Living Lighter on the Land
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
|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.
|A quick rinse|
|Some of the tomatoes were a bit under ripe so we set them aside to eat in a few days. They will not be made into sauce. This informative pictures appeared on the side of the tomato box. The tomato faces are cute.|
|We cut up the sauce tomatoes and removed any damaged parts. On average, each tomato had one or two small spots that needed to be cut out and composted. This step took roughly 2 hours.|
|We placed the tomatoes into a oven pan and added good olive oil, salt and cloves of garlic. We broiled the tomatoes for roughly 25 minutes. We stirred the tray two times to make sure the garlic didn’t burn.|
|We spooned the sauce into freezer bags|
This little piece of wall art hangs next to my sink at the Armstrong House Education Center to instruct my guests of our sponge reuse policy. I cannot take credit for this – it was inspired by a friend of mine. Feel free to replicate. Stay tuned for more adorable conservation-based wall art in the future. Send me yours and I will post it on the Blog.
Last week’s post was about a weed called mile-a-minute vine that is spreading through our forests and killing other plants. I began my last post with the musing ‘what is a weed?’ The word ‘weed’ isn’t technically a botanical term; there is not a group of plants that botanists have described as ‘weeds’. Instead, weeds – or undesirable plants – are only weeds within a certain context. For example, a dandelion growing along the railroad tracks may not be considered a weed, but as soon as it pops up in your lawn it certainly is. Likewise, sugar maple seeds are very welcome to germinate in the forest, but the gardener will rip them up once they sprout among her kale.
|Dandelion, a common weed.|
From these examples you can see that a plant’s context is what makes them a weed and their weediness usually stands in our way of achieving a goal. For example, the gardener is trying to raise some food for her family. Garden=context. Food=goal. Weeds=reduce food production. Once there is a context and a goal is set, weeds take form. Once a person builds a garden and is committed to growing some food, plants like lady’s thumb and sorrel automatically become the weeds, simply because these plants grow quickly in full sun and can crowd out our vegetables. It really has nothing to do with the plants themselves, their weediness is simply a result of our decision to keep a garden. No gardens, no weeds. Simple.
|The mandala garden at the Armstrong House Education Center, where we get our fair share of weeds growing among the desirable vegetables and herbs.|
Lets think bigger than our backyard garden. What are our goals for Pound Ridge’s land? Once we set some town wide goals, our town wide weeds will take form. Believe it or not, conservation is a bit like gardening. Conservationists, just like gardeners, decide what we want to remove from the land, what we want to keep on the land and how we want the land to appear/ work. Of course, its easier to control your backyard garden than something huge and complex like a forest or a watershed, but the principle is identical. Gardeners and conservationists follow the same process: we identify our context, set our goals and manage our weeds.
So I’ll ask you again, what are our goals for the garden of Pound Ridge?
It is safe to say that the people of Pound Ridge have at least one common goal: forests. People move here because of our beautiful trees. Our forests are pleasing to look at, give our homes privacy, provide us with shade in the summer, keep our soil in place, provide food and shelter for hundreds of forests critters and dazzle our eyes in the fall with their colors. Honestly, our honorary membership in Southern New England would be revoked if we didn’t have such forests – the New England states would simply laugh us off stage. Beyond all these reasons, we must admit that there is something magical about forests that touch our soul. Can we all agree, then, that we like our forests?
|An artsy photograph I took of a forest in Pound Ridge, NY. We surely love our trees around here.|
So back to our formula. Context= Pound Ridge. Goal= a forest full of trees. Weed=?
This is easy. The greatest threat to our trees is the cute and fuzzy white tailed deer, period. At their current density, virtually ZERO NEW TREES are being recruited into the forest. Sure, we have trees now (fewer by the storm, mind you) but we will have less in twenty years, far fewer in fifty years and in one hundred years Pound Ridge will be hanging onto its forested past via a few giants. Good bye New England, hello NY metro.
|A white tailed deer browsing a tree branch|
What will our future landscape look like?
In general, the forest will grow older and older and without new recruits, we will see a large gap in the age demographics of the trees. The youngest trees we have now (roughly 10-15 years old), will always be the forest’s youngest trees. Therefore, in 50 years, the youngest trees will be 65 years old, standing over an understory that is open, bare, and sparsely vegetated. Instead of an understory of native trees, we will have extensive shrub thickets of deer resistant invasive plants (Japanese barberry, wine berry, multiflora rose) under an aging canopy.
What’s the gardener to do?
As conservationist/gardeners we have to decide what we want our landscape to look like in 20, 50 and 100 years. Once we set our goals, lets get to work managing our weeds. I, for one, vote for trees.
