Life Webs


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Sharing berries (the balance of nature)

berries

Our raspberry and blackberry bushes in May 2016

This year’s strange weather pattern – a warm winter followed by a cold, snowy spring – killed all the stone fruit in the Hudson Valley but seemed to be just what the berries needed. The wild raspberry and blackberry bushes that encircle our house and line our driveway were loaded with flowers, and all the flowers set fruit. There were so many berries that some of the canes were weighed down to the ground. In seven summers here, we’d never seen anything like it.

As we waited for the berries to ripen, we wondered if we’d have enough time to pick them all. We imagined filling the freezer with quarts of berries and snacking on them all winter long. We especially looked forward to the black cap raspberries – a delicious fruit that you can’t buy anywhere, and the only one that no other animals ever showed any interest in.

The black caps began to ripen about a week early, around June 21. For the first ten days or so, they were relatively plentiful. Berries (like most crops) ripen in a bell-curve timetable over about a month – first a few, then a lot, then bucketfuls, then a lot, then a few. So if this year’s “few” was like last year’s “lot,” the peak was going to be off the charts.

It didn’t work out that way.

Berries suddenly started disappearing from the bushes. A bush full of almost-ripe black caps would be empty the next day, no matter how early I went out to pick. So the second week was no better than the first, the peak didn’t happen at all, and, much sooner than I would have expected, we were back down to a few. Really few. This morning I picked the last couple of stragglers that were still hanging onto the bushes. We did manage to put a few quarts in the freezer (at least I think they’re still there), but overall, I don’t think we even got as many as last year.

Fallout from a mast year 

What happened? Last fall was the “mast year” for oaks – the one year out of every three or four when oaks produce most of their acorns – so the little forest critters had plenty to eat all winter and produced lots of babies this spring. This includes chipmunks, squirrels, field mice and other rodents, but I doubt they were the worst culprits, because most of the missing berries were too high for them to reach. (I did see a chipmunk eating one of our strawberries, holding it in his little paws and munching with great delicacy, but strawberries are all at ground level.)

Wild turkeys are the most likely candidate, I think. Acorn-eaters, they too are abundant this year, and their poults (chicks) are nearly grown at this season. They can jump or fly high enough to reach any berries, and they’ve become quite bold about coming close to the house.

Inviting competition

But I’m wondering whether wild turkey abundance isn’t the only factor at work. Could the sheer number of black caps have attracted birds that wouldn’t otherwise have bothered with them?

This thought brought back an article I read several years ago called “Ecological Resilience, Biodiversity, and Scale,” by Garry Peterson, Craig R. Allen and C.S. Holling (two zoologists and an ecologist). (Yes, I read stuff like that for fun.) Here’s what they say, talking about insect outbreaks:

If a particular insect becomes more common, species that would not normally exploit it may switch to using it. This occurs as the increasing relative abundance of a resource makes its utilization less costly… As resources become increasingly aggregated, they become available to larger animals that are unable to exploit dispersed resources efficiently.

Birds have to find enough to feed themselves without using up all their energy. So tiny birds focus on tiny prey in a small area, bigger birds focus on bigger prey over a larger area, and so forth. A few small black caps on a bush may not be “worth a detour,” as Michelin would put it. But dozens of canes groaning under the weight of berries could make a tempting target for a wider-ranging bird.

tanagerThe other morning, sitting out on the patio, we heard an unfamiliar bird call and looked up to see a glorious streak of red – a scarlet tanager at the top of a tree. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen one here. Tanagers have never met a berry they didn’t like, apparently; the Cornell ornithology lab says that among their favorites are “blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, juneberries, serviceberries, mulberries, strawberries, and chokeberries.”

So there’s the upside to sharing the berries: We got a chance to see this beautiful bird. And berries are only an appetizer for the tanager. The main course is always bugs. I hope that, during its visit, the tanager found lots of bugs to eat – preferably, the ones that feed on our vegetable garden.


