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?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Birds, Mammals and Wildflowers on Call

Cornell University has just created and released something that seems like a very cool idea.

You can now get an app which will give you access to a compilation of 310 songs and calls for 57 species of warblers. The sounds are from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library and are part of the largest archive of wildlife sounds in the world.

Amazingly, the last time these were released in one collection they came in LP format in 1985.

I'm not really a huge birder. I don't keep a life list or anything. But I love to know what I'm seeing and hearing when I'm out hiking, and one of the biggest obstacles to my ability to ID things has always been an incredibly awful musical memory. My theory is that the same gene which causes me to not remember the tune to my favorite songs keeps me from knowing the warblers really well.

This new app is just the ticket for me. Now I can tell which bird is making that lovely sound up in the trees.

I think while I'm downloading that one I'll also go for some of the guide apps put out by Audubon. Although they are a bit pricer than many common phone apps, they are still cheaper than some of the books.

I also like the idea that I can lighten my backpack. I used to always have to choose only one guide to bring along on each hike and even that was bulky and impractical on hot days. But with these on my phone I can have birds, flowers and mammals all at my fingertips.

Happy Earth Day, Everyone. Enjoy the Pink Candy Effect

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. But you probably already knew that.

I am a bit ambivilent about the whole thing, to tell you the truth.

Earlier this week I did watch a really fascinating PBS show about it called Earth Days. That was pretty cool. And of course we've been out there picking up litter, and all that. My kids are onboard. They know it matters.

But I sometimes I find myself loathe to join in the celebration at this time of year.

As a communications professional, I totally understand the desire to make an "event" out of taking care of the earth. It is a "happening," a thing that might net you coverage and raise awareness. It is a way to build momentum.

There have been times, however, when I've thought that the once a year celebration might have the opposite effect. That is to say -- perhaps people sometimes feel they can check of their concern for the earth as a one-day-only thing. Like Valentines Day, it may be that people feel as if they don't have to take their sweetie pie out the rest of the year because they bought a really big bouquet of flowers on Feb 14. Done. 'Nuff said.

This same kind of hunch prompted one of the original organizers to long ago make the bold statement that "every day is earth day."

But this morning as I took my dog on her usual walk and made my way through the dense, unexpected April fog that blanketed our park, I realized I was not feeling cynical about the whole thing. Not one bit.

Just like Valentines Day, I've reached a point in life where I appreciate the excuse to set aside some time to contemplate the topic, and in the same way I appreciate the pretty pink candies people give out in the middle of February's gloom, I appreciate the way that people who never talk about the environment at all seem eager to wish me a "Happy Earth Day" as they make plans to join in a trash clean up or pull invasive weeds. Like the pink candies, they are a bright spot in the gloom which can sometimes pervade environmental awareness.

So with that thought in mind, I wish all of you a Happy Earth Day. (And hey, if you eat any pink candies, just be sure to recycle the package, okay?)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Native Plant Sale in York, PA

This one's a bit far afield, but sometimes those roadtrips can be fun:

Spring Native Plant Fest & Sale

Saturday, May 15, 2010

9am till 2pm

Includes vendors such as Doyle Farm, Heartwood, Kollar, Natural Landscapes and Spring Haven Nurseries.

Also, Catherine Zimmerman, author of Urban & Suburban Meadows will be there. Sounds pretty cool.

Parkfairfax Native Plant Sale

Coming up this weekend: the Parkfairfax Native Plant Sale. I blogged about it last year, too.

Worth the drive, but REALLY far from Montgomery County.


April 24, 2010

9am -2pm

3601 Valley Drive Parking Lot

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ed is famous (again) for his good green works

Once again, my good pal Ed Murtagh is famous for his good green works.

In an awesome Washington Post article earlier this week, Ed was featured in the lead of the article.

Very cool!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Testimony about the Tree Budget

Last week, Montgomery county council members sat through four straight days of testimony about the proposed budget for the coming year. Mostly, the focus was upon the nightmarish cuts we are all about to experience.

We are not a county used to cuts. We are used to words like excellence, expenditures, and growth.

As soon as I heard about the budget hearings, I knew I had to testify about the tree budget.

