Hands in the Dirt: Tree Snags
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
A lot of the latest gardening advice goes against my nature ..obsessive neatness. In recent years, we have been told to let the leaves rot were they fall. We have been asked to rethink our relationship with weeds as some are more nutritious than the vegetables we cultivate. Now I learn that we should leave dead tree branches on the tree and dead logs in the yard.
Why? In a word: biomass. What ? Basically, removing dead organic matter from your yard means a considerable loss of habitat for the insects, birds and animals that your garden needs to thrive and even survive.
That brings us to snags. Tree snags to be exact. Snags refer to a standing dead or dying tree, often with a missing top. Sometimes they are called wildlife trees as they are a vital backyard sanctuary for wildlife. Snags develop as trees die of old age or disease.
According to Wikipedia, snags also refers to trees, branches, and other pieces of naturally occurring wood found sunken in rivers and streams. And even dead logs lying in the woods or your backyard.
Snag trees like the one pictured here are rarely seen in urban neighborhoods as we are quick to remove them, seeing them as unsightly.
But if you want to support the wildlife around you, maybe you should consider leaving a dying tree and/or log in your yard. For if you do, many a living creature will benefit. And who are these creatures? The list is long. First, there are the cavity nesters, like woodpeckers, squirrels, bats, and even bluebirds. Birds of prey will use the snags for lookouts. This includes hawks and owls. Insects will feed on the bark providing lunch for the birds and animals that depend on them for their survival. And bats.
Even if you don't have a snag tree, you can offer similar habitat cover by leaving a log to rot near your garden. Even a stump supports wildlife. That log will attract salamanders, snakes, hedgehogs, and small birds, like the elusive brown creeper.
If the dead or dying tree is threatening your house or other building, you can have it trimmed rather than removed. You may have some explaining to do when the tree removal service shows up but you are the paying customer after all. And if neighbors are giving you the evil eye, create a small sign that reads "woodpecker habitat."
Since reading about snag trees I have been on the look-out for them and now find them visually interesting and see them as wildlife habitat and not ugly dying trees. Maybe you will too?
Story and photos by Charles Chandler
Have you ever worked for a great cause year in and year out and thought you would never reach your goal? You believe it is worthwhile so you persevere a little longer, another season, another year maybe. Kinda like rearing children?
Relocating the White Cloud Echo Drive road walk was such a cause for the staff of North Country Trail Association (NCTA) and volunteers of the Western Michigan Chapter (WMI), The National Park Service and the US Forest Service, and assorted trail hikers,
Newaygo County has an abundance of recreational assets that include great trails for hiking, kayaking, motorsports, horse, and snowshoeing. Some well-established and other being developed. The construction of the scenic Dragon Trail around Hardy Pond is underway and will soon be available for hikers and bicycles. We are also fortunate to have the mother and father of all hiking trails running through our County. “The North Country National Scenic Trail, or simply the NCT is a footpath stretching approximately 4,600 miles from the Long Trail in Vermont to Lake Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota. Passing through the eight states it is the longest of the eleven National Scenic Trails authorized by Congress. As of 2019, 3,132 miles of the trail is in place. The NCT is administered by the National Park Service, managed by federal, state, and local agencies, and built and maintained primarily by the volunteers of the NCTA and its partners. The 28 chapters of the NCTA, its 3,200+ members and each affiliate organization have assumed responsibility for trail construction and maintenance of a specific section of the NCT.”
The 350 or so members of WMI of the NCTA manage and maintain about 90 miles of the NCT in Kent and Newaygo Counties. One of the overarching objectives of the NCTA and the army of volunteers is to ensure the trail path is safe, well maintained and has the smallest number of road miles as possible. The dangers of the Echo Drive road walk are well known and the effort to move the trail has been ongoing for a decade or longer. The quarter-mile that the NCT runs along Echo Driver is simply not safe. There are no provisions for pedestrians along this section and the hills and curves do limit drivers' vision. For some reason, drivers appear to think the stretch of road between the White River curve and the Jugville curve is the rural equivalent of the Indianapolis 500. In the summer it is somewhat safer for trail hikers because they can move to the shoulders of the roadway. Not so in the winter as the occasional hiker has to stay on the roadway because of the snowbanks. Shame on those drivers that speed along this section, especially when they are passing trail hikers. This summer there was a fatal motorcycle accident on Echo Drive just past the White Cloud cemeteries. Speed appeared to be the cause of the accident.
