Monday, December 13, 2010

Is "The Pill" increasing estrogen in drinking water?

Is the pill increasing estrogen amounts in our drinking water?

A new report in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology says no.

Finding the source for estrogen in water has become a hot topic in the last few years, since increased hormones in the environment have been linked to many human health problems and the feminization of some fish species in urban rivers. Because more than 12 million women in the US currently take oral contraceptives, the connection between “The Pill” and estrogen and those problems seemed plausible and somewhat alarming.

But after conducting a survey of the most recent available scientific research on the topic, authors Amber Wise, Kacie O’Brien and Tracey Woodruff concluded that estrogen reaches drinking and surface waters from other sources. There’s a strong link, they found, between natural estrogens in soy and dairy products and the animal waste which is used without treatment on farm fields as fertilizer. (One assumes here that farm yard run off must be carrying the estrogens to local streams and rivers.)

Some of the research cited in the article suggests that animal manure accounts for 90 percent of the estrogens in the environment.

According to a press release published last week by the ACS, some sources examined in the paper went so far as to estimate that if just 1 percent of the estrogens in livestock waste reached waterways, it would comprise fifteen percent of the estrogen’s in the world’s total water supply.

(The article appears in the October 26 edition of the journal, which can be found on the ACS website. )

Monday, December 6, 2010

Explore Montgomery County's Urban Forest

If you need a break in the middle of the madness that is December, you might check out these two walks. Both will focus on a different great piece of Montgomery County, Maryland’s urban forest.

On Saturday, December 11, at 10 a.m., arborist Richard Murray will lead a walk in Wheaton Regional which will explore tree architecture and branching patterns. He’ll also discuss how trees compensate for wounding and look at defect patterns in some mature trees in this large urban park. For more info you can contact Richard at or visit the Maryland Native Plant Society website. (MDNPS is sponsoring this event.)

On Saturday, December 18 from 1 – 3 p.m. Diane Cameron will lead a walk for Conservation Montgomery in the McKenney Hills neighborhood. The McKenney Hills Forest is contiguous with an extensive adjacent forest owned by the Montgomery County’s Legacy Open Space Program. Together, the Legacy Open Space Forest and the McKenney Hills Forest constitute an interconnected forest ecosystem totaling 50 acres. This is by far the largest tract of mature forest for many miles around. Public and private experts have noted the uniqueness and spectacular quality of these woods which are within the Capitol View Branch of the Lower Rock Creek watershed. For more information visit the Conservation Mongtomery website or contact them at 240-793-4603. The walk will begin at the end of Hayden Drive, which ends in a cul-de-sac at the site of the future McKenney Hills Elementary School.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Watershed Stewards to host Training Session

As we all put our gardens to bed for the winter, you might be thinking of things you’d do differently next year. If you are one of those enterprising souls who has put in a raingarden recently, the Watershed Stewards Academy of Anne Arundel County, MD would like to hear from you.

They are gathering a list of “lessons learned” about raingardens to share at their Rain Garden and Environmental Site Design and Sustainable Landscape Maintenance training for Landscape Professionals. All designers, installers and maintenance companies are welcome to attend this event, which will take place in January and February.

For more information or to register visit the Chesapeake Network website.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Landscape for Life Brings Sustainable Site Initiative Home

New gardeners often complain about feeling overwhelmed by the process of getting started.

And while shopping at garden centers can be fun and kind of addictive, a really sustainable garden needs to go beyond being full of "curb appeal." Ideally, a sustainable garden will offer resources to wildlife, and a sustainable gardener will avoid practices that add to environmental damage or pollution.

But really, what the heck does that actually mean in YOUR own backyard?

For a person who barely has learned to tell English ivy from poison ivy it can all feel like a bothersome, tedious chore to find out.

Now the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and the US Botanic Garden have collaborated to make the whole process a bit easier. Their new website, called Landscape for Life, helps average homeowners bring the Sustainable Site Initiative into their own backyards. The entire site is full of practical tips and lists. There are also lots of lovely photos to inspire anyone planning next year's garden.

It is also a great website for accomplished gardeners who have puzzling questions about new environmental challenges.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chestnuts Making a Comeback

Monday's Washington Post had a really cool article on those hoping to stage a comeback for the American Chestnut tree.

In the article, several researchers noted that if they succeeded they wouldn't likely live to see the fruits of their labors, literally, since it will take 75 to 100 years to know if the trees they are working on can be reestablished in the forests of the Eastern US.

I have often encouraged friends and neighbors to plant trees that won't be truly mature until long after we have all passed on. Not many people do that any more, although it used to be standard practice on farms because people planted with the fortunes of their children and grandchildren in mind and assumed their offspring would inherit the very earth around them. In a way, the article on Monday illustrated that same idea, only writ large.

Removing Rx From the Watershed with Federal Help

According to my friends who service on the Montgomery County Water Quality Advisory Group, our county's recent effort to work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on the collection of unused or leftover pharmaceuticals was a success. The collection event occured on September 25 in Rockville and Bethesda and 22 boxes of pharmaceuticals were collected.

It would be great to have the county participate in this type of event on a regular basis.

Pharmaceuticals in local waterways have been recently connected with many ecological problems, including intersex fish. (It is believed that the majority of what shows up in local watersheds is likely from human waste water.) Unused prescription drugs can also pose a safety hazard in many homes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

All that Beautiful Poison Ivy?

Is is possible for something be to really annoying and beautiful at the same time?

There's no mistaking the annoyance factor of poison ivy. One brush with this vigorous native plant and you'll itch and itch.

But at the same time, it is one of the first plants to become really fantastically beautiful in the early fall. Sometimes one vine will stretch up and out for twenty five feet more, ablaze in shades of orange, yellow and scarlet red over the still-green trees.

Surely the birds might find it beautiful, since many find this vine's berries so nutrionally valuable. They don't itch from exposure, they just get a feast. Maybe the color even helps them locate those poison ivy feasts quickly during their long, hard migrations south.

Maybe. Just a hypothesis.

But seeing as how I'm not a bird, I'll enjoy my hypothesizing and poison ivy leaf-peeping from a distance, thanks.

Learn About Our Own Local Locavores.

Calling all locavores and locavore-wannabes:

On Sunday, October 24, from 2:30 - 4:00pm Montgomery Victory Gardens will host an event celebrating "The Future of Food and Farming in Montgomery County" at Blueberry Gardens Farm in Ashton, just 12 miles north of downtown Silver Spring, a holistic healing center and the only organic blueberry farm in Montgomery County.

Montgomery Victory Gardens is the county's leading non-profit working to develop a healthy, sustainable, truly local food system. Gordon Clark, the project's director, will give a short presentation on local farming issues, including everything from school vegetable gardens to land use policy in our county's large but underutilized Agricultural Reserve.

Our featured guests at the event will be recording artists "emma's revolution!"

Suggested donation is $25, but all contributions are welcome - and are all 100% tax-deductible.

For directions and information visit the MVG website or call Ellen at 301-774-3636.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Seneca Creek State Park: Just Us and the Stink Bugs

I have to confess that Christopher Columbus was far from our thoughts on Monday. But all the same we were grateful that the for his holiday when we headed out with the kids. The sky was cerulean and almost cloudless and although it was a bit warm in the sun, the shade was dry, cool and comfortable. A perfect day to hike.

In reality, hiking with kids is never easy. No matter what the weather, both of my kids joyfully take to the trail for about a mile or so, then there’s an awful lot of whining that must be quieted until we get back to the end of the trail loop.

So although visions of Shenandoah and the Skyline Drive danced in my head I quickly did a reality check: a long drive causes as much whining as a long hike, so that seemed like a doubly bad proposition.

Instead we headed up to Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg. Although this park is only a short distance from our house, we had never checked it out. Being a Baltimore girl I was always much more likely to head to Patapsco State Park when I wanted to get out in the woods and goof around. That just was more familiar.

