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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.

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Dreaming of Springtime

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator & Gift Shop Manager

As warmth begins to creep into the air, many of us are dreaming of spring.  With this in mind, I recall the fond memories of the Schuylkill Center’s Community Gardens and the 80-plus families that soon will be preparing their garden beds for planting in the spring.  There’s nothing like beating the winter blues with thoughts of warm days working the soil, seeing new seedlings emerge from the ground, watching bluebirds swooping down, red-winged blackbirds cackling in the tree tops, and toads croaking in the ponds.

The five acre property comes alive in the spring as the many gardeners work side by side each planning their garden.  The diversity of plants grown is as great as the community of gardeners – some of our gardeners are recent immigrants, others have lived in Philadelphia their whole lives; some come just a few miles others from South Philly and beyond, one is even starting up a lavender farm.  Long time gardeners work along the new gardeners sharing their seeds and secrets.

Over the past four years I have had the pleasure of overseeing the Community Gardens and this has been a true source of joy in my life.  I have learned a great deal about gardening and made many new friends. This year, Denise Bratina, our rental coordinator, will take over the rental of garden plots.  Denise has been ably helping people and organizations rent building and grounds out for weddings and meetings.  I know Denise will love working with our gardeners as much as I have, and gardeners, I assure you that you will be in good hands with Denise.

I’ll still be here at the Center managing the gift shop, coordinating the volunteer program, and keeping an eye on those toads that like to cross the road.  Please feel free to stop in and say hello.  You just might see me walking the perimeter of the gardens for fresh air and exercise some day.

Want to learn more about the Organic Community Gardens?  Join us this weekend at the Community Gardeners’ Meeting to meet Denise, chat with other gardeners, and find out all about the Gardens.  Or, come out for Dirt & Dessert: Art & the Science of Soil  on Saturday, March 21, for wine, dessert, soil testing, and learning all about soil science and how it has inspired artist Jake Beckman.

Seedlings

Of Soil and Seeds

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

With ice on the ground and some remnants of snow lingering in the shadows, it is hard to believe the growing season at Schuylkill Center will begin in just a handful of weeks.  For gardeners like me, these cold days are the perfect opportunity to leisurely browse the glossy, colorful seed catalogs and dream about what to add to the garden this year, the bounty of the harvest, and warm summer days spent among blooms.  I hope to add some more shade-loving native plants to my back yard, and stave off the continual encroachment of my neighbor’s English ivy.  Rarely, does the thought of soil enter into our daydreams – although, as any gardener will tell you, it is one of the most important components to any healthy, productive garden.  Besides the minerals and nutrients that soil offers plants, it is teeming with the microscopic life of the food soil web.  Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and arthropods, along with the ubiquitous earthworm, break down organic matter, making nutrients available to plants and participating in a food chain that includes birds and even larger mammals.  Besides protecting your crops from pests and diseases, these soil creatures create pockets of air in the soil, affecting soil structure and drainage.

So, how can you ensure the health of your soil?  One step to consider, especially if you plan to grow food crops, is to get your garden soil tested.  There are many resources for soil testing, including a low-cost option from the PSU Extension program.  Analyzing the soil for nutrient levels, pH, and contaminants is a good initial step to deciding what action to take to get the best results from your garden.  Often, fixing nutrient deficiencies is as easy as mixing some more organic matter like compost or decomposed manure into your garden soil.

If you start your plants from seeds, the potting mix you use is also an important decision.  Most potting soils contain just a few ingredients: organic matter, a fertilizer, peat moss to hold moisture, and a component to help drainage and create air pockets, such as perlite.

SeedlingsAt the Schuylkill Center, we’re always seeking sustainability, and that includes our nursery practices.  Since the establishment of the Native Plant Nursery in 2006, it has been the goal of land stewardship staff to reduce and eliminate potential negative impacts on the environment due to the nursery.  So at the outset, this framework provided guidance as to the types of materials used in the nursery like fertilizer, soils, and seeds, and led to the decision to seek out a peat-free soil.  Although peat is used in almost all potting soils, it should be considered a finite natural resource because it is harvested at an unsustainable, rapid pace, yet only grows millimeters per year.  As a result, it takes the peat bogs hundreds of years to return to their original state, if they are not wiped out completely.  Just like trees, peat bogs store significant amounts of carbon.  In fact, they are one of the largest storers of carbon and greenhouse gases on the plant, which is a further reason to preserve them.

