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.

2013: A new, cold year...full of fresh greens

Happy New Year everyone.  Here in Pound Ridge, NY the temperatures have hovered around 30 F. for the past week.  Two storms dropped a total of 6 inches of snow on us after Christmas and in spite of the cold we continue to eat fresh salads at the Armstrong Education Center.  How is this possible?  With the use of ‘cold frames‘.      

The simple anatomy of a cold frame
Cold frames are just little boxes that trap and retain heat.  Just like a greenhouse, these little garden tools are used to create an interior growing environment that is warmer than the exterior environment.  It’s all about the sun.  In the northern hemisphere, cold frames face the south and they are constructed and positioned in such a way that they collect as much direct light as possible during the day.  Notice that in the picture below the back wall is higher than the front wall.  When the transparent lid is placed on top of both these walls it sits at an angle facing south, toward the sun.  Inside the cold frame the soil heats up and the air is kept warm throughout the day.  Any insulation that is added to the cold frame helps to keep the air warm after the sun goes down.  In Pound Ridge, NY the climate allows us to grow a wide variety of ‘cold hardy’ greens, whiche are varieties of greens (like kale and lettuce) that can grow at cold temperatures and tolerate freezing temperatures.  In general, your summer varieties of greens will do poorly in a cold frame in January – stick with the ‘cold hardy’ greens.  Here is a list of what we are currently growing:

Forcea lettuce
Red Russian kale
Green kale
Purple mizuna
Italian dandelion
Pac choi
Tat soi, and
Hardy white scallion    

A cold frame is essentially a small, south facing green house used for extending the growing season.  The picture above shows the basic design, on which more bells and whistles can be added   

The following pictures were taken at the Armstrong House on New Years Eve, 2012.  You can see that snow is no problem for our cold frames – the little plants inside continue to thrive.

Our rectangular cold frames sit on the southern side of the Armstrong House.  You can see there that we removed some snow from the plexiglass on the cold frame’s right side.  

A close up picture of the cold frame lid.  Can you see the condensation on the inside of  the plexiglass?  That is a great sign because it means that the temperature inside the cold frames is warm enough to evaporate water from the soil.  
Harvest time!  My partner Sarah Bush picks kale from one of our cold frames.  Examine the cold frame’s construction: we used straw bales as insulation and lined the cold frame’s inside with a thin reflective insulator.  Currently, our lid is not attached to any part of the cold frame – it just rests on top of the straw bales.  This method is not ideal for the long term but it seems to be working for now.      
Sarah Bush harvesting greens from our second cold frame.  You can see that on this 30 degree day, Sarah (a Tennessee native) is dressed for the cold.  The ‘cold hearty’ greens in our cold frames do just fine through the winter.  

There are hundreds of cold frame designs out there – many of which can be made with recycled materials. Just look at all the cold frames on Google images. Your cold frame design will vary depending on your growing goals, your space, your winter climate and your materials.  As long as you are achieving a warm temperature inside your cold frame, you are doing it right.  The straw bale cold frame pictured above is not a permanent structure because the straw will eventually rot and loose its ability to insulate.  In the future we may continue to use temporary straw bales or we may choose to design and construct a permanent cold frame. The sky is the limit.

Want to learn more?
The book Four Season Harvest by Elliot Coleman describes how to successfully grow food through the winter.  Elliot has mastered season extension through his work up in Maine.  Here in Westchester County, Stone Barns uses and demonstrates many different season extension methods to grow food through the winter.  In fact, it was the Stone Barns Vegetable Farm Manager Jack Algiere who assured Sarah and I that cold frames would work here in New York.    

Happy growing

Efficient home heating, Part 1.

Nighttime lows have been dipping into the twenties, making my cozy little home all the more comfortable.  The Armstrong House, the physical structure that protects me from the raw forces of nature, envelopes me in a bubble of evenly warmed air.  The source of this warmth: underfloor – or radiant – heating. Although winter is a great excuse to wear indoor slippers, they are not much needed as my floors radiate a steady stream of thermal energy.  On those early mornings when my cat’s demands for breakfast rip me from the bed, my toes happily waltz naked across the heated floor.