What I learned on Monday, though, was that Seneca has a lot of offer, too, especially for a family with young kids. The lake is beautiful, and although we didn’t go for the fishing we saw a lot of families who were out with poles on Monday. As we took to the trails we found ourselves almost completely alone with the birds, including a few Pileated woodpeckers. Maybe Seneca is a kind of well-kept secret.

There is one kind of visitor that knows the place very well, though -- we were hounded by brown marmorated stink bugs for almost the entire hike. At one point I had at least ten of them on my shirt, as did each of my kids. There were smears of dead stink bugs on the parking lots, and as we drove off at the end of the day I had to pluck them off of my legs and shoes or risk stinking up the entire car.

I am not sure why I found this surprising. I kind of assumed that the stink bugs were mostly making themselves at home in suburban areas, where tidy, warm houses offer many places to tuck in on cold days. Our suburban neighborhood has seen its share of these invaders, but it was nothing compared to what we saw at Seneca.

In fact, it seemed like the deeper we went in the woods the more stink bugs we encountered. (We had the same experience at our favorite pick-your-own apple orchard last week as well, where the stink bugs had done a real number on the farmer’s lovely crops, putting corky pits into many of the nicest red apple skins.)

In spite of the stink bugs, we ended up walking for about three miles, which is actually pretty modest for our family hikes. And although those miles were pretty flat and easy, the kids did indeed whine for the last mile or so. And not because of the stink bugs.

My theory is that most of their whining on long hikes actually comes from an inability to fathom how much farther they have to go. I try to show them on the map but I think that they can’t really make relative comparisons for long distances. It just seems to them like it is never going to end. Then when it does they are always pretty proud of themselves. I think that the more they hike the more they will be able to mentally gauge the relativity of their endurance to a mile on a map.

Once we got home my theory seemed even more valid. While my husband and I both stretched out to take a rest on some big, comfy chairs, the kids saw some friends outside and went running up and down the block enthusiastically with their pals for several more hours. And I even heard them brag about the great hike we had just taken. So much for worrying that we’d exhausted them out in the woods!

Next time we go to Seneca I want to check out the historic one-room Seneca Schoolhouse Museum. Seems like it might make a great history field trip, especially if the stink bugs subside a bit.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Native Plant Sale in Baltimore

The Herring Run Nursery up in Baltimore will host two more plant sales this fall on October 9 & 24.
I love this organization because they are doing great things with native plants in a very urban area of Baltimore, my hometown. Although it is a bit of a drive from DC, it is worth it when you consider that your plant purchases help a great local non-profit.

Their nursery has a sizable selection of native trees, shrubs, and vines and a limited selection of native perennials. Sale times are 12:00-4:00 PM for both dates. (For an up-to-date plant list you can visit their website or call 410-254-1577 ext 104.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bats Have Regional Accents

This month's newsletter from Bat Conservation International highlighted some really fascinating new research. Bats have accents. Two animals of the same species from different regions may have very different sounding calls.

Past research has also noted the same phenomenon in birds. Southern-living chickadees, for example, have different accents than their northern counterparts. And cows in the UK were shown to also have regionally different moos.

Bat Conservation International always puts out a great newsletter, full of this kind of interesting info.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why Are Those Chimney Sweep Signs Up in the Parks?

Like a lot of other Montgomery County residents, I was wondering how the heck the Step In Time chimney sweep people were able to get away with posting signs all over the county parks.

I see a lot of signs like these put up illegally in the parks, but usually they are removed immediately by either county employees or anti-litter activists. The Step In Time signs, however, were placed high up, out of reach, on many different tennis courts and ball field back stops.

I just figured that they were posted so high and so well that they were harder to rip down. And with recent budget cuts I also figured the county was spreading its employees’ time thinner than ever, so maybe the county just hadn’t gotten to it yet.

Well, it turns out the budget connection goes like this: Step In Time is sponsoring portable toilets for some of the parks this year. Citizens who asked were told that the company was permitted to hang the signs in exchange for the sponsorship, much to the irritation of many park users who find them to be, in the words of one of my neighbors, “visual pollution.” Others have called into question the legality of such sign-posting, citing MNCPPC’s own rules and regulations.

I’m really curious to know what other people think about this.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Using Pet Poop to Light Parks: This is for Real

This morning I came back from walking my dog in the park and found this interesting article posted on a local environmental listserv:

Pet Poop Fueling City Park Light, Sparks Conversation

Seems Matthew Mazzotta, an enterprising student from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has designed a device which uses the methane in dog waste to power a street light. How cool.

I envision these all over Montgomery County. We could put them near lighted tennis courts and ball fields, and along streets where lots of people walk their dogs.

Dog waste is a huge pollution problem in our watershed and in many other parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. Meanwhile, our budget has forced the county to offer ad sponsorship on portable toilets. This seems like a tidy solution to both problems.

How cool. How cool.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making Way for Impending Construction

I am not a happy gardener lately.

We are preparing here for some impending construction. A crumbling patio and a deteriorating roofline have made some repairs necessary. I always knew the day would come, but who can tell a gardener to wait for years? I made the most of our open sunshine-filled yard. I gardened with abandon.

Well, now the day has come. Actually, it probably will arrive next week in the form of a small excavator. In order to protect the trees in our yard and maintain the top soil, we’re carving out a carefully planned path for the machinery and destruction. We’ll be spreading out loads of wood chips and fencing off most of the planted areas so that clay and debris doesn’t get dumped there.

We spent long hours during August and September moving plants out of harm's way and heeling them in odd places. Like any crazed plant lover, I would like to save them all. Many of them are hard to come by in retail stores, and besides, I hate waste. My husband, a wonderful cook but terrible gardener, has better sense. He reels me in from compulsive plant insanity sometimes.

No matter what it is discouraging work. Getting your garden plants to grow in a orderly but artistic way is never easy. It takes years. Now I feel like a conductor silencing the choir. Seeming like puzzled divas, some of the plants flop over in their new locations.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Trees are the Answer, Not the Problem

It is frightening to see a large tree fall.

I was walking once at Brookside Gardens on a beautiful sunny day in the middle of the autumn two years ago when I saw one go down in the forest along the horizon. It made an awful sound, and the weight of it made the ground shake around our feet for a moment. You feel a pit in your stomach when that happens. You feel small and helpless.

A lot of people recently experienced this first hand, when massive trees fell along our streets and in the parks. Two families in my own neighborhood even lived through the horrendous experience of having massive oaks fall directly on their homes. Everyone living in both homes came out safe and sound, thank God. The clean up efforts have been slow and hard and my heart goes out to them.

Yes, it is scary to watch trees fall, and also frustrating to experience power losses. I would not deny that.

But as politicians and Pepco argue over questions of management and the public grows increasingly frustrated, I’d like to reframe with a different perspective. We’ve lost a lot of trees this year, and now more than ever we need to be planting replacements.

When I hear people begin to talk as if the trees themselves are problem, I get worried. Trees are not the problem. In fact, I think that trees are the answer. Rather than see them as the cause of our human woes, we need to understand why they are here, acknowledge their importance in our landscape, and manage to somehow live our lives safely in their presence. Because without large trees we would really be in trouble.

Trees, many people know, help reduce air pollution and cool the air. The cooling occurs not only because trees provide enormous amounts of shade, but also because a mature tree actually moves water into the atmosphere.

What a lot people sometimes overlook, however, is that a forested landscape can also reduce the impact of water pollution and slow or reduce flooding in urban areas. That’s because when stormwater is able to move across tree roots, it is readily absorbed by the tree. The roots and the other living things in the soil and leaf litter act as excellent filters. They do this naturally and are quite effective at it.

Although water moves considerably slower through a forested landscape then through a cement-covered one, we’ve done a lot of work lately to fill our watershed with a huge amount of hard surface in the form of parking lots, roads and rooftops. This, in turn, has caused an increase in pollution and flooding, even when the storms aren’t unusual in intensity.

