Life Webs


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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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Adventures with mushrooms

myceliumLiving in a wet climate as we do, we grow a lot of mushrooms, both indoors and out. There’s a nice crop coming along right now on the windowsill of the mud room. (Those will come out soon, I promise.) Our woods are full of mushrooms, of course. Mushrooms cover the stumps and logs of the trees we  chopped down near the house and all the branches that the storms knock down. They even pop up in the raised garden beds, which we made from Amish “mushroom dirt” (used-up substrate).

There are dozens of species, most of them beautiful and some of which I can almost identify. Identification is a tricky business, though (is this a turkey tail or a false turkey tail?), which is why – even though an acquaintance who is a locally famous mushroom forager and chef walked the property with us  and pointed out several edible varieties – I’ve never tried eating any of them.

Even without eating them, we’ve felt we were benefiting from their presence. Mushrooms are good – vital, in fact – for the land, because they recycle nutrients and make them available for new growth. They break down and detoxify all kinds of pollutants. Some types of mushrooms even transmit nutrients from one tree to another, delivering them where they’re most needed. Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running, which is full of fascinating mushroom lore, calls them “Nature’s Internet.”

Hen of the Woods

Last fall, we bought some maitake mushrooms – aka “hen of the woods” – at a nearby farm stand. They were extremely delicious and extremely expensive. Apparently, they grow under oak trees.  I said to my partner, “We have hundreds of oak trees! Why are we paying twenty-five dollars a pound for maitakes?” I was suddenly seized with a desire to cultivate mushrooms.

Maitakes are best started in spring, but I was impatient and wanted to get a head start. I bought an indoor maitake kit by mail order, set it up in the mud room, and faithfully followed the directions about covering, uncovering, spraying and misting. If mushrooms can grow in the mud room by themselves, I thought, shouldn’t they grow even better with tender, loving care? The maitake emerged from the substrate and for a couple of weeks, they looked like they might turn into something edible. Then – well, I have pictures, but they’re too ugly to show here. I took the mess outside and buried it next to an oak tree stump.

I consulted with our neighbor Gary, who grows shiitakes and oyster mushrooms commercially in a barn. He brought us four maitake kits from his supplier, and I put them in the bathtub in the guest bathroom. Following Gary’s advice, I tried giving each one a different amount of moisture, ranging from fairly dry to fairly wet. This way, he said, I could find out exactly how damp an environment they really needed. I succeeded in growing only green mold. I was starting to see why maitakes are so expensive.

But spring is just around the corner, and with it, a more scientific attempt to get maitakes to grow in the woods – which, I’ve decided, is a more appropriate place for them than the bathtub. Drilling inoculated plugs into logs is the recommended approach to getting them started. Hopefully by next fall, I’ll have maitakes to eat, and beautiful photographs to post here.


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Adam and Eve Were Cold

adam&eveThough we aren’t religious, my partner and I sometimes feel our permaculture project is creating a Garden of Eden. We’re busily planting one or two of “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food,” and if they all grow, and we live long enough, we can spend our golden years moseying around the garden, picking fruits and nuts without too much in the way of labor. (In the Bible, God thoughtfully does all the tree-planting before installing Adam in the garden.)

Of course, right now, in mid-January, our new, young fruit and nut trees, and even our “pleasant to the sight” trees, like dogwoods, are just sad little sticks. One of the persimmons seems to have disappeared altogether. After a warm October and a late first frost, we’ve been having a brutal winter, thanks to the polar vortex that descended on much of the Northeast and Midwest – the result of global warming, we’re told. We’ve stayed warm, bundled up in layers of clothing and running the furnace at full blast. (I don’t even want to see what the next heating bill will look like.)

Meanwhile, our chickens and rabbits are living happily out of doors or in unheated sheds. The chickens fluff up their feathers and go out to peck in the snow. The rabbits grow a little extra fur. I saw a deer ambling down the driveway the other day during a storm; he hadn’t even bothered shaking the snow off his back, though about a half-inch of it was piled on top of him.

Only Humans Need Heat

Why do only we need heat? Clearly, because we’re the only species that lives outside the ecological range it was adapted for. And why can we live outside our original niche? Because we have the technology to stay warm in the winter. Current thinking is that hominids, and probably homo sapiens in particular, evolved in equatorial East Africa, an area with mild climate. That’s why we have little body hair. Those who migrated out of the tropics did end up with less skin pigmentation (presumably to enhance synthesis of Vitamin D when less sunshine is available), but didn’t end up with significantly more hair (presumably because they could procure clothing, shelter and fuel).

