Showing posts with label Habitat Restoration. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Habitat Restoration. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A Walk Along the Bluffs at Half Moon Bay, California

These aren't just goats. These are goats for good. As an eastcoast naturalist dropped down onto a windswept trail overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Half Moon Bay, I immediately began speculating about what goats were doing here in this parched coastal prairie. What's to eat in this land where no rain comes all summer. Days are warm, nights are cool, the sun shines, with little variation beyond that.

I'd seen goat herds munching on kudzu and other invasive plants in North Carolina, and read that they're used to clear powerline right of ways in the northeast, so it's not a stretch to guess that they are assisting in habitat restoration here along the coast south of San Francisco. Fortunately, I have a friend in the habitat restoration business in California, Bruce Berlin, who could confirm my hunches, and also identify the plants I saw them eating (photos and names below). I know Bruce through his son Kyle, who was valedictorian at Princeton University this year. Kyle's speech is a beautiful thing, special in all kinds of good ways.

But back to the subject at hand, or foot. While most of the native plants are dormant during the summer dry season, introduced species like this jointed charlock are still green, making it possible to direct the goats' appetites towards eating the nonnatives.

People help too, organized by the Coastal Land Trust, but I'm guessing the goats they hire eat more invasives than any human herd could pull out.

"Goats for good" was a resonant phrase that popped into my head, but it turns out there is a real Goats for Good--a nonprofit that is making a better world, with goats. In fact, it's tempting to expand the goodness goats could do by organizing goat herders to descend upon Washington, D.C., for a Million Goat Munch. They'll gather on the mall for inspiring speeches, then be let loose in the hallways and offices of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court, to consume all the papers filled with nonsense generated by people blinded by anti-government fervor.

It will be great, unless the goats also eat the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and whatever other useful documents still remain. Getting goats to be selective has always been a problem. Goats are most useful in highly degraded landscapes, which is probably what triggered the Million Goat Munch idea.

Though trees serve as windbreaks in the San Francisco area, historically the land was home to coastal scrub habitat that has become rare and requires work to bring back.

Habitat restoration is the means by which recovery can happen, but even this seemingly benign, uncontroversial activity has sometimes come under attack, most stridently in the San Francisco area, where lovers of the (Australian) eucalyptus have risen up in outrage when the trees get felled to help bring back the native flora. And the nonnative ice plant, shown here coating the cliff in monoculture fashion, can be attractive, particularly when in flower. It's an attractive tyranny, though, if viewed from the perspective of any other plant that might otherwise be able to grow there.

My friend Bruce, who makes his living doing habitat restoration in California, confirmed and expanded on my easterner's speculations:
"Glad you are enjoying the Coast of California.
Yes- many of the CA natives go dormant during our Summertime- though not all.
Yes- you are correct- most all of the plants you sent me are invasive non-natives that are opportunistic and problematic.
Yes- also- Goats and sheep have both been being used more and more to do weed control- and more often fire vegetation management in areas that are steep and inaccessible.
Those weedy grazing animals are also being used around ground mounted solar farms- but there they prefer the sheep, because goats have a tendency to hop up on the low- mounted Solar arrays !  
Here is the website I use to dial in on what plants historically occur there."

The Calflora website he mentioned looks to be an incredible resource for learning about and working with the plants of California.

Only one of the eight plants I photographed turned out to be native. This is typical of locations that were intensely farmed, then preserved. Weeds fill the void after farming stops. There may be some native plants mixed in, but they are likely as brown this time of year as the grass, awaiting winter rains to begin growing again.

Two of the plants--curly dock and bird's foot trefoil--are also common weeds in NJ.

Parting idea before the plant photos: Before releasing the goats into the habitat, rub native seeds into their fur so the seeds will slowly fall out and hopefully get planted "underhoof" as the goats walk the property. Or scatter native seed in the area before letting the goats in, so they will stomp them into the ground with their hooves.

Thanks to Bruce for IDs on these plants.

Bristly ox tongue

Jointed Charlock

 Curly dock

 Wild Oat

 Wild mustard

dense flowered primrose


 Birds foot trefoil

Sunday, July 09, 2017

How To Rescue a Raingarden

It's doing better now. The blue vervain has rebounded impressively. After being mowed down for most of a year, the native grasses--big bluestem, wild rye, and switchgrass--had looked like gonners, but they too have reappeared in numbers and are reaching for the sky.