Where once there were fields and forests, there increasingly tends to be concrete and asphalt. Where once, the water moved as if it was moving through a sponge, it now moves as if poured from a smooth pitcher.

All of this is not good for the creeks, which get scoured out by the fast moving water and begin to erode. In the metaphor above, the pitcher is not clean but covered in oily and nutrient-rich pollutants which are washed into the stormdrains and then into our creeks. The abundance of things like fertilizers and pesticides from our lawns and streets can lead to anaerobic and toxic conditions. Our waterways become less inhabitable for fish, turtles, and other wildlife. The waterways, including the Chesapeake, become unhealthy.

“Dirty water kills,” Arlene Bruhn told me recently. She’s written the county council numerous times to advocate for more trees and better tree protection laws. Trees are essential to protecting our water supply, because we drink the Potomac’s water, she added.

Bruhn also reminded me that we’d had the hottest DC summer on record, meaning that we need as many shade trees as possible to help cool the city.

It makes sense, then, to protect the buffer zones of trees around creeks and plant more trees planted throughout our watershed. Does that mean we should plant trees any old place? No. What it means is that we need to be smart about where we plant and what we plant. It also means that we need to take care of what is already there.

“When you go to a garden center and see a tree in a little pot it is like looking at a little preschooler,” Mike Galvin, Deputy Director of Casey Trees told me recently. His organization works hard to get more trees planted in the city. “You need to say, what is this tree going to look like when it is mature, just like you try to think ahead to your kid’s future and how they are going to grow and get big.”

I liked Mike’s analogy. But sadly it reminded me of a story that an older friend here in Silver Spring told me last year. She recalled a time in the early 1950s, right after the houses were built in her neighborhood, when all of the people along one street bought some trees. We walked out one Saturday and planted them together, she recalled with warmth.

I appreciated the civic pride her story demonstrated, but I cringed when she pointed to the trees they had planted. Oaks, maples and gums were all there, directly under existing power lines in what is sometimes called the Right of Ways or ROW along the curblines.

Those trees then grew to be beautiful, treasured, big and dramatic. They also grew to be big problems for power line companies, well-managed or otherwise. And those trees often struggled to grow strong roots where the sidewalks existed. Those happy neighbors had definitely not thought ahead to the day when their baby trees would be mature.

In the decades since, we’ve struggled to do a bit better, with very little success. Municipal arborists now oversee ROW planting. Some developers have undergrounded lines as technology and innovation made this safer. Some who were really progressive even built developments which allowed for central green spaces full of trees. But many did not, opting instead to squeeze as many houses as possible into each space they developed. As a result we continue to lose our existing canopy at an ever increasing rate. New trees do not see to be a real priority for the county or the state.

We need to do a better job in the future. Homeowners can start by planting wisely. If you select a tree to plant, research and understand the tree before you begin. Don’t be afraid to pick a big one, but look up before you plant and see if there are powerlines there first.

If you don’t have space for the big, mature shade trees, pick one that will naturally stay small. Don’t pick a big species and try to train it to stay small. That only leads to pain for the tree and trouble for you or the next homeowner.

You can also work to maintain existing trees, both big and small. Too often, suburban folks tend to see trees as static, architectural features. Instead we need to understand that they are living, dynamic things that change and grow and sometimes begin to decline. They need regular attention in the form of professional pruning by a certified arborist.

The storms of summer have subsided for now, but I have no doubt we will face new ones again soon. Hopefully, we’ll at least get a healthy amount of rain. All those new seedlings I hope to see out there will need it.

This piece originally appeared in the Sept edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Keeping Rx Drugs out of the Waste Stream and Our Medicine Cabinets

By now pretty much everyone has heard about the mutant animals that keep showing up in our nation’s rivers. Intersexed fish have been found in the Potomac, for example. These malformed animals are especially alarming because the area’s human residents draw their drinking water from the same said river.

While there is strong evidence that some of the malformations may be due to chemicals which are washing out of our lawns and from farmlands in the form of excess weed killers, there is also a great deal of research showing that our own wastewater plays a role in contaminating the watershed. That's because the meds we take eventually make their way into the waste stream with the rest of the sewage.

For years, law enforcement officials have also been asking people to flush unused prescription drugs down the toilet, since excess or leftover prescriptions form a safety threat if left sitting around unused in medicine cabinets. This unfortunately meant that an even larger number of dangerous things were making their way downstream via the toilet.

Considering all of this, I was really pleased to see an announcement from the city of Rockville last week. On Saturday, September 25, the city will join the national Take-Back Initiative, which is aimed at preventing pill abuse and theft. Such events can help stop the rise in addiction to prescription medications, while at the same time help to decrease the amount of chemicals entering our waterways.

For more information about this event, go to or call 240-314-8922.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

And the Survey Says: More Trees for Montgomery County

Just in time for today's primaries, Conservation Montgomery has unveiled the results of their recent online survey about our county's environmental issues. It was the first act undertaken by the new fledgling group, formed by several of the county's most outspoken and passionate environmental activists. The survey, which was posted earlier this summer, was aimed at perhaps giving environmental topics a stronger voice in the elections.

In general it seems that the environment plays pretty strong in the MoCo elections. Still, results of this kind of survey are always fascinating, even if I know that a lot the time the answers are a bit skewed by the fact that the only people who actually take the time to fill out such things are the people who actually care about the environment in the first place.

It feels like asking the perverbial choir to sing. But that's okay. We need more that kind of music, so to speak.

The thing that really grabbed my attention in the release was the final line:

"81.8% of the respondents said they are supportive of funding for the county street tree program to be fully restored in the Montgomery County budget."

As someone who testified at the last round of the county's budget sessions, I say bravo everyone. I agree. We do need more trees. Please. Let those elected officials hear that music, too. So if you haven't already voted, go now.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Natural Capital, a blog for DC's urban dwelling nature lovers

Wow! I just stumbled upon this cool blog, which is chock full of field trip ideas for grown ups and kids. Really incredible, and just my kind of thing.

The Natural Capital

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Monarch Butterfly article appears on Homeschool Montgomery Blog

I'm excited to announce that Homeschool Montgomery and Homeschool Frederick, two great online magazines in the area, have published an article of mine about monarch butterflies!

The timing was impecable. As soon as I finished reading my emails this morning I looked out the window and saw two monarch caterpillars on the milkweed. We also found several large black swallowtail caterpillars when we were cleaning the vegetable garden out last night.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More Native Plant Sale Info

This weekend, as I noted earlier, will be kind of the kick off for Native Plant Sales in our region, as Irvine Nature Center up near Baltimore will have its local great event.

There are several other sales of note, however. Here's a basic round up. If you know of another feel free to let me know and I'll post it here.

Sept 10 & 11

Environmental Concern

St. Micheal's, MD


Sept 18

Greenspring Gardens VA


Sept 18

Chesapeake Ecology Center

Annapolis, MD

There are also several more listed at the MD Native Plant website.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sligo Creek's Flood waters surpass the gauge mark

Last week another tremendous storm ripped its way through our region, leaving in its wake a barrage of downed branches and flooded streets, yards and basements.

Clair Garman, who maintains the Friends of Sligo Creek website, noted that the flow rate where the gauge sits just above Maple Avenue in Takoma Park went from the normal rate of 1.2 cubic feet per second at 6:15am to 2,350 cubic feet per second at 7:30am that morning. That's actually the maximum value that can be recorded by the device. Several who visited the site later pointed out that the storm surge probably surpassed that number, but the gauge simply couldn't record the measurements.

To see the data from that morning for yourself, go to the USGS waterdata site:\at=html&period=1&site_no=01650800

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Let the Shopping Begin: Native Plant Sale Season Opens

This is likely to be the first of many such notices for the next couple of months. With fall being the best time to plant, everyone seems to be hosting plant sales.

