Category Archives: PRESERVATION

Chimney Swifts

by Elsa Johnson

Back in the day before people caged off their chimneys there were probably fewer mosquitos.

What??? You say… what possible connection????

The answer? Chimney swifts/chimney ‘swallows’.

Chaetura pelagica, voracious eaters of all flying insects, like mosquitos. These birds, native to the Americas, spend the winter (as I would like to do) in South America (northwestern countries), but breed in North America during our summers. Their range is from the Rockies eastward to the Atlantic and northward into lower parts of Canada. Like all swifts, they are incapable of perching, but instead cling vertically to surfaces. And this is where chimneys come in.

A swift spirals down to its roost opening from above. Originally these birds roosted and nested in trees. While they are diurnal foragers, able to stay afloat in the sky for hours, the time I am most aware of them is in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk. They are easily recognized, with their strange short, neck-less bodies, long slender wings, swift erratic flight and chittering call, but they are also easily mistaken for swallows (hence the name confusion). Able to drink and bath on the wing, they are one of the swiftest of birds.

They have extremely acute vision and interestingly, can focus with one eye or both eyes, and, like our native whippoorwill, which they somewhat resemble, they have a huge mouth gape — the better to eat you, little flying insect – but they are sociable rather than solitary, and many birds – sometimes hundreds – will share a roost.  In that roost there is only one breeding pair, mated for life.

Although originally cavity-in-tree dwellers, since the arrival of European colonists – and chimneys – these birds now almost exclusively use chimneys (and air shafts, isolated corners in lightly used buildings, and the walls of cisterns and wells). Here’s the catch, however: today many of us cage our chimneys, thus preventing chimney swifts/swallows from using them.

In 2010 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed this bird’s status from Least Concern to Near Threatened. Its population has declined precipitously across the majority of its range. The causes of its population decline are unclear. There may be contributing factors besides loss of roosts.  In the U.S, the chimney swift is protected and neither birds nor nests can be removed from chimneys.

How can you help? You can build a chimney ‘swallow’ tower.

This tall slender structure offers an alternative to chimneys. It is usually placed to allow easy maneuverability to descending birds, in an open field, or in a yard, in an open area…. but could also be placed, it seems to me, on a flat roof or deck. They can be big or small. As with chimneys, some maintenance is required. You can find plans on line; look for chimney swift houses. 

Book Review: Mycorrhizal Planet

by Tom Gibson

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mycorrhizal Planet, a new book by Michael Phillips, is a true breakthrough book, one that will provide new, valuable information for every serious organic gardener.  The book describes how mycorrhizal fungi work with plant partners and gives detailed, practical information on how to maximize the power of fungi in all sorts of gardens—from backyard tomato patches to full-fledged agroforests.

The book combines a distillation of extensive scientific literature with decades of the author’s hands-on experience growing fruit and other crops. [As chance would have it, I just completed an Ohio State mycology course  last fall and wrote my class paper on Maxmizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest. So I know a little of the difficult scientific terrain Phillips had to traverse.]  You would expect such a book to be densely packed, and it is. But it is also logical, good-humored, and down-to-earth, which should be more than enough to lead the committed gardener down a productive path toward a new set of best practices.

We need them.

The 20th Century produced some of the most brutal wars in history, but none so little noticed or comprehended as its War on Soil.  Some background and at least a partial explanation of why the War on Soil was so unwitting:

Soil, understood as something orders of magnitude different than mere dirt, consists of minerals, dead organic matter, and multiple living organisms that are often measured, breathtakingly, in billions per teaspoon.  Of these organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form the connective tissue on binds most plants.     Their hyphae—microscopic filaments—exude chemicals that dissolve potential food—from minerals to wood to dead insects—and then capture it by forming the equivalent of a new stomach wall around it.  See the graphic below where the red represents all the fungus’s external chemical activity. As its “stomach wall” expands, the fungus burrows its way tens of meters from its point of origin, all in the search for more food. 

