Wednesday, 03 July 2019

How the Environment Affects Plants

Recently, I was asked by a young Asian student, “Do plants raised in a good environment flourish and grow bigger than plants raised in a bad environment?” At first, I wanted to dismiss what seemed like a silly question. As I headed for the creek to check on some honeysuckle and buckthorn that got treated last week, I thought more about that question. The more I though about it, the more interesting his became.

Broadly speaking, his assertion was probably true. The answer, however, changed with the species. Also, it depended on how the budding scholar defined the environment. Finally, the answer would hinge on what the young questioner thought was good and bad. Answering his question first meant understanding that the environment includes the soil, water and air.

Soil

Soil differs in its composition naturally from one place to another based on the underlying geology, as well as surface layer history like glaciation and floods. Soils fertility differs based on those factors. Human activities, most notably farming, have changed the characteristics of soil in many environments. Erosion and poor agricultural and horticultural practices have depleted many native soils. Likewise, resource extraction and industrial activities have polluted soils in many areas.

Water

We are all familiar with water pollution and its effects on plants. Acid rain harms plants, causing deforestation around the world. Toxic discharges from factories, leaking landfills, and pathogen laden runoff from factory farms pose threats to plants downstream.

Air

The air has several factors to consider. Increased CO2 from burning fossil fuels benefits some plant species, while others are unaffected or even suffer because they evolved to thrive in an atmosphere with less carbon dioxide. Toxins discharged from smoke stacks and tailpipes definitely injure most plants.

The reason I did not declare these impacts as good or bad is that under certain circumstances a particular plant species in a specific location might benefit from certain environmental degradation. Even if many native plants suffer, there are bound to be tough species that will move in and take their place.

This morning, I am walking along the floodplain of a small creek in the driftless area of Wisconsin. Because a large block of very hard rock split the southward advancing glaciers for millennia, glacial ice never scoured this part of Wisconsin like it did the rest of the state.

Farming Along the Creek

However, for the past century, farmers using poor practices caused erosion of tons of topsoil from surrounding hills. That topsoil landed in the valley below, covering the wetland adapted species and degrading the wetlands so they are far less capable of controlling flood events. The rains this spring, along with flooding last summer mean for a second year in a row, the farmers on either side of the creek will see disappointing harvests.

Aside from the money lost by the neighboring farmers, erosion has devastated those buried wetland plants and seeds. On the other hand, other plant species brought downhill with the soil, blown in by the wind or dropped by passing birds and animals now thrive in fertile topsoil with plenty of moisture. The creek corridor is a riot of growth, though most of it is invasive species that do little to recharge the groundwater or control flooding.

So what is the “correct answer” in this situation? It seems to me that the loss of topsoil from the uplands, as well as the loss of wetland plants, loss of groundwater recharge, and increased flooding downstream, more than offset any benefits.

Southern Wisconsin was a disturbance dominated ecosystem before Europeans settled here nearly two hundred years ago. Wildfire sparked by lightning and Native Americans burned the land every few years. The result was a landscape dominated by prairie and savannah. This kind of landscape is called an early successional ecosystem because it dominates soon after big disturbances like windstorms and fire.

Early Verses Late Succession Plant Communities

Today, most of the land is farmed, but woods and scrublands dominate the areas too steep or wet to crop. These woody species cannot tolerate fire. They are called late succession ecosystems because they move in after those first sun loving pioneer species. When fire disappears from the landscape, shade tolerant trees like cherry and maple are able to take over. They crowd out the scattered sun loving oaks, which cannot regenerate under the closed canopy of the darkened woodlands.

Many of the plants that once covered the prairies and savannah are now rare; with many threatened or endanger of extinction.

Effects of Farming

Because their root systems were so deep and they recycled nutrients so efficiently, those prairie and savannah plants built up fertile topsoils 3–8 feet thick. Now, through changed land use and erosion, most of that topsoil can be found more than a thousand miles south in the Gulf of Mexico.

Corn and soybeans still grow in tremendous abundance, thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. That abundance allows farmers near my home to export their bounty around the world. Is that good or bad? Row crops suited for agriculture grow large and yield hundreds of tons per acre. That grain feeds millions of people around the world, How can that be bad?