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Starting with trees

Trees growing from a cliff wall on the New York State Thruway

Trees growing from a cliff wall on the New York State Thruway

We’ve all learned the stages of ecosystem succession: bare earth, annual grasses, perennial shrubs, pioneer trees, climax forest. In my part of the country, that’s what happens if you clear-cut a forest and walk away from it – the land will pass through all the stages and you’ll eventually end up with more forest. The reforestation of New England, following the abandonment of farming, has been one of the most talked-about ecosystem changes of our time.

But does it make sense to regard soil as the starting point? Soil is a complex living ecosystem and took a long time to develop.

On a recent trip to Boston, as we drove past mile after mile of rock walls – much of the highway was created by blasting through hills – I looked at the trees growing directly from the rocks and started to think differently about succession.

Trees live on minerals, water and sunlight, all of which are available on rock. (To be fair, lichen probably colonized the rock before the trees began growing, dissolving enough of the rock to make the minerals available to the tree roots.) Leaf litter from the trees then breaks down to become soil, making trees a more logical choice than soil as a starting point.

Annuals rush in where angels fear to tread

Does any of this matter? I think it does, if only as a matter of perception. If we regard trees as the starting point, it’s easier to see annuals as the anomalies they are – the ephemeral, opportunistic species that rush in after a disturbance (fire, windstorm, disease, timber harvest) to take advantage of a briefly unoccupied niche. They’re not a necessary step in creating the forest; they’re just fastest off the mark when there’s a niche to colonize.

Seeing annuals as anomalies helps us see exactly how bizarre the idea of annual agriculture is. Here are these fragile species that jump in for a brief moment when the forest is cut down and then get crowded out almost immediately – and we depend on them for our livelihoods? Talk about unsustainable!

And just as I was thinking this, I came across Janine Benyus’s comparison of human beings to annual plants in her book Biomimicry. Our strategy is to jump into a niche, reproduce as fast as we can, gobble up everything in sight, take up all the available space and resources, and then crash when there’s nothing more to eat. We’ve survived so far because our numbers were small and there were always new spaces to move to. But as we know, that’s no longer true.

To survive as a species, Benyus says, we have to become perennials. We have to dig in for the long haul, increase at a more reasonable rate and cooperate with the other species around us instead of trying to dominate them. We have to learn to be part of a sustainable ecosystem, as we were for so many years before the invention of annual agriculture.


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Puzzling over earthworms

earthwormEarthworms were the superheroes of my elementary-school science class. They aerated the soil, added organic matter, created structures that held water, turned garbage into gold. Seeing them and their lovely, rich castings in my garden and in the compost pile, all these many years later, makes me feel proud and virtuous.

But there’s more to the story. Here’s what they didn’t tell us in school: In the parts of North America that were glaciated (including the northeastern and midwestern regions of the U.S.), the glaciers wiped out all the terrestrial earthworms. Over the next ten thousand years, as the glaciers receded, the ecosystems adapted to this wormless state. Leaf litter piled up in the forests, and trees and understory plants evolved to gather nutrients directly from the litter, with help from fungi and bacteria. They also evolved to plant their seeds directly into the leaf litter. These forests had little or no topsoil, just mineral soil covered by a “duff layer” – leaf litter, twigs, bark, and so forth.

Fast forward to the 1600s, when the Europeans who settled the area unknowingly brought worm eggs in their cargo. They cleared forests and planted (mostly European) crops; the worm eggs hatched; fields and pastures filled up with earthworms and their castings. Today, there are some 15 species of earthworms in the area, all from Europe or Asia.

Earthworms damage the forests – we think

The worms are great for lawns and gardens (I think they’ve been poisoned out of most industrial-type farms), but – according to today’s accepted wisdom – they are making a mess of forests. They eat the duff layer, making it hard for trees and other forest plants to gather nutrients and for seeds to sprout. They eat tree roots, which weakens the trees. They greatly reduce the amount of carbon that trees can sequester. Forest scientists think earthworms cause as much damage as deer overpopulation.