While I sat there with my pal Ed and waited my turn to talk, I realized one thing. It would be very tiring to be a council member. Funny, but most of the time they actually seemed to really be paying attention to what was being discussed. I'm not sure why that exactly surprised me.
But picture it: I was third to the last on the list of four days worth of testimony. *I* got tired listening. I had only been there a couple of hours. Kudos to the council members for hanging in there. Its not like this is what they had in mind when they ran for council, I'm sure.
The hours were tiring, boring and sometimes really quite heart-wrenching. There are a lot of great programs being cut.

In light of all that, I still figured I had to go. I had to speak. Feeling very much like a lorax, I had to go and say something. The tree budget is tiny. Zeroing it out at this point won't gain much for the greater budget but will cost us all in the long run. We'll pay for increased stormwater problems. We'll pay for higher energy bills, and we'll pay with higher asthma rates.
My biggest concern is that the wealthy neighborhoods will continue to get trees with private funds while the neighborhoods already suffering from urban blight will nothing.

If I had to choose some areas to cut, I'd rather see some of the extraneous top executives that sit at the highest offices over at MC Public Schools get cut than see the trees go. (MCPS seems mighty top heavy to me. Mighty top heavy. What is the deal with that PR and Communication office that costs us millions, by the way? Do they really need that much money to keep the spin going? If the schools are doing well, shouldn't that simply be enough? Why do we have to have a multi-million dollar office to promote it? But alas, this is no education blog... and the Parents' Coalition does a much better job of ranting about that than I ever could...)

Beyond the tree planting budget there have been rumors floating around that the street tree trimming budget might also get -- well -- trimmed. I'm not sure about the truth of that, but I would really urge the council to reconsider that if it should come about.... putting off maintenance is really a risky idea. Dangerous and potentially expensive. But I detail that below.

Here's the testimony I read to the council on April 8. (And thanks once again to Ed for sitting through all that with me. )


Good evening, members of the council. I’m a resident of Silver Spring and tonight I’ve come to ask that you fully fund the street tree planting budget for FY 2011 to at least the level which was originally proposed for FY 2010: that is, $247,000. I’m also asking that you please make every effort to avoid cutting funds to tree maintenance programs throughout the county.

Trees play an integral role in our county’s efforts to fight environmental ills.

They can:

- beautify our neighborhoods and raise property values
- cleanse the air of pollution
- lower our energy costs, and
- provide habitat for wildlife.

But at a time when our county and state are facing tough stormwater problems, trees can also provide an inexpensive solution to creek flooding by soaking up hundreds of gallons of rain water. According to some recent federal studies, a medium-sized tree can filter as much as 2,380 gallons of water a year. Controlling stormwater has become a priority of our entire state as we all seek ways to restore health to our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake.

Cutting the street tree program will place a particularly hard burden upon the older, more urbanized neighborhoods of our county. In those areas, mature street trees are dying in large numbers and need to be replaced. Legally, homeowners cannot plant trees in a Right-of-Way. Only state and county arborists can do that. Without funding, those replacements will not be made.

In the past, the street tree program also offered a way that homeowners of modest means could contribute to neighborhood beautification and environmental protection efforts. And in some dense, urban places, the Right-of-Ways where street trees are planted offer some of the only space where a tree can be placed. Without the street tree planting program, some of those same areas will become urban heat islands.

The budget for the street tree program was already very lean before the most recent cuts took place. Thousands of trees along our streets demand care. It seems that the proposed cuts may eliminate or substantially reduce pruning operations. This would be both wasteful and dangerous. Wasteful, because without regular attention and pruning, small problems on existing trees can turn into large problems very quickly. By investing in the health of these trees now, we will avoid more expensive problems in the future.

The money needed for the street tree program and arboriculture programs through out the county is relatively small, but can have a big long-term impact. Our governor, Martin O’Malley, has implored us all to plant a million trees this year. I hope that we in Montgomery County will do our part to fund the public side of this challenge. Trees are an important investment for our county, and benefit us all. Investing in the health and safety of trees is a civic duty which we should not ignore.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

More on Stormwater... I can't let it go...

I can't seem to let the stormwater thing go. I know it is time to move on, but I'm still incredibly irked that the stormwater story in Annapolis this spring ended the way it did.

A few days ago I explained why I was so passionate about a topic that seems pretty boring and unrelated to gardening and wildlife. I was sent an email that was pretty interesting last week regarding the same topic. That email, which I partly reprint below with permission, explains why some other people are so passionate about it, too.

