evident. Tate addressed problematic invasives and methods for controlling them in his blog post on April 9, 2013. I will return to the persistent dilemma of invasives in future blog posts.
The landscape of northern Westchester County is still lush and idyllic, perfectly suited for humans and for many kinds of wildlife. I am afraid this would not be true without the tireless work of local conservation groups and their partners. In this blog and through our programs at the Armstrong Education Center recently started in the Spring of 2012, we go beyond the more traditional work of land protection to focus on human relationship with nature and highlight how our daily lifestyle choices impact local ecosystems. We recognize that the quest to live more harmoniously with nature is never-ending, and there is much to be learned (and re-learned).
I experienced something like this on my first day in our community vegetable garden at Armstrong. I had visited the garden previously on a tour of the outdoor classrooms at the Center, and surmised from Tate that I should be prepared to hit the ground running. It seems that no matter how much garden planning we do in February and March, the month of May is always a mad rush to get plants in and weeds out. This is only the second growing season at the Center’s garden so there is more preparatory work to do than should be necessary in later years. On first day, I was going to show how productive I could be. The first order of business was to attack the mass of early spring arugula that had gone to flower. Behind it, the kale was in flower too. Greens that have bloomed have a bitter taste and are generally considered undesirable as they continue to draw nutrients from the soil and can drop seed where you don’t want it. I ripped most of these flowering unwanteds out and added them to my compost pile.
Then I noticed a bee–a honeybee from our own hive at the Armstrong, visiting one of the flowers I missed! (See April 2012 Blog Post). I sat back and watched as another came and stuck its face deep into the yellow flower center. It occurred to me that in my haste to ‘clean-up’ the garden, I had removed a food source for the bees! Bees need a variety of nectar sources and are especially vulnerable to food shortages at the beginning and end of summer, when temperatures vary widely and blooming can be sporadic. I looked around and didn’t see much else in flower aside from dogwood and an apple tree. Their blossoms provide good nectar, but still I regretted my singular focus. I wish I had thought more about what I really want to accomplish here: a working landscape that provides for the wildlife as much as for me. This is the basis of permaculture and is one of our goals here at the Armstrong Education Center.
Our 2012 Garden Student Intern, Gabby S. described our intention best in her report. She said, “our concept of an interrelated, multi-part garden is guided by the principals of permaculture, where garden elements work together to produce greater productivity and reduce waste. Multi-part gardens are practical and sustainable since each part uses another’s waste as an input, reducing the need for outside resources. For example, instead of purchasing all of our fertilizers and soil conditioners, our composting system allows us to inexpensively improve our soil.”
Tate drew up a schematic of the inputs and outputs of our system, and how they are related which I have included here. The bees may very well have enough forage from the tree blossoms abounding, but I’ve still learned my first lesson on my first day of work! I am going to try to be more thoughtful about the overall effects of my actions, in the garden and beyond! This means that the focus has to be on the health of the interconnected natural web or system in my backyard and garden, more than on the appearance of things. Please, if ever you hear of my unruly arugula here in the Armstrong educational garden, know that I am letting it go for the bees at this time of year!
The past month has been busy at the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy. I've been knee deep in logistics preparing for a series of public workshops focused on planting trees, shrubs and flowers. Now that the events are past and the plants are in, it is time to share with you our work.
April 13: Stewardship in Action, Managing your meadow for fruit and wildlife
During this workshop we took the next big step in our ongoing meadow management, which aims to revitalize the shrubby edge of the meadow with native and edible plant. We planted 10 northern bayberry shrubs, which produce small edible fruits that birds go crazy for. Over time these bayberry will grow into a dense stand to provide a zone of cover to wildlife between the meadow and the forest. We will continue to plant northern bayberry along the meadow's perimeter until we have replaced all of the Japanese barberry that currently grows there. We also planted an heirloom apple tree and two paw paw trees in the part of the meadow with the most amount of direct sunlight. We chose these trees to demonstrate the productive potential of an open meadow and to increase the productivity of the Armstrong Preserve's working landscape. These trees will grow to provide fruit to the occupants of the Armstrong House and along with the rest of the working landscape (organic gardens, chicken flock and honeybee hive) will supplement trips to the grocery store.
Below: Alan Haigh, from the Home Orchard Company, planting an heirloom apple tree in the Armstrong Preserve's meadow
April 27th: Gardening workshop at Sara Stein's Garden.
