Earth Day: A Day for Science

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“What do we want? 

Evidence-based science!

When do we want it?

After peer review!”

-Protest Chant

 

The world is a beautiful place. Science can allow us to better understand its processes, and it doesn’t have to detract from the seeming magic of this planet.

I don’t think we humans (and I mean humans of every culture) knew exactly what we were doing when we brought seeds and cuttings of our favorite plants with us in migration. We felt we were bringing a piece of home with us when we carried our favorite fruits and vegetables. We found beauty in the plant of other cultures, too. In the United States, we’ve cultivated Asian plants and European plants and African plants and so on, and placed them in our yards to beautify our areas. We’ve used plants of every culture for food and medicine.

Plants play a significant role in our lives, and we’ve recognized this for centuries. However, we didn’t quite realize how dependent other living organisms are on plants – more specifically, the plants other living organisms evolved with.

In the United States, goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is a powerhouse pollinator plant that benefits bees, wasps, ants, flies, and an observed 115 species of butterflies and moths. Yet, in Europe, it is responsible for declining populations of insects. Here in the US, mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), though popular among herbalists, is a rapidly spreading invasive that is displacing insect-friendly natives.

If there are too few insects, 96% of the songbird population fails.

I’ll say that again.

If there are too few insects, 96% of the songbird population fails.

How can we learn more?

Science. I can read peer-reviewed articles such as this one, and I also read layperson articles from trusted sources. Scientists can observe the impact of plant populations on insect populations. Scientists can observe how insect populations support bird populations. Scientists, and ourselves, can study, discuss, and draw conclusions supported by empirical evidence.

You or I can also observe these types of impact in our own backyards. If you have a patch of invasive or nonnative ornamental plants in your yard, observe those plants for a year. Are there any signs of someone eating them? Who is eating them? Is it a native insect or other animal? What birds or other animals regularly frequent your yard? (Remember that a birdfeeder visitor doesn’t count in this scenario. The majority of baby songbirds cannot eat seeds!) Write down your observations, along with key conditions such as weather and time of year. Then remove those plants and replace them with a variety of natives. Do your observations again. Is there a difference?

If you’re careful and attentive, my educated guess is that you will see a difference, and that you will be delighted with this difference.

I always thought Earth Day should be every day. By cultivating native plants in our backyards, we will truly help make Earth Day every day.

Vernal Pools Are Here!

“What’s the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if a half-hour’s walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty.”  – Henry David Thoreau

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My husband took this photo of me examining a vernal pool.

What’s a vernal pool? A vernal pool is typically a dip in the wooded landscape that fills with water in the spring, and generally dries out by summer. We’ve discovered that our property is host to two vernal pools. I LOVE vernal pools, and let me show you a picture of why.

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Image credit: Gunthercx on Wikimedia Commons

The yellow spotted salamander is the largest salamander in Connecticut, and is my favorite of the salamanders. These cuties can grow to a length of 9 inches from tailtip to nosetip. When you look at them face on, their mouths look like they form a state of eternal smiling.

Yellow spotted salamanders depend on vernal pools for breeding. And they aren’t the only ones: wood frogs, spring peepers, gray tree frogs, eastern spadefoot, American toads, and Fowler’s toads also make use of the vernal pool. They come together, raise great cacophonies of frog and toad song, and mate within the pools. By the end of April, you can usually find many great masses and strings of jelly-feeling amphibian eggs. Tadpoles hatch from these eggs, and begin growing – and they have to do this quickly! The worst thing that can happen is for the vernal pool to dry out while the tadpole is still becoming an adult.

If you’re lucky enough to have one of these on your property, protect it! Try not to stomp around within the pool edges (keep to steady stones and logs), keep dogs on leash, and teach kids about the value of these special places. If you’d like to add a riparian buffer, pick native plants that don’t mind a period of saturation in the soil. Think swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), swamp rose (Rosa palustris), or tussock sedge (Carex stricta). All of these plants can be found at New England Wetland Plants.

Native Alternative: Spicebush

“…the air in utterable coolness

deeds of gren thrilling light
with thinned
newfragile yellows

lurch and.press
–in the woods
which
stutter
and
sing…” – e.e. cummings

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Image credit: R. A. Nonenmacher

I’ve gotta tell you about spicebush.

I know some people like the flashy yellow of forsythia – it’s one of those popular ornamentals that herald the arrival of warmer spring days. Yet, forsythia placed within an American ecosystem is a veritable desert. No pollinator visits its flower. Nothing eats the leaves. It bears no edible fruit. It just takes up space, and gives little back except for one blaring show of color in the early springtime.

If you want an early show of yellow flowers, check out spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Not only does it bear lovely yellow flowers, but these flowers are fragrant. The twigs are aromatic. You can use the twigs for a tea, and the berries as a spice.

