Living Lighter on the Land

Insulating your hot water heater


Imagine…its a cold February morning and the dog needs to be walked.  Overnight lows were in the teens and you slept to the sound of a hard winter wind nipping at the house.  Anyone that has experienced a good, cold winter knows that getting up and out the door in the morning requires a fair bit of technical planning; there's the long underwear, thick socks, snow pants, turtle necks, wool sweaters and to top it all off, a big jacket (down parka or stylish ski jacket, perhaps).  As the dog crosses his legs, you apply the appropriate armor.


Now imagine…you're on a summer vacation at the ocean (use your imagination…Hawai'i, maybe Florida?).  The shade from your umbrella is the only thing keeping you from melting away in the blazing sun.  You dig your feet into the sand to a depth that is still moist and cool.  You grab a cold soda from the cooler and it immediately starts to sweat.  Instinctively, put it in a 'coozy' (see picture below).  That coozy – that little piece of decorated foam – is the only thing keeping your drink from turning into a hot mess.    


A Simpsons-inspired 'beer coozy'.  

What do these two scenarios have in common?  That's right – INSULATION!  When I was younger I didn't fully understand how insulation worked; I thought that there was something warm inside my turtle neck.  I thought that there was heat produced from my down jacket.  Now, after knowing a little bit more about the universe, I understand the true role of an insulator.  An insulator's job is to merely act as a barrier between an internal environment (for example, your body) and an outside environment (for example, the cold January morning).  The down jacket doesn't produce the heat (your body does), but it keeps the heat near your body.  The coozy doesn't produce the cold (the ice in the cooler makes the soda cold), but it keeps the cold near the soda.  Amazingly simple and effective technology, really.


Now on to the Armstrong House, which – like most houses- has a hot water heater.  How do we keep the heat in the hot water heater?  We put a removable 3.2 inch thick foam insulator around our tank to constantly trap its heat.  Think about it.  Your hot water tank is usually hot (or at least warm) and whenever its temperature exceeds that of the outside air (essentially all the time) it is releasing heat.  Every minute, every hour, ever day the average home owner is heating up water only to loose some of it as waste heat to a cold room.  Take a look at our water heater's insulator, essentially a giant beer coozy. 

The removable 3.2 inch foam insulator for my hot water heater.  Just one of the steps toward energy efficiency at the Armstrong House.  



Our insulator and the tank it was specifically designed to fit, were manufactured by Schuco, a German company specializing in solar power, high insulating windows and 'solar hot water' systems (the topic of a future Blog post).  You can see from the picture that the insulator fits snugly and even has windows and little detachable pieces to facilitate the tank's service.  You may be saying, "Well that's great for you, you bought your insulator and tank together so you know they fit perfectly.  But how do I insulate my standard water tank?"  There is hope.  There are companies out there that make insulators to fit your tank- whatever the style, size or model.  See this video about do-it-yourself tank insulation part 1part 2.            

What about savings?  Energy and $$$?  The amount you will save depends on many factors, including the size and current insulation value of your tank and how hot you keep it. Here is a website from the United State Department of Energy that quotes annual energy savings and payback period.  


Remember- part of Living Lighter on the Land is about reducing our use of energy.  By incorporating energy efficient appliances and technologies that – each – save a little energy, we will see a big difference over the long haul when they are integrated.  This gets me thinking…what else can we insulate?


Reusing the energy in hot water


Question: How hot is the water that comes out of your shower head?  Answer: Somewhere between 105 and 120 degrees F (depending on your preference).  Question: How hot is that water as it goes down the shower drain?  Answer: Still hot, perhaps 90 degrees F.  Question:  What happens to that energy in that water?  Answer:  Usually it is completely wasted- at the Armstrong House, the energy is reused.  Question:  How?  Answer:  I'll explain the process in a bit, but first:


Think of boiling a pot of water on your stove.  Have you ever tried to boil a pot of water that started out really really cold?  Once in Maine I had to fetch water from a spring that had frozen over the night before.  I had to break the ice to get to the liquid water and when I returned to the cabin with our cooking water it had chunks of ice floating in it.  That morning, it took more time and energy to boil the  near freezing water.  Similarly, it takes less time and energy to boil water that is already hot- like when you reboil a kettle that was recently boiled.  