Among them all, the one at Irvine is my favorite, though. Partly this is because I used to work there and actually at one point had to organize this event. But mostly it is because I really love the vendors that turn out at this sale. All top quality people with top quality plants and loads of great garden info to offer.

Irvine is just up the road aways, north of Baltimore. One bonus to going to this sale and seminar: you'll have a chance to see their new green building! Don't forget to bring a check book, since most vendors do not accept credit cards!

Note that if you pay to attend the Irvine Native Plant Seminar, you can get into the sale earlier.

Irvine Native Plant Sale

Saturday August 21, 2010
9am - 4pm
for more info you can also call: 443-738-9200

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Turn In Your Stinky Old Mower, Get One that Runs on Batteries

Those folks up in Baltimore are once again working to put more electric, battery-powered mowers into the hands of citizens. This Saturday they're teaming up with the Neuton company. For details go to:

Past events have been so popular that this time they've rented out an area of Camden Yards Stadium parking lot, and they're taking reservations.

I only wish we could get an event like this going in Montgomery County!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Brookside Nature Center Still Closed From Storm Damage of July 25

My friends at Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton say they hope to reopen this weekend. Their building has been closed since July 25, when a huge electrical storm made matchsticks of many trees in Wheaton Regional Park. The county was forced to cancel several summer day camp sessions at the park and many popular public programs in order to rebuild and dig out from the damage.

Brady Hartley, a MNCPPC naturalist who works at Brookside NC sent me a link to some photos she took the day after, when the storm subsided. Crews continue to work hard on the clean up, and she tells me that the roof damage has been repaired and carpenters are replacing the steps damaged by a fallen tree. They have made substantial progress since her photos were taken, which is a very good thing indeed.

Next door, Brookside Gardens also lost more than a dozen large trees. A prolonged power loss also meant that the popular Wings of Fancy exhibit was unable to open for four days. “The shut down has severely affected our visitor experience – disappointing many visitors wishing to see our fantastic butterfly exhibit and diminishing a significant source of revenue that helps us fund our garden and educational programs,” said an email sent out on the Thursday following the storm.

Ecologists call the storm that caused all this trouble a kind of “disturbance.” Ecological disturbance can come in many forms. Elephants, for example, rip up trees in Africa when they go on a rampage. Hurricanes criss-cross Florida in late summer sometimes. Fires, tornados, and even volcanoes erupting… all of these are “disturbance events” that help to transform ecosystems all over the globe.

The ecosystems which experience disturbance are full of opportunistic plants and animals. One of the most famous of these is the pines in the Western US that will only open to drop seeds once a fire has heated their cones to a certain temperature. Less famous here in the eastern Mid-Atlantic are those seeds and root stocks that wait and wait for sunshine. When a tree goes down, it opens up opportunity for them to sprout and take center stage, so to speak. Where once only shade loving plants would thrive, a tree seedling or flowering perennial suddenly makes it way out of the soil and begins to grow. Meadows open up and the cycle of forest succession turns around again. Where once it was dark cool shade, suddenly warm open sunshine provides nectar rich plants that butterflies and bees will not doubt soon enjoy. The next generation of trees reach out for the sunshine, too, and begin to take strong root.

To everything, turn, turn, turn there is a season, turn, turn turn…

But honestly, when you live in an urban area, though, tree losses due to storms are hard to witness, and no amount of soothing harmonies from the sixties seem to help ease the ache of watching a particularly lovely oak, hickory or maple that has been around for fifty years or more fall in a mere matter of moments.

If your yard only measures a few feet across and you spend a lot of time in the local park walking under the trees, you know them all like friends. The tree where the trail turned in an elbow angle, the hollow place 15 feet up where the flying squirrels raised their young, the hickory that filled a whole spot of the park with butter yellow leaves each October…. Watching them fall to the ground is upsetting. A heightened awareness of the fact that the forest is dynamic, ever-changing and on an agenda stretching beyond our lifetimes is a bit unsettling.

Because both Brookside and Wheaton Regional are both placed square in the middle of urban development, they provide respite for both animals eager to find habitat and humans anxious to find refreshment for the mind, soul and body. Their trees make life here a bit easier, a bit greener, a bit cleaner and a bit more bearable. Losing so many trees at once is not really something we want to happen on a frequent basis.

And while I have no doubt that interesting things will come up in the new pockets of sunshine, I also worry about the already tight budgets of our parks. There are no new pockets of revenue out there, ready to sprout. One can only hope for the best and advocate for the future of these two important community assets.

And I suppose, keep planting trees wherever and whenever possible.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Garden Coaching website Is Up! Yay!

I'm really excited to announce that my new garden coaching website is finally up and running, thanks to the help of Dan Kulpinski.

Dan, who is a fellow science writer, website designer and environmentalist, did an awesome job on the design. He also has his own kicking site, Greenlist DC, which is a great resource for all things environmental in the metro area.

Thanks Dan, for the great work!

African Blue Basil Performs

B. emailed his confession: “My garden looks terrible – too hot to go out and work!”

I had to agree, it is too hot, and truth be told my own home garden looks terrible for the same reason. With the thermometer poking out over the 105 degree mark on the back fence all week, I have been loathe to even try anything out there other than picking squash each morning after breakfast.

Today, though, I tried to go out and do a brief moment of hand to hand combat with the crab grass that had sprung up near the AC unit. What had been a few tiny sprouts last week was now threatening to clog the vents of cooling fan. Still, I kept thinking of the phrase mad dogs and Englishmen… ten minutes in blistering heat and I thought for sure I’d faint. And the bits of tenacious crab grass which refused to be pulled out easily seemed to be waving somewhat smugly in the hot breeze as I retreated towards the back door.

On the way in, however, my attention was captured by the African blue basil. Right now, with the heat and humidity so awful that the going out the back door feels like walking into the oven, that basil looks resplendent. The purple bracts of flowers reach in all directions, and the bees seem to find its nectar irresistible. As I stood watching in the cicada-sizzled heat I counted more than fifteen on the plant in my daughter’s garden.

Along the side in my own herb row, the same species was so lovely I just had to stop on my way inside and pull my hand along the stem, just of the pleasure of the scent that it released into my palm.

Nothing smells as summer-ish as basil, but African blue is new to us this year. My daughter picked it out at the garden center because she liked the pretty, delicate coloring on the leaves. I’m glad for her sense of planting adventure; I probably would’ve gone on planting Sweet Genovese for the rest of my life and would have never known the pleasures of this lovely pollinator-attracting form.

The taste of this basil form is a bit tangier and spicier than the Italian forms of the same herb, but not so much that it becomes overpowering. We’ve made three rounds of pesto so far this month, and two of them included the African Blue in the mix with Sweet Genovese. The taste is nice and stays authentic to the idea of what pesto should be; no funky harshness creeps into overpower or compete with the garlic. My husband thinks the leaves would also be pretty on top of a salad, but we have yet to try that idea in real life.

But truly, it is the bees that make this plant the most worthwhile, especially for an urban wildlife gardener, like me. The little winged creatures flit from flower to flower and then onward to our veggie plants from sunrise to sunset without ceasing. Because a single individual plant only takes up about one square foot of the garden, it would be nice in any sunny DC garden, even those without veggies or other herbs. Unlike other basil types, this one does not need constant pruning in order to stay lovely because it doesn't go to seed. Its lovely purple flowers and indigo-edged foliage are really refreshing to the eye, especially on a hot day when not much else outside is.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Doldrums of July and Witchy Fingered Plants

Every year about this same time, I become completely annoyed by my garden.

All of the flowers of early summer, which looked so lovely a couple of weeks back, have now lost color and are starting to set seed. The late summer bloomers aren’t started quite yet. Meanwhile, the heat starts cooking here in DC and the cool season lawns all go dormant and turn brown.

This is the doldrums of native plant summer for me. Things that are tall and not blooming just looking like gigantic weeds. Things that are short look a bit forlorn with out blooms.