There are 11 Lepidopteran  species that benefit from spicebush. One of these is the beautiful spicebush swallowtail.

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Image credit: Megan McCarty

The caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail depends on the leaves of spicebush (though they will also eat sassafras and tulip tree leaves, spicebush leaves are preferred) for food. And it is super cool looking!

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Image credit: Ryan Hagerty

The “eyes” of the caterpillar are not actually its eyes. This caterpillar avoids predation by mimicry – in this case, the green phase of the caterpillar looks a little like a snake. The yellow-brown phase kind of resembles bird poop. What a life, huh?

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The berries are beginning to form on this branch.

Spicebush isn’t as common in forests as it once was. It is a dioecious plant, which means plants are either male or female. In order for the female to berry, a male needs to be nearby, and a pollinator has to stop at the male, and then the female. With habitat fragmentation, pollinators of this plant may not easily find the males and the females.

By planting male and female spicebush plants near one another, we ensure the proliferation of an amazing Eastern shrub.

 

Spicebush can be used to flavor ice cream, teas, and rubs. Mammals and birds enjoy the berries, too. Native bees help pollinate it. Deer do not favor this little shrub, so you can plant it outside a deer fence.

You can find spicebush at native plant nurseries. If you’ve got a local commercial plant nursery that you like, request that they carry it. We won’t start finding more native plants at nurseries unless we start voicing our demands.

 

 

Plant Profile: Northern Red Oak

“What happened instead was that the tree fell in love with him and began to murmur fondly of the joy to be found in the eternal embrace of a red oak. “Always, always,” it sighed, “faithful beyond any man’s deserving. I will keep the color of your eyes when no other in the world remembers your name. There is no immortality but a tree’s love.”

– Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

 

The majestic Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is an iconic player in New England forests. It is performs as shelter, provider, filter, and soil builder.

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Image credit: Daniel Dumais

Shelter:

Red oaks provide nesting sites and cover for birds, whether it’s the cavity-dwelling red-bellied woodpecker or the nest-building cerulean warbler. They are also home to nesting gray squirrels, red squirrels, and raccoons.  And of course, they become home to many, many insects.

Provider:

Red oaks benefit an astounding 534 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, and skippers)! These trees provide plentiful food for caterpillars, which in turn become food for the nestlings of songbirds.

Red oaks bloom in late March and early April. While they are often wind pollinated, there are native bees and nonnative honeybees that will collect pollen, a healthy protein, from these trees.

Red oaks also drop acorns in the fall. Gray squirrels, red squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rabbits, opossum, deer, crows, quail, turkeys, blue jays, wood ducks,  and more, feed on acorns. White oak acorns are often preferred, but the astringent red oak acorns are higher in nutrition.

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Image credit: Botaurus

Filter:

Forests filter and regulate water all the time. They reduce storm water run-off, and remove nutrients and contaminants from the soil. Large, mature deciduous trees are very good at this. If you prefer fewer metals, pesticides, and hydrocarbons in your soil and water, trees have got your back.

Soil Builder:

Large trees are natural topsoil builders. When we think of a tree, we often think of a large form with a thick trunk and a crown of leaves. Sometimes, we might think of the seed of a tree, such as acorn or walnut. We rarely think of the tree at its end of life. Over the years, trees are subjected to damage from animals and storms. Eventually, they either die standing upright, what we call a snag, or they fall over and become a log. In both cases, stuff gets interesting. The snag is home to insects, and often to cavity-dwelling fauna like woodpeckers, bluebirds, owls, and squirrels. The log becomes home to a large variety of insects, arachnids, chilopodes (centipedes and millipedes), annelids (worms), salamanders, toads, and so on. All of this movement and chewing and and pecking and gnawing breaks the tree down over time. Plants and fungi play a role in this decomposition as well. Every time a tree dies, it is broken down and builds up the topsoil, which supports a new generation of plants, and more trees.

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Photo credit: Crusier

Last Words:

All in all, the oak is a mighty addition to any yard’s ecosystem. If you have room for an oak in your yard, plant one. If you already have an oak or two or more, enjoy it – or them. Don’t remove the leaves from beneath its branches, as that is its very own self-fertilizing system. Pruning isn’t really required unless you’re concerned about widow-makers. Prune in the dry season, June and July.  If the oak is dead or dying, consider cutting it down to a manageable and safe height to create a snag. Snags are wonderful habitat for very cool birds.

Image credit: Berri Gurjuoy

Kim Eierman and EcoBeneficial

“A healthy ecosystem will always have some damage – for example, butterfly caterpillars must eat the leaves of their host plants to survive.  Focus on keeping nature in balance and enjoy the result – the richness of a landscape filled with life.”

– Kim Eierman

 

Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Kim Eierman speak about “Ecobeneficial 101.” Kim is an environmental horticulturalist and blogger who has taught at the New York Botanical Garden. Her site is amazing, so definitely check it out! There’s a podcast, videos, a q & a section – I could spend hours perusing the material!