Now, think of a picnic on a hot summer day.  The night before you prepared an awesome potato salad and set it in the fridge over night.  Once the picnic is underway and the food is spread, your cold potato salad starts to loose its chill.  After an hour or so, your potato salad has totally lost its chill (and its appeal) so you decide to put it back in the fridge.  What has happened to your potato salad?  More importantly, what does the potato salad and Tate's frozen spring water what have to do with saving energy at the Armstrong House?


At the Armstrong House Education Center we have installed a drain water heat recovery unit, which is a fancy way of saying 'we passively heat up the potato salad so we don't have to boil frozen spring water'!  What the heck am I talking about?


He have one of these:


The Armstrong House's drain water heat recovery unit.  


Notice the copper piping that runs vertically through the photograph- this is our drain water heat recovery unit, which takes the hot waste water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house.  The following two diagrams are of the installed unit that I took from the manufacturer's website.



The waste water heat recovery unit connected to shower and water supply.  



The waste water heat recovery unit in action.  It takes hot water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house. 


But, why is the water coming into the Armstrong House cold?  Like everyone in Pound Ridge, I get my water from a well.  The temperature of well water is governed by the temperature of the earth and rock that it collects in- which for our area is somewhere in the low 50's F.  50 degree water is cold- very cold.  50 degree water must be heated like crazy before you can even think about using it to clean dishes, wash clothes or use in a shower.  With the use of our drain water heat recovery unit, we can essentially split the difference between the hot waste water and the cold water from the ground.  For example, if it comes into the house at 50 degrees F. and the waste water is 100 degrees F. the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  If the water comes in at 60 degrees and the wasted shower water is 90 degrees, the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  By using preheated water, we have to use less energy when heating it back up to 100 degrees F (remember the pot of boiling water).  For more information and a formal energy/cost savings review of the drain water heat recovery unit click here.

This is just one of the many ways that we are reducing our energy consumption at the Armstrong House.  Stay tuned for more.

Great success - Soil amending workshop at the Armstrong House Education Center


A garden's fertility and productivity comes from its soil.  Composting has recently gained popularity among lay people, food activists and conservationists so we are seeing an explosion of creative composting methods: composting barrels, worms that eat food scraps, anaerobic bokashiindustrial sized apparatuses, whole cow composting, clean and classy indoor systemshumanure, and- the topics of today's post-  1) 'green manures' and 2) sheet mulching'.  1) Green manures are not manures at all; instead, they are plants- such as the nitrogen fixing clover- which add nutrients to the soil.  Green manures are usually planted in lieu of more desirable plants (vegetables, crops) in order to make the soil better for future growing.  2) Sheet mulching (also known as lasagna gardening) is a way to make compost in the place where it will be used.  Unlike other compost operations that are done 'off site' and brought to the garden, sheet mulching starts and ends right on your garden beds.  The 'sheets' of organic debris are laid down by the gardener in a systematic way and simply left to decompose.  See these websites for examples.


Today at the Armstrong House Education Center, Sarah Bush of Edible Revolution and myself hosted a sheet mulching workshop where participants gained first hand experience in amending soil.  In attendance were eight garden owners from Pound Ridge who all shared one thing in common: they wanted to learn more about how to build and maintain healthy soil.

A demonstration piece from the workshop.  These are the ingredients we used in our sheet mulching (in order).  The ingredients of your sheet mulching may vary depending on their availability and your needs. 



The workshop was full of enthusiastic energy:  piles of organic material (manure, wood chips, leaves, compost) laid ready to be applied to the existing soil, workshop participants stood with open eyes as Sarah spoke intimately about gardening nuances, and each participant shared their personal story of garden frustration (weeds, rocks, pests) as the others nodded with empathy.  After roughly 30 minutes, the group was driven inside by worsening weather where we continued our discussion over warm tea.  With the help of diagrams I spoke about the mechanics and importance of nitrogen fixation, the microbe- induced process of taking stable gaseous nitrogen and turning it into a usable plant nutrient.  The group continued to share stories, ask Sarah and I questions and take notes on their new discoveries.