Heading for Home

My notebook now holds the shrub kill observations that brought me here this morning. Almost without thinking, my entries show that the herbicide sprayed on the basal bark of those invasive shrubs is having its intended deadly impact. By fall they will be dead. In a few years their carcasses will fall over and their trunks will decay. If I continue to do my job, their offspring will join them. The native seeds I plant in their place will begin to stabilize the soil along this little trout stream.

Heading back to the truck my musings on plants, as well as good and bad environments come together. I think about the “land ethic” from A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold first made this profound way of looking at the world popular. He wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to perserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

 

April 2019

Monday, 15 April 2019

How long would it take one tree to make a forest?

That depends on several factors. First and most important is the species of tree. Some species of trees must receive pollen from a different tree because pollen from the same tree will not create viable seed. If you plant only one tree of that type, it will never result in another tree, much less an entire forest.

Species, like silver maple, are fast growers and reach maturity earlier than other species. Fast maturing trees might begin producing viable seed as soon as three or four years. Other species might take as long as ten years before they produce viable seed.

Some trees produce a large quantity of seed, while others produce relative few seeds. Add to this, the seed from some trees has a high germination rate, while other species produce large quantities of seed but much of it will never germinate.

Now start looking at environmental factors. These can dramatically influence who quickly tree regeneration takes place. Among these environmental factors are:

Weather

Will the seeds get enough rain and sunlight at the right time so they germinate and survive long enough to become viable seedlings? Will really hard winters kill the seed before it ever gets a chance to sprout? Will floods wash away the seed?

Even if the seed germinates and seedlings survive, weather will impact growth rate. Different species have differing requirements for temperature and rainfall. Inclement weather, such as drought and late spring warming, can reduce annual growth by half or more.

Predation

Lots of animals and micro organisms see tree seeds as food. Mice, bear, raccoons, squirrels, weevils and fungi devour tree seeds. Depending on how heavy the predation nearly the entire seed crop for a year might be consumed by predators.

Fire

Wildland fire kills trees. It cooks the sapwood of many species which destroys the ability of the tree to move water and nutrients, even if the bark does not burn. Young trees that do not yet have thick bark are almost certainly burn over.

Some fire tolerant trees, including many species of oaks, are fire tolerant. Older trees have bark thicker enough to insulate it from fire. Young trees may be burnt to the ground (0r nearly so) but the tree has the ability to re-sprout new growth from the root crown and begin again.

Shade Tolerance

Some trees are early succession species, which means they thrive after disturbance like a fire or disease when other trees around them have died and there is lots of sunlight available. These species would be the ones that could regenerate a forest more quickly.

Other species, called late succession, thrive when grown under shade. Among these are many maple species. Some late succession species can also grow with an abundance of sunlight, but others succumb to drought too easily without damp soil to cool and keep their young roots moist.

I suspect you were looking for a definite answer to your question. Unfortunately, like most questions involving biology, the answer is, “it depends.”

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2018

November 2018

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Order Trees Now!

Now is the time to place your order for trees from the DNR for next year. Certain species sell out fast, so you need to decide early which tree and shrub species you plan to put in the ground once spring arrives.

Planning

If you do not already have a forest management plan for your woodland, the Wisconsin DNR offers technical assistance for landowners through their Cooperating Foresters. DIY woodland owners will want to check out the Wisconsin Forest Management Guidelines. Regardless of whether you use a forester or do-it-yourself, this publication will make you a better woodland owner. For individual woodlands greater than 20 acres, the Forest Forest Landowner Grant Program offers cost sharing, in addition to technical assistance.

Getting Started

The Wisconsin DNR Tree Planting page is the place to start. There you will find links to help you plan your planting. It also contains instructions for properly plant the trees and shrubs so that they have the best chance of succeeding in their new home. Your trees and shrubs come as bare root seedlings. Planting and care instructions tell you how to protect stock prior to planting.

The DNR nursery sells both conifer and hardwood trees. Among the more popular conifers are Balsam fir, various pine and spruce species. Hardwood seedlings include various maple, oak, hickory and birch species.