I read all this recently, while I was trying to research the deer problem (see Regenerating trees), and I was horrified. Our compost pile is at the edge of the woods, and it’s full of worms. (My guess is that the worms come from the hay that we use as food and bedding for the rabbits – much of which ends up in the compost pile – but who knows.) Not only the compost pile but also the area around it is rich with worm castings. Suddenly, that stopped being a source of pride and became a source of anxiety. Are we setting off a worm apocalypse in our woods? Will all our efforts to re-create native woodlands be for naught?

There’s no open area suitable for the compost pile, but we decided that, once the weather gets warm, we’ll move the pile up to the chicken coop. There, we can count on the chickens to eat the worms as fast as the worms can multiply. It will make the chickens very happy, too.

Confusion reigns

But the more I think about it, the more confused I become. The Northeast was largely reforested in the last century or two after farmers abandoned their fields and pastures. How did native forests arise successfully on these earthworm-infested lands? Do the trees or the fungi fight back with earthworm-inhibiting chemicals? Or are they evolving back to their pre-Ice Age, earthworm-friendly genetics? Or are the post-agricultural forests all inherently weak and unhealthy?

And then another question arises: How are agroforestry and permaculture possible in the once-glaciated regions of the United States? People are planting rows of canopy trees (oak, chestnut, hickory), understory trees (hazelnut, native and non-native fruits), berry bushes and vines, with alleys of grass and even annual crops such as squashes between them. (One person doing this type of agriculture is Mark Shepard, who describes his experiences in his wonderful book Restoration Agriculture. He’s in Wisconsin, and I was wondering how he managed this problem till I realized that he’s in the Driftless Region, a high plateau that escaped glaciation. So he probably still has native earthworms. However, people are using similar practices in once-glaciated areas.) Do these “artificial edge” communities have earthworms, or not? If the pasture/garden alleys have earthworms, what prevents the worms from getting into the wooded areas?

More research to be done….

And any insights welcome.


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Regenerating trees

trees in snowOn these cold, snowy, icy days, there isn’t much to do in the way of gardening, so I have been thinking about the woods. We have about five wooded acres here, but they aren’t as healthy as they might be.

A couple of years ago, a forester from the Department of Environmental Conservation came out and cast a professional eye on the woods. “You’re not getting enough regen,” he said, which is forester-speak for regeneration. “Too much deer pressure.” In other words, whenever a tree seedling pokes its head above ground, a deer munches it.

Let’s get rid of all the deer! we thought. We hate them anyway – they spread Lyme and other nasty diseases. But the only way to do that is to fence in our whole property, about twelve acres in all, which would be wildly expensive. And, as it turns out, having too few deer is as bad as having too many. Deer are a major transportation mechanism for seeds, good seeds as well as bad ones. Without deer, you lose a lot of biodiversity.

Is there any way to have just the right number of deer? Not without more predators, and that’s a problem too. People around here tend to shoot coyote, bears and whatever else might eat fawns, because they don’t want competition for hunting. But DEC doesn’t give out enough hunting licenses for humans alone to keep the deer population in check. Even their deer management assistance program, which is not available for small properties like ours anyway, wouldn’t begin to make a dent in the population.

So what’s to be done? The only option seems to be strategic deer management – that is, protecting the seedlings we want to keep until they are large enough to withstand the onslaught of the deer. There are several methods, including tree tubes, DIY cardboard caps, and small fences, which vary in difficulty, cost and effectiveness. We’re already using small fences for the fruit trees we’re planting at the edges of the woods. (You can see an apple tree enclosed in a small fence at the bottom of the photo.) There are also techniques, such as hinge cutting, for distracting the deer with saplings you don’t want to keep.

Which trees to protect?

Now the question is: which seedlings should we protect? The canopy trees we have, in order of prevalence (more or less) are Eastern hemlock, oak (several species), beech, birch, maple, hickory, ash, and a few specimens of white pine, sycamore, basswood, and possibly black walnut down by the creek. The trees regenerating most successfully seem to be beech and birch.