Garden designer Sarah Bush teaches workshop participants about making healthy soil.



After my second cup of tea I realized that although the workshop was based on amending our garden soil for the future, it became much more than that.  As most participants left the Armstrong House Education Center, they recognized the community resource we had created for them.  In the classic phenomena of synergy, all of the elements of the day- me (a student of soil ecology), Sarah (an experienced food producer and garden designer), all the workshop participants (with their combined experience and enthusiasm) and the Armstrong House (a prototype for Living Lighter on the Land) – came together to create something special.  Spontaneously and sincerely, the workshop became a very real learning environment- a place where people could share what mattered to them in order to grow and solve problems.  There was a tangible energy in the air.  There were new friendships and partnerships established.  Life experience was passed between near strangers.  Perhaps there was something in the tea.


Living Lighter on the Land is about coming together to solve problems.  As social animals, it's natural to gravitate toward cooperation, partnerships, shared experiences and community, all of which are alive at the Armstrong House Education Center.


Growing food...inside your house


Remember back you your 2nd grade science class…  Your teacher handed out beans which you covered in a wet towel and put in a dark room.  After a few days, POOF, there was life- the bean burst open and a little green stem shot out.  This bean experiment that most kids go through sheds light on the origin of life.


Now, fast forward to your current, non-second grade science life.  Many of you want to produce food at home but the idea of starting a garden is daunting.  We need fresh vegetables all year round even though winter inhibits year-round vegetable growing.  So the question is 'how can you engage your inner 2nd grade scientist to produce a healthy, inexpensive food source for your family?'  Easy, sprout your own beans!


Say goodbye to packages of store bought sprouts.  Now you can do it at home. 

Tap into your second grade imagination to remember that SEEDS ARE AMAZING: they are small yet they contain blueprints for the plant's entire developmental future and they are so unassuming yet they link the plant's past with its future. As you know, seeds are a warehouse of vitamins, minerals and energy to be used by the emerging plant.  Before roots can start taking up minerals from the soil and leaves can start breathing, all of the plant's life comes from the goodness locked inside a seed.  Seeds themselves are often dry and hard so they don't make good eatin', but a sprout is a whole different story.  When the seed germinates and begins to resemble an edible sprout a variety of magical chemical reactions take place: the hard seed becomes soft and palatable, inactive molecules become activated and enzymes, amino acids and minerals become available.  As a great source of protein, sprouts are great for vegetarians.  The benefits of eating sprouts are well known, to start your research see here.


Like this painting suggests, so much is stored in a seed.

How do you sprout your own seeds at home?  Its quite easy- the most popular method consists of just a few simple items:  a jar, a small piece of vinyl mesh, a dark area, water and seeds.  Many different seeds can be sprouted including mung, alfalfa, radish, broccoli, and clover.   You can find literally hundreds of websites online that offer instructions for sprouting seeds at home so I suggest searching for a set up that suits your household.  Here are a few with nice, clear videos to get you on your way.  This video  (9 minutes) is easy to follow and very informative.  This video (7 minutes) shows you how to specifically grow sunflower sprouts.  To really save money it's best to buy dry seeds in bulk and store them in a dry place while you continuously make small batches of sprouts in your home.  The following video is strictly for inspiration.  Happy sprouting!  




An example of rethinking our place on the planet

Here in the east, we have forests.  When the forests were carved up to accommodate human settlement trees were left along road, next to houses, at property boundaries, in cemeteries and in school yards.  Now, years later, we walk amongst these huge trees and connect with our place's past.  I am convinced that our connection with huge trees is not confined to just the naturalist or the botanist- most people have a healthy respect for big, old trees.  We submit to feelings of reverence when in the presence of these giants.  Perhaps we empathize with their long struggle for survival or maybe we remember our grandparents and think it best to merely respect our elders.   How do we think about these amazing organisms after they die?


