Naturalist’s Notebook: The Missing Sponge

By Andrew Kirkpatrick, Manager of Land Stewardship

If you take a walk along Smith Run, coming up Ravine Loop below Penn’s Native Acres, the hillsides where the beeches, oaks and maples grow show signs of distress.  The structural roots of the trees are visible at the soil line when they should be tucked away cozily wrapped in the warm blanket of leaf litter and organic rich soil.  Instead, because of exotic invasive earthworms, which can be observed by scraping away the thin layer of leaves on the ground, the roots are exposed and left to fend for themselves in all of the elements; freezing winter winds, driving rains, and blazing sun.  If you look up, the impact on the trees is apparent.  Bare branches and diminished canopy reveal their stresses.  The trees are dying.  

In healthy, undisturbed forest soil, we would discover a universe of fungus, microorganisms, bacteria, and insects thriving. All of these elements facilitate the healthy growth and development of plant roots. The vast root mat matrix of the organic horizon (the top layer of healthy soil) in the forest acts like a gigantic sponge that collects water when it rains and holds it in storage for trees to use in the drier months of the year.  

However, in highly disturbed areas like the Schuylkill Center, the organic horizon of the soil is absent. Soil horizon is a technical term for the classification of the cake-like layers of soil.  The organic horizon is missing here because hundreds of years of agricultural use have long since removed the original rich soil and left mostly thin, mineral soil at the top of the profile.  In fact, parts of our property were in farmland almost until the Center’s founding in 1965. The forest has not been able to redevelop the O horizon as it might have otherwise, largely due to the activity of invasive earthworms.

photo by Julia Aguilar

photo by Julia Aguilar

Invasive earthworm and castings

Invasive earthworm and castings

The invasive earthworms are much larger than our native ones, tunnel deeper into the earth and voraciously devour the leaf litter that would accumulate annually in the fall, break down over time to replenish the soil, and rebuild the O horizon.  So what is left is a loose accumulation of worm castings on a destabilized base that washes away into our streams every time it rains, carrying many nutrients with them.  And when the dry times of the year arrive, the trees have no reserve of nutrients to draw upon.  Instead our forest is stressed and vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that it would otherwise be able to fend off.  

Planting Fox Glen_5-20-17 (10)20170516_115508We can address these problems by improving the soil and providing the roots of trees with a healthy environment to grow and develop.  In our Fox Glen restoration site, as we planted new trees we covered the ground around them with wood chips to help the roots retain moisture.  The wood chips will break down over time and add to the organic content of the soil.  

If we want our forest at the Schuylkill Center to survive climate change and the increasing stresses that come from an urban environment, we must help it to be as resilient as possible by replacing the missing sponge.

About the author

photo by Heather FowlerAndrew has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and ecological restoration from Temple University.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2005-2006.

Photo by Heather Fowler, WHYY

An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

Steve Goin and Andrew Kirkpatrick remove landscaping fabric

Introducing Fox Glen: a new chapter in land stewardship

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Where our Grey Fox Loop and Wind Dance Pond Trail meet, just uphill from our beloved 19th-century springhouse and its pond, is a section of our forest that has been overrun with invasive plants. But on May 20 we’re turning it around, planting over 200 new trees and shrubs to stabilize the land and reforest the area. We’re calling it Fox Glen.

I hope you’ll transform it with us. Continue reading

Children playing in field

My Path to Nature Education

By Nicole Brin, Sycamore Classroom Lead Teacher

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Pennsylvania Land Trust Association for their series on conserved lands, like the Schuylkill Center, in communities around the state.

