Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Community Garden Plots Announced

This just landed in my email inbox from Montgomery County Council Member Valerie Ervin:

"I am pleased to announce that in conjunction with park staff and the City of Takoma Park, we are planning for Montgomery County's first two community gardens to open this May in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

The Department of Parks and staff from my office will be attending neighborhood meetings near the proposed sites in April in anticipation of opening the Gardens around May 16. Please join us, we want to hear from you about the proposed pilot sites: Silver Spring Intermediate Park and Sligo Overlook Park.

- Pinecrest Neighborhood Association, Tuesday, March 24, 7:00 p.m., 6411 Orchard Avenue, Takoma Park.
- South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, Thursday, March 26, 7:30 p.m., Eastern Village Co-Housing, 7981 Eastern Avenue, Silver Spring.
- Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, Monday, April 13, 7:00 p.m., Silver Spring Library, 8901 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.
- Takoma Park Environment Committee, Tuesday, April 14, 7:00 p.m., Takoma Park Community Center.
- Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Board, Thursday, April 16, 3:30 p.m., Silver Spring Urban District, 8110 Georgia Avenue, 3rd Floor, Silver Spring.
- Takoma Park City Council Meeting, Monday, April 20, 8:00 p.m., Takoma Park Community Center.
- East Silver Spring Community Association, Monday, April 20, 7:00 p.m., Sligo Recreation Center, 500 Sligo Avenue, Silver Spring.
- North Takoma Citizens Association, Tuesday, April 21, 7:00 p.m., Montgomery College Silver Spring/Takoma Park Campus - Room 320, Student Services Building.

To apply, interested individuals or parties will submit an application and $45 annual fee. Parks will accept all applications and nearby residents will receive priority. Plots are approximately 400 square feet and only organic plantings and material will be allowed. We hope to install raingardens or other stormwater devices on-site with assistance from the Friends of Sligo Creek. If you have questions or would like staff from the Department of Parks to come and speak to your neighborhood association about the gardens, please contact David Vismara at david.vismara@montgomeryparks.org. "

This is big news for Silver Spring and Takoma gardeners, who have longed for community garden plots for decades.

Another Way to Buy Native Plants This Spring

American Native Plants, a wholesale only nursery, recently announced that it will be open to the public for retail sales on Sunday April 5th from 9am-3pm.
The nursery carries about 200 species of only native plants. The vast majority of plants are woody plants: trees and shrubs and some vines, however there are a few groundcovers, ferns, perennials, and wetland plants (in the hoophouse) as well. They do not carry cultivars except for a few species which are diocious and readily available, such as Winterberry. Unfortunately for the Inkberry and Spicebush, you must visit the nursery during bloomtime to tell the difference and take your chances, just like nature.

The nursery is located at 4812 E. Joppa Road, Perry Hall, Md 21228 From I-95 northbound past baltimore, take exit 67B. Turn right at the first light on Honeygo Blvd. Turn left at the fourth light onto Joppa Road. The nursery is 1/4 mile on right up a gravel road. Look for the large green pyramid with the tree emblem. Drive up the road to the top of the hill to park and for office.
> For a catalog of normal availability go to:

(This message originally appeared on the Native Plants East listserv.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Native Plant Sale this Saturday, Mar 28

Friends of the National Arboretum will host their annual Lahr Symposium this weekend, and as a part of the event, the public is allowed to shop for native plants from some of the best vendors in the region. Many of these vendors only sell at such events.... so if you need some native plants for your yard this is the place to go!

Don't worry if you aren't entirely familiar with natives yet... most vendors bring photos, and offer detailed information about the needs of each plant. Many of them are also very generous with advice.

People who have paid to attend the Lahr Symposium that morning will have first crack at the vendors' offerings, the public will be allowed in for free from 9:30am until 2:00pm.

Remember: most vendors accept cash or checks only.

In the past I've scooped up some incredible bargains, such as trumpet honeysuckle for only $10. Besides good prices, there are plants you simply cannot find anywhere else.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Bright Idea: Celebrate Earth Hour, March 28

Later this year I'm headed to the desert to celebrate an important birthday. The one thing I look forward to the most is taking my kids out to see the dark, night sky. I think it will blow their minds to see so many stars, because here in DC we are so overwhelmed with bright artificial lights all the time that it is almost impossible to see any stars at all. Sometimes we get lucky and see a few. But the light pollution here is very bad.

So I was pschyed to see that once again this year, environmentalists around the world are planning to celebrate the darkness by asking people to join in the EARTH HOUR on Saturday, March 28. Starting at 8:30pm, you are asked to turn out your lights for one hour, in order to raise awareness about energy usage and waste.