Walking on heated floors is a delight in the Armstrong House

A little background on the Armstrong House 
When the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy (PRLC) committed to renovating the Armstrong House, they decided to use it as a showcase for simple energy efficient building and lifestyle choices.  The PRLC chose to prioritize energy efficiency because it realized that both prongs of conservation (land protection and sustainable lifestyles) need to be practiced and taught.  At the Armstrong Education Center we call this philosophy ‘Living Lighter on the Land’, and radiant heating is just one of the many ways we demonstrate a low-impact lifestyle.   

How radiant heating warms the Armstrong House
Like the tortoise, radiant heating (AKA, underfloor heating) is slow and steady.  There are many different radiant systems available – air, electric and water – which differ in their heat-carrying medium.  At the Armstrong House we use water (AKA, ‘hydronic’) to carry heat throughout the house.  Here is how our system works: roughly 90 degree water is continually pumped throughout the house in underfloor plastic ‘PEX’ tubes.  The water’s heat energy leaves the tubes and radiates upward into the cooler room. Radiant heating systems can be thermostatically controlled, just like other home heating systems.  Take a look at the pictures below to understand the basic design of this heating system.

Underfloor tubing runs throughout the entire Armstrong House like in this picture.  

A picture of plastic ‘PEX’ tubing in a room.  This tubing will be covered by a floor.  

A detailed look at how radiant tubing sits under a floor.  

Radiant heating versus other types of heating
What makes radiant heating so efficient and great feeling is its omnipresence – the tubing underlies nearly all of a room’s floor, which means that heat enters the room from almost every inch of ground.  Alternatively, radiators and forced-air systems rely on a few sources of very hot air, which is expected to permeate a space.  The result with these systems are drafts, hot pockets, cool pockets and – as you’ll see – a room that is heated from the top down.

Two systems of heating compared.  Forced-air systems on the left and radiant floor systems on the right.  In most cases, radiant heating is more efficient and comfortable.  
Radiant heating literally heats a room from the bottom up, which means that the space occupied by people (the bottom six feet of the room) is the warmest and most comfortable.  Alternatively, by heating a room in a top-down manner (as in a forced air system), energy is wasted heating unused air.  This also creates very dramatic and noticeable differences in heat conditions between floors.  For example, I remember in my grandmother’s house the second floor was brutally hot while the first floor was comfortable.  Besides being uncomfortable, this style of heating is inefficient.    

Comparing how heat fills a room in different heating systems.  Radiant heating on the left vs. force-air heating on the right.  

The body’s response to different heating systems
It is said that radiant heating has advantages over other heating systems on a purely physiological level.  When looking at the heating preferences of the human body, our feet and legs like to be the warmest and our heads like to be the coolest.  The diagram below reiterates the point that a bottom up heating system has advantages over a top down heating system.

Our bodies like to be heated from the bottom up.  Our heads like to experience slightly cooler temperatures than our legs and feet.  

When trying to reduce your energy and resource use, you have to tackle the large energy hogs, like home heating.  Here in the north, many months are spent heating the home and an efficient system will make a large difference over time.  This post is Part one of a series on efficient home heating.  In part two I will show you how the water in our radiant system is heated.  Here’s a hint:  Its big, yellow and likes to sit in the sky.  Stay tuned.      

More reading
There are lots of people talking/blogging about radiant heating technology.  It is found all across the country and applied in all sorts of buildings.  Here are some links.  Happy heating!
From the Federal Government
A Hudson Valley-based private company specializing in radiant heating
A Vermont-based private company specializing in radiant heating
Lots of good radiant information here

What to do with all this wood?!