All of which makes me wonder again about Adam and Eve. In the story, they eat from the tree of knowledge so they can be like gods – and it actually works; God says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us.” (The myth seems to date from polytheistic times, something I’d never noticed before.) But the experiment backfires. God throws them out of the garden before they can achieve immortality in addition to knowledge, and he condemns them to work for a living, among other things.

The first thing they notice after gaining knowledge and “becoming like gods” is that they are naked and need clothing, and they immediately sew clothes for themselves out of fig leaves. This is usually interpreted as the discovery of sexual modesty, and Adam and Eve’s transgressions are usually understood to have something to do with sex. But in the story, sex is a good thing. They had been told to be fruitful and multiply, and they had not been ashamed of their nakedness.

Here’s my thought: Adam and Eve were cold. They noticed they were naked because, with the knowledge they gained from the tree of knowledge, they ventured outside of the tropics for the first time. They had become like gods – they could go anywhere, do anything – but they now needed fig leaves to stay warm.

The last thing God does, before stationing angels and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden, is to give Adam and Eve a set of clothes that will keep them warm as they travel even farther from Eden. “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”


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Trapping Water

Hugelculture swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Hugelkultur swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Our property is a long, narrow, wooded strip that slopes gently from a ridge to a creek. At least, that’s what its mirror image on the west side of the creek looks like. On our side, two large, flat, cleared areas interrupt the descent. One is the site of the old gravel mine, near the creek, and the other, closer to the ridge, is the house site. The state Department of Environmental Conservation “restored” the gravel mine some years ago, and now it’s a brushy meadow. Later, in 2009, we built a house near the top of the hill. The east side and part of the south side of the house are built into the hill and buried in mud. This is good for keeping the house cool in the summer. But there’s still a bare, steep, muddy slope above the house and another, steeper muddy slope above the meadow.

Neither of these slopes is an urgent problem. We’ve seeded them both with rye and clover to slow the erosion, and weeds are spreading there as well. The slope above the house drains into a ditch behind the house, which meets up with some other drainage ditches and empties into a pond below the house. (At least we call it a pond; it was dug about a year ago but has yet to fill up for more than a few hours at a time. Except after a heavy rain, it’s a deep crater with a puddle at the bottom.) The lower slope has no drainage, but whatever washes down it goes into the meadow, which may benefit from some extra dirt. Parts of the meadow are still quite gravelly.

But the Hudson Valley is rainy and is particularly prone to what are called “large rain events.” Sometimes, as much as six or seven inches of rain falls in as little as an hour or two, according to our official rain gauge, a ruler in a five-gallon bucket. So, drainage ditch or no drainage ditch, nutrients wash out of the soil, make their way down into the creek and eventually flow into the ocean, where they produce “dead zones.” Considering that the muddy slopes are mostly clay already, we don’t want to lose any more nutrients. Here, as in the rest of the world, topsoil is vanishing at an alarming rate and must be made up with chemical fertilizer derived from petroleum – in no way a sustainable solution.

Hazelnuts in the Mud

Ultimately, we need trees on these bare slopes – trees that will hold the water with their roots. Right above the house, in particular, we need fruit and nut trees that won’t grow large enough to damage the house if the wind blows them down. (North-facing slopes, which we have, are actually good for flowering trees, though not for much else.)

I’m thinking a row or two of hazelnuts would be just right above the house. They are small enough not to fall on us and will produce a delicious, edible crop conveniently close by. Hazelnuts were once an important part of this ecosystem – and they still grow wild in our county, according to the USDA plant database – but I have never seen any around here. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t here, even on this property. Completing the census of what’s growing here is one of my projects for this coming year.)

But how can we plant hazelnuts on a muddy hill? What will keep them from washing away, and what nutrients will feed them?

In many cultures, slopes are terraced for planting – which is, frankly, a lot of work. Similar approaches promoted by permaculturists involve digging swales, or ditches, along the contour lines, or plowing into the subsoil at a slight angle from the contour lines using what’s called a “keyline plow.” Those methods also require a lot of work as well as heavy earth-moving equipment.