Most raingardens, like many Americans, lack medical insurance. There's no money to restore their health when the weeds take over. There's money to design them, and install them, and sometimes even regulations that require they be planted. But to keep them thriving and looking good? Well, they're pretty much on their own.

If you think about it, most urban landscapes are cared for by people who know next to nothing about plants. If the medical profession were run like the landscaping business, hospitals would be manned by custodians equipped with leaf blowers and weed whippers, and anyone who came in with a medical issue would be left to fester, then eventually mowed down when they became unsightly. Under such conditions, trees can survive, and some foundation shrubs, but if you're a plant that's neither tree nor shrub nor turfgrass, life could be short.

The landscape architect who designed this raingarden, in a parking lot a few blocks from my house, likely had considerable training, and hopefully makes a decent living, but the designer is long gone and the garden will only survive if it is maintained. Whoever maintains it must know and be able to recognize, at every stage of their growth, not only the intended plants the designer was familiar with, but also the many kinds of weeds that threaten to overwhelm the intended plants. There's no time to pull every last weed, so efficient maintenance requires knowing which weeds pose a serious threat to a balanced planting, and which are benign. And by the way, all the money was spent on design and installation. Nothing's left to pay the people who determine the plantings fate and need the greatest knowledge.

I should have intervened sooner. Instead, a few years ago, having urged those responsible, to no avail, to hire either me or someone else who could give the raingarden the skilled care it needed, I watched as the intended plants got overwhelmed by a bumper crop of 7 foot high pigweed and lambsquarters. The next year, the landscape crew noticed how weedy the raingarden had become, so they mowed it all down and started treating it like a lawn. That's the classic progression: garden to weeds to lawn. The lack of plant knowledge makes most landscape care like a light switch. There are two positions: on and off. You either let it grow "natural" or mow it down. No selective intervention. Our inner gardens, which is to say our bodies, are cared for by knowledgeable people, who provide skilled medical intervention if need be. Why not a raingarden? The answer is that people matter, while saving a raingarden, like saving a livable planet, is considered optional.

Strangely, I feel lucky. Yes, I'm putting in a half hour here and there of volunteer work because of a culture's disconnect with plants, but one thing I learned from my astronomer father was to make a project more interesting by thinking of it as an experiment. How dramatically will a neglected raingarden respond to a little TLC? How little time can be invested and still get a good result?

There's such pleasure--why don't others feel this?--in rescuing a garden like this. Multiple levels of restoration happen at the same time: beauty, diversity, ecological function. And then there's the strategy, like playing bridge--using finesse to gain the best results with the cards you're dealt, dealing with multiple variables as the drama plays out. A different strategy is applied to each kind of weed. This is wild gardening, not total control. Leave the daisy fleabane with its weedy form but attractive flower. It's not doing any harm and won't take over. Take advantage of last night's rain to pull otherwise stubborn weeds out of the softened earth. Find satisfaction in the ease of undercutting a dandelion with a shovel blade. Catch mugwort or Canada thistle early, before they have a chance to spread. Feel the deeply American frontier mix of wit and muscle, mind and body. Live the wisdom of a hand-me-down phrase like "a stitch in time saves nine."

Otherwise, you end up with large swaths smothered with bindweed,

or carpeted with crown vetch. These will take something more than a clean undercutting with a shovel.

The solitary lambsquarter poses no threat at this point, and could end up in a salad.

The amaranth is already some insect's salad.

The smartweed (Polygonum) could prove aggressive, but the Japanese beetles are doing a good job of weakening its spreading tendencies. May as well leave it for now.

Velvet leaf isn't doing any harm, and will likely be eclipsed as the intended plants gain dominance.

Pilewort and

horseweeds are native weeds that grow tall and gangly, contributing to a weedy look if left in.

The catnip is staying for the meantime, though as a mint it could prove aggressive.

The Queen Anne's Lace (the same species that makes the carrots we eat) is pretty, but I've seen it take over fields in the midwest. Maybe remove it after the flowers fade.

There's no perfection here, and no certainty that each decision is the right one, but the results have been heartening, with the original plantings showing more resiliency than expected.

