How I Killed a Tree (and the Lessons I Learned)

This was a sad day for me and the oak.

This was a heartbreaking day for me.

Once upon a time, not long ago, I shared my property with a handsome, thriving tree.  It’s now dead.  The oak had lived for 55 years, less than half its natural lifespan.  While alive it provided services to many.  It was a perch for birds, a home to squirrels and a source of food and shelter for an untold number of other life forms.

It made me happy.

My tree is gone now, chain-sawed, chipped and hauled away.  I think I helped kill it.  No, actually (full disclosure here) I now know that I did.

Trees are such familiar life forms themselves that we assume we know all about them and what’s best for them.  But there are so many surprisingly interesting things about trees that most of us don’t know but would be delighted, and wiser, to discover.

Why did this fine oak die?  What actions helped to speed its untimely death?  What would I do differently today?  I found my answers in a particularly dynamic lecture given by Joseph Murray, professional educator and arborist, and through some additional investigative research and personal observations. Continue reading

Native Plants for Nesting Birds: Top 12 Picks

Derek Stoner, Project Coordinator for the Delaware Nature Society, helped restore the 860-acre Middle Run Natural Area by “intensive habitat management”, including planting 12,000 trees and shrubs.  His lecture, ‘Native Plants for Nesting Birds: Connecting Flora and Fauna’, given to a group of enthusiasts at the Millersville Native Plant Conference in Pennsylvania, focused on his observations.

Here are Derek’s landscaping recommendations for attracting birds:
  • Plant shrubs in clusters (“habitat circles”) that will create the dense cover that birds desire for nest protection.
  • Locate clusters of bird-favored plants close to existing patches of habitat to allow for easier travel by birds.
  • Plant taller shrub species in close proximity to low-growing bushes to create a layered effect that will host multiple bird species.
  • Encourage “suckering” or basal shoots, as these tightly packed stems create ideal nesting pockets for birds.
  • Dense clusters of stems are best for many birds to nest within, but some species need a more open branch structure to build their nests upon.

Continue reading

The Brush Pile: Build it for our Wild Friends

A brush pile is an uncomplicated, no-cost structure.  It’s basically a large pile of sticks that offers habitat to all sorts of wildlife.  Squirrels climb and hide, chipmunks zip under and out and a whole host of birds routinely hop through the network of limbs that occupies our garden.  Oh, and yes, I need to mention the mice…  But before you decide a brush pile isn’t for you, consider that all carnivorous and omnivorous animals eat mice.  Coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes and raccoons don’t think twice about snatching up a mouse for a meal.

Our trap camera captured this fox on the hunt.  The brush pile provides sanctuary for potential fox food.

A trap camera photo of a hunting red fox. The brush pile provides sanctuary for potential fox food.

The components of our two small brush piles consist of fallen tree branches gathered on our property and found curbside around the neighborhood and include larger chain-sawed limbs.  We don’t have a large lot – it’s less than a ¼ of an acre – but reducing lawn has left us with more room to accommodate critters.  Building both habitats was quick and easy, and wearing architect as well as artist hats made the handiwork enjoyable. Constructing a brush pile to support our wild friends is definitely a fun and creative project for families to do together – and to enjoy for many years.

The Three S’s: Sanctuary, Shelter and Snacks

Why should you create a brush pile?  There are three elements a brush pile provides:

1. Sanctuary.  Brush piles create a sanctuary for our wildlife.  Birds, salamanders, snakes, turtles, small mammals (and more!) all need a helping hand, especially in our stripped-down suburban areas.  A properly built brush pile provides a place for our creatures to hide from their many predators.

2. Shelter.  In times of extreme weather a brush pile is the perfect shelter.  In winter it’s particularly vital for protecting our birds.  If your property is void of mature evergreen shrubs and trees that birds need for protective cover, evergreen foliage placed over a brush pile during the winter months will create a dry interior birds can safely roost in.

3. Snacks.  Many insect species are attracted to the decaying wood and will make it their home.  Insects found in brush piles are an additional source of protein-rich food for woodpeckers and other bug eating animals. Continue reading

Leaf Litter: Nature Knows What She’s Doing

Forest with lots of gorgeous, beneficial leaves.

A forest with lots of gorgeous, life-supporting leaves.