Before she died, botanist and writer Sara Stein lived in Pound Ridge where she transformed her ~3-acre suburban property into a diverse natural haven for birds, bees, flowers and native plants. We used the Sara Stein Garden (now in the hands of a generous Pound Ridge family) as the backdrop for two gardening workshops aimed at incorporating native plants into your home's garden. Led by local garden designer and Chair of Bedford Audubon's Leon Levy Native Plant Garden, Lynn Becker, these workshops were a huge hit. Workshop participants toured Sara's garden before getting their hands dirty and planting new beds of bearberry, indian pink and blueberry. As a group we discussed the advantages of gardening with native plants (for example, natives are well-suited for our soils and envionment and native plants carry out associations with wildlife that imported plants sometimes cannot) and shared resources on native plant purveyors. We look forward to getting back to the Sarah Stein Garden for another workshop soon.
April 28th: Replanting Carolin's Grove
Carolin's Grove is a 5-acre preserve dominated by Norway spruce trees on Stone Hill Road (Rt. 137) in Pound Ridge. Hurricane Sandy toppled dozens of spruce trees in the grove and left big openings in the forest canopy. Under these canopy openings we planting 150 small saplings which will utilize the sunlight reaching the forest floor and grow to fill in the forest. To deter deer from munching on the new saplings we choose white spruce and pitch pine (both of which are not favored by deer) and placed most of the saplings in areas that the deer will have a hard time reaching.
This new age class of spruce trees will add some diversity to the grove, which is currently comprised of similarly aged trees (all around 80 years old). It is important to have multiple age classes in a forest to provide a variety of habitat to wildlife and to ensure that smaller trees will always be available to grow into newly formed openings. In this sence, Hurricane Sandy was beneficial to Carolin's Grove. We will allow the dozens of downed trees and branches to decay on the ground because they will provide carbon and nutrients to the soil and habitat to a whole suit of small animals.
Below: PRLC board member, Jim Evans, plants a white spruce sapling in Carolin's Grove.
We conduct our land stewardship in a way that is demonstrational, educational and exciting. If you are looking to increase the value of wildlife habitat on your property, become more sustainable or support declining populations of native plants then join us on one of our workshops. Look for the tagline 'Sewardship in Action' for our series on property management (next workshop: June 8th). Check our event calender for event postings. Stay tuned!
Lets think of all the mammals that currently inhabit Pound Ridge, NY: chipmunk, grey squirrel, mice, vole, groundhogs, moles, opossum, cottontail rabbit, raccoon, red fox, gray fox, bobcat, mink, white tailed deer, bats, coyote and bear. Now think of the additional mammals that were here before the eastern forests were cut down: there were mountain lion, wolf, porcupines, beaver, woodland elk and weasels of all sizes. When you stop to list them all, this diversity seems impressive. It should be obvious this wildlife diversity varies greatly from place to place and depends on the presence of suitable habitat.
Consider our Lower Hudson/ Southern New England/ NY Metro region and all of the landscape pieces that make it up. We have cities, state parks, county parks, small lot suburbs, large lot suburbs, farms of all sizes, pasture, orchards, wooded wetlands, lakes, ponds, rives, stream, town centers, tree farms, and (thanks to groups like PRLC) small nature preserves. As you can see, there are a lot of different places for our mammals to live and each of these landscape pieces support a unique diversity of mammals.
For example, the diversity of mammals in Van Cortland Park is expected to be lower than that in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. Certain mammals need large tracts of land on which to roam (bobcat, for example), while other animals do fine in a heavily fragmented suburban setting (such as the white footed mouse).
Here is the $64,000 question: does a place’s diversity affect how that place functions? For years Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been asking this question. Specifically, Dr. Ostfeld studies the ecological components that contribute to Lyme disease risk across the tri-state region. His findings are shocking! In a nutshell, here is what he has concluded:
First, a bit of background:
Back legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) carry a spirochete (Borrelia burgdorfii) which, when entered into humans through a bite, causes Lyme disease. These ticks are not born with the spirochete, they must pick it up from a vertebrate (commonly a bird or mammal) during a blood meal. The animal that initially gives the spirochete to the tick is called a reservoir. Just stop here for a second. This is an important piece to understand. Without the reservoirs, ticks in Pound Ridge wouldn’t carry the spirochete that causes Lyme disease. It is the reservoirs that keep infecting new generations of ticks with the infectious spirochete.
Now on to Dr. Ostfeld’s research. He has found that:
1) Not all potential reservoirs are equally good at giving the spirochete to ticks. Specifically, ticks that feed on white footed mice are very likely to obtain the spirochete during their blood meal, whereas ticks on opossum are much less likely to obtain the spirochete. (*The reason behind this is not totally understood but it likely has to do with the reservoir’s immune system*). This means that we would be better off with less mice and more opossums. There’s more.
|This cartoon shows the differences between two disease reservoirs|
2) Reservoirs vary in the amount of ticks that they carry. Specifically, the average mouse carries roughly 50 ticks whereas the average squirrel carries roughly 150.