These frustrations were heavy on my mind when my friend M. from Peru came by to chat this afternoon. Tall, she said. Very, very tall. We stared at the particular plant in question, my Night Blooming primroses. They are tall -- but not by any stretch stately. And now, as we are about to embark upon July, they really do look like weeds.

Each night at dusk they become beautiful, as their fruit scented flowers unfurl like fairy umbrellas being popped open. In the early morning, the flowers linger a while and the bumble bees are insane and drunk out there, drinking up the yellow nectar.

In the first week of June those plants are still short and blend in with the rest of the plants during the day. But here in the midday heat of July they look like used tissues, limp and shriveled and awful. The tall, branching plants are covered in seed heads which remind me of witch fingers.

Within a week, I’ll cut them down and reclaim the garden. One or two I’ll leave; because the plant is biennial it will need to seed itself in for next year. But for now, we suffer through the witchy-fingered stage and wait for a refreshing rain storm.

What is this, M. asks delicately, going around the corner to the spot where the blueberries are still producing lovely purple orbs. She is delighted to see our vegetable garden, too, below the primroses, where squash and tomatoes are taking off in glorious, gluttonous abundance and our herbs are happier than ever. I cut basil, oregano, thyme for her.

She asks me how to say the name for chamomile in English, and wonders if it is the plant that helps you nap. We talk about making tea. The heat simmers with cicada sound all around us.

Iced tea is good too, I insist with a laugh. Let’s put in some mint.

Suddenly, above us, there’s a twittering of birds in the witchy fingers. A male and female goldfinch have arrived, pretty as could be. They land and eat seeds from the primroses before flying quickly off to another part of the garden. And I am left with M. to think of all the different meanings of the word “bewitched.”

Friday, June 25, 2010

Was that a Coyote I Saw in Wheaton?

I was waiting for some friends to meet me at the head of a trail in Wheaton early this spring when I spotted what looked like a stray, light-colored german shepherd. Its long nose and downward pointing tale made me stop short. Was that a coyote? Before I could get a closer look to see if there was a collar around its neck or any other signs of domestication, the animal headed off into the deep woods and my friends arrived. We began our hike in the other direction and I was left to wonder what I had just witnessed.

A short time later I put out a journalist’s all call on several listservs around town: had anyone else seen a coyote lately? Where and when, and would they be willing to talk about it with me?

The reactions were interesting. I had expected a bit of fear, and actually wondered if I was going to cause anxiety by even asking the question. What I got instead was a buoyant enthusiasm more akin to Elvis sightings. Several people told me they thought they had seen one out their kitchen window, or while taking out the trash early one morning. Even more people sent messages back saying no, they hadn’t seen coyotes but they hoped those darned predators were out there feasting on the deer.

“Now I think people know they’re here,” Rob Gibbs told me later when I called him on the phone to talk about the topic in detail. “They aren’t shocked anymore.”

Gibbs, who serves as the Natural Resources Manager for Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) here in Montgomery County, has given several presentations on the topic for organizations such as the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch and the Friends of Sligo Creek.

As a regular part of his talks, he explains that the 35 pound coyotes which we are likely to see here in the Eastern US differ slightly from those that live out west. “As coyotes expanded their range east through Canada and the Southern US they occasionally interbred with wolves” says a M-NCPPC brochure on the topic.

Gibbs remarked that his agency wasn’t getting as many calls about coyote sightings as they used to, and also mentioned that there don’t seem to be more up county or down.

“We aren’t seeing other animals getting attacked or anything like that,” he said. “They’re sort of living in the shadows for the most part.”

Although many hope their frustrations with backyard suburban deer might be resolved by the presence of a large predator, it doesn’t seem to Gibbs or other area biologists that this will likely be the case.

“Looking at the data,” said George Timko, Assistant Deer Project Leader with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, “we don’t see any impact of coyote on deer populations.”

The reason, Timko explains, is that the animals are opportunistic, eating everything from grasshoppers to cantaloupes, and even trash. For a short time each spring, they will prey upon fawns, but not in large enough numbers to change populations.

Maryland’s Annual Deer Report for 2008-2009 notes that decreases in deer numbers in the Western part of the state are more likely due to changes in hunting rules. “The vast majority of white-tailed deer give birth to fawns within a two to four week period in May and June, which overwhelms predators like coyotes and bears. During that time there are far more fawns on the ground than can be consumed by predators.”

Carol Bannerman, the Public Affairs Officer for the Wildlife Services office of the US Department of Agriculture in Riverdale, Maryland, works for an office that keeps careful track of predator nuisance calls. Calls about coyotes increased during the 2007-2008 time period. But Bannerman noted that the following year the calls decreased significantly in the state. She cautioned against using such numbers as a way to measure coyote populations.

It could be, she hypothesized during a recent phone call, that one of those reported sightings might be from someone who saw many coyotes at one time, for example. Or it could be that people are getting more and more used to the predators and just simply aren’t calling to report their sightings as often.

There has been, she said, a rise in concern about predators on farm animals such as lambs. “The question is,” she pointed out recently, “what is the animal?” It is not always clear whether the animal which has preyed upon the farm animal is a coyote.

Gibbs and Bannerman both expressed concern for the future relationship which might develop between Eastern coyotes and humans. The danger, it seems, is what might happen if the animals begin to associate people and their houses with food. This could have a very negative impact on coyotes and people both.

For this reason, the M-NCPPC is asking everyone to avoid feeding coyotes, either intentionally or unintentionally. They urge home owners to not leave pet food bowls outside, and keep garbage in tight lidded containers. They also say that dogs should always be walked on a leash for their own safety and that cats should be kept indoors. M-NCPPC also asks residents to always supervise children when on trails.

Frankly, there are many good reasons beyond coyote management to follow those guidelines. Rats love pet food, raccoons love our trash cans, and cats prey far too often on songbirds to live outdoors. And, as Bannerman points out, the chance of mixing saliva with one of those animals increases for your pet when you don’t follow those guidelines. So putting aside coyotes, this means that the risk of accidentally transmitting diseases to your cat or dog could increase dramatically.

As far as not letting children run ahead on the trail, this is always a good idea. Toddlers can quickly pick up poisonous mushrooms, run into patches of poison ivy or encounter dangers on the trail.

I look at the toddler years as a time when kids should be having fun *learning* how to be safe in the woods at the side of their parents, not miles ahead on the trail, out of sight. That is always true, whether coyotes are out there or not. I wouldn’t let my kids under five run miles ahead in the city, either. I use the same kinds of parental common sense in both places. I doubt that anyone who loves the outdoors would say that the dangers at this point outweigh the benefits of getting outside.

And what about the coyote I might have seen in Wheaton this spring? Rob Gibbs was dubious.

“We’ve had calls about a stray dog hanging around in that area frequently,” he said.

Why do I feel kind of bummed about that?

I’d love to hear about your coyote sightings, even if they are somewhat iffy. If you think you saw a coyote out there in our area, let me know where and when the sighting occurred. (On the other hand if you’ve seen Elvis, you are on your own.)

For more information, including where to report a nuisance sighting visit:

This piece was originally published in the June 2010 issue of the Voice newspapers of Silver Spring, Takoma, and Kensington. Editorial note: the photo used in this story was NOT taken in Wheaton, Maryland by the author.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

CCLC Garden Contest Opens

Have a garden full of natives worth bragging about? The Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council has just opened this year's garden contest. Maybe you should enter.

The CCLC wants to see gardens that work towards sustainability, which of course involves way more than just planting natives. Water usage, composting, and capturing run-off all figure pretty big on their list of priorities. (See their full list of the "Eight Essential Elements of
of Conservation Landscaping"

Even if you don't enter, check out the link to the 2008 winners for some inspiration. Wow, do I love that one with the chickens.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Roadsides and Pollinators, a New Report

When a report from the Xerces Society entitled Pollinators and Roadsides landed in my inbox recently, my initial reaction was to wince. I recalled the times I've found dead butterflies in the grill of my car after long trips. Its one of those things you really hate to see. So the idea of encouraging pollinator plantings along roads just didn't intuitively strike me as a very good idea.
Upon further inspection, however, I was won over by the evidence presented in this thoughtful report. According to many who have researched the topic, the many miles of available roadside might indeed make for excellent habitat, especially in rural areas where agricultural expansion has put intense pressure on many invertebrate species.

