Friday, October 30, 2009

Living with the Leaves

In the next few weeks I am not planning to rake leaves.

Well, that's not entirely true... I will be raking them, but not removing them. I plan to do what I did last year, which is "shape" them into place with the rake, leaving the yard beneath the tree root zones blanketed with natural mulch. By placing them this way, my yard looks tidy and the lawn areas stay lush where there are no tree roots.

Last year, the leaves all decomposed before mid summer, which I know fed the soil under the trees and made lush habitat for the many important insects that like leaf litter. Those insects, I am sure, also helped to arate the soil, which in turns benefitted my aging urban trees.

I also suspect that those same insects provided a lot of food for birds. We had some surprise bird visitors in the spring, including a towhee that showed up in May and stayed for a week, pecking through the leaf litter hungrily.

This morning I opened my email inbox and found a timely message from my friend Kathy M, who sent a link to the Fairfield Weekly newspaper in Connecticut. Pretty cool article there entitled "Leaf It Be" about others who are choosing not to remove the leaves this year. Thanks, Kathy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tamiflu in Rivers?

Two weeks ago, an open flu shot clinic caused a traffic jam in Silver Spring. Several police officers were called into direct traffic around the Dennis Avenue health center after the Washington Post reported that H1N1 vaccinations would be available there all morning. A line of people waiting in the cold snaked all the way into the middle of the parking lot by mid morning.

As people everywhere seem to be scrambling to get vaccinated against the flu, Science News had an interesting report on their website this week, highlighting the concern that medicine used to treat influenza called Tamiflu might be going into rivers via human waste.

Janet Raloff's article on the website states: "Concerns are now building that birds, which are natural influenza carriers, are being exposed to waterborne residues of Tamiflu’s active form and might develop and spread drug-resistant strains of seasonal and avian flu."

Worries such as this one have come up previously, when researchers began reporting all kinds of pharmaceuticals were making their way from humans into waterways. This newest research is particularly troubling, however, due to concerns regarding H1N1 and its treatment, since the huge numbers of H1N1 cases could send the use of Tamiflu "skyrocketing," according to the article.

This is also one more example of how connected we are to problems of pollution and clean water, all the time, no matter how far we live from rivers and streams.

Are Acorns Edible?

We are having one of those noisy autumns again, where the acorns fall in plentiful, loud abundance. I'm not sure it qualifies as a "mast year." (That's what scientists call it when there's an OVER abundance of the nuts.) I think it might be just average, at least around my neighborhood.

Anyway, all those nuts lying around prompted one parent on one of the local listservs to ask: can we eat them or are they poisonous?

A bit of a debate went back and forth in the replies. It was all friendly. Some said, no, they are not poisonous but they cannot be eaten. Others said, bosh, we eat them all the time in pancakes and stuff and they taste great!

Well, I noticed someone had asked the same question about these nuts last week in the New York Times Science section. Pretty interesting, although I have to admit that I've never been tempted by them myself. Somehow, it would see a lot like eating bark to me. And the Claiborne Ray's article didn't make them seem any more appealing. Too much work to make them edible. I think I'd have to be pretty hungry to try it, frankly.

Meanwhile, the almonds in my cabinet are calling out to me. Think its time for a snack...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Speaks for the Creek? Maybe you.

On Tuesday, Oct 20, Larry Silverman will be speaking about ways that citizen watershed groups to carry out advocacy and communicate with public officials. He will be sharing his personal strategies, insights, and advice on the matter.

Larry has spent his career working for clean water and other environmental causes in Montgomery County and the Anacostia watershed and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw from. He is currently chair of Montgomery County's Water Quality Advisory Group and a board member of the Patuxent Waterkeeper. He is also a founding member of the Anacostia Watershed Society. He was instrumental in getting a consent decree against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Larry is a professor at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches Environmental Sciences and Policy.

Larry's presentation will be given as a part of the Friends of Sligo Creek program meeting for the month. The location will be the Long Branch Community Center 8700 Piney Branch Road in Takoma Park/Silver Spring. Come at 7:15 for chatting. We will start the discussion at 7:30. Refreshments will be served.

From Sligo Parkway, drive east on Piney Branch toward Flower Ave. After about 3/10 of a mile, watch for the sign on a building for Miles Glass. Turn left into the community center parking lot. Go to second floor.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

No, Its Not Your Imagination, the Stink Bugs Are Getting Worse

They have a goofy name, and they make a funny smell when bothered, so it is a bit hard to take them seriously. But believe it or not, stink bugs (also known as brown shield bugs) are becoming a major annoyance in many parts of the northeastern US.

The bugs are not particularly dangerous to humans but like the Asian ladybeetles, they are increasingly taking up residence in people's homes in North America. Once inside, they prove difficult to remove because they defend themselves by releasing a potent and very unpleasant smell. Vacuuming them or smashing them can prove to be quite stinky indeed.

The bugs, which are native to Asia, were first reported in North America in the late 1990s. Many accounts online point to initial infestations in the town of Allentown, PA. No one knows for sure how they got to the US.