Hurricane Sandy happened over a month ago but the signs of her devastation still linger on: crushed roofs, fallen trees and the never ending buzz of chainsaws.  Of the thousands of trees that Sandy pushed over, many were next to people’s homes and have since been cut up and removed.  Today’s post highlights the role of dead wood in a forest ecosystem and stresses the ecological value of fallen debris. I will take you on a journey through the ‘life’ of a fallen dead tree:

Some of the many uses of fallen dead wood.  Dead wood is extremely valuable to the forest ecosystem as it provides food, shelter and a source of energy for future organisms.
A pile of sticks and branches makes great hiding places for animals

Once fallen, the crown of the tree (all the branches, limbs and twigs) rests on the ground.  Here it provides birds and mammals with shelter.  An impenetrable pile of sticks is difficult for us humans to move through but ideal for a warbler or a chipmunk hiding from a cooper’s hawk.  The thin branches quickly break down and become incorporated into the soil’s top layer where they continue to decompose and feed small critters.     

Bigger limbs fill up with insects, which attract hungry animals.

Larger limbs – like those pictured to the right – take years to break down.  They slowly begin to take on water and fill up with ants, beetles and grubs, which attract the pileated woodpecker and the northern flicker.  At every stage of decomposition, these dead limbs provide a unique habitat to decomposers which, in turn, prepare the wood for the next suitable suit of decomposers.  

Hollow logs attract a lot of animal activity.

Large logs may eventually become hollowed out.
These hollow logs act like little bunkers for forest mammals, used for eating in, hiding in and I like to think – napping in.  Exploring around one of these hollowed logs usually shows many sign of animal use such as scat (animal feces) and remnants of an animal meal.  


A ‘snag’ or standing dead tree.  

What about a dead tree that doesn’t quite fall over? This type of dead wood (called a ‘snag’) is also very valuable to the forest ecosystem.  Snags will eventually fall to the ground and contribute pieces of wood to the soil but before they do, they act as a sort of wildlife condominium.  Notice the snag to the right.  See all the round holes?  These round holes happen when a rotted limb falls off or when excavated by a woodpecker.

A flying squirrel in a tree cavity.  Picture by me!
Once established, a tree cavity will be used for many years by squirrels, flying squirrels, owls, song birds and raccoons.  To read more about the importance of snags, see my Blog posts from March and April. 

There is a lot you can do with your downed wood to provide wildlife with useful habitat, shelter and food after a storm like Hurricane Sandy.  

1.  Leave logs on the ground to rot.  

2.  If you want to dress up your decomposing logs, you can turn them into rustic outdoor furniture.  

3.  Let broken trees stand and turn to snags.  

4.  Pile up downed branches to provide small animal habitat.   

At the Armstrong Education Center in Pound Ridge, NY I practice these different methods of using downed wood for wildlife.  As an added bonus you can expect to save some cash because these practices are often less expensive than paying a crew to cut, chip and haul your downed trees.  This is just another trick to Living Lighter on the Land.  

When a hurricane visits a forest

One day I was walking with my mentor in the woods when he asked me ‘Why are all these trees the same age?’.  With his hands in his pockets and a silly grin on his face (as was his style), he stood facing a small clump of young sugar maple trees.  These ten trees –all roughly the same size and age— went unnoticed until Jeff drew my attention to them.  Before he asked about them, they simply merged without distinction into the rest of the forest.  Now, they stood out as a single group with an obvious common history.

What was the history of this group of trees?  What took place to result in a tidy patch of even aged trees?  The answer is in today’s post…

I was reminded of that day on a recent visit to Carolin’s Grove, one of the preserves owned and managed by the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy.  Late October’s Hurricane Sand visited Carolin’s Grove like she did any other place in Pound Ridge.  The preserve’s namesake—an 80 year old grove of Norway spruce—was torn to bits by the storm.  Some trees were entirely torn from the ground (roots and all), but more commonly they were left standing, splintered and shattered in half.  As I walked through the wreckage my eyes were drawn up to the sky, which now occupied large gaps in the forest canopy where spruce trees stood only a few days before.

  The following was the sequence of my thinking: 
My thought process as I gaze up through a gap in the forest canopy.  
Every so often, something comes along and kills a handful of perfectly good trees and replaces part of the forest canopy with a wide open gap.  All types of catastrophes can cause a gap in a forest canopy: hurricanes, fire, pathogens (i.e., insect, fungi), ice storms, wind storms, lightning, and let’s not forget the good old fashioned ax.  
A view from Carolin’s Grove after Hurricane Sandy.  Forest all over Pound Ridge, NY were devastated by her strong winds.  