Much of the food it seeks, however, is not for itself, but for its plant partners.  In return for the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements our fungus gathers, it trades them in for plant sugars.  These provide the fungus energy to expand and capture still more plant nutrients. Put simply, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of plant roots by factors of 10 or more—costing the plant far less energy than if they had to expand their root system to cover the same territory.

Fungally-derived nutrients are so important to plants that they may devote one-third of all the sugars they produce to feeding fungi. It is no exaggeration to say that this trading system forms the core of life on earth.  It has been in place since both plants and fungi crawled their way out of prehistoric seas.   The relationship is so tight that mycorrhizae and plants have evolved to cooperate at the cellular level with the most prevalent mycorrhizal type—arbuscular mycorrhizae—actually penetrating the cell walls of a given plant root.   

But that’s only the beginning.  Individual fungi merge with other members of their own species to further increase their reach.  The resulting network forms microscopic highways for beneficial bacteria to travel the landscape. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnsYh6511Ic And fungi emit a soil protein called glomalin which binds soil minerals and organic matter loosely together in a way that allows the overall soil complex to both breathe and retain water.  We call the resulting aggregation soil “tilth” —-the exact opposite of that gardening curse: soil compaction. 

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The modified dry litter waste management system uses dry available carbon materials such as chipped coconut husks and woods as bedding materials that reduces exposure of pollutants and pathogens from animal manure to ground and surface water resources.. It requires no water. Pigs are comfortable in their bedding. Pig activity turns and aerates the litter promoting decomposition of waste materials. The system allows farmers to safely manage animals while promoting a healthy and clean environment.

Surprisingly, much of this knowledge has only emerged recently.  Glomalin, for example, was identified by a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist in 1996!

It is this tightly-woven mineral/fungal/plant interrelationship that 20th Century agriculture and horticulture ripped apart.  Tillage and plowing chopped up all those fungal hyphae.   Artificial fertilizers fooled plants into happily dropping their partnership with living food providers (sort of like satisfying children with a perpetual diet of macaroni and cheese!).  Disconnection from fungal partners, however, limited the availability of trace elements that fungi help scavenge.  These trace elements—molybdenum, boron, etc.–are essential to full plant health. Fungally-trapped soil carbon also disappeared.  All together, the negative cascade of disappearing nutrients left a void that growers filled with ever more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  The ultimate result: ever less nutrition for both plants and their human consumers.

Phillips explains our downward agricultural slide in nuanced detail. But his greater emphasis is not on what went wrong, but how to make one’s own garden right. The three chapters (“Provisioning the Mycorrhizosphere,” “Fungal Accrual,” and “Practical Nondisturbance Techniques”) that make up the bulk of the book tell how to energize and expand fungal networks.

The committed gardener will find numerous possibilities for fungal enhancement of soil, ones that will require rereading and also rethinking of one’s approach to gardening.  Out of dozens and dozens ideas the book offers, here are a few that I’m either implementing now or plan to in the near future.

  1. Ramial wood chips.  These are wood chips made from fresh twigs and branches, the ones where a tree’s most recent growth has occurred. As one might expect, such high growth portions of the tree carry the highest concentration of nutrients—calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.  Fortunately, these young branches are often the ones professional arborists insert into their chipping machines and which they often have to pay to dispose of as landfill.  So it’s easy to persuade neighborhood tree cutters to dump a truck load.  I’ve done that and the chips have made my soil darker and richer and my plants happier. 

