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.

At the turn of the millennium, the Schuylkill Center greatly ramped up its restoration efforts, bringing restoration specialist Dennis Burton onto our staff and focusing fiercely on a forest suffering from many ills: overrun by invasive non-native plants, overbrowsed by white-tailed deer, reeling from climate change, its leaf litter devoured by invasive earthworms, and suffering from erosion from too many high stormwater events. Our 1999 master plan, crafted by ecological landscape visionaries Andropogon Associates, called for deep attention to the forest’s ecological quality.

One significant outcome of this planning was Penn’s Native Acres, the section of forest we have fenced off from deer; today, it is one of the wildflower hot spots on our property.

A second outcome was the Native Plant Sale, our way of sharing native plants with the larger Philadelphia community. After many years of sales, tens of thousands of native plants have been placed back into the area’s landscape.

And a third, among many others, was a 2002 attempt to bring the American chestnut back to our forest. Once comprising a full one-third of Penn’s woods, chestnuts provided the huge amounts of food needed to feed the massive flocks of passenger pigeons that once lived here – as well as sustaining both indigenous and European settler communities for generations; sadly, a chestnut blight wiped out the tree early in the 20th century. Dennis, working with the American Chestnut Society, planted an experimental grove of American chestnuts backcrossed with Asian cousins that might withstand the blight, and the grove was fenced off from hungry deer, planted on top of landscape fabric that would limit the growth of aggressive and invasive shrubs and vines.

The hope then was that 10% of the trees might survive to become new forebears of blight-free chestnuts. Fifteen years later, that has not worked out, and a number of blackened chestnut skeletons stand silent witness to this experiment. On the up side, a surprisingly large number of tuliptrees, our forest’s tallest tree, have volunteered in the grove; but on the down side, so has devil’s walking stick, a highly invasive species that is covered in devilish thorns – and greatly outnumber the tuliptrees. Invasive barberry and multiflora rose also grow aggressively throughout the area.

Happily, the Schuylkill Center has just received a grant from the state’s TreeVitalize fund to replant this area, now needing a new name as “Chestnut Grove” is no longer relevant. This is what May 20th will be all about.

When Steve Goin, our Director of Land and Facilities, walked the site this winter with Andrew Kirkpatrick, our Manager of Land Stewardship, they found a fox skull on the ground; as the site also includes a small depression where runoff heads toward Springhouse Pond, they dubbed the area “Fox Glen,” which also works since the site sits alongside the Grey Fox Loop.

In the last month, Steve, Andrew, other staff, and volunteers have been busily prepping the site, removing many of the devil’s walking sticks, cutting through vines, and pulling up the old landscape fabric. Joining them in May will be volunteer graduates of our annual Land Steward Field Training program, core members of a team of volunteers skilled in stewardship which Steve and Andrew are putting together.

Dennis Burton got the restoration ball rolling here at the Schuylkill Center in his time; his successors have picked up where he left off, adding their own unique spins to our stewardship story.

The May 20 replanting is just one of many new efforts Steve and Andrew will be rolling out as we move ahead. We will continue sharing these new directions in the Quill, on our blog, and in our programming. For now, please join us on May 20 for a work session and the unveiling of Fox Glen.

Editor’s note: this piece was published in our 2017 spring members newsletter, the Quill.