Here are the tentative guidelines I’ve come up with – and I would appreciate any comments on these:

1) Don’t protect species that are subject to heavy insect and disease pressure. That includes hemlock (woolly adelgid), beech (beech bark disease, which has been endemic here for half a century), and ash (emerald ash borer arrived about a decade ago). Saplings of these species are unlikely to become mature, healthy adults.

2) Don’t protect species that can’t regenerate in shade, unless the seedling is at the edge of the woods. That includes white pine, oak and hickory, which are early to mid-succession trees. An oak forest is sustainable only by means of continual logging or fire, neither of which are we going to do on any significant scale.

3) Don’t protect species that are doing all right without protection. That includes birch and sycamore, neither of which the deer seem to prefer. (And beech, of course, but we already ruled that out for reasons of disease.)

That essentially leaves sugar maple, not coincidentally the official state tree of New York. We have a few mature trees, so we should be able to find some seedlings to protect. There are problems with gypsy moths, but they don’t seem to endanger the whole population. Sugar maple regenerates exceptionally well in its own shade, as long as the deer aren’t eating it. On top of that, it is a beautiful tree that produces a valuable product.

If spring ever comes, I’m ready to start my maple rescue mission. Watch out, deer!


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Everybody eats

“Have a banana, Hannah,” Cab Calloway sang.*

“Try the salami, Tommy.
Give with the gravy, Davy.
Everybody eats when they come to my house.”

Outside my bedroom window, where I see it when I wake up each morning, is a miniature fish pond whose inhabitants all seem to be singing along with Cab. Everybody eats when they come to my pond, and I don’t even have to feed them. In fact, they feed us.

It’s amazing how little it takes to make a sustainable system – how little, in terms of how few species and how little knowledge. Of course, it helps that the ecosystem is only about 20 cubic feet.

Ingredients for a pond

We started with a problem – mosquitoes – and, in good permaculture style, turned it into a solution – a pond. Mosquitoes preferentially lay their eggs in the pond (if no standing water is available, they’ll lay their eggs in a puddle or even a drop of water). To vacuum up the mosquito eggs, we added the second ingredient – nine goldfish. Two of them are visible in the picture if you look carefully. The goldfish also eat mosquito larvae and pupae, so if they miss any eggs, they get a second and a third chance.

Fish, of course, produce fish poop. To absorb the ammonia, nitrates and nitrites in the fish waste, we added water hyacinth, an attractive plant that you can see floating on top of the pond, as well as some submerged plants such as anacharis, which you can barely see. The fish nibble on the water hyacinth roots and on the submerged plants.

Water hyacinth is amazingly prolific – it can be an invasive nuisance but also holds potential as a biofuel for the same reason – and in spite of the goldfish nibbling, it spreads quickly, threatening to block all sunlight from the pond. It’s edible, and is eaten in some places, but we haven’t tried it yet. I have tried feeding it to the rabbits, though, who were most appreciative.

We added two other plants that are fertilized by the fish waste but don’t give anything back to the fish – a watercress (left-hand pot) which is not only edible but actually gets eaten, and a hibiscus (right-hand pot) which makes glorious orange flowers, only not right now. Hibiscus flowers are edible, too, but I get more enjoyment out of looking at them.

The flowerpots accumulate small amounts of algae, which, like the plants, both filter the fish wastes and provide food for the fish. And the cinderblocks that the pots sit on shelter the fish when they need to hide from birds or other predators.

Visiting frogs

Regular visitors to the pond include four green frogs, one of which is on a rock at the left side of the picture. They’re well camouflaged – they always seem to be exactly the color of the leaf or rock they’re sitting on – and they spend most of their time waiting patiently for something edible to fly by. As far as I can determine, they don’t eat mosquitoes (too bad!), but beetles, flies, grasshoppers, butterflies and moths are all fair game.