3) Reservoirs vary in the amount of ticks that they remove from their body. Specifically, mice remove far fewer ticks from their body than opossums.
|A white footed mouse with an ear full of ticks|
4) A tick’s chances of surviving the winter (an important component of their life cycle and therefore, disease transmission) depends on where it obtained its pre-winter blood meal. Specifically, mice-fed ticks survive the winter better than opossum and squirrel-fed ticks.
From these findings we begin to realize that it matters very much which animal an uninfected tick feeds on. Now on to the question of diversity. If it matters which animals an uninfected tick feeds on and we know that different places have different groups of animals and levels of diversity, can we then begin to predict which places are more likely to have infected ticks (and sadly, infected humans)? This is exactly what Dr. Ostfeld has done.
As diversity declines, disease risk goes up.
Think about it this way: as a forested landscape gets fragmented by development the first animals to be lost are those that are long-ranging – animals like the bobcat and bear that just love to roam. As we continue to whittle away at the landscape animals drop out in a predictable pattern based on their habitat requirements such as area, cover, and food source. Some animals do very poorly in the modified environments that are now common throughout the region while other animals do very well. You don’t see a lot of porcupines around your house but you do see a lot of chipmunks, right? What Dr. Ostfeld has discovered is that the species that thrive in our fragmented and human dominated environments (specifically, the white footed mouse) are the most efficient disease reservoirs. His research shows that as animals are taken out of an ecosystem (aka, as diversity decreases), the risk of Lyme disease goes up. He also shows that as predators are removed from an ecosystem the number of mice (very efficient disease reservoirs) goes up.
For these reasons, managing for vertebrate biodiversity should be a priority. Predators like the red fox and bobcat are important in keeping down mice populations and critters like raccoon and opossum are helpful in diluting the reservoir effect or Lyme disease. It makes me happy to know that the compost at the Armstrong House is visited by raccoons and opossum!
Its official, spring has arrived: the pheobes are back, I heard an american robin singing, the leaves of the trout lily have emerged and I saw a red maple in bloom. In the coming weeks the forest will green out and it will start with the Japanese barberry. This shrub (originally from Japan and eastern Asia) is one of the first plants to push forth its leaves. For someone suffering from the winter blues the early-spring color of Japanese barberry can be quite welcoming but unfortunately there is a downside to its leaves.
|Japanese barberry leafs out while most of the forest remains dormant|
If cutting is your method of barberry managing, now is a great time to get out your tools. Hit the plant before it leafs out to 1) prevent it from building up a tick-friendly microclimate and 2) prevent it from photosynthesizing (growing). Cut every winter/spring until the plant gives up. By continued cutting you are forcing the roots to resupply the shoots. If you keep taking the shoots, the roots will shrink and eventually poop out.
This problem isn’t going away. Take up the fight, at least on your own property.
Spring is slowly emerging…and so are the frogs. Ever since March 12th’s warm rain officially unlocked winter’s tight grasp, I have been hearing occasional peeps and quacks coming from the forest. I spent a few hours this weekend in my waterproof ‘froggin’ boots cruising through woodland ponds (also called vernal pools) looking critters. Here’s what I found:
|A male wood frog floating in a vernal pool, March 23, 2013|
|Female (larger, underneath) and male (smaller, above) wood frogs mating.|
|A female fairy shrimp carrying an egg sack|
Vernal pool conservation
Unfortunately, life isn’t always easy for animals that inhabit vernal pools. For centuries, vernal pools (and wetlands of all types) were seen as valueless to humans and were drained, filled and developed. Thankfully, times are changing. Now vernal pools (and wetlands of all types) are the subject of public interests, scientific research and conservation. Wood frogs, fairy shrimp and mole salamanders (which I have not yet seen in my nearby pool) are consider ‘vernal pool obligates’ because vernal pools are the only known habitats in which they beed. The future of these amazing animals would be critically imperiled if vernal pools were destroyed. For this reason, the Armstrong Preserve’s vernal pool is protected, valued and used as an outdoor classroom to educate others about protecting vernal pools on their property. Although many municipalities have wetland regulations on the books, vernal pools could always receive more protection. Vernal pools are connected to the surrounding forests by the wildlife that move between both. Any harm that comes to the nearby forest will be passed on to the vernal pool. Forest and pool protection go hand in hand.
You and vernal pools
There may be a vernal pool in your backyard. Do you hear frogs in the spring? Is there a seasonally flooded pond in your forest? This website will help you identify a vernal pool from other wetlands. For a fantastic resource on vernal pools, their natural history and conservation, written by the region’s pool expert, Dr. Elizabeth Colburn, see this book. If your property contains one of these pools, you can expect to spend many hours studying its fascinating wildlife. Protect it, and it will reward you with its beauty.