Next time I'm walking the dog over that way, maybe I'll remember to take pruners to trim back the redbud. Perhaps it should be called "casual insistence", this integration of garden rescue into the fabric of one's life, pulling weeds every week or two while the dog waits patiently. There are a few of us in town hard-wired to care in this way, with inner clocks that say "time to go take a look", who find this sort of casually serious and seriously casual persistence with a garden to be satisfying. Perhaps someday more people, maybe even some professional landscape crews, will discover the pleasure, and fewer raingardens will be lost to the weeds.

In the meantime, breathe in the cool air of an early summer evening, and feel like a conductor molding nature's growth force into a symphony, orchestrating the comeback of a raingarden nearly lost to the world.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Wild Gardening's Inspirations

Here's a garden for you. Let's call it an acre, plopped down in the middle of a broad expanse of ballfields at Smoyer Park. This, too, was mowed turf until last year, when Partners for Fish and Wildlife, partnering with the town of Princeton and the Friends of Herrontown Woods, converted it to a native wet meadow.

Normally, these conversions, if they can be said to be normal at all (given that the vast majority of detention basins in New Jersey are curiously barren depressions in the landscape, a sort of make-work program for mowing crews) would involve a plant-and-run approach. The turf would be killed and disked, the native grass and wildflowers scattered, followed by a couple years of wait and see.

In my experience, though, the first two years are defining, a time when attention should be paid, lest the weeds gain the upper hand. The power of aggressive, mostly nonnative weeds to invade can be seen in countless backyard gardens and utility right of ways taken over by the likes of mugwort, canada thistle, crown vetch, and a host of others. The seeding of the basin came in spotty, leaving expanses of bare dirt. What fills that void determines the botanical fate of this wet meadow. There's gardening to be done here, wild gardening, like backyard gardening but on a grander scale.

Can it be said that delinquent landscapes, like delinquent children, are saved only by a finer vision of what they might be? That vision may be weak within the child or landscape, but if it resides as well in someone who cares, as a kind of empathy, its transformative power can in time take wing. Thoughts like this bring back vague memories of a book by Eric Fromm.

(Note: retired librarian and Smoyer Park neighbor, Jan Johnson, helped me find the quote, from Fromm's book Escape From Freedom: “The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.” )
For the detention basin, that vision is fed by all the marshes and swamps and swales I've ever seen, one of which lies just down the hill from the basin.

There, sensitive fern and jewelweed flourish on seepage at the toe of the slope.

Soft rush shows off its vase-like, evergreen form. Abetted by favorable hydrology, these grow on their own. The same can be wished for the basin, that early intervention can lead to self-sufficiency. This is the philosophy of schools, but such followup with landscape plantings is considered impractical. The planting is funded. The followup is not.

Back in the basin, two legumes sprout. In the foreground is partridge pea--a delayed sprouting from the original seed mix. It stays where it's planted. In the background, crown vetch, an aggressive nonnative that would spread and grow over the intended species.

Here's another crown vetch. What a pleasure it is to be able to weed it out in this early stage, before it becomes a tangle of despair.

Here's Canada thistle, identified and removed in its early stage, before it could spread and overwhelm the intended species,

as it has in so many places in town. In this garden, for example, in the Jugtown district of Princeton, the frontyard garden got invaded by Canada thistle, and the next thing you know, the house has been entirely gutted. Cause and effect? Never underestimate the power of a weed.

Other weeds in the basin may or may not pose a threat of longterm dominance. There's the fragrant Pineappleweed, rare in Princeton and perhaps a hitchhiker in the seed mix. And a plant that makes discreet, silver green pincushion shapes, more reminiscent of a desert landscape.

Along with the weeding, seeds of local native floodplain wildflowers have been raked into the bare ground, and some softrush, sensitive fern, rose mallow hibiscus, buttonbush, and cutleaf coneflower added. Some of these were later found pulled out, perhaps by the deer, to which I responded by replanting them close to other plants that might better disguise them.

Even with the deer causing some setbacks, wild gardening at this stage is satisfying, requiring relatively little work to achieve considerable longterm effect. People passing by, out for an evening walk or headed to their plot over at the community garden nearby, stop and show an interest. Some even offer to help. The peacefulness of the park, the light work amidst leisure, the green all around and big sky above, all this is good for the soul.