Standing dead tree, or 'snag'


Here in Pound Ridge, NY very large trees- usually maple, oak, sycamore and sometimes even American elm- sit like centerpieces in many lawns and properties.  On one of my running routes I admire a huge black oak tree that was badly damaged by the Halloween 2011 storm.  The heavy wet snow tore the tree's large crown to bits and left it hanging upside down from the top of the trunk.  The trunk was severed and gashed open.  I always look forward to running past this tree because it stands out from its manicured surroundings.  It looks wild in a sea of tamed.  It reminds me of a hobbled war veteran- proud, but obviously succumbing to his wounds.  There is something about the tree's injured state that is intriguing.  For some reason, the huge gashes in the trunk make it look bigger and even more impressive.  I have more respect for the tree because I can physically see its vulnerability and I know what it has been through.  


The storm that threatened the tree's life also claimed three human lives and left an entire region without power for days.  It is the kind of storm we will tell our children about and will change Halloween in the east forever.  The kind of disaster that brings people together.  


On this morning's run I was slowly making my way up the hill to where the old oak stands.  As I rounded the bend to see the oak I quickly noticed that the tree had been felled over the weekend.  The disassembled tree was sitting quietly in a metal container on the street.  A cleanly shaven stump marked its former place in the lawn.  The property now blended in with the rest of the manicured neighborhood.  The one distinctive organic feature on the street had been removed.  The old war veteran was taken out of his misery.  Instead of withering on a pedestal in front of the neighbors he was quickly removed, destined for the mulch path or the fireplace.  No one wants to look at a broken down old tree.  Or do we?


I challenge the paradigm that says old dead trees should be removed from your property, and for two reasons.  The first reason, rooted in ecology, says that standing dead trees, or 'snags', provide ecological value to the area.  Snags are a useful resource to wildlife.  Woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, bats, hundreds of insect species and songbirds all use snags as places to eat, hunt from, sleep in, or nest it.  Also, as a snag decays it sheds carbon to the ground and soil which is gobbled up by invertebrates, which in turn feed birds and small mammals.  Interestingly, its not just animals that can use a snag for habitat.  Plants and fungus can make their home in or on decaying wood, some of which are nitrogen fixers, which enrich the local soil with usable nitrogen.  Simply stated, snags are a form of natural capital- valuable nutrients, carbon, housing and food for our local ecosystem- that we casually just throw out.  


The second reason I challenge the practice of removing snags from your property has to do with our human culture.  These behemoths stand out against the surrounding young forest and remind us of the stature and glory that is attainable by our local forests.  Every huge tree that is removed from our landscape is a severed tie to our past.  If we take away too many huge trees our children miss out- they won't witness the big trees from the past.


Of course, most of my readers will recall that dead trees can fall on their house or other property. This is absolutely true, and if you have a tree that is threatening your property or your life, you are justified in removing it.  But consider this, a dead or dying tree can have its threatening parts removed while leaving non-threatening parts behind to act as wildlife habitat.  Outstretched limbs can be taken off, and the trunk can be shortened to the point of being benign.


A non-threatening snag.  Only 20 feet high and still valuable to wildlife.  

The title of this post is 'An example of rethinking our place on the planet', but why?  During my run this morning, after I saw that the big oak was removed, I contemplated the ways we think about our ecosystems.  Many people would consider a dead tree unsightly, unnecessary landscape features, a liability, something 'unnatural' amongst a well manicured green landscape.  This perspective neglects to consider other plants and animals, the soil, the area's history, the ecosystem's future and the complete lifecycle* of a mature tree.  Me, on the other hand, think that snags are neat and sexy (see the picture at top of this post).  Someone might say 'a person can remove a dead tree from their yard if they think it is ugly- people can decide for themselves if something is ugly or not'.  Sure, you- as the landowner- can judge for yourself what is ugly or not and you have the freedom to remove ugly features from your property.  My point here is that the criteria many people use to judge if something in nature is pretty or ugly (good or bad, too much or too little) is based on limited perspectives and seriously limited information.  Specifically, the biological and ecological perspectives are completely overlooked.  Why?  The perspectives that relate to us as living organisms in a shared ecological environment are systematically overlooked.  Why?  Its kind of like judging a Vincent Van Gogh  painting while forgetting the artist's setting, philosophy, tools, history and personality.  One can render a judgement but the judgement is not likely to be sophisticated, intelligent, defensible, or even accurate.  *As a side note, the word lifecycle is totally misleading because the life of a tree does not end with its death.  Instead, it stands for decades and continues to react with the rest of the ecosystem*.  This is an example of rethinking our place on the planet because I have taken a common domestic 'problem' (felling a 'nuisance' tree) and expanded what we know about it.  In the course of doing so I have promoted a perspective that considers humans as connected to the rest of nature.  Humans don't live in isolation.  The rest of nature doesn't live in isolation.  We all live together.