DIY Terracing

What I’m trying – based on Jerome Osentowski‘s ideas, as reported in the wonderful permaculture book Gaia’s Garden – is a do-it-yourself terracing/swaling method. Instead of digging holes in the mud, I’m building up berms along the contour lines with rows of rotting logs. The logs should act like sponges, catching and slowing the water as it runs down the slope and giving it more time to sink into the earth. (If this works, that pond will never fill up.)

In addition, as the logs rot, they return organic matter to the soil, providing nutrients for the hazelnut trees or whatever we eventually plant there. Rotting logs actually make a great base for raised garden beds (this method is called hugelkultur, which you can pronounce in either the German or the English way); following the hugelkultur method, I can pile leaves, compost or rabbit manure on top of the berms before planting trees on them.

Fortunately, we still have plenty of wood from the trees that we cut down to build the house. (The house is concrete; we didn’t use the wood for building.) Some we gave away to people with wood-burning stoves, but the rest has been sitting in piles behind the toolshed for several years, not doing anything particularly helpful. On nice days, when I have a spare hour, I carry logs from the pile and build them into berms. It’s cheaper and more fun than going to the gym. And maybe, in a few years, it will turn the muddy slope into a lush garden.


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Eating autumn olives

autumnoliveAre autumn olives the greatest untapped resource in North America? Are they a scourge of mankind? Perhaps a bit of both?

First, what everyone agrees on: Eleagnus umbellata is a small tree or large shrub native to Asia. It was introduced into the United States as an ornamental in the early nineteenth century, escaped cultivation and now is found everywhere in disused fields, roadsides and waste lands – if you’re looking for it, that is. (In sixty years, I never noticed it.) It has shiny, dark-green leaves with silvery undersides, yellowish flowers and beautiful red fruits that ripen in early autumn. Though it is uninteresting to insects, the fruits are moderately attractive to birds. The trees are tremendously prolific, and they grow and spread quite rapidly.

Despite its name, the autumn olive bears no relation to an olive. The leaves and the fruits (especially the unripe fruits) do somewhat resemble those of olives, but the leaves are a bit rounder and the ripe fruits are red, juicy and sweet-tart, with small, chewy seeds. Actually, the fruits look more like red currants than anything else.

The prosecution says: These trees are invasive. They quickly fill entire landscapes, displacing native shrubs and grasses. Though they feed birds (one reason they spread so quickly is that the birds spread their seeds), they do not support insects – leaving the birds with nothing to feed their young. So in the end, they drive the birds away, too. What’s more, they keep landscapes stuck in mid-succession, preventing canopy trees from growing and returning the land to forest, which is what it “wants” to be. Finally, they have no commercial use; there is no market either for the fruit or the wood.

For the defense: It’s a beautiful tree. That should count for something. It’s nitrogen-fixing – as one of the few non-leguminous species to return nitrogen (that is, fertility) to the soil, it offers a way to quickly heal barren, depleted landscapes. (Did I mention there was once a gravel mine on the property where I now live?) Autumn olives can be used as temporary “nurse plants” to help other, more desirable trees get started.

Third, the ripe fruit – which is easy to collect – is highly nutritious. It’s chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, lycopenes, flavonoids, and all the other nutrients that have been systematically bred out of the fruits you buy in the supermarket. And finally, the fruit is delicious, either raw or cooked (or, so I hear, made into jams, jellies and fruit tarts).

So just imagine –  there are millions of these trees across the country, all producing delicious, nutritious, free fruit in waste spaces that no one is using. And sadly, most of the fruit goes to waste because few people know it’s good, or even edible.

We have a number of autumn olives (soon to be a much larger number) growing wild on the site of the old gravel mine. For the first four years we lived here, I admired the beauty of the trees, but only this year did I discover that we could eat the berries. In late September, when they ripened, we picked a bucket full, ate some raw and froze most of them. We’ve been eating them cooked with venison – one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted (and one you probably won’t encounter anywhere but in my house). I’m only sorry we didn’t pick enough to last us till next September. Next year, two buckets full. Maybe three.

The verdict: All right, I admit it. The tree is invasive. Nobody should be planting it. And eventually, as we plant more trees that are better-behaved and as those begin to grow, we’ll take out most of our autumn olives – or just let them be strangled by bittersweet vines, which is already starting to happen.