What happens once a canopy gap is produced?  Typically, trees grow to fill in the gap.  More specifically, a handful of very lucky trees get an extra dose of light and prosper…upward.  Think back to the story at the beginning of this post – could this have been the cause of the ten evenly sized maple trees?
In one sense, last week’s Hurricane Sandy was a perfectly normal forest phenomenon; forests along the eastern seaboard and in New England have been dealing with bad storms for as long as there have been forests.  Sandy represents one piece in a never ending cycle of tree death, birth and growth.  There is, however, something happening in the forest these days which may alter the cycle.  These days, our forests are experiencing a little extra pressure which affects the processes of birth and growth.  Any guesses?

A cute little white tailed deer.  In Pound Ridge, NY white tail deer are so numerous that they prevent any new trees from growing in the forest.  

The current deer density is so high that it suppresses new trees from being recruited into the forest.  For effect, I’ll say it in a few different ways: new trees don’t grow in Pound Ridge; trees fall, but new ones don’t grow back; with every storm, our tree count goes down; every day, our forests are getting thinner and thinner; many new gaps go unfilled.  I‘ll express it in economic terms: we are only withdrawing from our bank account—there hasn’t been a deposit in years.  

Need proof?  Go to the forest behind your house and find a tree less than 5 feet tall.  You’ll be lucky to find one.  This is not forests in other places look like. Most forest can replenish their toppled trees, and they do so with a forest floor full of young trees waiting for a gap to open in the canopy.      

I spent last autumn in a part of Maine where logging is the industry.  I spent endless hours exploring the logged forests, learning great lessons in forest regeneration; all places recently cut were home to fresh clumps of young trees, fighting their way to the sun.  I didn’t mind the destruction to the trees because the forest’s future grew roughly knee high and smelled of fresh spruce as I brushed past it.  

Unlike the regrowing forests of Maine, the barren forest floor of Pound Ridge lacks promise for our forest’s future…

A stranger among your maples

The forests of Pound Ridge, NY are filled with maples and they live in just about every part of the landscape: on wet sites and dry sites, south facing slopes and north-facing slopes, in the shade and in the sun.  We have six maple trees in total:  

Red maple (Acer rubrum).  A very common maple found in wetlands.
Black maple (Acer nigrum).  While it is said to grow in this area, I have not seen it in the wild.

Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). This small tree is found in only the coldest places of the area (i.e., exposed, north facing sites at high elevation) 

Silver maple  (Acer saccharinum).  This tree lives on floodplains.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum). The most common maple around Pound Ridge, NY and the one from which we make maple syrup. 
 Norway Maple: INVASIVE MAPLE. 
This maple tree is not from North America.  Since being brought here it has negatively changed the forest.  

The norway maple is said to be invasive because it spreads quickly through our forest, outcompeting native trees and shading out forest wildflowers.  The tree is also undesirable from a forester’s perspective – when compared to the native (and more desirable) sugar maple, the wood of the Norway maple makes poor lumber and burns cooler.

Now, during the second week of November the Norway maple is very easy to spot in the forest.  Now, its yellow and orange leaves stand out against a grey (or after yesterday’s snowfall, white!) leafless forest.  In the grand show of fall foliage, the Norway maple is late to the party.  All of the other maples already shed their leaves but the Norway is only just now entering its dormancy.  Below are pictures I took to help train your eyes to this plant.

A Norway maple up close.  Notice that it is the only tree still holding colorful leaves
Large Norway maple trees along side a road.  One in the foreground and one in the background.  
The entire yellow band in the center of the photo is comprised of Norway maple trees.  

Try to spot these yellow trees as you go through your day – you’ll be amazed just how many are invading the forest.  I spent a few hours this week girdling Norway maple trees at the Armstrong Education Center in Pound Ridge, NY.  

