Living Lighter on the Land

Hear them peep

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
In a pool behind the Bedford Audubon Society’s HQ I found THOUSANDS (!!!) of wood frogs (Rana sylvaticus) doing what wood frogs do at this time of year: float, quack and mate. These 2 inch amphibians live most of their lives on land but lay their eggs in water and rely on the safety of fish-free vernal pools to do so.  During the first warm and wet days of spring wood frogs congregate in impressive numbers in the shallows of a vernal pool and get directly to business.  Below is a picture of wood frogs mating.  The larger, pinkish female is below the smaller and browner male.  Both sexes contain a black mask over their eye, which helps in identification.         
Female (larger, underneath) and male (smaller, above) wood frogs mating.
Wood frogs have attained a good bit of fame due to their amazing overwintering strategy, which is described in the following videos.       
Funny video of wood frog freezing and unfreezing.  
Beautiful video of wood frogs freezing and unfreezing in Alaska.  
A good technical description of what the heck happens to the wood frog in winter.  
Another frog found in vernal pools is the spring peeper, (pseudacris crucifer) whose very loud ‘PEEP’, ‘PEEP’, ‘PEEP’ can be heard echoing from wetlands at great distances.  You have probably heard this little frogs before, but maybe you haven’t seen one in action (they are certainly impressive).  For a great look at the peeper in action, check out this video (I am sorry about the advertisement before this video – believe me, its worth it) 
Back at the Armstrong Preserve’s vernal pool, I found something that may rival the freezing frogs:  fairy shrimp.  These 1/2 inch – 1 inch long crustaceans in the Eubranchipus genus swim near the water’s surface and take cover as shadow’s pass by.  The fairy in the picture below is carrying an egg sack on her back, which will be deposited in the pool where it will sit for a year before hatching.   
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.  

Microgreens in March

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!    

A fire inside

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.

See what the City of Los Angeles did in 2008.
Arcata, California also addressed wood burning at home.

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

My wood stove is not the primary heating source for the Armstrong House.  Its more like a very fun and entertaining way to heat up my living room.  I fire it up at night when I watch a movie, when I entertain guests or when I simply want to play with fire.  I don’t think too much about releasing airborne toxins because my wood stove is an amazing piece of technology.  


Generously donated by Wittus (a local stove dealer), my EPA certified, soapstone-covered stove boasts a handful of technical efficiencies, including: 

Clean burning – many of the organic particles (like ash) are burned in the firebox instead of being sent up the stove pipe. 

Cold air intake pipe – This is my favorite feature. My stove has two pipes that connect it to outside: 1) The smoke stack (necessary for any stove) and, 2) an air intake pipe.  Without this intake pipe, the fire would steadily pull in the room’s air (remember, fires need to breath).  As the fire sucks in the room’s air, the room needs to replace it – where does the room get this air?  Cold air from outside enters the room through the windows and walls to replace the air being sucked into the fire.  While that air exchange is going on the temperature of the room goes down.  My air intake pipe streamlines that whole process and directly sends air to the fire without inadvertently cooling the room.        

Insulated combustion chamber – the materials used to insulate the combustion chamber allow it to reach extremely high temperatures, which increases efficiency while reducing emissions.  


The Armstrong House’s wood stove.  
The soapstone stays hot for hours and is actually still warm to the touch in the morning.  I have found that wood stoves certainly have their place in residential home heating and, like at the Armstrong House, stoves are suitable components of the overall heating system.  Now with efficient and technologically advanced stoves, burning wood doesn’t necessarily mean spewing pollution into the air.    

If you’re shopping around, you need to do your research.  Here is some general starting information on residential wood burning.  Happy heating.  Respect fire.  

Here is a flyer for a neat event series coming your way this spring. 
Join local gardeners, botanists, ecologists and land managers to learn more about Westchester’s spring wildflowers.  
 
These flowers are beautiful, mysterious and threatened – find out more by coming to one or more of these events.  Link for more information.   
 
 

Post-blizzard greens

Look what Sarah Bush got me for Valentine’s Day…lucky me!

Sarah presenting her bounty.  
We opened the cold frame today to find a beautiful bed of greens.  Last week’s winter storm Nemo couldn’t stop the power of this passively-heated winter garden bed.  As you can see, some of the plants were a little bit crowded and needed to be thinned.  
The picture below was taken after Sarah thinned the bed.  Now the remaining plants can grow to fill in the space.  
See my first post on cold frames to find out what they are and how they work.  

Post-blizzard walks

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.

If you are interested in the subject of animal tracking there are many resources out there.  Here are two:
In print:  Mammal Tracks and Sign by mark Elbroch
Web-based: Alderlead Wilderness College

Happy tracking, feel free to share with me what you find.

Night at the Movies with the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy

THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED DUE TO WINTERN STORM NEMO.  PLEASE JOIN US ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15TH.  

Controlling heat loss

I am always impressed with the winter survival strategies of animals: bears that metabolize their fat, inactive frogs that nearly freeze and active birds that drop their body temperatures.  This last thermoregulation strategy – reducing body heat to minimize heat loss – is one that has direct human applications.

Ducks in an icy lake

 
In the winter, ducks swim in very cold water and stand around on ice.  Why don’t their feet freeze?  Why doesn’t their body heat quickly drain through their feet, slowly cooling them?  How do duck feet work with the rest of the duck body to keep it alive in the cold?