But lately lots of my neighbors in Silver Spring are asking if I know anything about them. They are suddenly everywhere. They've been showing up on our car windshields each morning. They meander across our window screens. They slowly creep across the front porch. We are trying to make sure they don’t get inside. I sometimes feel like the volunteers each summer at the Brookside Gardens butterfly exhibit, checking each visitor carefully to see if any bugs have come in on their clothes. Not the most hospitable way to greet a guest, for sure. I’m wondering if we can really fight them off.

Researchers at the USDA are apparently wondering that, too. One researcher, Jeffry Aldrich, has begun working on traps which could be used to effectively lure them out of people’s homes. Aldrich is an entomologist and expert on stink bugs at the Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory in Beltsville, MD. According to press releases put out by the USDA, he’s working on a weapon to fight the bug invaders that will use the insect’s own body chemistry: a pheromone-based trap.

According to an article published by the USDA, Aldrich was “stunned” at the degree of infestation he saw at a private in Maryland last year, particularly in the attic.

Friends of mine who live in rural Pennsylvania at a location not too far from Allentown, PA where the first infestations were noted a few years back have also had surprisingly awful infestations. One friend says the bugs moved into mattresses in the guest room of her old Victorian home, only to emerge when guests came to stay the night. She also kept finding them in sofa cushions and pillows. Ugh!

This week the stink bugs were also “bug of the week” on Mike Raupp's website, and featured in John Kelly’s column in the Washington Post.

(Photo by Stephen Ausmus, used courtesy of the USDA ARS. )

Friday, October 9, 2009

Become "Riversmart"

Want to know more about rain barrels and reducing the amount of run-off that leaves your property?

On Thursday, October 22 7:30-9:00pm there will be a special showing of "RiverSmart" at Rockville High School. Learn how our roofs and driveways funnel pollutants into our local streams, the Chesapeake Bay, and our drinking water. Then speak to members of local watershed groups and Montgomery County’s RainScapes Program to discover how beautifying your yard can protect our environment and save you money.

The evening will end with the chance to win several door prizes, including a rain barrel donated by the RainScapes program, a county rebate initiative that rewards homeowners for their water-friendly landscaping. Students are encouraged to attend - particularly those participating in the MCPS Environmental Film Festival Project, as the winning student film for 2008 will also be shown.

This event is co-sponsored by the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, Water Quality Advisory Group, and MCPS Outdoor and Environmental Education Programs. Members of the Friends of Sligo Creek and the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch will be there, too, to present information for homeowners.

Students admitted free. A $2 donation from adults is requested.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Walk part of the Underground Railroad in Mo Co

There are some really cool underground railroad sites in Montgomery County, Maryland. Sandy Spring, in particular, makes for a great hike and an awesome history experience.

The Sierra Club is offering a chance this weekend to both hike and help the trail, where invasive exotic plants could ruin some of the best, most historic spots if not kept in check.

WHEN: Saturday, October 10, 9:30am – 12:00pm
WHERE: Underground Railroad Experience Trail, 16501 Norwood Road, Sandy Spring, MD

WHAT: Dr. Jenny Masur of the National Park Service will speak on the history of the Underground Railroad in the DC area. Dr. Masur is the National Capitol Region Manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Dr. Masur will highlight some of the personalities in Montgomery County, locations, and methods of escape through the Underground Railroad system. We will then remove invasive plant species.

RSVP: Jeremy Arling at or 240-398-3635.

Get Nuts for Clean Water in Arlington Cemetery

The Potomac Conservancy is collecting native hardwood seeds all over the region this fall as a part of their Growing Native project. Here is a description of one of their more interesting events.

Growing Native seed collection at Arlington National Cemetery this Saturday, October 10 from 10 am- 2 pm.

Spend the day at one of our nation’s greatest landmarks collecting, indentifying and bagging native hardwood seeds. The collection will take place on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.

Growing Native is a project, managed by Potomac Conservancy, which emphasizes the connection between clean water and healthy forested land. Each fall, thousands of volunteers throughout the Potomac River watershed collect native hardwood seeds, which are donated to state nurseries, and used to restore streamside forests along the Potomac and its tributaries.

Pre-register by calling Deanna Tricarico, Director of Outreach, at (301) 608-1188 x204, or show up and register at the event when you get there.

Clean the Stream for Halloween in the Northwest Branch

From a press release sent out by the

Neighbors of the Northwest Branch
Clean the Stream for Halloween Event

Come join the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch for the Clean the Stream for Halloween Event!

You can make a spooktacular difference for our stream!

Grab your family, friends, and neighbors and participate in cleaning up the truly scary amount of trash and litter that can be found along the Northwest Branch. The trick is to reduce trash in our watershed in order to enjoy the treat of a clean Chesapeake Bay.

Be sure to wear long sleeves and pants. If you have waterproof boots, bring them. We'll have extra gloves, but bring yours if you have heavy-duty waterproof gloves. Younger children are welcome to join in the cleanup with a parent or adult guardian accompanying them.