In the meantime, though, we have to ask, what is the alternative? If we chopped down all the autumn olives today, we’d end up with more multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle – two other invasives that have (as far as I know) no redeeming qualities whatsoever. So until we’ve created a more sustainable forest garden, the autumn olive has a role to play, both in helping to restore the land’s fertility and in feeding us. It’s hard to resent a tree that has so much to offer. Thanks for the freebies!

Planting chestnuts

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Our new arrival - a hybrid and, we hope, blight-resistant chestnut.

Our new arrival – a hybrid and, we hope, blight-resistant chestnut.

When I was a child, the streets of New York City were full of chestnut men. Fifty and sixty years ago, the pushcart vendors who today might sell hot dogs or falafel sold hot roasted chestnuts. You bought them by the paper bag full. Their tops were cut with crosses so you could peel off the skins.

Their dense, earthy smell sticks in my memory, as smells do. Sour and grubby as the subway, ever-present as the crowds, they were one of New York’s defining mysteries for me, a suburban child.

I didn’t know why the chestnut men were there, and I didn’t know why most of them had disappeared before I moved to the city as an adult. Had I considered the question, I would have guessed the tides of immigration had washed out the old vendors and deposited a new set from places where chestnuts weren’t so well known – and I wouldn’t have been altogether wrong. But another sort of immigration was the real culprit.

Here’s some of what I didn’t know:

Until the turn of the twentieth century, the Northeast and Midwest were covered with chestnut forests. There were more chestnuts than any other kind of tree – they accounted for maybe a quarter of the forest. They were tall, strong, spreading, long-lived trees. Chestnuts were a staple food for Native Americans, they were a staple food for European settlers, and they were a staple food for pigs and other domesticated animals.

At some point, nurserymen began to import Asian chestnuts. I’m still not sure why anyone thought imports were needed, but imported they were, along with the microbes that lived on them. Microorganisms that happily coexisted with Asian chestnuts did not get along well with American chestnuts, and American species couldn’t evolve quickly enough. About 1904, American chestnuts began to die of a blight, or fungus, that had arrived with the Asian chestnut. By mid-century, billions of big trees were dead or dying. By the 1970s, when I moved to New York, they were nearly gone.

Today, American chestnuts still sprout and grow to nut-producing age; then they quickly succumb to the blight and die. There are plenty of young trees but no mature ones. There are also Asian chestnuts growing in North America, but they haven’t repopulated the forests, and more important, they don’t support the insect life that in turn supports the forest birds and mammals. And chestnuts are no longer a staple food, even though every December, as we stroll through the stores, we still hear pleasant songs about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, a Minnesota farmer saw a healthy chestnut tree – one tree! – amid all his dead and dying trees. A single tree with a random mutation that allowed it to resist the blight. He took cuttings from it and grafted it onto Asian rootstock. The American Chestnut Foundation, formed in 1983, began intensively breeding these trees, back-crossing the hybrids with surviving American chestnuts to produce a cultivar that was as much as possible like the old American chestnut but still blight-resistant. Thirty years later, trees from this program are beginning to be introduced to the world. Thousands are now being used to reforest the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund site in Palmerton, Pennsylvania.

In our neighborhood, the folks at the Catskill Native Nursery got hold of some of these restoration chestnuts, and a few weeks ago they wrote about them on their Facebook page. Kim and I ran out and bought two of them, and he planted them in our meadow – the site of an old gravel mine that we’re trying to restore to forest. Next spring, we’ll plant some companions for them – berries and shrubs that do well with chestnuts, ramps and garlic and wild scallions to keep the grasses at bay, native wildflowers to attract pollinators, plants with deep taproots to bring up minerals, clover to add nitrogen to the soil.

We may not live to see the trees produce chestnuts. We probably won’t live to find out whether the trees are truly blight-resistant or whether they can support the other species that depended on the American chestnut. And I know we won’t live long enough to see the trees establish a new forest. But we can hope.

Update: I’ve conflated two entirely different restoration projects. The Dunstan chestnut trees, which we bought, should be blight-resistant and produce good chestnuts that are similar to older American varieties, but they’re hybrids and  probably won’t produce many – or any – blight-resistant offspring. You can reproduce them clonally, through cuttings, which is fine for an orchard but not fine for a continent-wide forest. The American Chestnut Foundation is working on creating a stable variety that should be able to repopulate forests. Those aren’t available yet (except in small quantities, in exchange for large donations to the foundation), but they should be available in quantity in the next few years. And that’s when we’ll start trying to regrow the forest.