The winter physiology of ducks is a marvel of biological engineering, where many sophisticated systems come together to sustain a warm-blooded animal in a very cold environment.  For the purposes of this blog post I will highlight only one aspect of duck physiology – reduced foot temperature – which is beautiful in its simplicity.  First, a question:

On a winter morning, which will lose heat faster.
A) A hot cup of coffee
B) A can of cold soda

Answer: A, a hot cup of coffee will lose its heat faster than a cold can of soda. *if your dying to know why, click here.  It makes sense, then, from an energy conservation perspective for a duck to maintain a lower body temperature in winter.  The obvious hiccup with temperature reduction is that bodies need to stay warm enough to carry out their biological processes (which are temperature dependent); simply reducing body temperature could result in a loss of the body’s function.  The duck does a wonderful job of keeping its body functioning while reducing its temperature.  It does this by breaking its body into different heating zones. 


A temperature diagram of a common gull.  Like the mallard duck, this gull sustains a high temperature in its core, but – to conserve energy – allows its legs and feet to cool dramatically.   

So what does cold bird feet have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?  The Armstrong House is actually a lot like the duck – they are both broken up into different ‘zones’ and which are heated differentially.  Once the Armstrong House’s heating system is completely finished it will be broken up into different heating zones (which roughly correlate with the different rooms), where some rooms will be kept at lower temperatures to reduce heat loss.  By slightly reducing the temperature in less-used rooms or rooms that don’t require much heat, the Armstrong House’s overall energy consumption is reduced.  Also, the different zones can be managed to have their temperature’s fluctuate over time.  For example, the whole house temperature can be reduced at night and specific zones can be heated in the morning in the order in which they are used.  For instance, the bathroom can be heated first, then the kitchen, then the office.  In fact, the zones can be managed to reflect the occupant’s schedule.  Zones that are unused during the day (bedrooms and master bathroom) can be lowered until 4:00 pm – just in time to be warm for the occupant returning from work.  Likewise, primary rooms where the most time is spent (like the kitchen and living room) can be grouped as a zone that stays warmest.  The mud room, sun room and work room can be zoned together and kept cooler. 

In surfing the web I found a neat house in Vermont that is similiar to the Armstrong House.  They too understand the benefit of zoning their house and heating based on use (see below). 

The three heating zones of ‘Perfect House’, an energy effecient house in Vermont. 

   
I love my warm and cozy house, so I am certainly not advocating for living in an icebox.  I am convinced that a comfortable environment can be kept inside the home and energy can be conserved by strategically managing the temperature of various zones.  If the mallard duck can stay active in a half frozen pond, we can surely figure out better ways to thermoregulate our houses to conserve energy. 

  

Mid Winter Compost Tip

Here is a compost trick:

If you throw whole eggshells into your compost heap you are likely to get small pieces of egg shells in the finished compost: not ideal.  Manually crushing up your eggshells before you throw them into your compost pile will help them break down faster and more completely.  See the following pictures:

I save a bunch of old egg shells in the fridge and grind them all at once.  
I lay all of the eggshells in a cookie sheet and then dry them, one of a few ways. You can bake them in the oven at 170 degrees for an hour or so.  In the summer you can just put them in direct sunlight on a hot day.  I have also seen people put their egg shells over the grill on a long day of cooking to let the waste heat dry them out.  The goal is to simply dry out the eggshells and make them brittle.  However you achieve this will be fine.  *Be sure to keep your work station clean when handling wet egg shells so you don’t accidentally spread or ingest harmful bacteria.  Wash your hands and materials well*    
I use a large mason jar to crush the egg shells.  The dry shells should break easily.  
Crush, crush, crush!

It only takes a minute to crush up all of the eggs.  
I will stick the crushed up egg shells in the fridge and await spring.  It is best to incorporate these nutrient rich food items directly into active compost.  I am afraid that if I throw the eggshells in my half frozen compost now, the rain and snow will wash them away.  
It is mid January, which means we have another two months or so before ‘compost season’ opens.   Even in winter you can be improving your compost skills and planning for next spring – make sure you are saving the ash from your fire place and eggshells from breakfast!
   
Interestingly, the same thing can be done to your eggshells if you want to feed them to your backyard chickens.  If you crush up your eggshells really well, you can add them to your chicken feed and recycle the calcium.  Recycling = Living Lighter on the Land   

Energy efficient refrigerator

When designing the solar system for the Armstrong House we calculated a number of ‘load estimates’, which aim to predict the house’s energy consumption.  To provide a generous amount of comfort for the Armstrong House residents we needed to account for every little device they were predicted to use.  Imagine doing a load estimate for your house…..think about all the things you plug in:

DVD players, TVs, computers, hair dryers, coffee makers, blenders, lights and lamps (30 of them), stereos, cell phones, washing machines, garage door openers, video games, WIFI routers, toaster, microwave, water pumps, printers, fax machines, radios… the list can go on and on.  Some things you only use sporadically – like Christmas lights – so their overall burden on the electricity load isn’t great.  Other items, such as your refrigerator, never quite – they just keep working away, 365 days a year.  These are the appliances that could end up pushing you over your electricity budget.  At the Armstrong House we invested in an energy efficient fridge/freezer called the Sun Frost RF 16, which boasts many technological advancements over your ‘traditional’ refrigerator.

Check out their brochure below or click here to see it in a PDF version.

Sarah Bush showing off our Sun Frost RF 16 refrigerator.  Loki the cat in the foreground.  
The walls of our freezer and refrigerator are quite thick, which means great insulation.  
Refrigerators become less efficient when their motors get dirty.  On our Sun Frost RF -16 the motor is on top where it can be easily cleaned.  

Remember, when you are trying to cut down on your household energy use you must address the appliances that run frequently like your fridge/freezer, computer (if you work from home) and dishwasher.

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