Rows of stuffed animals- bears, bunnies, dogs, lions- all lined up in the grass of my suburban Connecticut backyard as they got ready to start their school day. Their teacher, eight-year-old me, prepared to teach them all the things that I already knew in the wisdom of my few childhood years. I made attendance sheets, created lesson, and planned field trips to the garden behind our shed. I knew that one day I’d be a real teacher, sharing all the cool things I loved about life. Continue reading

Image 3 Late June 2015 (1)

Time + Art, Part 2: As an Anniversary Approaches

By Catalina Lassen, Art + PR Intern

As spring bounds in again, another year has come and gone, and almost a year has passed since our LandLab artists in residence installed a variety of exciting environmentally minded artworks last April. This cycle of a year signifies not only an anniversary, but is also a reminder of the changes that have occurred during the time in-between. As far as the art of LandLab goes, the works have been activated by nature, shifting as the seasons do. Back in November we took a look at the progress of one of these installations, but it’s now time to turn our attention to Interwoven, a project created by artist-botanist duo WE THE WEEDS. Woven from invasive vines, this installation is an exploration of invasive plants, examining the history, perception, and impact of such species on local environments, while working to remove and recycle this flora. As the year has passed, there has been exciting movement among Interwoven, as the natural cycles of the earth activate the framework of this large sculptural work.

(Before Photographs): If you’re interested in more discussion of this project, or of the ecological and cultural roles of native and non-native plants, please join us on April 14th for a Botanical Cocktail Hour with artist Zya S. Levy.

 

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Melissa’s native plant picks – what to plant this year

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Every garden reflects the individuality and personal taste of its gardener.  Reasons for choosing specific plants can range from aesthetic values like color, texture, and shape to practical considerations such as space limitations, attracting specific pollinators, or even what was available at the local garden center.  Some gardeners prefer well-behaved plants, and maintain exceptional order while others prefer a more natural look, or even, shall we say, slightly unruly.  And there will be no judgments here!  There is a place for all these styles to coexist, in the name of happiness, beauty, biodiversity, and ecosystem health.

This year, for Schuylkill Center members, we’re offering pre-orders for our Spring Native Plant Sale, so you can start planning your garden now and pick up your plants in the spring.  For our Plant Sale Pre-Order, we’ve put together a list of our favorite native plants, with numerous options for any style of garden.

My gardening theory is that the least amount of mulch you can see, the better.  Accordingly, we’ve included a couple groundcovers to replace that non-native vinca and pachysandra.  Tiarella cordifolia ‘Running Tapestry’, foamflower, is a vigorous runner, spreading quickly to form a mat of heart shaped, mottled leaves.  It sends up creamy white flowering spikes throughout the spring and provides ample cover for wildlife.  If you have deeper shade, partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), is one to consider.  Partridgeberry is understated and delicate with small evergreen leaves, and bright red berries that persist through winter.

In the shrub layer, sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a great option.  With its 2-4’ stature, sweet fern is the right height for planting along the foundation or incorporating with other perennial wildflowers.  The fern-like leaves are aromatic when crushed, and perhaps more importantly, deer resistant.

Not many of us have room for large canopy trees in our yards.  Instead, smaller understory trees can fill the void.  Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is the generalist among native understory trees, serving a broad range of ecological functions.  It grows under a wide variety of sun, moisture, and soil conditions, even adapting well to clay soils.  In late summer, the berries provide food for all types of wildlife including birds, and both large and small mammals, not to mention acting as larval host for a variety of Lepidoptera.

Take a look at this list and order form for the Plant Sale Pre-Order and feel free to inquire with any further questions.  Plant Sale Pre-Orders will be accepted through Friday, April 1.  In addition to these selections, our full offering of native plants will be available at our annual Spring Native Plant Sale during the last weekend in April.

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Judy Wicks

Dear 2040: From Judy Wicks

By Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Cafe

Dear citizens of the world in 2040,

If you are able to read this letter, I am relieved.  I have been worrying about you  – you the children of our children’s children – because today’s humans, your ancestors, are endangering your future by destroying the natural systems your lives will depend upon.  When I watch how other species care for their young – from gorillas to penguins to whales – I see how willing they are to give their very lives to secure a safe future for the next generation. Yet we humans, at least affluent Americans, seem more concerned with having a lot of stuff in our big houses than making sure that you will have the basics for a healthy life – clean air and water, healthy forests, rich soil to grow food, abundant river and sea life, a hospitable climate. Continue reading

Dear 2040: Melissa Nase on a greener Philadelphia

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

October 10, 2015

Melissa NaseDear Future Land Stewardship Manager,

I hope that you are reading this full of positivity and empowerment.  There is a certain developing momentum now – urban gardening, native plants, the value of getting outdoors – and my hope is that these past 25 years have been full of a growing environmental awareness throughout the Philadelphia region and the world, with movements rising up from small community groups as well as developing from our political leaders.