Last year my really good friends who live in Key West, Florida celebrated by lighting candles and reading poetry. I'm thinking that this year I will turn out the lights with my kids and go outside to look for bats in the springtime night sky. I know that all around us lights will remain on... there's not much I can do about that. But I hope to at least get my kids thinking about light pollution and the animals that depend on the darkness for survival.

Meanwhile, organizers of this event are hoping for something even grander: they want to send a message to leaders who will participate in the U.N. Climate Change Conference, to be held in Copenhagen later this year. Their goal is to have 1 billion people world wide participate willing spend an hour in the dark, and register support on their website.

They may just succeed, too. According to news reports, last year more than 400 cities and 50 million people participated in a similar lights out event. Some cities even turned off the lights on important landmark buildings to show their support.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Testing the Waters of the Sligo with Mike Smith

(This is the second installment of a two part series that originally ran in the March 2009 edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park and Silver Spring.)
People are often surprised to find out that Friends of Sligo Creek volunteer Mike Smith is not a biologist or a chemist. In fact, he’s a librarian at the Smithsonian’s Freer & Sackler museums, downtown. But he takes the water samples as a volunteer.

“I grew up near the Northwest Branch,” he told me recently. “To a kid, the most striking things around here are the streams. I used to run along the banks of the creeks and look for crayfish.”

Like many of us who love the streams and treasure them, Mike often wondered just how dirty the water was.

“I think as a librarian, you look for sources of information,” he said. Since not that many records existed, he got training from the Anacostia Watershed Society and began keeping the numbers himself in 2004. Now, no one knows more about that water than Mike, although he’d never be the one to brag about it.

I tagged along a couple of weeks ago, to see what his work involves. Arriving at the parking lot I still felt bleary-eyed, but he was full of energy. Although it was February, the air was not cold and it seemed as if the day would be warmer than usual. As we made our way to the first of the three sites he’d be checking, Mike chatted about what he’d be looking for, and what information he’d be collecting.

“We had that snow storm a few days ago,” he said. “That might make the readings interesting today.” Although he didn’t rub his hands together in anticipation, I could hear the excitement in his voice.

This particular morning, we’d be collecting information for the chemical monitoring program, and we’d also be taking measurements of the water’s pH level, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. (Friends of Sligo Creek, the organization for which Mike volunteers, also has a biological monitoring program, where volunteers are trained to take surveys of aquatic life and bacteria on a regular basis.)

As we drove into Prince George’s County and passed Rosa Parks Elementary School, Mike explained that this is where the main stem of the Sligo flows. It is, I must confess, the section of the park that I know the least. In fact, I was shocked when we got out of the car; these were fields I had never seen. I write about the creek, tell people that I know almost every section. I had no idea this spot even existed, and it was lovely.

A solitary jogger making his way through the early light nodded towards us in a friendly way. I could see the swirls of his breath wreath his face as he went by. We carried Mike’s small brief case of equipment past the empty athletic fields, through the trees and onto the banks. We had to climb over a lawn mower, abandoned and leaking oil into the creek.

“We’ll be getting that on the way back out,” Mike said, tapping it with the toe of his sneaker. “I see trash here a lot, but that is new. ”

There were cans, and bags and some pieces of old metal that could either be from other mowers or from cars. Even so, the creek burbled along calmly and because we were far from car traffic it was wonderfully quiet. While I watched Mike set up his measurements, I listened for early morning bird song and wondered where the bridge behind us led. This was one of those areas of the creek that is so far from the trails and roads that no one really bothers the animals that live there. Paradoxically, this is one of the most urban neighborhoods along the creek and yet probably the best one for wildlife viewing if you happen to come out in the early morning like Mike does.

“Sometimes I see herons,” Mike commented.

I watched as he gingerly made his way out onto a rock to fill a small vial of water, which he’d take home to test. Next, he opened a device that looked vaguely like a thermometer you’d use on an elephant. This device, called the YSI 85, is used for measuring the creek’s temperature, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, and its conductivity, or its ability to conduct an electrical current, which on this particular day measures 2399. For urban streams, a good measurement would be below 500, but even in the summer the number is often higher in the Sligo.

“In the winter, road salt can also make the conductivity go up, sometimes twenty times higher than it should,” Mike explained. After storms, the creek is often full of salt due to stormwater run off.

Mike also noted that the Montgomery County Department of the Environment is investigating conductivity in the Bennington Branches (near Burnett Avenue) and Brashear’s Run (also known as the Maple Avenue tributary), where the numbers have been unusually high. Later he explained that these two tributaries seem to have the most pollution discharges.

As we made our way to the next site, just of East-West Highway, I realized we’ll be collecting data just below speeding traffic. Even though it was early on a Saturday, busses and trucks made their noisy way down the road a few feet away.