The trees in our backyards are animal nurseries


 Tate releasing a rehabilitated red tail hawk in Ohio


Once upon a time I rehabilitated injured raptors (wild eagles, owls, falcons, and hawks).  At the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio roughly 150 injured raptors were brought to us each year and we assessed, cared for and (if appropriate) released the birds back into the wild.  In the wild world of raptor rehabilitation there are seasons you can predictably come to rely on, and these seasons reflect the rhythms of the natural world.  For example, we would only expect to see injured rough-legged hawks in the winter (in the summer they nest in the Arctic), fall and winter would bring us many juvenile birds out on their own for the first time, and our busiest season – spring – would bring us many injured babies.  Each spring we took in dozens of baby screech owls and kestrels, both of which nest in holes in trees.  How do baby raptors get injured?  1) They fall out of their nest or, 2) someone cuts down the tree they were nesting in.


As it turns out people do a lot of tree work during the nesting season- felling trees, limbing trees, pruning shrubs- which means there are lots of unhappy parents out there.  Nesting in trees is not unique to birds either- bats, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, hornets and sometimes porcupines all nest off the ground.  Once separated from the nest, young animals stand very little chance of surviving.  The guaranteed food source from mom and dad, warmth of the nest and the protection from predators vanishes instantly.  Could you imagine spending some quality time at home with the newborn when all of the sudden you start to feel your house rattle?  A loud tool with a smoking motor is slicing into your foundation and causing your house to slump.  Obviously devastating.  



Eastern screech owl in a tree cavity


A crow nest in a tree

To avoid cutting down a tree that contains a nest be aware what's living in your backyard.  Singing birds are a dead give away for an active nest.  Look for physical nests (usually made out of sticks) in trees and if you see tree a cavity, watch for animals coming and going.


Try to work around animal's nesting schedule.  Raptors usually next first, in late winter/early spring.  Songbirds start nesting in the early spring and continue through to mid summer.  Squirrels and bats nest in the spring.  To best avoid nesting critters, the fall is the best time to conduct tree work.      


If you do happen to cut down a tree which contains an animal nest you can call your local rehabilitator for instructions on how to help.  Just google 'wildlife rehabilitation' and your location and you will find a place.  Almost any bird will be taken in by a nearby rehabilitator. Mammals of greater conservation concern like bats (yes, bats are mammals) might be taken in.  Raccoons are not people's favorite so you might not find a lot of resources available for their rescue, but again, call your local rehabilitator.  See what they recently did for a squirrel.


As a result of habitat fragmentation (see post #1) our woodlots, backyards, town parks, old fields, and vacant lots are now the wild places for plants and animals to call home.  Like the baby screech owl that falls from its nests during our spring cleaning, our backyard management could mean a great deal to the critters that live there; sometimes the different between life and death.


Dont forget to reflect!

My last post was all about insulation.  At the Armstrong House, we keep our hot water heater buffered from its environment with an insulating foam ‘jacket’ (3.2 inches thick, removable).  This single tool works to keep the heat where it should be- in the hot water.  Temperature, heating, cooling, climate control – these are all necessary things to consider when building or planning a home.  Here’s the goal: to design a comfortable home while minimizing long term and short term resource use.  To this end, we again turn to insulation…

Everybody insulates their home and the ways to do it are plentiful: there is blown insulation (usually cellulose), the common pink fiberglass insulation, foams, stone wool – you name it.  When we install these insulators in our walls they perform like a big down jacket – they act as a buffer between an inside and outside temperature.  Their effectiveness lies in their make up – these kind of insulators are porous and filled with zillions of little air pockets, each of which has to heat up before passing on its heat to the next.  Collectively, these air pockets slow and reduce the inevitable transfer of heat from something hot (your house, your body) to something cold (the outside air).