Those interested in bringing back ruffed grouse should consider aspen seedlings. Young aspen stands create prime habitat to attract and hold these highly sought upland birds.

Hunters and others who want to improve wildlife habitat should consider adding some beneficial shrubs. Among the most popular with birds and nut loving animals are American hazelnut, high bush cranberry and American plum. Several shrub species can be rather aggressive given the right growing conditions. Red osier dogwood, silky dogwood and nine bark provide good wildlife food but spread quickly and should be watched to make sure they do not get out of control.

Placing Your Order

The website walks you through the ordering process to buy from the state nurseries. Use trees and shrubs for conservation purposes such as that is erosion control, wildlife habitat or wood fiber production only. Make sure you do not resell DNR nursery stock. Also, do not use seedlings for ornamental landscaping or Christmas tree production.

The minimum order is (a) a packet*, (b) 500 shrubs or (c) 1000 trees. Tree and shrub seedlings must be ordered in increments of 100 of each species. Contact the Wisconsin DNR nursery or call 715-424-3700 with any questions.

* – A packet consists of 300 seedlings of the landowners own choice of any combination of conifers, hardwoods or wildlife shrubs, in increments of 100 of each species.

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October 2018

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Patagonia to Hustisford

If you are looking for that special winter getaway, Chile might be just the ticket. The Route of Parks trail spans across 1,740 miles from Puerto Montt all the way to Cape Horn.

Sparked by the recent donation of 408,000 hectares of private conservation land by Tompkins Conservation, the Chilean government announced that it will convert 2 million hectares of conservation reserve land into national park land. Combined with the Tomkins donation and existing national park property, the new Patagonian Route of Parks trail stitches together a network of national parks that occupy around 11.5 million hectares.

Douglas and Kristine Tompkins made their fortune in outdoor apparel, founding both North Face and Esprit. They created Tomkins Conservation and began buying up land for conservation in the 1990s. Tomkins Conservation made the donation last year, following the accidental death of Douglas Tomkins kayaking the Patagonia in 2015. 

While I do not usually post about outdoor recreation, this story is different. The Patagonian Route of Parks not only created a trail for hikers and backpackers, but a vital corridor for wildlife.

Meanwhile back in Wisconsin

Fragmentation is second only to habitat loss as threats to rare plants and animals. In Wisconsin, this plays out as small prairie remnants nestled along old town road right-of-ways, railroad corridors and the forgotten corners of early graveyards. Minute micro habitats where a tiny number of native plants, as well as the insects and animals that depend on them, hang onto a tenuous existence.

An increasing number of private landowners are deciding to manage part of all of their land for conservation. Small restored prairies are showing up in areas where once they dominated the landscape. Woodland owners are investing great effort to thin over-mature woodlands and clear invasive shrubs that a generation ago chocked out grasses and wildflowers.

 

Staying connected

While the work and money these landowners are plowing back into their land is vital to conserve and protect Wisconsin, those efforts cannot by themselves same many of the species that are heading for a quite death. These islands of habitat need to be connected.

Take for example the whirled milkweed. This tiny member of the milkweeds, grows barely a foot tall. It spreads through rhizomes into patches thirty feet or more across. However, whirled milkweed does not self-pollinate. That means that pollen from stems in the same clone must be transported to flowers on a different clone in order to pollinate those flowers and produce seed.

As farms and the equipment got bigger, fences were removed. Less productive land was also worked up for cultivation. This reduced that places where the Whirled milkweed could grow.It also isolated the few remaining populations that had been hanging on. These plants can live for thirty years of more. However, without cross pollination, the few remaining plants will eventually die without producing seed for new generations.

The solution to the problem is obvious, we need to connect fragmented islands of habitat. These do not need government to set aside vast expanses of public land to make that happen. As private landowners, we can work together to protect our natural heritage. Working together, neighbor to neighbor, we can make a difference.

Maintaining our outdoor traditions means ensuring we have a strong habitat where wildlife can survive long-term. This is called resilience, which comes from keeping as many pieces of the puzzle as we can.