Roadsides, when properly managed, can be havens where reduced pesticide use and abundant sunshine can provide rich food sources, particularly when plantings of native, nectar-rich flowers are used. Grasses can provide nesting spaces for ground-dwelling native bees. And the routes the roads themselves take can even provide protective corridors for some species.

The report goes into specific details on the changes needed to mowing schedules in order to make roadside plantings a reality, a detail that many municipal land managers might find the most challenging aspect of such roadside spaces. It also details the types of plantings that might best succeed.

So what about the impact of traffic? According to those who have spent time doing careful observations along many types of roadways, carefully planted and maintained areas will not necessarily increase collisions for bees and butterflies. In fact, one study in Iowa found that more butterflies were killed along roads with grass than along those with prairie plantings.

The entire report (which is short and easy to read) can be viewed on the Xerces Society's website:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Spicebush Caterpillars Arrive

Yesterday we discovered that we had a very good-sized spicebush caterpillar on our bushes.

Spicebush caterpillars depend on two sources of food as caterpillars. They like sassafras leaves, and they love (you guessed it--) spicebush leaves. They eat and eat and grow and grow. What is fascinating about them is their faux eye spots, which make the little wigglers look more like snakes than caterpillars. They also are very good at hiding inside the leaves of the plant, which tend to roll up over their bodies like a protective tent.

The butterflies which they eventually become are beautiful, with large dark wings the about the size of a tiger swallowtail.

Spicebush berries are very attactive to migrating songbirds, and the leaves are so wonderfully fragrant when crushed. Sometimes I pick a leaf while hiking in the woods and sniff it while I hike. It is like aromatherapy... the spicy scent fills my lungs and the sunshine fills my soul. The scent has thus become imprinted in my memory with happy, relaxed moments spent in the woods of the Mid-Atlantic.

As if there weren't enough other reasons to grow this plant, you can put one in your yard in full confidence that the deer won't touch it. That same fragrance in the leaves seem to make them pungent and distasteful to those ravenous creatures. And these shrubs are truly happinest in the shade, so they'll fill in the understory of your large oaks or maples easily.

The photo I managed to snap with my phone yesterday is not the best... I need to dig out my macro lenses and my dinosaur SLR from the closet now that the insect season has begun in full force. (One day I WILL save up enough cash to get the digital camera of my dreams... trouble is that everytime I have extra money I want to use it for plants instead!) In the meantime, if you want to see a really great photo of a spicebush caterpillar, visit this Birds & Blooms image.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's in Bloom: VA Sweetspire aka Sideshow Bob

“It’s a shrub that looks like Sideshow Bob, you know, from the Simpsons.” That was me speaking recently, trying to describe the appearance of the Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) in my front yard.

My description did not do it justice, but honestly that was the first thing that popped into my mind. The way the tendrils of creamy white flowers hang down makes me think of Sideshow Bob’s haircut. Only pretty.
My photo, shown left, does not do the sweetspire justice, either.

But trust me, this one is a winner.

Those flowers, which are the exact color of classic butter pecan ice cream, are magnets to early season butterflies and native bees. They are also a wonderful foil for my Jackmanii clematis, which blooms on the fence in dark purple abundance right behind the sweetspire in late May. There's a reason they call it sweet; the fragrance before a rainstorm is especially unbelievable.

Sweetspire is becoming more popular. Its resilience has prompted even the big box hardware stores like Home Depot to sell it. But I am sad when I see it used in parched, dry parking lot locations outside of shopping centers. This plant is definitely happiest when it gets a bit of extra water, which makes it great along the edges of rain gardens. Or, in wet places like the foot of the slope in my yard. At this spot, all of the rain water gathers and used to make messy puddles. It seems to suck all that excess water away quickly, and seems to enjoy a certain lush growth in this spot that the parking lot plants do not seem to share.

(Although this bush will not thrive in super dry parking lots, sweetspire will do quite well in dry lawns with average soil. In one spot in our yard it helps to mask an ugly power line. So although it will tolerate the extra water, it doesn’t *need* it. It does need adequate moisture, however, so hellishly hot parking lot just doesn’t seem like the best application.)

Sweetspire has three nice seasons of color, and is truly a four season shrub. In May, we have the already mentioned blossoms. In summer, the leaves fill in empty parts of the garden with lush green growth. In fall, those leaves turn an outrageously lovely red color before falling to the ground. When the winter’s chill comes on, the bare branches of the sweetspire turn a shiny, dark red which really stands out in the snow.

The downside of sweetspire is its tendency to sucker. The new shoots are easy to dig out and give to friends, but this shrub will easily over take your fertile urban meadow or perennial border. Again, a lawn with average to rich soil makes the ideal location; to keep the suckering in check simply mow the new shoots back and let it meet up with the grass edge.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Odwalla Plant-A-Tree Program Begins on Tuesday

The following message went happily viral on several MD listservs this week. I hope all you Marylanders out there get out the vote on Tuesday!

WHAT: On MAY 25th, Odwalla will be giving away $200,000 to plant trees in State Parks across the nation.

WHO: The Odwalla Plant a Tree Program is in its 3rd year, and in 2010 will be available to all 50 States. The program allows a person to “vote” for which state they want trees to be planted in, and each “vote” = $1 for your state parks to be used to plant trees.

HOW: You can the Odwalla Plant-A-Tree website and choose which state you want to vote for. No purchase necessary.

Just copy the above web address to your internet browser and vote.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's in Bloom: False Indigo

I realized the other day that a lot blue and purple things were blooming all at once in my garden, including lavender, catmint, sage, meadow sage, Jacob’s ladder, spiderwort and irises. I would like to say this was planned carefully by me, this show of complementary colors. But actually, the whole thing was really a serendipitous accident. I think mostly I just like cool colors, and a lot of them happen to bloom at the same time of year.

This has been an especially spectacular year for my False Indigo (Baptisia australis). It has been blooming for weeks now, and its brilliant blue blossoms have attracted the attention of a trio of red admiral butterflies that have been hanging around the last few days or so.

False indigo is a great plant for the urban DC garden. I have seen it hold up through terrible droughts, and flourish in wet rainy seasons. It is not picky about soil and will adapt to many poor, gravelly locations. Butterflies and bees both seem to like its nectar, and it needs no staking. It does not seem to have any significant pest problems in the city, nor does it fall ill from any common diseases.

Its in the pea family, which means it’s also a nitrogen fixer. Its flowers are wonderful, but later in the summer the dark black seed pods produce another season of interest. My kids always love those seeds; they have been used hundreds of times as fake money during sessions of “store” in my back yard because they seem to remind children of coins somehow. The seeds come loose once the fall arrives, and “jingle” around inside the pods, which is part of their appeal, I guess.

The spot it occupies at the silt-y edge of our aging patio would probably not host much else, and few other plants would do such a great job of deflecting and shielding the rest of the garden from my son’s soccer and baseballs, which seem destined to careen into the plants about three times an hour. With the False Indigo in place, none of the fragile plants further back in the garden get harmed. I could easily picture this plant doing really well at the edge of a busy sidewalk on a hot, sunny corner, where busy pedestrians would probably stop to admire its fantastic vivid color all through the month of May.