Organic MechanicsAll of this led us to Organic Mechanics, a local soil company which does not use peat in any of their mixes.  Instead, they use compost and coconut coir, both recycled materials with the added benefits of greater moisture retention and increased nutrient content.

This year, in preparation for spring planting, you can buy organic, sustainable soil through the Schuylkill Center.  Our first annual Soil Sale is underway now – you can pre-order a range of peat-free soil products at a discounted price, and pick up them at the Center on February 21st – just in time to start your vegetables.  More about that here.

Tuliptree (2)

Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Tuliptree (1)Every day at the Schuylkill Center I am reminded of the passing of time, the history of the land, and the immense power of plants to change our landscape.  Amazed at how the trees could grow so tall in just 50 years, I stand in awe of the towering tulip poplars (also called tuliptrees) which rise high above old fields once clear cut for agriculture.  As winter approaches and vegetation retreats, ruins and farm walls of old homesteads – signs of literally hundreds of years of human occupancy – reveal themselves as markers of the past.

Tuliptree (2)Trees can also be a source of information to us; they are simultaneously signs of resilience and indicators of land use patterns.  Some of our oldest, biggest trees are situated just at the edges of former farm fields, where they could stretch and branch in all directions due to unlimited sunlight.  In the forest, the same species would be taller and thinner, with branches reaching directly up toward the sun shining through a break in the forest canopy.  For many years, these remarkable old trees have drawn interest from visitors, staff, and volunteers at the Schuylkill Center.

In the summer of 1974, volunteer Gus Wiencke assembled an extensive report entitled “Biggest Trees at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center,” detailing land history and size, species, location, and even sketches of growth patterns of the property’s largest trees.  The original survey presents 57 trees that measure over 6 ½ feet in circumference, although many far exceed that now.  The survey was partially updated in 1986 and again in 2012, when eight more trees were added to the list.

It has been 40 years since Gus compiled this list of biggest trees, yet I’m experiencing his observations in a similar way these days.  He concludes, “Year after year, traces of the old farm fields grow dimmer and a forest spreads in the protected haven of the Nature Center.  Our biggest trees are the aristocrats in a unique, unviolated area of self-propagated woodland.”  These trees exist with little help from us, and in many cases, perhaps, in spite of us.  They are beautiful and vital beings in our ever-changing landscape.  Join us at the Giants of the Forest walk in January to see some of these big trees, learn about why they remained during the farm years, and find out what they can tell us about the past.

Note: an excerpt from this article appeared in the winter 2014-2015 Quill, the Schuylkill Center members newsletter.

Leslie making StormSnake

#StormSnakes Update – Wriggling Through Change

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

Water flowRight now I’ve been experiencing some interesting emotional connection to my LandLab project. This may seem odd, as my project is probably the most tech oriented of the bunch! I can only describe it as this feeling of letting go of attached ideas and really just observing and listening, both to nature and the people that know it well. That is different for me, because most of the time my projects are conceived ahead of time so they can be “pitched” to the people that may green-light them. The process for LandLab is very different because the Schuylkill Center is trusting from past work that I have the ability to produce something interesting. They are looking for ideas, but they are not holding you to them. In fact if anything, they are excited by process and evolution, and the show in the gallery really speaks to that idea. The staff at the Center has been really great in encouraging my work, and allowing it to unfold. It is no different from allowing seasons to change, and I’m really experiencing that in my whole body. That’s it for the fuzzy stuff — let’s get back to the science!

You may remember that I wanted to get a glimpse of Port Royale Ave. and the Center’s property in the rain. It has been difficult to do this because this fall the rain storms have been coming at night, which would not be the best time for video. However, there was a morning when it was raining, and I rushed out of the house to record. Check out the video.

