Life Webs


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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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What to do with spicebush

A spicebush in winter

A spicebush in winter

[Written February 2 but for some reason not published till February 10. It’s been too cold and snowy for the last week to continue my census.]

Inspired by the first warm day of the year (a balmy 39 degrees!) and by the amazing book Tending the Wild by the ethnobotanist Kat Anderson, I began my plant census this morning.

After all, permaculture, and gardening in general, shouldn’t only be about planting. The flip side is learning to care for, manage and use the plants already in place – at least those that are usable. If you’re starting with a suburban lawn and a couple of foundation shrubs, that may be an insurmountable challenge. In our case, though, we have a very rich (though neglected) environment, and there should be plenty to work with.

Between the first European settlement in the late seventeenth century and our initial gardening efforts in 2010, I doubt that anyone deliberately planted anything on this land. As far as I know, the land was used only for logging, gravel mining and deer hunting. So every plant that we did not introduce – whether native, naturalized or invasive – is a “volunteer” whose seeds were carried here by wind, water, birds, pollinating insects or truck tires.

We haven’t ignored what we found growing here. Every spring, we’ve happily foraged on dandelions, wild cress, wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns and daylily shoots, and every summer on wild grape leaves, black raspberries and blackberries (and this year, we ate autumn olives in the fall). We’ve tried a few other edible weeds and learned the difference between “edible” and “good to eat.” We’ve picked wildflowers for bouquets. We’ve flagged the sugar maples, though we haven’t tried tapping them yet, and we’ve made tea from red clover blossoms. We’ve even discovered the favorite foods of the chickens and rabbits.

But what we haven’t done is taken a census of what’s here and tried to understand how the plant communities work – and how they could be made to work better.

So this morning I began in the southwestern corner of the property, at the edge of the creek and the border of our neighbor’s hay field, and immediately realized that early February is not the ideal time to be taking a plant census. Without leaves, flowers or fruit, most plants are unidentifiable to an amateur, if not invisible altogether.

I did, however, establish that the southwest corner is full of spicebush plants.

The spicebush, native to the Eastern U.S.,  is an attractive shrub (attractive even in winter, because it has a graceful form) that grows in the understory of the woods. It can supposedly reach 20 feet, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one taller than 8 feet. Even in shade, it has deep-green leaves and abundant yellowish-green flowers. In the fall, the female plants bear hard red berries that have an allspice-y scent.

Here’s what I’ve learned about spicebush:

– The berries can be crushed and used to flavor meats and baked goods. You can’t dry them, because they’ll go rancid, but you can freeze them for storage over the winter.

– The berries, leaves and twigs can be used for tea. I tried making some tea today from the twigs and buds; it smelled lovely but didn’t taste very good. The tea has medicinal qualities (like all natural remedies, it cures whatever ails you).

– Berries make good sachets for closets and clothing drawers.

– The plant reproduces clonally for the most part, putting up suckers in the spring that can be cut and transplanted.

– It is a favorite of butterfly larvae and birds; deer browse it too, but apparently not very much.

– It is not nitrogen-fixing.

– It isn’t noxious to other plants or to animals.

Still to be determined:

– Are the branches suitable for anything? Basket-weaving? Barbecuing?

– Does pruning help or hurt it?

– Most important, what other plants does it want to be near? It’s a mid-level plant; what’s appropriate for the upper layer and the lower layers?