A different type of insulation – reflective insulation or a radiant barrier – works a different way.  Reflective insulation is not like your down jacket or pink fiberglass insulation.  It doesn’t rely on its loft, thickness, or zillions of little air pockets to slow the transfer of heat energy.  Reflective insulation simply reflects thermal radiation, and up to 95% of it.  To understand how this works, and how it differs from the standard pink insulation, you should know a little bit about radiation.  

The three ways heat is transferred:  conduction, convection and radiation.  

Remember all the way back to physics class.  Heat can be transfer in three ways: convection (air masses of different temperatures swapping places), conduction (heat is passed through atoms that are touching one another) and radiation (electromagnetic energy moving through air).  Here is a good refresher on heat transfer.  If we want to stop the transfer of heat (for example, by using insulation) we have to address one of these three mechanisms.  Both pink fiberglass insulation and reflective insulation inhibit the transfer of thermal radiation.  Radiation (also referred to as ‘electromagnetic radiation’) is ‘energized particles and/or waves that travel through a medium or space’ (Wikipedia, radiation, 6/2012).  Examples of radiation include visible light, radio waves, micro waves and infrared radiation which, when absorbed, are all forms of thermal radiation.  Here is how your pink fiberglass insulation stops thermal radiation:

Thermal radiation moving through the air (from a source like your fireplace) is absorbed by the fiberglass insulation.  More specifically, it is absorbed by the first pockets of air in the fiberglass that it intercepts.  As those pockets of air heat up they create and emit their own thermal radiation to adjacent pockets of air that are colder.  These, in turn, absorb thermal radiation, heat up and emit thermal radiation to the next pocket of air.  And so on and so on, until the outermost pockets of air emit their thermal energy to the cold environment.  The fiberglass insulation does not try to stop or reflect the radiation, it just tries to slow it down and keep it in place by absorbing it.
This is fundamentally different than reflective insulation, which does not allow radiation to slowly permeate it.  Reflective insulation – usually with a foam interior and a thin aluminum exterior – is impenetrable to the infrared radiation, the type of radiation that makes up most of our household thermal radiation.

The product we used to wrap the Armstrong House is called Low E and it kind of looks like this when its installed:

House wrapped in Low E reflective insulation.  

In some places at the Armstrong House we used double sided Low E to help reflect outside radiation and keep the house cool in the summer.  Remember, the reflective insulation is really good at reflecting most thermal radiation but there is some that squeaks by.  To insulate the house even further and trap in the most possible heat, we also used a traditional non-reflective insulator that works the same as your down jacket.  I can’t wait for next winter because I’ll be as snug as a bug!

Good news- you can pick up rolls of radiant barriers at place like Lowe’s and Home Depot.  Also, Here is the U.S. Department of Energy’s page on radiant barriers.   

The first garden harvest

This weekend marked a very special occasion for the Armstrong garden: the first harvest.  While I was tending the garden I noticed that the radishes were literally climbing out of the soil (see picture).  They weren’t very big but they had a delicious flavor.  I sliced them thin and added them to vegetarian springs rolls that evening.  Mmmmmm.  Next on the menu: my lettuce.  

The first radish to be harvested at the Armstrong House!

The sun fuels my MacBook

My next thread will be dedicated to the Armstrong House and its neat energy efficient technologies.  Today’s post is an introduction to the Armstrong House and its primary source of electricity, a set of south- facing solar panels.  