Steve in the woodsAlthough this was not a heavy storm, at least I saw the puddling on Port Royal Ave., and I can imagine in a larger storm what the situation might be. In fact, seeing how difficult it is to actually record a storm makes the idea of a stream monitor even more valuable. So, I made a visit to Stroud to check out their monitoring equipment, as well as Steve’s workspace.  The property has nets for insects, buckets for leaves and other organic matter, and monitors for the stream — it’s a Disney World for scientists.

Steve's officeThe tech space is full of controllers, sensors, cables, cases, batteries and canisters of water. It was encouraging that I was able to identify some of the parts in the bins, and Steve and I probably could have spent even more hours than we did just talking shop.

 

After seeing what was needed, Steve helped me to order some parts. So, now I have a datalogger and an ultrasonic rangefinder at my house. The datalogger is the main board in the circuit which will give instructions and allow for data to be collected. The ultrasonic sensor will measure the water depth throughout the day. So far this is a cost-effective set-up and there may be some room for another sensor. Right now I’m favoring conductivity, which looks at metals in the water. However, the sensor has to be able to withstand freezing temperatures, and Steve is currently testing a new one to see if it will be accurate. So, we will see which sensor wins. Steve has been testing equipment like this for years and is an expert on sensors and conditions.

One of the frustrating things about the field is that a good part may be discontinued, which leads to more testing of new products. Also, just because the paperwork says a part will operate in a certain way under certain conditions does not always mean this is true. So, the process is never-ending.

Leslie and Brenna sewing StormSnakeThe next step in the process was to work on building a snake from burlap, and luckily I found someone interested in assisting me — Brenna Leary. Brenna recently graduated with a degree in environmental education and also has a love of plants. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth. We spent an afternoon at the Center stuffing a casing of burlap with stones, wood chips, and coir. Then, we stitched the fabric shut and created the features of a tail, head and tongue with some tucks and scraps. It was a lot of fun and the resulting piece reminds me of the corn husk dolls I used to make as a child in Girl Scouts. They were featureless, but they had a beauty none-the-less, and so it is the same with the snake.Leslie making StormSnake

I started this post with this idea of change, and it may be apparent with electrical parts, but it is even more so with art. I first imagined my burlap StormSnakes to be painted with environmentally safe paint. However, someone reminded me that even natural things can react badly when put in touch with chemicals in stormwater run-off. So, you never know what kind of brew you are going to get running into the stream. I know there are all sorts of compromises we make daily, however, I didn’t want any risk in this, no matter how small. So, one day I was having lunch with another artist friend and we got into talking about the cool plant holders made of felt and other natural ways people deal with urban plantings. I suddenly remembered those crazy Chia Pets with the bad commercials. They were ceramic objects with a seed goop smeared onto them which would eventually sprout into odd topiaries. What an interesting idea to make snakes that had growing material on them. So, I talked to Melissa at the Center about the possibility of incorporating seeds or plugs onto my stuffed burlap snacks. She definitely had some recommendations and was excited since plants are her expertise. So, I hope to now perform a test in the greenhouse to see what emerges. Can I do stripes? Would I work with different plants and textures? I don’t know and I like that answer.

Cattail Pond

Restoring Cattail Pond


By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Toad in Cattail PondCattail Pond sits in a serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  It is a special place, nestled into one of the few areas on the property that is free from undulating topography, naturally protected by a steep slope uphill from it and surrounding trees.  Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not surprising that there are also ruins of a barn near the pond, part of a former homestead and a reminder of the rich history of this land. Continue reading

Introducing #StormSnakes – A LandLab Project

Leslie BirchBy LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

For my LandLab residency, I’m working on the issue of storm water run-off here at the Center.  Part of being a LandLab artist means working to re-mediate a problem using art, which is harder than just creating an installation that provides education.  My hope is not only to have an artistic intervention, but also a scientific device to measure the amount of storm water run-off. In the past month, I’ve been in conversation with Sean Duffy, Director of Facilities, and Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art, about how the run-off  from surrounding roads and neighborhoods impacts Wind Dance Pond, on the eastern side of the Center’s property.  I’ve also been reading about the work of Stroud Water Research Center, because they’ve been constructing inexpensive water monitoring equipment that may be useful for my project. With art and science in mind, I came up with an idea – Storm Snakes.