For you to see, I forward this from the AWCAC:

"Testimony on Emergency Stormwater Regulations

Position: Against

The Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee exists to provide citizen input into the multi-jurisdictional effort to restore the Anacostia River. This effort is known as the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership ( and is coordinated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

On April 19th, the Partnership is scheduled to release an Anacostia Restoration Plan which includes numerous policy recommendations which are necessary to be followed for the Anacostia River to be restored. The Plan directly states, “The Maryland Stormwater Act of 2007 focus on using smaller ESD practices, which in many cases are practicable as a means of retrofitting to tight spaces, is very significant for the Anacostia.”

Uncontrolled stormwater from Maryland has done massive damage to Anacostia Watershed streams, resulting in spiralling costs to the State. Unless the Maryland begins strict control of stormwater volume as soon as possible, the damage and costs to the State will continue to increase. These emergency regulations will delay efforts to restore the Anacostia. "

Native Plant Sale in Takoma Park this Saturday

I've been told that there will be a native plant sale this weekend in Takoma Park.

What: Native Plant Sale When: April 17, 2010

Rain Date: April 24, 2010

Where: 7125 Willow Ave. Takoma Park, MD 20912

Time: 1 pm - 4 pm

Sounds fun!

A Real Loss for the Bay: Stormwater Emergency Regs Become a Reality

So the "emergency" stormwater regs went through. Ugh. So much for fighting the Holmes Bill.

Here's the news wrap up:

WYPR in Baltimore gave this summary

The Baltimore Sun

A few friends who follow my blog via Facebook have asked why someone that gardens cares so passionately about stormwater.

I'd answer this way: for years and years people like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the state of Maryland and the EPA have been asking us to please garden responsibly. I fully embraced the notion of conservation gardening from the start. We should all try to go organic, plant trees, remove invasives exotics, plant native plants and reduce our yard's run-off.

But why, I wonder, are we constantly holding homeowners to this high standard but letting developers get away with continued pollution?

There is nothing more frustrating than spending your own, cold, hard, cash AND TIME to implement things like raingardens and rainbarrels in your own yard only to walk down the street and see that some major new building is do far more harm in run-off than your little garden could possibly counterbalance.
It is like pushing a rock up hill. Repeatedly.

And it is unfair, I think, to ask homeowners and farmers to bear the brunt of these burdens while developers get away with doing far, far less. Especially since development in the state of Maryland has sprawled out across our watershed exponentially for decades.

I watch the creeks near my urban home get blasted after each storm and see how that can set off a chain of pollution events and ruin the potential recovery of that the Bay. I can't help that collectively we are doing too little, too late for the Chesapeake.

That's why.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Vernal Pool Parties

I was at a professional meeting in January when someone asked this very interesting question: If you had one chance to show someone what you treasure about the Chesapeake watershed, where would you take them?

Here was my answer:

I’d take my kids out on a warm evening in early April, when the woods come alive with panoramic activity. Get your boots, kids. Tonight we will go exploring.

And as the sun began to make its descent, we’d drive off to find a great spot near a creek. Maybe a spot with wet, muddy areas full of frogs who are laying eggs. A spot where some salamanders might linger in the warm night air. A spot where we can shine a flash light and listen for owls once it turns dark, or hopefully be exposed to the deafening chorus that spring peepers like to make when they start mating.

That’s the part of the Chesapeake I treasure the most: the streams and their valleys.

Sure, I love the harbor fronts of Annapolis and Baltimore. I like eating crabs, and I could spend endless days exploring the Eastern Shore. But despite growing up in Maryland, I’ve never been sailing out there myself. Mostly I’ve only watched the boats cross under the Bay Bridge on my way to the beach.

I was a suburban kid, who grew up in a bland little housing development that bordered the woods and fields of the uplands. We were not a sailing family. Our piece of the watershed, the place where we first shook hands with the Bay, was up in the creeks.

Those little muddy waterways were the most interesting thing that rather generic, cookie-cutter housing development had to offer. I remember finding crayfish and hunting for cool rocks. I remember sledding down hill and falling in and laughing till I cried. I remember the sound of the water burbling. That was where I wanted to be all the time: at the creek which flowed behind my friends' houses.