Inside the house, when I flip a switch, charge my cell phone and print out a map, I do it with energy harnessed directly from the sun.  A photovoltaic solar array sits securely on a rocky outcrop just a stone’s throw from my back door.  In times of sunshine, the solar array produces a DC current which- when routed through an inverter- enters my home as AC and runs my appliances.  Excess energy is stored in a series of batteries to be used during a cloudy day.  For fun, a sample of some cool electricity websites here and here.

Living off the grid.  The Armstrong House Education Center is unique because it gets all of its electric energy from the sun- it is completely ‘off the grid’.  There are no power lines connecting it to the power company, I don’t receive a monthly electricity bill and when the town’s power goes out in a storm I will be happily streaming videos while I charge my computer.  Most houses or buildings that use a solar array are still on the grid, they just simply reduce the amount of power they take from it by capturing the sun’s energy.  This ‘grid tied solar array’ is a cool option, but The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy wanted to go to the next level- we chose to be completely powered by the sun.  Our electricity doesn’t come from burning fossil fuels and its associated environmental effects: acid rain, air pollution, climate change, etc.  My house’s solar array can produce roughly 5 Kilowatts of electricity on a sunny day.  I searched around for equivalencies in coal and found this neat websites:  A 100 Watt bulb running 24 hours a day for a year requires 714 pounds of burned coal.

The current solar array at the Armstrong House Education Center.  

A guiding principle for The Armstrong House is energy efficiency- we want to see how far we can stretch each watt (see future Blog posts for how we do this).  That all begins- of course- with choosing the source of the watt.  We had a choice: tie ourselves to the grid via an overhead (or buried) power line or rely on a solar array to produce our energy.  After crunching the numbers, we determined it would cost more to tie ourselves into the grid than it would to buy our solar array and the first installment of batteries (this is, in part, because we are in a remote location).  We decided to stay off the grid.
There is another huge difference between being on or off the grid.  If the Armstrong House was on the grid, I wouldn’t be forced to monitor my power usage.  I could waste as much as energy as I wanted and never worry about it running out.  The alternative-locally harnessing a finite amount of solar energy each day- dedicates me to ultimate accountability of my energy use.  I have to be mindful of an energy schedule (for instances, doing laundry on sunny days) and always aware of the forecasted weather (‘I better do my vacuuming today because we have 3 days of rain coming’).

I think about it like this: my solar home is like a living organism with a finite amount of inputs and outputs- in order to live happily I have to think about my actions, my environment (the house) and their combined ecology.  In essence, its not just about me anymore.  The house is not without luxuries- the downstairs bathroom has an heirloom claw foot bathtub and most floors are of beautifully finished wood- but a luxury that I don’t have here is the luxury of infinite resources.  I can’t ignore the sun.  I must mind the rain.  On some level, I’m forced to admit that my domestic prosperity is reliant on the weather.

Like I always say, Living Lighter on the Land is about rethinking our place on the planet.  Here at the solar-powered Armstrong House Education Center, we are rethinking the relationship between home and homeowner- the more I live here and understand the energy systems, the more it feels like the house and I are in a partnership.                    

Planting our future forests

Here in Pound Ridge the forests lack a dense understory of native bushes, wildflowers, shrubs and young trees.  Why?  White tail deer.  While we can’t blame the state of our forest solely on one factor (the deer), but there seems to be a strong consensus among scientists, conservationists, and land managers that the deer are playing a large role in shaping the forest’s architecture.

The Armstrong Preserve.  Notice that the understory is very sparse and consists solely of Pennsylvania sedge.  

While it’s true that the white tail deer is native to this area, the current herd density is high enough to strongly affect the rest of the forest.  Here is a good primer to get up to speed on the Deer issue in the southern New England area.  Today’s Blog post is not really about the deer, its about the trees.  Pound Ridge, New York is mostly forested. The trees range in age from roughly 15-200 years old with most trees falling between 50-150 years old.  Take a walk on one of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy’s preserves and you will notice that there are no young trees – an entire age class (1-15 years old) is missing.  In speaking to some of the veteran land managers in the area it seems that the recently instated deer hunting programs have yet to achieve desired results (more forest regeneration).  Herein lies the problem- every day, our forest looses trees- people prune or cut them down and storms blow them over- and the white tail deer eat the forest’s seedlings (young trees).  If this trend continues our forests will grow more and more sparse over time. See The Nature Conservancy’s report on New York’s forest regeneration here.  If we want to preserve the forest in our backyards we must do something about it.  