Better together

So what can you do? None of us are billionaires who can purchase hundreds of thousands of acres. We can, however, walk next door and talk to with the folks who live around us. That marsh stretching a half mile south across the next two properties is more valuable for waterfowl if you work with your neighbors.

Together, we cans share equipment, labor and knowledge to increase the impact our conservation work has. This is especially important when taking on tough invasive species like buckthorn, garlic mustard or phragmites. Increasing waterfowl production will  be much easier if you can get those two neighbors upstream to work with you.

Restoring and maintaining the natural heritage of our state is too big for individual landowners to fix. Government cannot maintain the land it owns, so they can only be very limited partners. Neighbor-to-neighbor, is the only way we get back the quail and ruffed grouse. Working with neighbors is the only way to ensure our woodland remain clear of buckthorn and garlic mustard. A shared vision is the best way to return waterfowl production to that marsh seemingly lost to cattail and phragmites.

It takes time to make these things happen, but there is no time like right now to go for a walk with your neighbor.

2017

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Woodland

Woodland groups are dedicated to protecting the forests and woodlands of Wisconsin. Some are landowner groups while others are groups that provide research, services or other forms of support important to woodland landowners.

Landowners

My Wisconsin Woods
Wisconsin Chapter of the Walnut Council
Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association
Wisconsin Hickory Association
Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association
Wisconsin Tree Farm Committee
Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association

Foresters

Association of Consulting Foresters of America
Society of American Foresters
Wisconsin Chapter of Society of American Foresters
Wisconsin Consulting Foresters
Wisconsin County Forests Association
Wisconsin DNR & Cooperating Foresters

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Tuesday, 03 October 2017

Forest Weed Grant Applications Due Soon

Are you a private landowner in the Mukwonago river watershed. who wants to remove invasive weeds and brush from your woodlands? The Friends of Mukwonago River has funds available now from a WDNR Forest Weed Management Grant. Application deadline to the Friends is October 23, 2017.

Landowners in the Mukwonago River Watershed have a unique opportunity to receive financial assistance as they learn control techniques for these and other invasive species and perform restoration on their own properties under a Forest Weed Grant through the Friends of the Mukwonago River. Invasive species are the current most critical threat to the health of the watershed.

Interested? The landowner application is here: 2016 FWG Land Owner Application & Rubric, and the FWG Land Management Template. Figure out where and what on your property you want to manage. You will need to submit and follow a management plan that is not difficult.

The WMA-PFGP assists eligible weed management groups (WMG) in addressing invasive plants, both by dealing directly with the invasives and by providing education, information and outreach to others. This is a reimbursement program that covers up to 75% of the eligible costs, 25% match is required.

Questions? Contact Friends at mukwonagoriver.org  Send your completed application to this email address, or our PO Box 21, Eagle WI. 53119   www.mukwonagoriver.org.

August 2017

Monday, 21 August 2017

Heads Up: Time to Check Your Oaks

If you have oak trees on your property, this is the time of year to cruise the woodlot and look for signs of oak wilt. Once a tree becomes infected, an entire stand can be affected because the disease moves across root grafts from one tree to the next. Oak wilt has been confirmed in 61 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

The Wisconsin DNR has a quick online Oak Wilt Guide that can help you assess your oak wilt risk. Now is the time to identify oak wilt if it exists on your land and make plans for dealing with it this coming winter.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, oak wilt is transmitted by a beetle that is attracted to sap from open wounds. This beetle carries the oak wilt fungus (Ceratocystis fagacearum). That is why it is very important that landowners only prune oaks during the dormant season; late fall through mid-winter. Trees should not be pruned during April, May, or June or whenever the beetles are active.

There is no cure for infected trees. According to the US Forest Service, the only control action available is to isolate infected trees by cutting any root grafts between infected and uninfected trees. A trencher or vibrating plow set to 2-4 feet deep separates the root systems of adjacent oaks, preventing underground spread.

Infected trees should be cut down before April 1st; burned, chipped or covered with plastic for sixty days to prevent overhead spread of the beetles and fungus. New sprouts from infected roots need to be controlled with herbicide.

UW Extension has an informative Oak Wilt Bulletin that provides useful information about the pest; its diagnosis and control.For more information, contact the Wisconsin DNR Forest Health Staff.