It’s that time of year already.  Autumn… or fall, if you prefer, a bittersweet season when summer heat retreats and leaves begin their graceful descent to the ground.  So it’s also time for me to cast a watchful eye on my neighbor down the street.

Every fall “Neighbor Joe” mulches his fallen leaves with a lawnmower.  He then piles the mulched leaves at the curb for the county’s Snuffaluffagus contraption to vacuum up and cart away.  As soon as I notice Joe’s heap of freshly chopped leaves I tip-toe over with my wheelbarrow and seize the gold (and brown and rust) treasure, and quietly steal away with it.  Sure, I’ve got leaves falling on my own property but I rescue Joe’s because his are perfectly prepped and primed for tossing into my garden.  One simply cannot have too many leaves.

Joe could, of course, let his mulch-mowed leaves remain on his lawn to slowly feed his expanse of turf, and reward his plant beds as well with a decent layer of the bounty.  But Joe is like almost everyone else in my neighborhood who rakes or blows their leaves to the curb.  They all want the outward appearance of a tidy yard.  If they were aware of the multiple benefits of leaf litter, might they instead decide to keep their leaves on their property?  Possibly.  Perhaps.

Ready for collection. The fate of our leaves many years ago.

Ready for collection. This was the fate of our leaves many years ago, before we understood their value.

Nature’s Original Intention

Leaves, twigs, logs and other plant material positively affects what’s above and below ground.  They’re an integral part of a complex food web.

Decaying leaves feed, protect, and insulate plant roots.  They provide food for essential decomposers like earthworms, bacteria and fungi — and decomposition naturally contributes to the creation of rich topsoil.  Leaf matter also makes life better for all kinds of animals like insects, amphibians, small mammals and birds.  I’ve often observed our sparrows and robins scratching through layers of leaves in search of tasty treats and eastern red-backed salamanders lounging under the moist leaves in early spring.

Leaf litter as shelter. I accidentally disturbed this giant leopard moth caterpillar early one spring.

Leaf litter as shelter. I accidentally disturbed this giant leopard moth caterpillar early one spring.

Doubly disheartening. Discarded leaves indignantly stuffed in plastic.

Doubly disheartening. Leaves discarded and stuffed in plastic.

 

Throughout all seasons leaves are the perfect provider of food and habitat for insects in various stages of their life cycles: insects such as butterflies, moths, bumblebees, beetles and leafhoppers.  And who wants to deny leaves to leafhoppers?

All these leaf-exploiting creatures are needed to feed higher links in the wildlife food chain.

Why Forest Trees Are Healthy

Perhaps the single most important reason to let nature do things her own way is to support the magnificent trees that shed those leaves.  Trees and turfgrass don’t play well together — the competition between the two is fierce.  The nutrient-absorbing roots of trees and grass occupy the same space and studies begun in the 1960s show that trees don’t grow well when their roots are covered over with lawn.  Those pristine lawns devour the nourishing food and moisture trees need to survive and thrive.  Leaf litter gives it back.  Applying a large area of decaying organic material (from all parts of a tree) is a must-do gardening task and more recently an American National Standards Institute recommendation for arborists.  How’s that for an endorsement of the dead stuff?

Want to see what happens when leaves are allowed to do what comes naturally?  Check out this timelapse video of our backyard one spring.

A few good reads offering more information on leaf litter:

MyMotherLode.com: Leaf Litter is an Environmental Windfall

University of Minnesota: Trees and Turf: Are they Compatible?

University of Florida: Leaf Litter: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Work?

National Wildlife Federation: What to do with Fallen Leaves

Many thanks to Miles Benson who helps edit my blogs and co-wrote this with me.

Update July 20, 2016

The Hummingbirds: A Poem

Every spring, Robert and Arlene anticipate the arrival of the ruby-throated hummingbirds to their mountain home.  They observe in awe as these tiny beings nest and feed and hover and swoop around their wooded land.  But with autumn closing in, the ruby-throats recently bid farewell to their Linden, Virginia, residence and have begun their long migration south.  This is a poem written by Robert and inspired by his and Arlene’s very favorite guests.

Coming in for a landing!

Coming in for a landing!