Informed followup is a given in most fields of care for living things, but somehow native plantings in public spaces have been expected to fend for themselves. We'll see how this interplay of living thing and vision plays out.

Friday, May 05, 2017

A Garlic Mustard Success Story from Michigan

Back in the 1980s, while I was accumulating credits for a masters degree in water quality at the University of Michigan, I did some academic moonlighting and took an "expository writing" course taught by Alyce Depree. She had us adopt pseudonyms (mine was Snupulus Lupulus), fed us a steady diet of George Orwell, and had us write and rewrite 2-page essays. It was a wonderful, validating experience.

Last summer, heading back to Michigan to play a jazz festival, I reconnected with her. Out of the blue, she told me the inspiring story of her long but successful battle with garlic mustard--an introduced species that has displaced trilliums and other native wildflowers in the woodlands where she lives in Holland, Michigan. She later wrote up an account of her experience.

I'm posting this when just a few blooms remain, but you should still be able to find it growing along the fringes of your yard, or in a woodland nearby. Perhaps you'll be moved to action, in your yard and beyond, as Alyce was many years ago, with heartening results.

Here's her account:

Hi, Steve...You've caused quite a chuckle here this few people for so long cared about what was occurring in their woods on the west side of the state that my cousin and I spent almost as much time encouraging ourselves not to give up as we did actually picking! The tables have turned (mixed metaphor), in the spring the local churches (of which there are many) organize their congregants and Sunday school kids to go over various ground areas and parks in the Holland area...that is making quite a difference.

In my cottage area along the lake, and my cousins', we noticed sixteen years ago that our lovely banks of trillium in the woods simply no longer appeared in springtime. What we had instead was this aggressive leafy plant with cute little white blooms that grew higher and higher during the spring until, by June or so, could be four feet tall and going to almost looked like phlox, except that the blooms were single, not developed into bunches or clumps. So we did some research, and discovered what it was called and how it was edible (yuck) and that our venerated forefathers had brought it with them from England, mostly, as it would give them something green...and last and last and last. Which it does. It's a two-cycle plant; first year establishes the root, second year establishes and spreads (by "popping" out) the seeds every time wind or an animal comes in contact to move the branches. Each mature second-stage plant can have hundreds to a thousand seeds. It is generally the first plant to begin showing after winter...spreading out quite quickly with many leaves that cut off the sunlight from surrounding and still dormant plants or seeds. Additionally, the root...which resembles a skinny parsnip...exudes a poisonous substance which makes the soil unfriendly to wildflower growth in general AND also strips the protective coating off tree soil diseases can then attack the trees.

 We found that, while people can be casual about wildflowers, they aren't casual about their trees; however, they are "terribly busy." Anyway, my cousin and I decided we'd rid ourselves and the immediate area of garlic-mustard. We figured we could do a five or six property area...talked and talked with the owners but didn't really convince them, so then took on the job ourselves. After experimenting with RoundUP and discovering not even that would kill the plants, and learning from internet that the state of Wisconsin had been trying to get rid of them with no luck, we began with local college kids, paid them $12 per hour, lunch, and snacks, and then joined them ourselves, pulling and digging (you have to get the root!) for about ten days. We filled hundreds of 30-gallon black plastic bags with the ill-smelling plants, let the contents rot for a month, and then gradually put them out for garbage pickup.

 We picked and pulled the five properties for the next ten or so years..."harvest" getting less and less (the seeds last 5 years in the ground) owner gets his own grandchildren to pick their woods now...we continue to work four properties and now only get about 15 bags, max. We figure we're down to just maintenance now plus some plants from seeds borne by the winds. The past three years we have not hired anyone to help...just do it ourselves and are glad for the exercise. The trillium is back and glorious. Also a wild yellow ground lily and jack-in-the-pulpits. Amazing how sixteen years flies by....and no chemicals, too.

(Thanks to Alyce for sharing this account!)

Photo below: Garlic mustard extending into the woodland below Quarry Park in Princeton.