This site, he tells me, tends to have higher nitrates and higher dissolved oxygen. “It makes me think maybe from sewer leaks,” he commented. There are never fish at this site, he noted with a grimace, although he often sees them elsewhere in the creek. This time around, though, the dissolved oxygen at this site was good, probably because of the cold weather.

It’s sad and a bit shocking to think that so many of these areas were swimmable and even drinkable not all that long ago. Nearby Spring Park in Takoma, Mike told me, was once a place where residents could help themselves to tasty bottles of clean water. Now I am loathe to even get my hand wet at the our creek’s banks.

We packed up the supplies for the second time that morning and step over frozen, brown brambles. On the way out, my foot caught on the dry, bone white skull of a dead deer. I show it to Mike. Oh yeah, he said, that was there for months, decaying. A truck downshifts on the road next to us and we climb back into his car.

Mike was trained by Masaya Masada, an ecologist working at the Anacostia Watershed Society. The water from Sligo Creek eventually drains into the Anacostia River, and by taking measurements of the smaller waterways, a snaphot emerges about where the river’s problems originate.

“What Mike is doing is a very tough thing,” Masaya told me recently via email. “Monitoring a stream in a chemical manner is actually a demanding task. We have to go to the stream regularly whatever the weather condition.” But it is also very important, Masaya continued, because you might not be able to find any pollution from a single visit. He says, for example, that Mike has documented very high conductivity in Sligo Creek in concentrations that could kill amphibians.

In addition to the work of the AWS and FOSC, there’s a US Geological Survey gauge near Queen’s Chapel Road at the confluence of the Northwest Branch and the Sligo that records data every fifteen minutes. Mike checks those readings against his which were made at the same time period. The numbers are charted on the web by the FOSC webmaster, and put into easy-to-read graphs and charts. Mike also writes descriptions of what he sees happening in the creek’s water.

“I try to make it like a USA Today version of the Sligo’s water quality,” he joked.

The water quality program has four goals:

- To make the governments aware that we are watching the creek.
- Provide data to anybody who wants it.
- To see if there’s any discharge which can then be reported
- To see if the creek is getting better or worse over time.

At our third stop, called the Wheaton Branch, the creek felt different. Quieter, for sure, and less trash. This might be because we were farther upstream and the trash has all travelled down southward. Or, it could be because the neighbors here are cleaning up more regularly. As we leave the car near Forest Glen Road and cross a bridge over some small ponds, we are startled to see a beaver cross the water. Later, while taking measurements, we find beaver tracks in the sand, too.

It would be easy to assume that the water in this area is cleaner, based on these appearances. But Mike and I discussed the nearby storm water ponds which were installed by the county many years ago to reduce flooding and pollution problems.

The sites near the ponds, he notes, usually have lower nitrates and lower conductivity than the others, but also lower dissolved oxygen and higher turbidity. Later, in an email, Mike explains that the ponds do a good job of removing nitrates and pollutants from the Wheaton Branch of the creek, but at the cost of lowering the oxygen and leaching sediment. He says they also store up a lot of road salt after snow storms. Bacterial also counts remain high in these areas, although Mike doesn’t regularly take measurements of those. So it might look prettier, but the water here is still very unhealthy.

So is the creek getting better or worse over time? I wondered about this as I said good bye to Mike and headed home for a big breakfast. I remember those people Mike described, gathering water at local springs to drink. Each year, more and more things seem to imperil the health of our local environment. It doesn’t seem to be getting better.

But when I asked Mike later in an email he replied: It is too soon to see a trend. Like any librarian… like any good citizen scientist… like any good record keeper… he wants more data, which means he’ll probably be gathering those numbers for years to come, and training others to do the same. In the meantime, he’s watching carefully, and reporting anything that is really unusual to elected officials, creek lovers, and government agencies.

I remain hopeful that the numbers will motivate more people to act and do what they can to improve the creek’s quality. As someone who cherishes the ability to report hard facts about the creek to anyone who will listen, I am thankful for all of the volunteer data keepers. As it struggles and burbles along, winding its way through our crowded, urban area, the Sligo provides me with a sense of immediate peace and renewal, and for that I am also very grateful.

(This story originally appeared in the March 2009 edition of the Voice newspapers. As usual, all rights reserved, and you may not use any of this text with out written permission from the author.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Bill to Bag the Bags

One morning last week I was taking my dog for a walk in the early hours and came upon my friend and fellow dog owner, Ed. Both of us stood exchanging morning greetings with hands full of trash. Ed had found an entire bundle of magazines, dumped in the park overnight. I had my usual trashy quarry -- a large plastic bottle and several bags which had blown across the soccer fields during the previous day. I was taking mine home to recycle. Ed was dragging his to the garbage can, since it was too heavy to carry while he walked with a leashed dog in hand.