Frogs also eat small fish – and I can’t say for sure that they haven’t eaten some of my fish – but for them the pond is not so much a food source as an escape hatch. When they hear me approaching, they dive into the water and hide almost before I’ve seen them. The pond is also where they lay their eggs. I haven’t seen any tadpoles yet, but that may just be because the black pond liner makes them hard to see. Or it may be because the tadpoles (which eat algae) are getting eaten by the goldfish. Some say goldfish will eat tadpoles only as a last resort, but of course, the goldfish aren’t reading discussion forums on the Internet and may well have their own opinions.

As Cab Calloway put it,

“Don’t be so picky, Micky,
‘Cause everybody eats when they come to my house! ”

 

 

*Lyrics are by Jeanne Burns even though Calloway made them famous.


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Sowing and reaping (further adventures with mushrooms and more)

maitake small

Maitake – click for larger image

When I started a business, everyone told me marketing was the key to success. As I’m not naturally inclined to self-promotion, it took me a while to catch on. But eventually, whenever I had downtime, I would update the website, send out postcards or emails, or go to networking events.

It succeeded, but not in the way I expected. Every bout of marketing resulted in a flurry of new work, but most of the work seemed unrelated to the marketing. Only rarely was a new assignment even remotely traceable to any outreach I had done. When I mentioned this to people who had been running small businesses for longer than I had, they just nodded and smiled with recognition.

I thought about this last week when some black-eyed Susans popped up among the weeds around my house. Black-eyed Susans (rudbeckias) are lovely, bright yellow native flowers that grow in large clumps. They are common in this area and supposedly easy to grow. A few years, ago a local friend let us dig up a clump of them from the edge of her woods, and we planted them in the sunny meadow near our vegetable garden, about 600 feet from the house. They disappeared without a trace – yet suddenly, here are some, 600 feet away, in a place where we never thought to plant them.

This week, an even more exciting find: maitakes sprouting between two stumps of oak trees that we cut down in 2011. Maitakes (hen of the woods) are amazingly delicious and nutritious mushrooms. I tried growing them last winter in the extra bathtub using “indoor maitake kits,” only to fail dismally. I buried the remains of that experiment between an oak stump and an old, failing,  soon-to-be-cut down oak tree and have been checking that spot every few days. Nothing is happening there, though it’s still early for maitakes. I also ordered 100 plugs to inoculate logs with maitake spawn; we’ve located the right logs and have been planning for several weeks to plug the plugs into the logs, though other tasks keep getting in the way. The plugs, if they even work (maitake has a difficulty rating of five out of five) won’t produce anything for several years. And now, without any work or effort, here’s the maitake, not 10 yards from the house.

So how does this work? Why does our effort pay off in such unexpected ways? A glimpse of an answer came to me this morning as I was picking wild raspberries on the hillside (one of the joys of this season, if you don’t mind getting a bit scratched up). Raspberries don’t ripen all at once, so you can’t just stand in one place and pick a whole bush clean. The job entails about ninety percent looking and ten percent picking. It’s one berry here, one berry there, lift up the cane to see if any more ripe ones are hiding underneath, then take a few steps to the side and look at the bush from a whole different angle. If you find six or eight ripe berries on a bush with a hundred berries, that’s a lot.

And as I was searching for berries, it came to me that the function of planting is to predispose us to look for results.

The world is abundant. Life’s rewards, for the most part, arrive of their own accord. Unfortunately, they come mixed with so much that we don’t want – unripe berries, poisonous mushrooms, weeds, rejections. The good things can be hard to see if we don’t know where and how to find them. And it’s the work of planting seeds that gets us in the right frame of mind to recognize what we want.

 

 


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Lazy gardening

Ruth Stout, lazy gardener extraordinaire

Ruth Stout, lazy gardener extraordinaire

 

Ruth Stout’s lazy gardening method appealed to me when I read her books in the 1970s, even though I was still full of energy and ambition in those days. She advised not digging, not tilling, avoiding a host of other unpleasant gardening chores, and, at least as I understood it, skipping straight ahead to the good part – harvesting a ton of delicious vegetables.