This map displays a forest regeneration index for New York State.  Red indicates ‘poor’ regeneration. 

There is hope, and it looks like this:

The first bed in my tree nursery which currently consists of red oak, American elm and shagbark hickory.   In about 3 or 4 years these trees will be planted back in the wild.   

Go walking this week and you sill see thousands of newly emerging trees on the forest floor.  I’ve seen oaks (4 kinds), ash, hickory (2 kinds), maple, birch, tulip and elm growing in the shade of their parents.  I’ve even seen some older saplings (2-3 years) growing in piles of brush which apparently act as natural deer fences.  Most of these baby trees will live all through the summer but when the air starts to cool, herbaceous plants start to wither and the deer’s food supply starts to fade, death will come to our forest’s future.  To circumvent this process I have started a native plant nursery at the Armstrong House Education Center where I currently grow trees to be planted in the forest.  At the nursery I will acquire plants in two ways: 1)  propagate trees and shrubs from seed (see this awesome book) and 2) transplant seedlings from the forest into my nursery.  Once there, the trees will spend 3 or 4 years protected from deer before they are planted at a chosen site.  It is the second method -transplanting wild trees into deer protected areas – that I am urging you to do as well.  As stewards of your own backyard forests, the protection and cultivation of a few trees is an easy way to make a lasting difference.

Planting trees is to create a better future.  Drive around Northeast Westchester County- the big trees are stunning.  They line streets, mark important buildings and grace cemeteries and farms.  We must remember that many of these giants were intentionally planted a long time ago and the only way to ensure big trees for the future is to plant trees today. You can protect and plant baby trees to mark special occasions in your life- the birth of a child, your kid’s high school graduation, your retirement- and let the memory grow with you and your family forever.  A white oak tree planted the week of your child’s birth would be over twenty feet tall by the time they graduated college.  Along with planting beautiful landscaping trees (like dogwoods and which hazels), consider planting native trees in the forest behind your house.  If we don’t replant our forests they will continue to grow thinner and our beautiful historic landscape will be lost.      

Isn’t it bad to take seedlings from the wild?  I have seen many seedlings growing on people’s property where the deer don’t browse, which is good news.  The bad news is that these trees are found growing where people don’t usually want trees to grow (next to your foundation, pool, or garden).  Instead of marching into the forest to find your seedlings, just search around your home.  If you resort to removing seedlings from the forest on your property, make sure to do it properly.  If done with care, transplanting and protecting a seedling increases its chances of survival.  Remember, in the forest the deer eat almost all unguarded seedlings.                

How do I transplant properly?  The #1 rule with transplanting baby trees is avoid desiccation!  Don’t let the plant dry out!  Don’t transplant on a dry day, don’t transplant on a windy day, don’t transplant on a sunny day, don’t transplant to an area of complete sun.  Instead, choose an overcast day with rain in the near future.  If it is not forecast to rain for a couple days then be prepared to apply water manually.  While in the process of transplanting you must keep the soil and roots wet.  When transplanting, don’t forget the roots- dig up a root ball (the size of a small bowling ball) with your seedling.  Here are Tips for transplanting.  As you research more about safely transplanting trees you will read that it is best to transplant trees in the early Spring (before leaves open) or in the Fall (after leaves drop and before the ground freezes). Although this is true, it is not always possible;  we are forced to transplant first year trees which are impossible to see before they leaf out in the Spring.  Transplant as early as possible and do not transplant in the summer.  An alternative to transplanting at the wrong time is protecting your trees while you wait for the right season to transplant.  To protect potential transplants, place a small fence around them.

Working together.  Protecting and planting trees is something that every landowner can do to help ensure a forest for the future.  My goal is to team up with other local conservationists to support a region-wide initiative to replant our forests.  Contact me if you are interested in learning more about forest regeneration and what you can do to protect and plant trees for our future.

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