Friday, April 07, 2017

15 Flowering Dogwoods Rescued from Smothering Vines at Princeton Battlefield

Saving legacies is what Princeton Battlefield is all about, and one legacy we sought to save during a big workday organized by Kip Cherry were flowering dogwoods planted for the nation's bicentennial in 1976. I do most of my habitat restoration work at Herrontown Woods in eastern Princeton, but have been visiting Princeton Battlefield periodically to help tame bamboo monsters, care for native chestnuts and prevent vines from completely smothering the dogwoods. Having ten able and spirited volunteers at this year's Battlefield Society's Clean-up Day made real progress possible.

Kip Cherry (front left) began the afternoon with a moving description of the great battle that took place there in 1777.

Ten of us then headed across Mercer Street to liberate the flowering dogwood trees lining the edge of the field. The dogwood flower buds, poking through the drapery of vine growth, provided inspiration, with their promise of beauty in the spring, and nutritious berries for the birds in fall.

This was the curtain of vines we cleared away with loppers and pruning shears, while dodging poison ivy and the thorns of multiflora rose.

Here's a "before" shot, showing porcelainberry draped over three dogwood trees. (photo from last fall in a previous post)

And here's the "after" shot, taken from underneath the rescued dogwoods. We worked to create an open space between ground and lower limbs so the vines cannot easily climb back up.

Thanks to our brave and skillful crew, who came from near and far to liberate fifteen dogwoods over the course of three hours.

I liked this pose when the work was done. As always happens on workdays, there were good conversations to go along with the physical work. I gained some Veblen House-relevant information about Long Island and Connecticut, and heard some positive testimonials about electric cars like the Chevy Volt, which combines 60 mile battery range with a backup gas engine. One owner said she'd spent only $9 on gas since last summer, and hadn't noticed any rise in her electricity bill from charging up the car at home. While restoring some history, it was good to hear the future in the form of electric cars might be at hand as well. The same thinking goes into saving legacies, whether they be dogwood trees or the world's climate.

Senator Kip Bateman and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora dropped by to help out.

Here is Kip Cherry's summary of the day:
"Our Clean-up Day was a big success! The sun peaked out, and from all reports everyone had a great time, the Park looked a lot nicer when we were done, the CWT t-shirts were well received, and the Sierra Club came through. Senator Bateman and Assemblyman Gusciora both arrived and put their shoulders to the wheel. A large group of kindergartners picked up fallen sticks, while others removed invasive porcelainberry vines from dogwoods, cut down bamboo, and cleared encroachment along the pathway to the Quaker Meeting House. Special thanks to Kim Gallagher and Steve Hiltner for leading teams, and to Gary Nelson and Randy Riccardo for their hard work!"

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Keeping the Towpath Nature Loop Keeping On

After the improbably hot days of February, the slow fading of March snows back into the ground in lingering cold are reminiscent of childhood winters in Wisconsin. Following the snowbound months came a long, slow thaw, a gradual yielding of winter's icy grip that quickened my step and made me reach for my golf bag, to get in early practice on Yerkes Observatory grounds. Often, the ball's trajectory sent it into a lingering snowdrift. I would extrapolate from the entry hole where the ball might be hiding its white in white.

From the joy of that slow thawing may have grown a pleasure in incrementalism, which has informed much of the habitat restoration work I do in town. The nature loop that branches off the towpath along the DR Canal near Harrison St. has been getting some incremental upkeep lately. Alerted by the DR Canal State Park ranger that they would soon do the annual mowing of the field the trail winds through, I went out and marked the elderberry bushes with bright pink tape. The idea is that the mowing crew will steer clear of the marks, allowing the elderberries to bloom and have berries. As the photo shows, though, the invasive porcelainberry and Japanese honeysuckle vines are using some of the elderberries to climb up and grab the sunlight.

How, then, to let elderberries be elderberries, rather than mere superstructure for an overly rampant nonnative vine? The rampancy of the vine, as with many introduced species, comes from the lack of a countervailing force of consumption to curb their growth. In other words, nothing eats them. Incrementalism means first insuring the elderberries don't get mowed to the ground, then contemplating the next step to take. It might seem a bother to clamber through thorny brambles to mark elderberry bushes only to have them mobbed by vines, but growing up close to the land can make that steady spring thaw of optimism run deep in your blood.

The nature trail loop is a nice wide trail, between the canal and Lake Carnegie, maintained by the NJ state park staff.