There used to be a lot more spots like that around. It is hard now to find places to enjoy the creeks the way that I enjoyed them back then. Sadly, I also know just how bad the water quality in many of the most accessible creeks has become. The numbers on fecal contamination aren’t good, and there are more toxins in some creeks than I’d like to consider. (The water quality wasn’t even great when I was a kid. One of my earliest “environmental awareness moments” was being furious that someone had poured something mysterious and bright green… maybe antifreeze?... into our neighborhood creek one afternoon.)

But some sweet spots still do exist, and as the spring unfurls like a warm lovely banner you can get out there and be a part of it all. You go in winter-weary, and you come out having experienced the wonderment of warmth as it wakes up the earth. With any luck you are muddy, a bit cold and smiling. You are invigorated and strangely humbled.

There is no better time than April for this kind of adventure. Even if you haven’t ever explored this watershed’s woods ever before, I guarantee you will find something incredible.

I can’t wait to get out there, myself because I’m hoping that all of the snow we got this winter will add up to some great vernal pool activity this spring.

Vernal pools are those little pockets of water that pop up only in the spring time. They fill up with water and become temporary wildlife hotspots, but by mid summer they dry out and disappear. Because they are not permanent they do not contain fish, making them ideal breeding areas for several amazing kinds of amphibians. The frogs and toads lay eggs without fear of becoming a fish’s dinner.

Rock Creek and the Northwest Branch both have incredible pockets of biodiversity in and around their deeper stream valleys, farther away from urban encroachment. Look carefully as you hike and you can find some wonderful vernal pools to view during the soggy spring season. Peer over the edge of the water in those little pond-like areas and you just might see clumps of frog eggs or even tadpoles swimming around. You might find a salamander or two, as well. On a really lucky day you might also bump into a box turtle along the trail, or hear the flute like call of a migrating warbler making its way north.

If you have trouble locating vernal pool areas on your own, you can sign up for a walk with the MNCPPC naturalists who work at any one of the local nature centers. Some of their walks specifically feature vernal pool explorations. Farther south in DC, the National Park Service also offers a full spectrum of interesting hikes in the lower regions of the park. And even farther afield, the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian offers some incredible opportunities to learn about vernal pools and their residents this spring.

Many of the same areas of these parks that host vernal pools are also home to colorful native wildflowers. In April, you can find an amazing array of plants which are only here in spring. Known as ephemerals, these plants emerge quickly at the end of winter, bloom and sometimes set seed in the matter of just a few short weeks. Then they wither and disappear, going completely underground again until the next year. These include Spring Beauties, Virginia Bluebells, Trout Lilies and Mayapples.

Again, the same parks listed above offer ample opportunities to join naturalists for wildflower walks. The non-profit Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase also offers some fantastic walks, including a few that are led by Cris Fleming, the author of a well-loved local guidebook, Finding Wildflowers in the Washington-Baltimore Area.

(If you find that all of the naturalist-led field trips are full you can always buy Cris’ excellent book and head out on your own this spring. She really gives you detailed information and makes it easy.)

No matter whether you go out -- in the daytime or the evening, whether alone or with a naturalist -- please remember to respect the specialness of the vernal pools and wildflowers. That corny, old expression that has long been posted at park entrances still rings true: take only memories, leave only footprints. Don’t pick the flowers or harass the animals. Don’t try to take any home any frogs as science experiments or turtles as potential pets. All of those actions can cause real and lasting damage and ruin the park for everyone else --including the animals. And neither the animals or the wildflowers will give you any pleasure once they’ve died at your house.

Instead, consider yourself a guest at their posh woodland party and enjoy their insanely good music from a polite distance. That party only lasts for a few short weeks and is worth attending.
(This posting originally appeared in the April 2010 edition of the Voice newspapers, which prints my column entitled "The Sligo Naturalist" each month.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Save the Forest for the Trees: Join the Garlic Mustard Challenge

Save the forest for the trees, help pull the invasive exotic plant known as Garlic Mustard out of the parks April 18-25 during Montgomery County's Garlic Mustard Challenge.

Garlic mustard looks pretty, smells bad, and can inhibit the growth of many of the beneficial fungi that live in the root zones of healthy, mature trees. The plant can carpet the forest floor in early April, outcompeting other plants, including many native wildflowers. The native wildflowers are beautiful, but also provide many important food sources to native animals that co-evolved with the flowers for thousands of years.

Pulling is easy, and if done correctly can eradicate, at least temporarily, the plant from the forest.

For more info on how to participate in Montgomery County's event, go to:
Photo courtesy of Lynette Scaffidi