False indigo’s one and only fault seems to be its enormous size. My one little quart-sized plant has grown in just a few short years to resemble a good sized shrub. If I was to measure from above from the tip of one side to the tip of the other the diameter would probably be about four feet across. When planting this one, think as if you are planting an enormous blue azalea and you’ll be okay for size.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Caterpillar Hunt Scheduled for this Weekend

From the Friends of Sligo Creek:

Caterpillar Hunt
Saturday, May 22, 10am-noon
Hillwood Manor Park
(lower Sligo)
Takoma Park, MD

Bring the family for this popular outing led by insect ecologist John Lill as we look for caterpillars and other signs of insect life in lower Sligo. We'll first get introduced to caterpillar life and where to find them. Then John will distribute containers and we'll fan out into the woods to look for inchworms, cankerworms, leaf rollers, tent caterpillars, owlet moth caterpillars, and more, as well as insect egg cases, leaf galls, and cocoons. We'll return to the picnic tables to have our finds identified by John and to learn more about their lives.

(Takes place in case of light rain, but canceled in a downpour.)

In addition to moth and butterfly caterpillars, we'll also look for adult insects, cocoons, insect galls, egg masses, and egg cases.

For more information e-mail

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vespas and a Different Kind of Ivy League

I love reading through web updates from local stream stewardship groups. While the websites of big environmental organizations will tell you all kinds of important information, they rarely give you that funny, slice-of-life feeling that sometimes really motivates you to care about taking care of the earth.

Last week I got a really great, really funny update from the Friends of Rock Creek (FORCE) that made me want to get on over to their park for a bike ride or a clean up. It was full of great tidbits and links to their website and really made volunteering for their organization sound like fun.

Executive Director Beth Mullin, for example, wrote that their recent trash clean-up yielded some interesting items, including an entire car and a Vespa scooter. Which of course begs the question, who the heck rides their Vespa scooter into Rock Creek and forgets about it? (The romantic novelist trapped inside my head began drafting plotlines immediately. Picture, if you will, a scorned lover who steals his ex's scooter in a drunken rage in the middle of the night.... da da da dum...)

Other updates proved equally lively, such as the note that the staff of the British embassy had recently worked with their family members to clear a section of the park of, you guessed it, English Ivy. I loved imagining them all out there, clearing away the very thing that reminded them all of home.... then taking a break for a quick cuppa. Knowing how hard it is to get rid of the ivy, I know they deserved one!

Anyway, if you haven't ever checked out FORCE, take a look at their website. They are up to loads of good work and their updates are very fun to read as well.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Sligo Naturalist: Carpenter Bees

Standing in the park near the big wooden pirate ship, I watched as a little girl and her father were both running away from two large, noisy bees. As the girl screamed, the father tried to retain as much of his dignity as possible. “Let’s just play over here where the big old bees won’t bother us,” he said, brushing mulch off his shirt and hurriedly running away.

The dad seemed a tad embarrassed and so I pretended not to notice, although a part of me wanted to say something friendly. When it happened a second time with another parent and child, I couldn’t help myself.

“They’re just carpenter bees,” I called out from the bench with a smile. “They like the wood, they won’t sting you.”

The mom in question this time stopped and looked at me blankly.

“Really,” I continued on. “When my dad was a kid he even used to catch them and tie a piece of thread to one of their legs and walk them like a dog, or a kite,” I offered to ease her anxiety. “He liked to show off to the other kids that way. He never got stung, though.”

I was all caught up in my own story, imagining my dad as a young kid growing up many decades ago in North Carolina… when I realized suddenly that I had shared too much. Now this woman thought I was weird, and she still didn’t like the bees.

(This happens sometimes when you like insects. Facts you find fascinating really make you seem quite eccentric by many bug-hater standards. I’d like to say I’ve gotten used to it, but I still find myself in these situations quite a bit. The more I learn about insects, the more often this happens.)

A lot of people are afraid of all bees, and because carpenter bees are so big people assume they will form a terrifying swarm then sting the hell out of anyone who comes close.

But there really is not much need to fear a dundering carpenter bee. The females will sting, but only if they are actually picked up. The males can’t sting at all, and they are the ones that mostly fly at people’s faces in an aggressive manner on spring days. It is all a bluff, though, and what they really want is for you to stay away from the tunnels they have dug in the wood where the females can lay their eggs.

The big conflict arises when the bees take up residence in wooden playground sets, porches or decks. The females are simply going in and out of the tunnels, and the males try to protect them. The bees are so big and so noisy, it really alarms the kids who come to play.

The tunnels they excavate can turn solid wood flimsy if they bees aren’t removed or controlled. Unlike termites, they aren’t really eating the wood, simply digging it out. You can often tell you have an infestation because you’ll find a little puddle of saw dust below their chosen nest spot. Painting wood is the best way to deter their interest in your wooden walls and beams, but often treated wood cannot be effectively coated and will attract them anyway.

Carpenter bees are native to the US, but there seems to be some disagreement over their benefits to US gardeners. While many can be seen at my flowers all summer long, I’ve always been told that their pollination services were not so great. Because they are such a large size, they can’t access the nectar in many tubular flowers. Instead, they slit a hole in the side of the corolla and “rob” the flower without pollinating it. On the other hand, they have very strong thoracic muscles which they sometimes use near a flower, which “buzzes” the pollen out.

It might be the case that these particular bees have not been researched very much. It has only been in the last decade or so that so called “alternative” pollinators have merited much agricultural study and so it seems kind of unclear exactly how valuable these bees are to home growers. As honeybees suffer from mysterious deaths and economically devastating diseases and mites, all other bees have become more appreciated in general.

That said, a lot of the cooperative extension literature on the carpenter bees categorizes them as not particularly important for pollination. The US Forest Service website, on the other hand, classifies them as “excellent pollinators of eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and flowers.” Seems that in some ways the jury is still out on their overall pollination value, but that for some of the flatter flowers they can be beneficial.

I always try to avoid spraying pesticides in my yard, and do what I can to help the native pollinators. But I didn’t hesitate to control carpenter bees when they moved into our porch ceiling a few years ago. As with termites, I don’t mind the presence of the carpenter bees in nature or my garden and I understand the role they play in the ecosystem. I just don’t want to share my house with them. Too potentially expensive to repair the damage.

Even so, there’s something funny about carpenter bees to me, and I wouldn’t want them to entirely disappear from my garden. They aren’t exactly gentle giants, but their appearance is kind of humorous for some reason.

I understand why my dad would “walk” them when he was a kid. They are so large and odd that you can’t help but think of them as something other than insect-like, even when they are doing very typical insect things like buzzing around in the garden. I don’t think I’d ever try to walk one myself, but I wish I could’ve been there all those decades ago to watch when he did it. I would have had a good laugh.

This posting originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gaging Your Trees' Need for Water

There's a gentle rain falling outside my window right now. My rainbarrels are filling up fast, and I'm hoping the sunflower seeds that we planted over the weekend are getting really well soaked out there. The birds seem ecstatic, and are flying from branch to branch while chattering to one another.

Like the birds, I love a spring rain storm, especially after a dry week like the one we've just had. Everything looks so refreshed, and I always sleep best on the nights when there's a steady rain hitting the roof.

It is also nice for the garden and trees. Its been really dry, and I know any tree or shrub planted in the last three years or so really needs water. Remembering to water can be a problem, though, for both me and my garden clients.

Enter Casey Trees, a great organization here in DC dedicated to returning our metro area to the Tree City it used to be long ago. Over the weekend they posted a really great Facebook notice: It is dry, they warned, time to water your trees.

"Young and mature trees require 25 gallons of water - approximately 1.5 inches of rainfall - per week to grow healthy and strong. In times of little or no rainfall, and especially during the hot summer months, trees need your help in getting the recommended 25 gallons of water per week," says their notice.

Rather than just scold or warn, though, the Casey Tree people promise that if you pledge to water your trees they will send you automatic reminders when the conditions get dry in DC. Pretty cool, and you can even get a free rain gauge in the process. All you have to do is sign up on their website.

The people at Casey Trees also have a reason to be very proud this season, by the way. According to their latest press release, also posted on Facebook, the organization has planted 406 new trees at 23 tree planting events this spring through its Community Tree Planting Program. Those trees were added in all 8 Wards of DC and planted with the help of almost 700 adult and 400 children volunteers.