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  2. Direct feeding of mycorrhizae by air-knifing holes in the soil under a tree’s drip line, then injecting (often proprietary) fungal food.  I had this done last fall to reinvigorate what my arborist diagnosed as oxygen-deprived oak trees.   The result: more vigorous-appearing oaks, but also a tripling (!) of fruit production of my pawpaw and peach trees planted under the oak’s drip line.
  3. Planting of what Phillips calls “bridge trees.”  These are trees planted specifically to connect more of the separate fungal pathways of a given orchard or food forest and thus, as fungal networks tend to do, share nutrients to those plants which need them most.  Fruit trees typically work with arbuscular mycorrhizal partners, while oaks, maple and hickory work with ectomycorrhizal partners. Typically those two groups of fungi don’t “talk.” But a few tree species—willows, poplars, alders—partner happily bridge with both fungal communication gap. Within a broader landscape, they and their fungal partners open the possibility of tapping a much wider nutrient pool.  So I’ve begun to encourage alders—already self-seeding to some extent in my food forest—by planting more in strategic locations.

As readers can now gather, Phillips goes into considerable detail.  Yet what makes the appearance of this book especially exciting is how readable  the author is able to make it.

A typical passage will begin close to the “duh” level of simplicity; e.g. “Mycorrhizal fungi are the principal means plants have for obtaining phosphorus…the middle letter in NPK as represented by those three omnipresent numbers on a bag of fertilizer.”  But then Phillips escalates quickly into a discussion of slow- vs. fast-release phosphorus and the relative “cost” to the plant of exuding organic acids to feed phosphorous-gathering fungi.  Similarly, when Phillips must dip into scientific language—like “anastomosis,” the merging of separate fungi—he always defines it in understandable terms.

So, readable, yes, but also dense and complex.

Did I mention that this book is for gardening nerds?

Gardenopolis Cleveland Goes to Washington D.C.

by Elsa Johnson and Catherine Feldman

Dear Gardenopolis readers,

We’ve missed a couple postings, and we apologize. We (the editorial board) confess to being political creatures for whom climate change is a very real and very present (as in right now!) issue, and the direction this president has chosen in response to this issue – i.e., to deny it, and wipe out the EPA – has had us (some of us more than others) spinning off in various activist directions ever since the inauguration. Most recently two of us (Catherine and Elsa) traveled to DC for the Climate Action March (where it was a hot! hot 91 degrees! – a record high for the month, and the month itself a record high for DC).

 

We joined the group, Elders for Climate Action for the march itself (200,000 people strong) and, briefly, for a conference at the Capitol the day before, at which Maryland representative to Congress, Jamie Raskin spoke. Someone who ‘gets it’. Several days later Catherine attend another conference ( Consultation on Conscience ) at which the young firebrand progressive Joe Kennedy III (grandson of Robert Kennedy) spoke — another person who gets it. These speakers gave us hope (alas, short lasting).

Yes, the march and those activist activities took priority, but while we were there at the Seat of Empire we also spent time doing the very Gardenopolisy thing of looking in on almost all the gardens attached to the various and many cultural institutions around the mall and taking lots of pictures…. and these pictures tell a story about how the focus of landscape in these important public spaces is now about gardening with native plants.

 

We can only applaud.  When Elsa was there in February for the Women’s March – 500,000 people strong – it seemed like every green space was being trampled, and it was hard to imagine anything withstood that trampling, but as you can see from our pictures, the landscapes look great.

One sometimes forgets the distances between the Capitol building at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other (yes, this 73 year old walked the entire distance – it felt like more than once). Just crossing the width of the Mall is a trek on a 91 degree day. The monumental scale is such that one could use a horse.

I (Catherine) bring two key points from my conference that are eminently applicable to Gardenopolis Cleveland. First, we were told over and over again by politicians and activists that the voices of citizens are heard by our elected officials in Washington. We were encouraged to speak out, especially in person. Attending town hall meetings and participating in marches does make a difference. Phoning, writing and signing petitions have an impact. We do not have to wait for our next opportunity to vote. Officials in D.C. are harried by the confusion caused by Trump and his administration. They need our support. When someone does something right, let them know. 