The Hummingbirds by Robert Foster
It’s amazing to me that they travel so far
Feisty and noisy and small that they are
Emerald and ruby just buzzing about
A pause and a sip with a curious shout
 
In spring when they come, so tired and wan
In fall when they leave it’s so quiet at dawn
Longing and left, the silence pervading
I’d smile once again at your raucous invading
 
I’m left here alone at the break of the day
No tweets of good morning to light up my way
Color and humming recede to the last
Departure your sign, that the summer has past
 
This time of year as the fall will descend
With a hitch in my throat, just to see you again
Saddened and hoping you’re safe on your flight
I pause with a sigh as I’m left without sight
 
Who would’ve thought such a small little bird
Would cause such a break when no longer it’s heard
Wishing and praying won’t lengthen your stay
But oh how I wish to have just one more day
 

The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most delightful visitors to our gardens.  They eat tiny insects and draw nectar from a variety of flowers — most of which are red and tubular.  In the Mid-Atlantic, some of the best native choices are eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) and jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

Read more about our amazing hummingbirds on Audubon.

Reflections on Establishing a Native Plant Garden…

Beverley Rivera, a transplant from Australia and world traveler, reflects on her most recent journey: discovering our native plants.

Reflections on establishing a native plant garden…

As summer starts to fade, a sea of late-blooming goldenrods explode with sunny yellow, their honey-like fragrance enticing thousands of busy pollinators to my native plant garden. Swarms of purple asters and fizzy white boneset create a buzzing corridor of life. Goldfinches, which my neighbor lamented hadn’t been seen around here in years, are now back in residence; and I was recently rewarded for my gritty labor by our first hummingbird sighting, now a regular visitor to our garden. When I first ventured into planting native plants, I was told that natives would attract wildlife to my backyard, but I was also motivated by the theory that thoughtfully-planted gardens could be used to help offset some of the monumental environmental destruction that modern society is inflicting on our larger landscape. Now, as my garden’s first full summer winds up to a showy finale, I’m witnessing those theories coming to life. Continue reading

Replacing Lawn with Natives at a Virginia Rest Stop

On a cloudy humid morning, a small group of about 50 diverse people came together at the Dale City, Virginia, northbound rest stop.  They weren’t travelling through and stopping briefly for a break.  On the contrary, these people came here to work.  They were generously donating their time for one common passion: our pollinators.  These volunteers, over the course of the day, manually installed more than 8,000 flowering perennials in 15,000 square feet of former turfgrass.  An impressive and inspiring undertaking.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is one of 13 species of plants being installed.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was one of 13 species of plants installed.

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Sue Dingwell of the Virginia Native Plant Society offered expertise and energy to the mass VDOT planting.

Native planting at Dale City rest area

Volunteers toiled for most of the day.

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This gentleman, a Dominion VA Power volunteer, shows off one of the plant plugs.

Katherine Daniels of Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy happily digs in.

Katherine Daniels of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy happily digs in.

September 29, 2015 

VDOT’S POLLINATOR HABITAT PROGRAM MOVES TOWARD STATEWIDE IMPLEMENTATION

DALE CITY- Monarch butterflies appear to flutter carefree with the breeze, but their survival is under constant threat due to dwindling habitats and food supplies.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Dominion Virginia Power teamed up with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Native Plant Society and Valley Land on Tuesday to plant more than 8,000 pollinator-friendly plants at the Dale City Rest Area on Interstate 95 north in Northern Virginia.  This project is part of VDOT’s Pollinator Habitat Program, which aims to create “waystations” or refuges for Monarch butterflies and other threatened pollinators.

Read more about this project from VDOT here.

Non-Native Plants and Insect Diversity

The herbivore spicebush butterfly caterpillar (Papilio troilus) on spicebush (Lindera benzoin), one of its host plants.

The herbivore spicebush butterfly caterpillar (Papilio troilus) on spicebush (Lindera benzoin), one of its host plants.

Not only do native plants do a better job of hosting and supporting local insect communities than their non-native counterparts, but a University of Delaware study shows that non-native plants are compounding the problem of declining species diversity by supporting fewer herbivores across landscapes.  

Read what researchers Karin Burghardt and Doug Tallamy found in Insect diversity: Team looks at effects of non-native plants on herbivores at PHYS.org.