(This wasn’t too different from my approach to writing at that time, which called for me to wake up one morning and discover that I’d written a terrific book.)

I tried out Stout’s method in a small suburban lot almost entirely shaded by the trees from my neighbors’ yards. Grass would barely grow there. The patches of bare earth where I tried to plant tomatoes, peas and beans were smooth and hard, compacted by years of neglect. My year’s harvest amounted to a handful of peas.

Forty years later, I have better reasons to be lazy, as well as a better understanding of vegetables’ sunlight requirements. Our current vegetable garden, now in Year 4  of its existence, provides about three-quarters of our vegetables for the year. (We’re simultaneously building an edible food forest, but that’s another story.)

Creating the garden infrastructure turned out to be a lot of work (the lion’s share of it done by my partner), but we’re trying to be as lazy as we can in terms of ongoing maintenance. We’ve gathered information from many sources over the last few years. One thing we’ve learned is that maintenance has to be done – but the gardener doesn’t have to do all of it, or even most of it.

As the radical farmer Joel Salatin says, “Let the animals do the work!” In our case, most of the animals are very small, and we let vegetables do some of the work, too.

Letting nature do the work

Other than not tilling, here’s some of what we are doing to minimize planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing and pest-control chores:

  • Use vegetables that self-sow. So far, we’re having good luck with mache (corn salad), arugula selvatica, radishes and tomatillos, all of which returned this spring. You have to let a few plants go to seed at the end of the season, of course, to make more plants for next year.
  • Use perennials. Asparagus, some herbs and strawberries (OK, strawberries are fruits, but they’re in the vegetable garden) are all long-lived plants. We’ve tried a couple of other perennial vegetables but didn’t like them enough to eat.
  • Plant catch crops (no, not cash crops). If you start lettuce and other salad greens along with bigger vegetables, the greens get a head start while the main crop is still small. Then they stay cool and shady (ideal lettuce conditions) once the main crop gets big enough to shade them. Meanwhile, the greens crowd out most of the weeds and hold the moisture in the soil. Lambs quarters, an edible weed, can be left in as a catch crop. When it’s young, it’s delicious in salad, and when it gets older it can be cooked. It’s especially good with green beans.
  • Plant cover crops. If the main crop isn’t a legume, plant legumes (vetch and clover) as “weeds” alongside the main crop. In our garden, vetch and clover plant themselves; all we have to do is not pull them out. Like catch crops, they crowd out weeds and hold in moisture, but instead of making salad, they capture nitrogen from the air and use it to  fertilize the soil. Purslane, another weed, is also a good cover crop.
  • Build hugelkultur beds. If you’re making raised beds, instead of putting in a full load of soil, start with a layer of rotting logs and sticks, followed by hay and compost, then cover the top with dirt. The dead wood soaks up water like a sponge, which reduces the amount of watering you need to do, and it releases nutrients into the soil over several years as it decomposes. (Fungi and bacteria are doing the decomposition work for you.)
  • Mulch with “chop and drop” plants. If you’re mowing a lawn, pile up grass clippings and leaves around your garden vegetables. Or use plants, like comfrey, that grow quickly and can be chopped down every few weeks. Like catch crops and cover crops, dead grass and leaves keep the ground cool and moist and prevent weeds from growing. They also make great habitat for those giant spiders that hunt and eat garden pests.
  • Add fungi to the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi work best with most types of vegetables, except for brassica (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), which prefer elm oysters (Hypsizygus ulmarius). Elm oysters have the advantage of being edible – a bonus crop. This is our first year using the elm oysters, so I can’t report on how they taste. The fungi digest other soil microbes and spread nutrients around the garden. And, of course, they hold water in the soil, too.
  • Plant herbs and edible flowers to attract beneficial insects and spice up your salads. Larger flowers attract pollinators (native pollinators are very efficient – you don’t have to keep honeybees unless you want honey), and small flowers attract the insects that eat the insects that munch on your vegetables.