Secondly, we were encouraged to become active at the local and state level. We can fight for the environment here at home, relatively untouched by what is going on in D.C. and we need to do so. So, what can we do? Gardenopolis Cleveland would like to open that conversation. Please respond in the Comments section about what you are doing, what you would like to be doing, and any of your own organizations that need help.

 

 

Are Trees Sentient Beings?

by Elsa Johnson

In an interview for Yale Environment 360, German forester Peter Wohlleben answers “Certainly”. And no, he doesn’t look like an Ent. Wohlleben argues that trees are wonderful beings with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with, and heal, other trees. How did he come to this Enti-ish belief?

As a forester, he says, he was trained to look at trees as economic commodities (I cannot resist an aside here: to wit — our culture does not value things unless they are commodities), but after joining an agency for a community beech forest in Hummel, Germany, he became disillusioned. He began to see the use of traditional commodity forestry – clear cutting, and chemical use, for example – as putting short term profits ahead of sustainability. Now he manages the forest completely differently. Distressed by these traditional forest management practices, he re-thought his position because he was someone who wanted to protect nature, and he was being asked to destroy it.

Gradually he learned that the individuals of a species actually work together and cooperate with one another. In his book The Secret Life of Trees, Wohlleben writes about how trees are sophisticated organisms that live in families. He uses the term “mother tree” to describe a tree that is at the center of an interconnected web of roots, that can distinguish whether the root it encounters is its own root, the root of another species, or the roots of its own species (this is crudely verified on our local level by our experience with the same species trees in Forest Hill Park succumbing to disease while different species trees close by survive it ). Wohlleben describes how trees pass electrical signals through the bark and into the roots, and from there into the fungi networks in the soil, and thus alert nearby trees to dangers such as insects, or disease. Trees can also learn he says, citing the example of trees that in the year after a drought took up less water in the spring so that more remained available in the soil later in the season.

Sometimes accused of anthropomorphizing trees, Wohlleben says “We humans are emotional animals. We feel things. We don’t just know the world intellectually. So I use words of emotion to connect with people’s experience.” And: “We have been viewing nature like a machine. This is a pity because trees are badly misunderstood.” And: “Nobody thinks about the inner life of trees, the feelings of these wonderful living beings.” And: “Plants process information just as animals do, but for the most part they do this much more slowly. Is life in the slow lane worth less than life on the fast track?”

Wohlleben offers the evidence that trees growing in undisturbed natural forest can beneficially affect climate change by reducing temperatures and helping the soil retain moisture under their vast canopy. Conversely, climate change adversely affects trees less densely planted, as in common practice in tree plantations. The extra CO2 in the air today is making young trees grow about 30%  faster than they did decades ago. The faster growth exhausts trees and makes them less healthy. Trees growing in undisturbed natural forest fare better, says Peter Wohlleben. They grow more closely together, causing humidity to rise, cooling the forest and helping soil retain moisture.

Ah, he loves his trees so much — maybe he is an Ent after all.

If you would like to read more of the interview with Peter Wohlleben, go to YALE ENVIRONMENT 360. The issue is 16 November, 2016. Yale 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues, written by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, and policy makers (etc.). It is published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The view and opinions expressed are those of the authors and not the school. 

   

  

Reprise – Citizen Science in Forest Hill Park

by Elsa Johnson

Last summer Gardenopolis Cleveland wrote about a project in Forest Hill Park undertaken by the Great Meadow Task Force for the East Cleveland Parks Association. The task force inventoried all the old growth trees (about 70 trees) in the park’s most iconic space, the Great Meadow, and with the help of Dr. David Roberts, a tree pathologist from Michigan University, arrived at the conclusion that the trees in the meadow are largely healthy and in good shape. However, as the summer wore on, it became clear that a group of 5 chestnut oaks about midway along the south perimeter access trail were showing signs of distress, with one clearly past saving.

How quickly this happened! It was shocking. The task force decided to invite Dr. Roberts back for a look at these trees, and at the trees in the area called the Meadow Vista, north across Forest Hill Boulevard. 