Lisa Bright Shares Her Garden Faves

Choosing the Right Native Plants for Your Garden

Our Earth Sangha Wild Plant Nursery will be hosting a Fall Plant Sale on Sunday, September 27th from 10 am to 2 pm. We are offering about 300 species of local native plants, all germinated by us right here at the nursery.

I just want to highlight our special offerings for the Open House this Fall:

Chinkapin (Castanea pumila)

Chinkapin (Castanea pumila) laden with fruit. Photo courtesy Earth Sangha.

Alleheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila): This is the first time we are able to offer this lovely species. It is extremely hard to find Chinkapin with its chestnut-like nuts in our region because of habitat loss, and it won’t be available every year. It is fairly quick growing once established. We decided to distribute it this fall because it’s better that the seedlings be planted in the ground now than to sit in pots at our nursery during the winter.

Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): In moist open areas or at the edge of pond or stream, this multi-stemmed shrub will produce beautiful flowers and abundant fruits for birds. It acts like a salad bar for birds. You can also make jams out of fruits. This shrub would love to stand in water as well but also works well in ordinary soil. You can easily tame/control them by cutting the stems. It won’t hurt them.

Whorled Rosin Weed (Silphium asteriscus var. trifoliatum): If you like Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) which is not native, you will love this plant. It is 4 to 6 feet tall and upright and produces pale yellow flowers in summer. You see them in moist open meadows in Manassas, Centerville, or other power line meadow sites.

Broadleaf Ironweed (Vernonia glauca): It looks a lot like New York Ironweed except that it grows in open meadows. It attracts lots of butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Slender Bush Clover (Lespedeza virginica) & Hairy Bush Clover (Lespedeza hirta): To me, this is a must plant for open meadow. They offer important nectar as well as seed sources for birds and others. Lespedeza is largely overlooked by gardeners.

Tick-trefoil (Desmodium spp.: D. paniculatum, D. ciliare, D. marilandicum): I’m a big fan of all Desmodium species. Their intricate purple flowers attract lots of insects. They fix nitrogen in soil. They grow in open meadows and on sandy or rocky banks.

Downy Blue Lobelia (Lobelia puberula): You will find this elegant Lobelia more in the coastal region. I spotted at least two great habitats. They grow on moist sunny and sandy banks in groups. Their blue flowers begin in mid summer with its peak in September. It attracts lots of butterflies and bees. Continue reading

Cats Preying on Wildlife: Natural or Not?

Cat with hapless prey. Photo by Gaëtan Priour courtesy American Bird Conservancy.

Cat with hapless prey. Photo by Gaëtan Priour courtesy American Bird Conservancy.

Free-roaming cats are a common sight in our suburban neighborhoods, but the toll they take on native wildlife often remains invisible. According to a 2013 study sponsored by the Smithsonian and the Fish and Wildlife Service, domestic cats (many of them feral) kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals yearly. These numbers do not include prey that may escape with injuries that later prove fatal, nor do they take into account diminished breeding in birds threatened by cats. As the New York Times summed it up, “that cuddly kitty is deadlier than you think.”

Justified Behavior

Allowing pet cats outdoors is often justified as supporting “natural” feline behavior. It is true that cats have evolved as hunters and carnivores: their instinct to stalk, trap, and kill is hard-wired and is not controlled by hunger. But from an environmental point of view, predation by pet cats operates under distinctly unnatural conditions. House cats are in effect “subsidized predators,” protected by their owners from factors that would control their population numbers in the wild: disease, starvation, and being hunted by other animals. This disrupts the natural equilibrium between prey and predator, with disastrous results for local wildlife.

Indoor cats can be happy

Keeping pet cats indoors serves the best interests of cats, birds, and small mammals. Indoor cats live longer and healthier lives than their outdoor counterparts and can be equally content with some help from their owners. The Ohio State University’s Indoor Pet Initiative offers valuable advice about addressing cats’ needs. Window perches and screened enclosures can give house cats a safe taste of the outside world. Owners can satisfy cats’ natural instinct to hunt with toys chosen to model their pet’s preference for particular kinds of prey.

Birds and other wildlife face many stresses in our suburban environment. Keeping cats indoors can play a significant role in reducing them.

Many thanks to Rosemary Jann, Virginia Master Naturalist and indoor cat owner, for allowing choosenatives.org to post her article.