The Clean the Stream for Halloween Event will take place on Saturday, October 24, 2009 from 10:00 am until 12 noon.
We have three sites participating in this event along the Northwest Branch.

Directions to the sites and contact info for the site coordinators are as follows:
Randolph/Kemp Mill Rd Site: Contact Glenn Welch at
Directions: From New Hampshire Ave./Randolph Rd. intersection, go west on Randolph Rd. and left at the light at Kemp Mill Rd. Park along Kemp Mill Rd near Glenallan Ave. From the Randolph Rd./Georgia Ave. intersection, go east on Randolph and right at the Kemp Mill Rd. traffic light, then as above. Look for us at the NWB trailhead on Kemp Mill Rd. near the foot of Glenallan Ave.

Burnt Mills Site: Contact Larry Hush at

Directions: From I-495 head West on University Blvd. Turn right on Rte. 29/Colesville Rd. In ~1/2 make a u-turn at the Citgo station. Park in the lot behind the red brick building on the right.

West Hyattsville Metro Site: Contact James Graham at
Directions: Take either Riggs Rd or Queens Chapel Rd to Ager Rd and the West Hyattsville Metro is on the west side of Ager Rd. We will meet in the Metro parking lot and access the clean-up site via the Northwest Branch Trail.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kensington Bans Kids over 5 from Reinhart Park

Question: When is a public park not really for the public?

Answer: When that park is in the town of Kensington, MD.

I was alerted by email about a little controversy that is brewing over in the neighboring suburb of Kensington. Because I’m an outspoken supporter of both parks and recess for all children, this story really grabbed me. Seems the town council has officially banned anyone over the age of five from using the playground at Reinhart Park, which has the playground next to the Safeway, during midday hours from 9am -4pm Monday through Friday.

Now why on earth would any self respecting town council do such a thing, unless they are they ran that creepy fictional town from the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang??? (Remember, the town where Dick Van Dyke drives up in his old beaten up noisy car and finds that all the kids were put into an underground dungeon?)

To get one version of the story, you can visit this Channel 7 news clip:

I think this entire thing seems fishy. In addition to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’m reminded of the sheriffs in the old wild west movies who would only give protection to those store owners that paid extra money each month…

I’ve been around that park during the day, and I’ve seen those girls playing. They are always well supervised by teams of teachers, and always polite to other visitors that come to the park. In fact, I use that park about once a week and I have never seen any real damage that would cause undo expense, such as broken swings, graffiti, or the like. It seems much cleaner, actually, than a lot of county parks because it is usually free from litter.

I also tend to think that having a really well run school like Brookewood in the middle of town is a real asset. I wouldn't go doing things (if I was on the town council I mean) to chase them off.

Meanwhile, if I worked for the Brookewood School, I’d be calling around and asking about county policies regarding park use by other schools. (I have a feeling those law supersede any Kensington Town Council votes.) I’d be finding out if there are laws governing open park usage and public space accommodations. (I know for a fact that several of the nearby county public schools use the county public parks and fields quite actively for recess and gym all day long. I am not aware of any extra fees imposed for such a use. This includes some schools within just a few miles of this school and this park.)

Furthermore, I’d be out at that park taking surveys of all the families that come every week. I’d ask those parents what they think of this new restriction.

Oh and one final thing: if this was some big scheme dreamed up by the Kensington town council as a way of making their little burg seem really unwelcoming to families, it sure is working!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What's in Bloom: Swamp Sunflower

The Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) are out in full glory today. The sun came up cold, but still no frost. And as the morning wore on, the light picked up each bright yellow petal like stained glass.

In the past I tried incorporating this flower into a hedgerow I've formed in my yard. I had this idea that it would look great between the highbush cranberries and the arrowwood shrubs. But it seemed crowded and sad there.

So, last fall after it had finished blooming, I moved it over to be next to two another tall native perennials, the Joe Pye Weed and the Ironweed. These three plants seem really happy together. They all soak up the excessive wash out that occurs under the one rain spout in my back yard that lacks a rain barrel. And they all can get big and tall and lean over in old which way with complete abandon. No shrubby branches to bump into.

In the photo you can see, for example, the that the swamp sunflower is leaning over my pineapple sage. This is no accident. In fact, this is one piece of garden choreography that I am very proud to say I planned. The sage waits all season to bloom. Then, just when October hits, those red flowers burst forth like fireworks. At that exact same time, the swamp sunflowers are ready to blossom, too. Both are also wonderful for wildlife. Bees and birds love the sunflowers and the migrating hummingbirds make the most of those tubular red sage blossoms.

People complain a lot about how the garden can be boring in fall. I think this is one of the key reasons to plant native stuff. If you do you discover that fall is one of the best seasons of all to be outside. You can find interesting seed heads, ripening berries, fantastic leaf patterns and fall colors, and of course, late blooming flowers. Plus, all of the above are used by the wildlife that is preparing for the long cold season ahead, making the fall garden crazy, vibrant and colorful. A fall garden full of native plants is not ever sad or forlorn.