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Chestnut oak is an oak in the white oak group, native to the eastern United States, and an important ridgetop tree of the Appalachian mountain range chain, with a sparser outlier population in our northeastern Ohio foothills. Since most of us have never seen a chestnut leaf it will help to tell you that a single individual leaf somewhat resembles a beech leaf, but with small lobes, rather than fine dentations, and these gather together in a cluster.

Peeling back the bark on the dead chestnut oak tree revealed the grubs of two-lined chestnut-borers at about chest height.

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The borer starts its damage to the tree’s vascular system at the top of the tree, and works its way down. If only a few branches are affected presumably the tree could be saved, but when one finds the grubs at the base, the tree is definitely not salvageable. It is dead and should be removed and chipped (which kills the larvae). This borer is a serious insect pest of chestnut, white, black, red, scarlet, and bur oaks. Preventative treatment is possible, but treatment after a tree shows clear signs of decline is unlikely to save it.

Alas, this does not bode well for the park’s mostly oak forest. To prevent spread of this opportunistic insect in the Great Meadow (were there the funds to do so) these trees need to be gotten out of there.

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Then we all regrouped in the Meadow Vista, which has been suffering tree loss for a longer period of time than the Great Meadow; here many trees are diseased and dying. Examination of more recently dead trees here revealed chestnut borers in every affected tree. However, what Dr. Roberts was looking for was evidence of fungal pressure pads under the bark of dead and dying trees. He strongly suspected oak wilt here, based on the infection pattern he was seeing, with dead and diseased trees spreading in an ever widening ring from a center. And although we never did find pressure pads, but found lots of two-lined chestnut borer larvae, he remained concerned that oak wilt was also an issue here.

Oak wilt is an equally (or more) devastating diagnosis for our trees in the Meadow Vista. Where it might be manageable in the Great Meadow (were there the funds for treatment) in the more closely knit environment of the Meadow Vista and surrounding woods, management quickly becomes impossible as individual trees give way to densely packed forest… for oak wilt travels through the soil via the interconnected roots of same-species trees (i.e., red oak to red oak), and kills the vascular systems of trees through the soil, from the soil up. In an oak opening or savannah with some considerable distance between trees, one can cut trenches, severing the root systems, thus preventing spread. But where trees grow close together and the disease is manifesting in several locations, severing interconnected root systems is almost impossible.

The only good thing about oak wilt, and this is a very, very small thing, is that the white oak group succumb less often and less quickly than red oaks – and, indeed in Meadow Vista, all the affected trees are red oaks. Again, infected trees should be removed, chipped, and then covered for the year it takes to make sure the fungus is no longer viable.

What is the cause of so much disease? As I meet and talk with people in Cleveland Heights I discover other areas where oak trees have been lost to disease, or where there is failure to thrive. Is it stressed biological environments? How does a summer like the one we had in 2016 contribute to diseases like these? How do we plan a forest for the future? Another article will look at these questions.    

Doan Brook Watershed Partnership

by Victoria Mills

Doan Brook connects us.  It’s an elegant simplicity that can get lost in our bustling, urban neighborhoods.  Elsa Johnson’s kind invitation to reach out to the Gardenopolis Cleveland audience gives us the opportunity to, not only highlight the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership’s recent activities, but also to reiterate the goals that we share.

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The work of the Partnership is important to local, clean water, but it’s equally important to community.  Through our work, kids and adults from ‘Heights’ communities work alongside new friends from the Cleveland neighborhoods of University Circle, Little Italy, Shaker Square, Larchmere, Buckeye. St Clair-Superior and Glenville. 

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As they pull invasive weeds or remove litter from the Brook, they laugh and grow an understanding that clean water requires effort from each one of us, in every single neighborhood within each of the watershed municipalities of Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.  Community-building in the Doan Brook Watershed has a wonderful cyclical rhythm, as people learn to fish, build rain-barrels, plant trees, and paddle Lower Lake at many events throughout the year.