Hurricane Sandy

My heart goes out to all the people who have lost something to Hurricane Sandy.  In these hard times I hope you find support and that your life regains a sense of normalcy soon. 

A little bit of love for the victims of Hurricane Sandy

What to do with fallen trees

Westchester County was severely battered by Hurricane Sandy last week, which caused  massive flooding along the coast, extensive power outages, property damage and the death of thousands of trees.  In Pound Ridge, first comes the storm, then comes the chainsaws.  For the past week, the soundtrack to my life has been the buzz of a small motor pushing saw teeth through living wood.  Armies of landscapers, town workers and contractors have been busy cutting up all the trees that lay across peoples driveways, the public roads and hang from power lines.  I myself have been clearing the trails on the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy’s preserves.

What happens to all of these fallen trees?  Where does the wood go?  From my observations, if a tree falls on someone’s property it gets cut up and is either 1) removed from the property or 2) stacked (perhaps for firewood?).  While it is great to use your downed trees as firewood and/or any other domestic use, I want to give some attention the practice of simply letting your property keep the wood.  
A downed tree is very useful to your backyard ecosystem.  
A flying squirrel in a tree cavity.  These little mammals rely on cavities for shelter and nesting sites.  Although actually quite common in our eastern forests flying squirrels are rarely seen.  I was lucky enough to capture a photograph of this one while working in a Vermont forest.  

Rooting for the underdog: eastern bluebirds

Imagine you live inside of a tree.  Your hunger forces you down to the ground where you glean ants and worms out of the grass.  Upon returning to your tree you find a strange bird comfortably occupying your home.  Its time to move. 

An eastern bluebird in its preferred open-woodland habitat

This has happened again and again to the eastern bluebird, which live in small holes in trees.  The non native European starling and house sparrow (both intoduced to the Americas after the Columbian exchange) pose a serious threat to the bluebirds: starlings (another ‘cavity-nesting’ bird) enter bluebird cavities and evict the occupants while house sparrows kill bluebirds and/or destroy bluebird eggs.  Its a rough world for the adorable bluebird, which are also negatively affected by severe winters and loss of habitat. 

The bluebird has been subject to an extremely dynamic and turbulent history in North America. See here for a nice synthesis of their history.  To sum it up, due to loss of habitat, land conversion, and the introduction of non native birds (European starling and house sparrow), the bluebird population crashed around the middle of the 20th century.  Their numbers were so low that by the 1960’s birders and scientists feared that bluebirds may actually become extinct.  A widespread, grass-roots movement to save the bluebird ignited a new interest in their plight, research for their conservation and the spread of bluebird boxes across the country.       

Bluebird boxes?  Yes, there is something that you can do to help the bluebird! 

To mimic the tree cavities that bluebirds find so comfortable, scientists, conservationists, nature enthusiasts, birders and school children have built and errected small wooden homes for the bluebirds, A.K.A., bluebird boxes.  These easy to build boxes provide bluebirds with a safe place to make a nest and bring up their babies. European starlings are too big to fit through the door hole which means that the bluebird family is safe from unwanted squatters and killers.        

A bluebird on a bluebird box.  A bluebird’s door hole must be precisely sized (1.5 inch) to allow bluebirds to enter while keeping out unwanted European starlings.   

This type of human mitigation has truly paid off; bluebird populations have responded to the wide-spread use of bluebird boxes.  Their numbers are up, but still not as high as they were before humans severely impacted them with starlings, sparrows and sprawl.  Choosing to erect a bluebird house is still a fun and worthwhile endevour – one that directly helps wild animals survive in the face of serious human-induced obstacles.  You can see working bluebird boxes in the meadows at the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy’s Clark Preserve and the Westchester County’s Ward-Pound Ridge Reservation

If you want to build or buy a bluebird box you should consult the many websites dedicated to bluebirds to understand their specific habitat and ecological requirements.  Here are a few websites:

Bluebirds forever
From the USDA
Bluebird box info and building plans

A bluebird sitting on a bluebird box.  This picture shows how a bluebird box can be mounted onto a piece of metal. 

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