Living Lighter on the Land

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. 

Upcoming event

Out with the lawn, in with the meadow

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 Bests go on to say:

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. 
It seems as if meadow landscapes and native landscapes are popping up all over the place. In just a 20 minute internet search, I found all of the following websites.

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

A meadow is a terrible thing to waste

The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy owns or holds conservation easements on 17 preserves in Pound Ridge, NY. The biggest – at 70 acres – is the Clark Preserve, on Autumn Ridge Road. This preserve is a fair representation of Pound Ridge’s ecology; up high its got patches of exposed bedrock where oaks hang on for dear life, down low its got wetlands full of red maple and ferns, and everywhere in between grows a dry forest over hilly, rocky terrain. A unique feature of the Clark Preserve, and one that draws many each week, is its beautiful meadow. In the simplist terms, the Clark meadow is a refreshing change of pace; it permits a grand, open view and induces a feeling of expansiveness that the forest can not. Likewise, in ecological terms, the meadow refreshes the landscape; the open, grassy habitat supports mammals, birds, insects and reptiles that the forest does not. The bounty of the meadow interacts with the bounty of the forest to support those animals – such as the fox, hawk or box turtle – that rely on both ecosystems. An ecologist would say that ‘the meadow increases landscape diversity’.   

Here, in the eastern part of the U.S., meadows don’t usually stay meadows for long. This is really a tree’s world and before long, every meadow will become colonized by woody plants. While on one hand this change is totally natural, on the other hand we have a limited amount of meadows left and, without active management, they would simply go away. Essentially, if we want meadows (which a lot of people like for a lot of different reasons) then we must mow them to keep out trees and shrubs. This is exactly what we did at the Clark Preserve last week.

A mower at the Clark meadow in late September. 

In this picture, half of the Clark meadow is mowed.  By the end of the day, the entire meadow was mowed. 

By mowing the meadow we killed the small shrubs that were starting to grow in the meadow.  The meadow’s non-woody plants – grasses, flowers, ferns, etc. – will grow again next year.  In meadow management, different mowing cycles are used to benefit and attract different animals.  See this pamphlet, put out by the Mianus River Gorge, on the frequency and timing of meadow mowing. 

If meadows naturally turn into woodlands and forests, why should we keep a meadow open? 
Or, asked a slightly different way…
Aren’t we interferring with natural succession when we mow a meadow?
Eastern meadows – when left a lone – usually become colonized by woody shrubs and trees through a somewhat predictable series of vegetation changes.  The following graphic depicts how a place’s plants may change through time. 

A very general depiction of ‘succession’, the change in vegetation over time. 

So yes, it is well known that meadows turn into forests, but this does not mean that meadows are somehow less ‘natural’ or less important than forests.  As landscape features, meadows have always been right alongside forests.  If we consider the entire eastern forest – from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean – before it was dominated by industrialism, there were thousands of meadows dotting the forested landscape.  Fires would burn and open up forests to create meadows.  Beaver dams, after being breached, would drain their ponds and leave a wide open meadow.  Disturbances such as these were always making meadows out of shrublands and woodlands.  So at the same time as natural succession was turning meadows into forests, the forests themselves were being converted into meadows.  Within this simple equation, there was always a place for meadows in the eastern landscape and, thus, many animals evoloved to live within their open, grassy vistas. 

Today, its a different ballgame: fires are squelched and beavers are a mere fraction of their former abundance.  No meadows are being created while the remaining meadows proceed through succession into forests.  Given enough time, we will simply run out of meadows – hence the need for meadow management.  When we manage for a perpetual meadow we secure habitat for all the butterflies, birds, dragonflies and turtles that rely on them. 

Becuase of their ecological and cultural history, meadows are the focus of conservation in Westchester County.  Many uncommon birds and insects flock to these areas, attracting naturalists with binoculars and cameras.  The following are managed meadows open to the public:
Westchester Land Trust’s Pine Croft Meadow  
Ward Pound Ridge Reservation
Bedford Audubon’s headquesters is surrounded by fields
Marshland Conservancy

On a side note, I can reccomend two good books on the subject of America’s historic landscape. 
1491: New Revalations of the Americas Before Columbus
Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery

Keeping your garden warm through the fall

Here comes fall again…its seems like just yesterday I had ample daylight to do with as I pleased: after-dinner hikes, early morning bird walks, flexibility to do my garden chores whenever they fit in.  Now, I am scrambling to get everything done before it gets dark.  The revolving seasons change the way we are currently gardening at the Armstrong Education Center.  We can’t create more hours of sunlight, but we can surely govern the micro climate in our garden to keep temperatures  – and production – from dropping too low.  There are many techniques for what is commonly called ‘season extension’, which generally means growing crops beyond their normal outdoor growing season.  Some forms of season extension – such as the greenhouse – certainly ring a bell with most people.  Lesser known methods with interesting names such as ‘row covers‘, ‘hoop houses‘ and ‘cold frames‘ are actually used regularly among small to medium sized agricultural operations.

Row covers, used to extend the growing season, at the Armstrong Education Center.
Underneath the row cover.  Inside, our swiss chard, kale and carrots will get some early winter protection.  

This week at the Armstrong Education Center gardens, Sarah Bush and I installed Agribon AG-19 row covers over our remaining crops of salad greens, carrots, beets and herbs.  This material will provide protection against early frosts and, until then, keep the beds from cooling off on cold nights.  In addition to season extension, row covers are used for a variety of other reasons including pest control and preventing wind damage.  Just googling ‘row covers’ will yield dozens of helpful sites and hundreds of pictures.  
On a personal level, learning about row covers and season extension opened my eyes to the commitment, skills, knowledge, and ingenuity of the farming community.  When I first saw season extension I thought “Wow, these people just wont give up!”.  I first encountered season extension in Alaska where, with only a three month growing season I expected not to find many farmers, but I did.  Growers in Alaska take advantage of the looooong days, which help crops grow almost before their eyes.  To get a jumpstart on the late season and to hang onto it as long as possible, the Alaskan growers that I met used various methods of season extension.

Alaska Grown is a state program that promotes Alaska state agriculture

To me, these techniques represent a certain strain of resilience, stubbornness and dedication that I am finding to be universal among food growers.  I am learning from these growers that to keep a productive and sustainable garden requires us to master the art and science raising plants.  At the Armstrong House, productivity and sustainability are goals and in only our first growing year, we are learning a lot.  To increase productivity and sustainability in the future, we have much more planning and learning to do; our row covers are just the beginning.  Stay tuned to see what else we try.

For the region’s authority on growing, gardening, farming and agriculture see Stone Barns.  Visit their website at least, but do yourself a favor and visit their farms, sit in on a class and participate in a workshop.  A recent trip to their greenhouse, hoop houses, orchards and compost arena left me speechless.  They really know how to grow food over there.            

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