If you are new to this white tail deer conversation, there are plenty of resources to become acquainted with. See below. If you are a veteran of this conversation, what are you doing to grow more trees? I currently have 40 young trees growing in a small nursery at the Armstrong House Education Center. Soon I’ll have 60. In addition to planting native trees, maybe we should come together as a town and do something about our deer. These weeds are certainly within our power to manage.
Deer related resources:
Background ecological information
Local conservation groups measuring the effect of deer on plants
Deer hunting in Pound Ridge, NY
Conversations about effective control measures
I didn’t always know that any plant could be considered a weed. I thought that all weeds shared a similar physiology, evolution or life cycle which united them into an unpopular class of plants. This is not true. A weed is just a plant that, for some reason or another, people don’t like: its perceived as useless, clogs underground plumbing, costs us money, mires our farm equipment, out competes more desirable plants, poisons our livestock, shades our crops, etc. What’s more, a weed in one location – intentionally killed, uprooted, and criticized – may be coveted elsewhere. A plant’s weediness really all depends on who you ask and what they want.
So ask an ecologists what they want and they will say ‘diversity’. Diversity is coveted by ecologists because, by definition, it suggests that many organisms are alive and well and it ensures an ecosystem’s productivity and resilience. Essentially, if extinction is the enemy, diversity is our greatest ally. Ecologists, as well as anybody, know about weeds. Here in the forests of northern Westchester there are weeds which threaten to decrease its diversity. You may have heard them referred to as ‘invasive species’. Today’s post is about one in particular: mile-a-minute Vine (Persicaria perfoliata).
|A great poster showing all parts of the mile-a-minute vine. Learn how to identify this weed in the field.|
Aptly named, this plant from Asia can grow, grow, grow over everything in its path. With its little barbs (see picture) it can successfully hang onto the leaves, stems, and stalks of other plants as it rapidly grows up and over them. Through research it has been shown to decrease local diversity…very weedy indeed. Its an annual plant which means that it overwinters as a seed; the plant’s vegetative parts do not persist for multiple years. To stop this plant from spreading we need to halt its production of seeds.
Right now, the third week of August 2012, the mile-a-minute vine on the Armstrong Preserve are about to flower – I can see their swollen flower buds ready to erupt. Remember back to elementary school biology – first come the flowers, then come the seeds. In order to stop this plant from spreading we have to kill it before it makes seeds. In other words, we have to kill it now.
Removing mile-a-minute vine is not necessarily difficult. Using work gloves, you can easily pull the plant out of the ground. BE SURE TO PULL OUT THE PLANT’S ROOTS. If you break the stem, plant material left in the ground will begin to grow again. It is inevitable to miss or break some vines, so get in the habit if revisiting sites a week or so after you pull vines, just to clean up any remaining plants. After you pull the plant out of the ground you have to put it some place where it will desiccate and die (on a stone wall, driveway, etc.).
|A patch of densely growing mile-a-minute vine|
What do you do when your feeling run down? Some people need comfort food or a warm bath. Others sleep more or pop a packet of ‘Emergen-C‘. As we mature, we all learn how to alleviate our own exhaustion. We are not the only thing that gets run down and exhausted; we are a lot like soil in this respect. As it turns out, our health and the health of soil are both influenced by the relative amounts of vitamins, carbon and water we contain. When one of these gets thrown out of balance, bad things can happen. To a gardener, exhausted soil looks like poor fruit production, sickly and discolored plants, and erosion. The question then – and the topic of today’s post – is: how do we recharge our soil? How do we restore its vitality so that our crops thrive and be bountiful? There are many soil conditioning methods, but one way in particular honors this month’s thread of ‘partnerships‘. Cover cropping.
|A sick girl. Like us, our soil can become run down and unhealthy. Unhealthy soil needs attention and conditioning.|
|This book is commonly referred to on the internet. It is geared toward larger gardens and farms yet is still very informative and worth consulting if you are interested in managing your soil with cover crops.
This spring and summer at the Armstrong House Education Center we used three cover crops to rejuvenate our garden’s soil.
1) Peas (Pisum sativum). Peas (along with the common clover, alfalfa and soybeans) are in the fabaceae or ‘pea’ family. Like most plants in the fabaceae, peas are capable of taking gaseous nitrogen out of the atmosphere and converting it to a form of nitrogen usable by plants in a process called ‘nitrogen fixation’. You may have heard of this famous group of agricultural plants commonly referred to as ‘nitrogen fixers’ which actively increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil. These plants provide us with an alternative to store bought, synthetic fertilizers, which have been shown to enter waterways and negatively effect aquatic ecosystems.
|The flower of our pea cover crop. Not only does this plant add nitrogen to the soil, it produces edible pea pods.|
2) Oats (Avena sativa). These are called ‘nurse’ plants because they help the peas get established and grow. The oats grow very quickly and suppress weeds while the relatively slower growing peas can develop and also act as scaffolding for the pea vines to grow upon. After they die, the oats add carbon and nitrogen to the soil. The peas and oats came together in this package.
3) Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). This fast growing plant suppresses weeds and is good at scavenging soil phosphorus and calcium, thereby keeping it from being washed away. I have found that many insects are attracted to the white flowers of buckwheat. On warm summer days I was amazed to see well over a dozen species of flying insects working the buckwheat flowers. Among them were the Armstrong honeybees, which will be supported into the nectar-limited fall by our abundant beds of buckwheat. We currently use buckwheat from Botanical Interests.
How to manage cover crops?
Each cover crop is managed differently. How/where/when to sow crops varies among the plants, as does growing time and method for killing. Generally, we sow cover crops from seed allow them to live for a preferred amount of time and then kill them. The plants themselves are either left to decompose in the garden or composted.
At the Armstrong House garden, I allowed our peas, oats and buckwheat to flower before turning them into the soil (roughly 6 weeks of growing time). To reduce the amount of bulky organic material I had to work in, I cut and composted the top halves and allowed the bottom halves to decompose in place for 2 weeks. After these two weeks, I chopped up the remaining stems into very small pieces and literally raked them into the soil as I sowed a new crop of buckwheat.
Future cover crops?
After the current cycle of buckwheat is ready to turn into the soil we will plant crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) as a winter cover crop. After germination, the clover will over winter in the garden and bloom in the early spring. We choose this cover crop because it is a nitrogen fixer and a source of early spring nectar for our honeybees.
We will continue to use a variety of cover crops at the Armstrong House Education Center as we learn more about our soil’s needs. Think about what causes you to feel sick. You make suffer from the flu, chicken pox, strep throat, arthritis, sciatica, or depression. Each illness is remedied differently. Likewise, in the future we may employ cover crops to perform different jobs such as erosion control, adding nutrients or organic material, honeybee forage or breaking up of compacted soil. Check the blog or come to an event in our garden to see our current cover crop.
Once upon a time, Westchester County’s land was cleared and trees were the exception, not the rule. Trees were sparsely sprinkled across the landscape and grew reliably in only a few locations: shading the farm house, lining the prominent road, marking the property’s corner, bordering the swamp.
|A painting of 1830’s New England.|
If trees were the exception, farms were the rule. Specifically, sheep farms. Oh yes – most of the old rock walls you drive past were erected to keep in place big, silly looking Merino sheep. During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s wool was one of New England’s biggest inland industries. With the opening of the American West by mid-century, the cold rocky soils of New England were abandoned for the cold prairie soils west of the Mississippi. Some eastern farmland was simply abandoned…and thus began the trend of reforesting New England. Starting then, trees became more of the rule and less of the exception.
|A Merino sheep in need of a hair cut.|
|An old field naturally dominated by eastern red cedar trees. As forests in southern New England regrow from cleared land, they often pass through this stage, which remains evident even after the trees die.|
At the Armstrong House Education Center you can still see this early stage of reforestation. Here, like in many other forested parts of southern New England, you will see hundreds of eastern red cedar trees standing dead or dying in the shadows of larger trees. These trees thrived in open, full-light conditions but were slowly killed by the surrounding forest as they were shaded out. Their naturally rot and insect-resistant wood allows them to persist in the forest as dead trees for over a decade. Currently, living cedars are not very common; most of the cedars you will run across in Northern Westchester County take the form of fence post, gates, benches or hand rails.
The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy has entered into a partnership with this tree. The cedar is rot resistant and strong, making it ideal as a long lasting, outdoor building material. Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we use eastern red cedar posts to hold up our garden fence, prop up our mailbox, keep up the shed wall, strengthen the chicken coop and support the hanging branch of an old gray dogwood tree. To say the least, we think very highly of its usefulness.
|Strong cedar posts hold up our garden fence.|
|Four cedar posts act as the central support system to our chicken coop, seen here in progress.|
|A cedar helping to hold up our outdoor work shed|
|A slender cedar post holding up a very old dogwood branch|
So what about this resource in the future? Will our forests provide us with eastern red cedar to build with in twenty years? Not unless we plant some new ones today. And that is exactly what we are doing on the Armstrong Preserve.
Why isn’t eastern red cedar growing in the forests of Northern Westchester County today?
To ensure that there will be red cedar for the future we grow it in the following sunny places:
1) Our tree nursery, a well-lit fenced area attached to our garden.
2) The Armstrong Preserve’s cliff face. This bedrock cliff is bathed in sunlight and is out of reach from deer.
3) And coming soon, eastern red cedar will grow in our meadow. As part of the Armstrong Meadow Management Plan, we will be establishing a zone of small trees and shrubs around the meadow’s perimeter, which is currently occupied by Japanese Barberry.
|Eastern red cedar growing on a rock cliff at the Armstrong Preserve|