stormsnakesStorm Snakes is inspired by the sandbags often seen in flooding relief or construction sites.  For the art intervention, burlap bags will be stitched together to create giant snakes that can be positioned in certain areas to divert water.  The bags can be filled with natural materials like stones, wood chips, and cocoa matting.  The exterior of the bags can be decorated to look like real snakes found in our region, through natural dye or cut out pieces of organic cotton.  For the science part, a water monitoring device will be built and then mounted near the stream. It will use a sensor to detect changes in water depth and then relay the data back to a computer at the Center.  This would help the Center learn more about how much runoff reaches their pond.  The monitor can also be decorated to resemble a snake, so it is friendly looking and camouflaged with the environment.

When I shared my idea with Sean and Christina, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  Their reactions were partly surprise, as the solution was more fun than traditional ones used in the field, but there was also excitement.  Sean explained that Storm Snakes would actually improve the soil.  Their wood chips will break down, increasing the fungal community – it’s what they feed on.  I may not know much about soil chemistry, but this tidbit about fungus quickly made me a Storm Snake advocate! Plus, having data about storm water run-off could help the Center obtain funding for future remediation projects. It seemed like a win-win – Storm Snakes was official.

Recently I secured Stroud Water Research Center as a partner, which is awesome!  They’re very interested in adding data about the Center’s stream to their database and in tackling another water monitoring set-up.  In this case, I’m looking for the monitor to be as inexpensive as possible, while yielding science-worthy data. I hope to help Stroud by documenting my build of the water monitoring system—a tutorial will enable other citizen scientists around the world to create stream monitoring systems.

Exploring the runoffHowever, before I build anything, I first have to do more investigation of the storm water run-off. So, I went back to the Center this week for a hike with Sean and Christina. Although I already knew about one channel that had formed from the run-off on the hill, Sean took me to another area that showed an even larger channel.  I’ve nick-named it the “Schuylkill Grand Canyon” as it was large enough to hold multiple people. Christina, who has a background in hydrology, was astounded by its size. Is the run-off still moving down this large channel? Is the smaller channel formed from this larger one? Where exactly is water entering from the road? These are the questions I have now, and my next step is to film a rain storm. So, stay tuned as my rain mystery continues.

Until next time,

Leslie Birch

Mountain mint

Summer is the season of meadows

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Mountain mintTo me, summer has always been the season of meadows.  While in spring the light fills the forest, bringing flowers, ferns, and understory plants to life; by summer, the forest is a cool, dim respite, a darker, more peaceful place to escape the burning heat of the sun.  So it is the meadow that seems to properly represent this season of blazing hot days: steaming humid afternoons, rain storms that blast out of the late afternoon and early evening to drench the world and leave things glistening and green.  Meadows this time of year are bursting with life.

You sit down, lie down, fall back into the grass and above, see only sky, bits of grasses and shrubs just coloring the edges of your vision.  Looking up, a few clouds float past, perhaps a hawk or a vulture circles high above, the horizon expanded by the lack of trees.  In the meadow, the world is all waist-high.  Continue reading

toads in a hand - Alaina Mabaso_20130603_1359727442

Just how small is a toadlet?

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

Just what size are these tiny toad babies that make their way, by the thousands, from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve to the Schuylkill Center each June?

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19.Hagan (51)

What’s the bbuzzz?

By LandLab Resident Artists Maggie Mills, B.H. Mills, and Marguerita Hagan

Colony Collapse Disorder
The LandLab installation by Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills addresses colony collapse disorder and the devastating global loss of honeybees.  At present in the United States alone, 1/3 of the honeybee population has been lost to this disorder. These mini, mighty pollinators make every third bite of food we take possible.  Ironically, it is human behavior that is responsible for the honeybees’ catastrophic disappearance. Our installation provides a chemical free, native pollinator garden for the bee population on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center. We will be spreading the word about ways that we all can contribute to positive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial outcomes through education and community partnering in the coming months. Continue reading