Ed and I and many other dog owners who hit the park early in the morning often find our selves on trash patrol. Mostly, I hunt down the blowing plastic bags, hoping to pin them down and collect them before they end up out of reach in the high branches of our neighborhood's aging oaks and maples. When they get stuck up there they drive me crazy. They are noisy, crackling, bright blue or white flags reminding us all how polluted our environment has become. I hate them, and have made it a personal mission to pick them up and take them to my home trash can whenever and where ever I can. If they aren't too dirty I even try to recycle them.

Last year for Lent, I even gave up plastic bags altogether, figuring that I could train myself to remember to bring my cloth ones to the store if I REALLY tried. It worked. Now I have a wonderful collection of the canvas ones in each car, and even when I shop for clothes I eschew those dreaded plastic sacks and proudly carry my stuff home in a resuable tote.

For these and and many other reasons, I was excited to hear about a bill, introduced by Maryland Delegate Al Carr (District 18) that would place a five cent fee on plastic retail bags. According to a press release put out by Carr, the "Chesapeake Bay Restoration Consumer Retail Choice Act of 2009" will put a new focus on reducing the amount of trash that enters Maryland waterways and will raise money for Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund. Delegate Carr joins Washington DC Council Member Tommy Wells who will introduce similar legislation that would fund restoration of the Anacostia River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The bill, now labeled as HB 1210, had its first hearing on March 11. I will be following the news regarding this bill with great hope. Not only might it raise money for the Bay, it could also help prompt more people to bring their own bags when they go shopping.

(Special thanks to Sarah Morse of the Little Falls Watershed Association for bringing this bill to my attention. Sarah asks all Marylanders reading to call their delegates and voice support for this bill. )

Friday, March 13, 2009

Green Home Tour in Chevy Chase

The Somerset Environment Committee in Chevy Chase has announced it will host a Green Tour.

Saturday, March 21 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Somerset Town Hall
4510 Cumberland Ave
Chevy Chase, MD

1:00 - 2:30: Learn what you can do to "Green Your Home"
Presentations by
· Walt Auburn, Maryland Energy Administration
· Jenny Reed, Natural Design - Landscaping for Stormwater Management
· Bobby Croghan, LEED Certified Homes
· Brian Uher, Amicus Consulting - Green Building Supplies & Energy Audits

2:30 - 5:00: See what your neighbors have done
House Tours - map of homes will be available at the
Town Hall on Saturday.
· Solar PV
· Geothermal
· Earth Friendly Building Supplies
· Rain barrels
· Dual Flush Toilets
· Energy Efficient Heating
· Organic Vegetable Gardening for High Yield
· Pervious Pavers
· Stormwater management
· Recycled Blue Jean Insulation


Contact George Wyeth, george.wyeth@verizon.net
Sarah Morse, morsekathan@gmail.com

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Can I Recycle the Water from my HVAC System?

When we moved into our house several years ago, we noticed that a pipe carried water from our AC and Furnace unit to the utility sink. The water that came out of this pipe was clear, and seemed clean enough. I wondered: could I somehow recycle that water to use in my garden? One reads of grey water systems. Could this pipe, which seemed to be carrying condensation away from the heating and cooling unit, somehow be put to work for the sake of my parched plants in a sort of homemade grey water system?

I never knew who to ask about this. The heating and cooling guys didn’t seem to know if it was safe, and there was nothing in garden publications or on popular websites that ever even mentioned it. I wasn’t even sure what to call that pipe. I also wondered if I was the only person in the world that had such a thing. I mean, unless you work with HVAC systems, how often do you look at someone else’s furnace in the up close and personal?

But last Friday, while attending the Green Matters Symposium at Brookside Gardens, I finally got my answer. Yes, said Paul Bassett of Water Management Incorporated, you can use it.

Paul was not just speaking to me. In fact, he was addressing the whole room and urging people to reuse this water if possible. Many of the pipes which carry this “condensate” away from HVACs go directly outside, he said, where they drain somewhere in the yard. Others, like mine, empty to a basement floor drain or utility sink. Either way, the water can be re-used in the garden.

There’s an important catch, however. Due to concerns about bacterial growth, you can’t reuse it for overhead irrigation, since spraying could encourage the transmission of Legionnaire’s disease. I assume that it would also be a very bad idea to use that water on houseplants or anything else inside. But by placing a bucket under the pipe (like those five gallon ones they sell at the hardware store), you can catch the water and then pour it at the base of shrubs or trees in your yard.

Very cool. I can’t wait to try this out. Thanks, Paul!