My hope is that Philadelphia will take the lead in emphasizing environmental policies, creating a new standard for sustainability and the integration of nature into urban environments.  That they will begin emphasizing native plants, adding oaks and redbuds as street trees to replace the non-native gingko and Bradford pears.  What if, by 2040, Philadelphia is known for its tree-lined streets and becomes a model for crime reduction methods:  through planting trees and introducing natural areas into locations that were formerly vacant lots and concrete.  The city can create systemic changes that influence air quality, crime rates, and happiness and it all starts by adding trees to our city blocks.  I hope the city is safer, cooler, and more inviting.  I hope it is ready to manage climate change.  Continue reading

Stacy Levy

Dear 2040: From an ecologically-minded artist

By Stacy Levy

To be Opened in 25 years: A letter from an ecologically-minded artist
Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Time Capsule

What does your world look like? I am sitting at a table in the rain 25 years ago, writing in pen on a pad of paper— already an outdated method for wrangling words in my day.  The rain is falling and it feels natural and normal to hear the pattering sound of the drops on the roof.  Will rainfall be considered with such comfort and coziness for you?

These same molecules of water could be raining on you as you read this.  The drops I hear will roll in into the sea and churn in ocean currents and be transported to the clouds by evaporation and return to earth as rain.  I wonder if rain will be considered precious— will it be valued for its life-giving force rather than being perceived as an inconvenience?  Will you be living with nature more as an ally and less as an entity that cannot be fully embraced?  Will your buildings and parking lots and passages collaborate with nature or will you still be living with nature at arm’s length?   From here I worry that the human relationship with nature will continue to be strained, even more so as the climate changes and rain falls erratically and with greater force.  Continue reading

Tradescantia virginiana_MN_6-1-15

What’s blooming at the Schuylkill Center?

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Welcome to our new mobile Field Guides!  We’ll regularly post guides about what’s blooming, what animals you can see, and other interesting things to observe in the woods, meadows, and streams.  These posts are designed to be easy to read on a phone, meaning you can take this mobile field guide out with you as you walk, hike, and play.  See other Field Guide posts here.

Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera)

The most common tree you will see on the Schuylkill Center’s property, this tree has distinct yellow and orange flowers and leaves that look like cat ears.  They grow quickly with very straight trunks, often the first to reclaim open spaces in our forest.  Serving an important ecological purpose as well, this tree supports 19 native Lepidoptera species.  You may see yellow petals with an orange stripe this time of year – a sure sign that there are tulip poplars overhead.

Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

These beautiful, showy flowers are from a catalpa tree – a late spring showstopper!  With elongated heart-shaped leaves, this tree could easily be confused with the invasive, nonnative empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) that also can be seen at the center.  Later in the year, the catalpa gets long string bean-like seed pods that hang from branches.

Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)Tradescantia virginiana_MN_6-1-15
Named for its angular leaf arrangement, native spiderwort can be seen in several meadows here.  This plant opens its flowers in the morning and closes them later in the afternoon, with the individual blooms only lasting one day.  They self-seed well and add great color to the landscape.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus)
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These rainswept fleabane were spotted in our front garden.  Typically located in meadows, woodland edges, or disturbed roadside sites, the dried flowers of this annual plant were believed to rid a home of fleas.  These flowers bloom throughout the season, attracting predatory insects to combat insect pests.

Dogbane, Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)
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In the same family at milkweed, this plant has a very high value to pollinators despite its small, inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers.  It may be easier to spot this plant by its reddish stem, and thin, long seed pods later in the year that release seeds with fluffy white pappus attached.  While it is a food source for adult butterflies, specifically monarchs, all parts are poisonous to herbivores.  As a result, it grows well here despite our large white-tail deer population.