The organization estimates the value of the donated labor exceeds $63,000. What they don't say, but I know to be a fact, is that the value of those trees over time will far exceed that dollar amount. The amount of evapotranspiration which will cool the air of the city, the pollution reduction, the carbon sequestration and the stormwater filtration --- all the things provided by those living resources would be almost impossible to measure.

But to function and provide those services, trees need to be growing strong. Thus the importance of reminding everyone to water.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Birdwatchers poised to help with Oil Spill in the Gulf

The stories coming out of the Gulf of Florida about the BP Oil Spill are so bad that I can't bear to watch the news anymore. I find myself scanning the headlines and paragraphs about the issue in the newspaper to see if there's any improvement, before shaking my head and moving on.

I was just lucky enough to visit a fantastic and beautiful place in Florida called Sanibel Island earlier this year. I stood on the beach, staring at the turquoise waters and felt this sense of grateful, humble smallness. I searched for shells of purple, blue, pink and brown with kids.

I think a lot about that special place now. We were so over joyed to see Roseate Spoonbills, the White Pelicans, the herons. Will the magic of such spaces be ruined by the oil spill? How many birds will be lost?

I was horrified by the notion, put forth by some prominent polticians earlier this year, that drilling in the Gulf was not a risky operation at all times. I really feel that we should be investing in more sustainable energy options, instead.

In light of such hopelessness, I was heartened by an online press release from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which landed in my box late last week entitled "As Oil Spreads, Citizen-Science Network Keeps Tabs on Birds." Birders, it seems, are poised to help all along the shore.
I wish them all the best.

I also wish the damned oil would stop pouring forth.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fledgling at the Window

There’s a fledgling bird outside the window right now.
I’ve been watching it, tenuously, for about an hour. At first the poor wizened, goblin-like thing was perched in the topmost branches of my winterberry bushes. Then, somehow, it managed to fling itself a few feet forward to the empty nest box. Its face still only has little pin feathers in a fuzzy pattern around its eyes, and its legs are not yet developed enough to really hold it. It peaks around, and around, and then seems to sigh.

I’m trying very hard not to take sides in this. I am trying very hard not to become attached. Survival of the fittest and all that. Food web and all that. Nature is doing its thing out there. The mother bird, a large, loud grackle, flew at my head when I went out to quietly try to snap a picture with my camera.

Don’t worry, I thought. I’m not the one you should be looking out for, Mama Grackle. It’s that hungry hawk that’s always darting around out here. And oh, Lordy, tonight keep a look out for those greedy raccoons. They’ve nabbed two full nests of eggs in the last two weeks. First, the mourning dove was attacked and all the eggs she’d been sitting on in the bridal veil spirea were gone. Then, just last night the thief took the eggs which the tiny song sparrow had been warming on her nest outside our dining room.

But I’m not taking sides. I swear. Hawks need to eat. Raccoons need to eat. I get it.

Still, I stand at the kitchen doing dishes, wondering how the bird is and dreading that I might see the hawk descend at any minute.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What's in Bloom (despite the frost this morning): Trumpet Honeysuckle

This morning we had both ice and frost: ice on the top of my kids' wagon, and frost all around the shady areas of the park. But the trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is blooming like never before. Hundreds of little tublar flowers, red and yellow and orange... Now if the hummingbirds would just show up, it would begin to feel like spring again instead of November...

Trumpet honeysuckle is native, and great for disguising an ugly fence or ancient tree stump. Semi-evergreen leaves form the perfect blue-green contrast to the fantastic, electric blooms.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fun Family Fungus: Growing Shitakes with the Kids

It was my six-year-old daughter’s idea to grow mushrooms. We were sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by seed catalogs and gardening books, dreaming of spring. It was early March, and the weather outside was dreadfully grey and gloomy.

Her dream was to grow all of her favorite foods. She envisioned a warm summer day of harvest. I’m a gardener who wants my kids to eat right, and I wanted to indulge her fruit and veggie whims. I want to share my love of gardening, but growing things also seems to get my kids interested in eating them. The same child that eschews salad on a plate will sneak into the garden to pick lettuce leaves fresh from the dirt and munch out decadently, and brag about it to friends.

Plums? Can we grow plums? she asked.

No, I answered.

Kiwi? she asked.

No, I answered.

Apples? she asked. Olives? Grapes? Almonds?

No, no and no, I answered.

* sigh *

Despite the fact that we live on a tiny urban lot, we squeeze a lot of growing out of this place. There are raspberries and blueberries, and usually lettuces, tomatoes or peppers. We’ve got herbs and flowers. (We tried melons, but the raccoons got to them before we did.)

Still, my daughter wanted more. Putting down the catalog she stretched out flat on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, imagining feasts in her head. What about mushrooms? she asked, closing her eyes momentarily, dreamily.

YES! HEY YES! I shouted, startling her out of her reverie. WE CAN GROW MUSHROOMS!

I ran upstairs and came down waving the Cook’s Garden catalog around in the air triumphantly. We can grow mushrooms, I shouted. My husband, who had been cooking dinner in the kitchen came out with his hands still wet. Could you do some of the really expensive ones, like shitake? Wow, to have shitakes ready whenever I wanted them, he said with a grin. That would be really something.

Our excitement even spilled into the next room where my eight-year-old son, who never eats mushrooms, was sprawled out reading baseball books. I think he imagined our dank downstairs would turn into a grotto, with mushrooms hanging off the cinder block walls. That alone made the whole thing seem cool.

A flip of pages, a click of fingers on the keyboard, and we were set. Weeks later when the kit arrived, it was all pretty straightforward and easy. The box itself was carefully cut open and with the help of a plastic bag, transformed into a tiny greenhouse. No growing on the walls, as my son had imagined.

Instead, we found a little log inside our package which had been inoculated with the correct fungus for shitakes. It looked completely unappetizing at this stage, like a fake roast beef. Hesitantly, my kids dared each other to touch it.

Then, following the directions, we soaked the log in a bucket of clean water for four hours. Then the log was placed in its little greenhouse and put down in the dark, cool basement, just next to the washing machine.

About three weeks later, my husband surprised us by coming up the stairs with his hands entirely full. We were ready to make something yummy to eat!

The shitakes grow incredibly quickly and get bigger almost overnight. My kids like to go down in the dark to visit them, and sometimes give them a spritz of clean water to refresh the fungus. We find that we stare at the little log a lot and dote on its progress as we dream of future dinners.

The directions that came with the box say that once production slows down we can refresh the log by soaking it with water and a teaspoon of salt. I am wondering how long the log will last, but also well aware that we would pay several times more money for such mushrooms at a market or store.

I was also delighted to see that we are on a kind of gardener’s cutting edge with this project; the New York Times noted that many farmers’ markets are offering mushrooms which have been grown in some very urban environments in a dining article about two weeks after we’d started our effort.

I was also reflecting recently on the fact that – although I sometimes miss the days of wonder which pervaded the toddler years of childhood – I am very much enjoying the ever enlarging intellect of my children. Just a couple of years ago, the fungus project would have been unthinkable. It is very difficult indeed to tell a three year old that it is okay to eat one kind of fungus but not another. Every venture into the woods would have been harrowing, with my kids wanting to pluck mushrooms from random logs to eat.

Now, they look over fungus pictures in books and plan to make a science project out of the effort. They get it, for sure. I know they would never dare to touch a mushroom found out in the wild, much less eat it. Stories of people who have died eating incorrectly identified wild mushrooms fascinate them instead of freaking them out, and at the ages of six and eight they seem more than able to understand the difference between the things we grow intentionally and the things we find in the forest and avoid eating.

Maybe one day we’ll own a huge place and grow grapes and plums and apples. Maybe. But in the meantime, I think we’re pleased with our efforts in the here and now. Our homemade pizzas have never tasted so gourmet, and who knew a log in the basement could provide such wonderful treats?