Living Lighter on the Land
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:
Red Russian kale
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.|
|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.
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.
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!
|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.|
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.
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…
The following was the sequence of my thinking:
|My thought process as I gaze up through a gap in the forest canopy.|
|A view from Carolin’s Grove after Hurricane Sandy. Forest all over Pound Ridge, NY were devastated by her strong winds.|
|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.|
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…
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.|
|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.
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|
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.
|A downed tree is very useful to your backyard ecosystem.|
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:
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.|
In last week’s blog post I reported that the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy recently oversaw the mowing of their five-acre meadow on the Clark Preserve as a way of preserving it as an open habitat and supporting the animals that call it home. This week, the meadow conversation continues with a focus on all the cool ways that people are bringing meadows and meadow plants into their landscaping. Really big meadows like the ones at Ward-Pound Ridge Reservation are impressive, but not feasible for the average landowner to own or maintain. The alternative? Small meadow gardens.
Out with the lawn, in with the meadow!
Native meadows have become a fashionable, beautiful and ecologically intelligent type of landscaping over the past decade. Their benefits abound: they require far less water and mowing than a manicured lawn, they require ZERO fertilizers, their appearance changes with the seasons, they support populations of native plants and they attract a variety of wildlife. My friends in Pound Ridge – James and Ellen Best – have beautiful meadows incorporated into their landscaping; their backyard feels less like a generic landscape and more like real nature. Here is what James and Ellen Best have to say about their meadow gardens:
What we like best about meadows is that they dramatically change with the seasons, unlike grass, which hardly changes at all. Cycles of purple, pink and yellow flowers, wispy grasses, buzzing bees and incredible spider webs appear in the meadows; it’s an ongoing show that nature puts on for free. We see fox, hawks, woodchucks, rabbits and more in the natural, protective habitat that the meadows create. After a dry, brownish winter, when the meadow begins to come alive again in the spring, it’s so exciting! Yes, patches of grass offer good foot-feel and space for activities, like a carpet. But how much carpet do you need? Less work, too!
|A mowed path through a dense patch of wildflowers at the Best’s property in Pound Ridge, NY|
|A patch of black eyed susan next to the Best’s home in Pound Ridge, NY.|
The combination of having both meadow and lawn areas seems like the best option. We have winding paths running through the meadows, making it an adventure to walk from one area to another. And it doesn’t have to be in a big area to give us that experience. Meadows provide borders and edges, as well as natural transitions from wooded areas to lawn areas – so much more alive than just a mowed lawn!
|A tree swallow. This bird can be seen flying over meadows picking off flying insects. You are likely to attract these birds, especially if your meadow is near a pond.|
|A lone cardinal flower grows in a patch of colorful flowers on the property of James and Ellen Best, Pound Ridge, NY.|
See this company, which specializes in ‘organic’ landscaping. Another company can consult on your property, or insall a thriving meadow.
See an example of landscaping turned wild here from North Salem, NY
Native U, a program at Westchester Community College, is dedicated to teaching gardeners and landscapers how to incorporate native plants and native ecology into their work.
A word from NY State on practicing native landscaping here.
This Blog documents work in the ‘Urban Lawn Reduction Project’.
Interested in managing the meadow on your property?
Check out this pamphlet on meadow management put out by the Mianus River Gorge.
Meadow management at the Armstrong Preserve.
On the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy’s Armstrong Preserve there is an old field, which is colonized by invasive stilt grass and japanese barberry. I recently drafted a Meadow Management Plan for the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy which outlines a long-term plan to bring native meadow plants back to the field. Over the next five years we can expect more native grasses and wildflowers, bees, butterflies and dragonflies!
*All pictures by James Best