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BF3_3367Like healthy aquatic ecosystems, our watershed landscapes are inherently more diverse when gardens replace the monoculture of lawns. Some lawn has a role in our communities and homes, as a place for outdoor recreation and relaxation. When lawns consume an inordinate percentage of our urban landscapes, they are expensive to maintain, create needless, polluted runoff and can become a void for biodiversity– including for critical soil life and pollinators.  For this reason, the Partnership applauds Gardenopolis’ vision for inclusion and diversity in both plant and human populations.  Diversity equals resilience for our future communities and landscapes. 

In fact, in twelve years since our inception, with collaboration from diverse partners, we have restored thousands of feet of stream, filtered acres of untreated stormwater with new raingardens, improved biodiversity with hundreds of trees and native plants, invited tens of thousands of people to interactive workshops and events and, most importantly, raised awareness about our local treasure, the Doan Brook. Needless to say, we hope to multiply these efforts in the future.  With only two staff, the Partnership is grateful for an active volunteer corps.  Individuals step forward to help with everything from cleaning up litter to running big events of 200-700 people.  Great teams of students, especially from Hawken, Shaker, CMSD, Laurel and Case Western Reserve, provide the bulk of person-power needed to remove invasive species and install and maintain raingardens. 

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The primary way that restoration along the Doan moves forward is through successful grant applications, submitted by either the Partnership or one of its partners.  Restoration projects at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, Woodbury School, Shaker Country Club and Rockefeller Park have provided new in-stream and riparian habitats in the last ten years. 

In early 2015, the Partnership received nearly $180,000 from the Sustain Our Great Lakes Foundation to remove a concrete debris rack spanning the width of Doan Brook, at the western end of the Gorge, 90 feet upstream from the Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Drive, between Fairhill and North Park Blvds. The failed debris rack is a source of impairment, not prevention because it prevents the natural movement of bed-load and fish. The Doan Gorge Habitat Restoration Project will create a comprehensive solution to restore ~300 linear feet of Doan Brook in the pristine Gorge. Since receiving the grant, DBWP assembled a Technical Advisory Committee that includes engineers from Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). The committee will work with consultants to model hydraulics and study all options from complete removal to dam modifications. Regardless of which option is chosen, the project will restore the streambed profile, proper sediment transport, and the Brook’s original channel alignment. In addition, invasive species will be removed from the project reach.

This year the Partnership finished initial plan designs for four restoration sites along the Doan, with a $50,000 grant from Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). For many smaller organizations like ours, long-range planning amid the day-to-day realities of programming and managing the organization can be a challenge. When major grant funding becomes available, it is critical to have plans ready at short notice. This GLRI grant allowed us to prepare plans for four targeted restoration interventions along the Brook, including an estuary where the Doan enters Lake Erie, a new oxbow meander at Sowinski Park, the removal of eleven check dams, and tributary repairs throughout the Canterbury Golf Course. It’s important to reemphasize that, although we are excited about these potential restoration sites, these plans are not yet projects. This study showed that these four concepts are plausible, but it will take more study, more discussion with stakeholders, and, of course, more grant funding to move forward with any of them.

The Partnership invites all the wonderful gardeners of the Gardenopolis community to learn more about our projects, home-habitat workshops, fun outdoor events and volunteer opportunities.  And, as well as your participation, we invite your suggestions for how to improve the quality and access of the Doan Brook.  A study conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation interviewed 43,000 people in 26 communities to learn what bonds them to where they live. In every region of the country, above economy and schools, the following three qualities ranked highest: a sense of openness, social gathering places and beautiful green spaces. The work of Gardenopolis Cleveland and the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership promotes all three of these crucial elements. And the Doan Brook gives our community a common focal point that, despite our differences, reminds us how we are interconnected and interdependent.

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We look forward to working with gardeners to restore our watershed landscape and build strong attachments to our local places for many more years to come.