I am always interested in finding new ways to grow plants and experimenting with ways to do so on a tight energy budget. This is our latest success story: Sarah and I started growing microgreens next to our south-facing bedroom window last week. We didn’t quite know how much light we needed to grow our pea and sunflower shoots but we seem to have enough. We are very happy to report that we didn’t need a grow light. The pictures below show a few of the stages.
|Day 5. Little baby pea shoots opening their first set of seed leaves or ‘cotyledons’.|
|Day 5. A cute little sunflower shoot.|
|Day 10. Two trays of microgreens. Pea shoots on the left and sunflower shoots on the right.|
|Day 15. Post harvest. Our microgreens aren’t so ‘micro’ anymore.|
There has been an increasing hype around microgreens recently as they have been said to contain tons of nutrients. In a quick internet search, I discovered that there is some debate about just how healthy microgreens are. This NPR article refers to an August 2012 study out of the University of Maryland that concludes that microgreens contain more nutrients than mature leaves of the same plant. This source (scroll to the bottom of the page) contests the researcher’s experimental design and remains skeptical about their findings. Here is some info about the August 2012 study, which was the first of its kind. Apparently, claims made before the University of Maryland study was conducted (and there are alot of them) were not based on evidence.
Well, I for one don’t need too many nutrient-based reasons to grow microgreens in my bedroom in March. Vegetables are good for you (no matter how ‘micro’ or ‘macro’ they are) and growing them at home reduces my carbon footprint. Seems like a no brainer to me.
If you are interested in growing microgreens at your own home you can check out A good how-to guide for growing micro greens.
At the Armstrong Education Center I am likely to continue growing microgreens because they are mobile (just pick up the tray!), taste great and (some say) nutritious. I will have no trouble growing them in the long days of summer and now I know that I can always throw them in front of a south facing window in late fall and early spring. Happy growing!
I have always been a little conflicted about fireplaces and wood stoves. No matter how much I love sitting next to my wood stove I must admit that it releases pollution and carbon dioxide into the air. This fact has caught the attention of municipalities and governing bodies around the country and air pollution laws often times address residential wood burning.
|Diagram showing the relative emissions of 7 common heating methods.|
I found this diagram and think that it is worth sharing but I certainly don’t take it as gospel. The diagram suggests that oil, gas and electric heat emit the least amount of fine particles. If you only calculate emissions at the home, this diagram is accurate. If you take into consideration that your home’s electric heat was produced by burning coal in a factory, you might have to take out your paper and pencil and double check your math. Obviously, this diagram is too simple and doesn’t account for other sources of pollution along the process of production. What the diagram does do well is illustrate that not all wood stoves are created equal. Most open-faced fire places are still pretty inefficient, but we have entered the world of efficient residential wood stoves. Since Neanderthals first made fires in caves, efficient and clean-burning fire technology has come a long way.
|My wood stove is much more efficient and clean burning than this fire|
Look what Sarah Bush got me for Valentine’s Day…lucky me!
|Sarah presenting her bounty.|
Hooray, snow has come to the northeast. Like a good rain, there is something purifying about a load of fresh snow, which covers the earth like a fresh canvas. A new beginning, I suppose.
You’ve shoveled out and plowed the driveway – now its time to take advantage of all this snow. GO FIND SOME ANIMAL TRACKS. Animals move through the snow and leave direct evidence of their identity, location and behavior. For instance, on the Armstrong Preserve I found where three deer bedded down during the storm. I also followed a fox on a long trek over hill and dale. The grand prize of my post-blizzard journey: an American mink hopping along the icy shore of the nearby Cross River Reservoir.
Seeing animal tracks in the snow really puts our backyards into a new perspective. Most wildlife is secretive and many of our local mammals only come out at night or during twilight. They usually go about their lives totally undetected, so it is hard for us to appreciate them as neighbors. After a snow fall it becomes obvious how many critters rely on your backyard. I suggest you spend a few minutes wandering around your backyard, scanning the snow for signs of animals. You will be surprised by the amount of wildlife moving about just beyond your awareness. Don’t worry if you don’t know which animal made the tracks – what’s enjoyable is seeing where the tracks lead and getting a sense of your wild backyard.
The following pictures are from a few hours of wandering around the Armstrong Preserve. Note: The powdery snow is sometime difficult to track in because it is so easily disturbed (melted, blown around, etc.). After today’s rain, the snow will be harder and more able to clearly capture the track of an animal.
Happy tracking, feel free to share with me what you find.