Kim is a no-nonsense landscaper that thinks in ecosystem terms about the garden. I wanted to share a few of my favorite “EcoBenefical Tips” that she shares with her audience.

  1. Reduce or eliminate the “Green Desert” (lawn/turf). It is an ecological wasteland.
  2. Support beneficial insects, nature’s pest control, by planting a diversity of native plants to support them.
  3. Tolerate some messiness in your landscape to support wildlife. Dead logs, tree snags, and brush piles are homes for many creatures.
  4. Tolerate some plant damage in your landscape. Valuable insects have to eat too, and they don’t eat very much.
  5. Eradicate or reduce the invasive plants in your landscape. Always try organic, mechanical means first.

I find Kim’s work to be of tremendous value, and I have been learning a lot by reading her articles and blog, and listening to her podcast. Together and in our own backyards, we can help replace some of the biodiversity that has been lost through human development. Let’s be part of the solution!

Stratifying the Natives

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”
— A.A. Milne

All winter long, there have been gallon jugs of soil sitting outside my house. The jugs used to carry water or milk, but some colleagues and I got together for a “Prop Party”, and filled the used jugs partway with a leaf-litter based soil, and planted native seeds.

These seeds were gathered from local ecotypes of native plants. The Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) we planted is the one that has been evolving for centuries in this region. Therefore, it has evolved with this specific climate, and with the area’s pollinators. This Joe-Pye weed is therefore a strong candidate for best surviving the soil conditions and the weather found here, and should require only the most minimal maintenance. Additionally, area pollinators will make good use of it as food source and host plant.

Other seeds gathered and planted at the Prop Party were boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), blue-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia), sweet white violet (Viola blanda), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), and meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum).

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So these jugs have been sitting out in the snow, rain, and bitter cold. Are the seeds ruined? Of course not! These plants have evolved in a temperate climate, and this means the seeds have not only got to be tough enough to survive the winter, most of them require it! Without this cold period, the seeds will not germinate. They’ll stay all tucked up inside their seed coats because they are certain that “winter is coming.” If they emerge, and then winter hits, they die! So they’re going to wait for that icy cold period, and THEN they will emerge when temps warm up.

This is where my grow-lights come in. I can, of course, wait until spring hits, and then up-pot my little seedlings and transplant them to the places I want them to live. But, by bringing them in early, and giving them warmth and consistent daily lighting, I’m giving these guys a head start.

Ideally, I would have brought them inside in February, but I didn’t have my set-up ready for plants. It’s up now, so this weekend, I’ll be bringing everyone in, and the germination races will begin. First to germinate gets high praise from me!

The Passing of Winter

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

As an outdoors enthusiast and a gardener, winter can be a little tough. Not to say I can’t be an outdoors enthusiast during the winter – I love winter activities such as snowshoeing and I love learning about the natural world in its time of dormancy. But we gardeners can feel ourselves chomping at the bit a little as February goes on.

In these recent winters, I feel myself relaxing, flowing with the winter storms and icy cold. I’ve recently come across the saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” So I invested in a warm winter coat, good gloves, and water-proof boots with a comfortable lining. I crocheted a snug hat, and off I go, into the cold!

When I’m indoors, I light candles and I curl up with a fun book, or I invite friends over for a night of games and good food.

Winter in New England can be a time for us to pause, reflect, and engage in warming self-care activities that prepare us for all the activity of the growing season. It’s also a time for planning! And boy, have I had fun planning!

I’ve planned a privacy screen for one side of the property, where the neighbors and I can see into each other’s yards. It gets some shade, so I’ve gone with a mix of American Holly (Ilex opaca), Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and inkberry (Ilexa glabra).

American Holly (Ilex opaca) gets tree sized, and benefits a wide variety of birds and pollinators. Image credit: Kimonis Kramer

In the front yard, I’ll be continuing work on the circle garden, and the garden against the house.

Further down the driveway, I’m dreaming of a mix of highbush blueberry, redbud, and winterberry. Along the rock wall, I’m thinking of junipers. I’m going to find out if the cherry tree in the front yard is a black cherry or a Japanese cherry, and either cultivate it or cut it down.

And of course, I’m not just planning the native plant gardens. I’ve got a vegetable plot, an herb garden, and plenty of pots to fill. I ordered seeds the other day from Baker Creek, and as soon as they arrive, I’m starting my sets of onions and leeks, and then starting seeds for tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and brassicas. I’m living the dream, here!

Meanwhile, I’ll wander outside still, take note of which birds have migrated and which are lingering. I’ll fill my birdfeeders, and note the places I need to take down oriental bittersweet (those vines are so easy to find in winter). I will also light more candles, eat more warm food, and spend dear time with friends and family to keep up this cheery winter.