This trail reroute project is a very big deal for NCT trail hikers and to White Cloud. The City is located at the halfway point of the NCT and is a designated NCTA Trail Town. White Cloud is connected to the NCT by a well maintained and marked loop trail that begins and ends in the White Cloud Park and Campground. This important trail is used through all seasons by locals and as the off-ramp for those hiking the NCT that need access to the amenities in the Campground or the City. This loop trail also travels along Echo Drive and because of speeding drivers, many local hikers won’t use the entire loop.
In the distant past various local hikers, members of the Michigan Trail Finders, WMI, NCTA, and US Forest Service have tried a variety of strategies to get the NCT off Center Line and Echo Drive. The goal was to keep the trail within the Huron-Manistee National Forest. One of the challenges in doing this was that the trail had to cross swamps around Alley Lake
and a beautiful but troublesome little leatherleaf marsh. The US Forest Service has some very strict rules about disturbing wetlands. Members of the WMI, NCTA and the National Park Service worked for several seasons to secure trail easements across private land thereby avoiding these swamps and marsh. At one point they had funds to purchase the private land. Good faith market rate offers were made to landowners, but no sale was made.
In 2012, Jeff McCusker, former Trail Manager for the National Park Service, Beth Keloneva and this correspondent using GPS laid out the preliminary Optimal Location Review (OLR) for the NCT reroute. The route-finding career of these three surveyors almost ended that day. As they were busy with route-finding gunfire erupted and they swear they heard bullets zipping through the foliage. A local sportsman had driven in on one of the two tracks and had begun a little target practice. After some shouting and friendly discussion with the shooter, safety was restored.
In 2014 the National Park Service signed and completed an Optimal Location Review (OLR) for this project. This proposed three-mile trail would follow the preliminary OLR. After this milestone was finally passed the next steps were to do a little fundraising, buy some construction materials, gather up the minions, break out the tools and at long last start work.
In 2019 the project was funded by a generous grant from the Fremont Area Community Foundation.The NCTA staff was able to purchase all the material and pay for the Forest Service's staff time. The new trail footpath was flagged in the fall of 2019, and US Forest Service finalized the trail on September the 10th. The US Forest Service Staff and WMI members opened the road to the worksite on September 12 making way for lumber delivery. The next day on the 13th of September construction of the 350-foot-long raised boardwalk over that charming little marsh began. The boardwalk was engineered by Forest Service staff to minimize the impact on the Alley Lake wetlands. You can also see this type of boardwalk on the trail at the nearby Loda Lake Wildflower Sanctuary.
The three miles of the long-awaited reroute are expected to be completed in 2020. Those future hikers traveling along this new reroute will enjoy a much safer and scenic section of the NCT. Most likely they will not be aware of the many years of effort and cost it took to get the NCT off Echo Drive. That is as it should be. They are there to enjoy the solitude and the serenity of their walk along the NCT as it passes through the woodlands of our County and the Huron-Manistee National Forest.
Well done folks.
Thanks to the following who love the NCT, and persevered in this arduous but worthwhile project.
WMI Chapter Staff
Paul Haan, Larry Meyer, Chuck Vannette, Beth Keloneva, Charles Chandler, Steve Hatting, Dale Painter, Bill Treat
NCTA Headquarters Staff
Andrea Ketchmark, Exec. Director NCTA
Bruce Matthews, Retired Exec. Director NCTA
Kenny Wawsczyk, MI Trails Coordinator NCTA,
US Forest Service:
Dave Jaunese Assistant Ranger for the Baldwin District and Trails Manager
Kathy Bietau – Retired USFS
Kristin Thrall USFS, Huron-Manistee National Forests, Recreation Program Manager
Jon Meeks Forest Service Engineer from the Supervisors office in Cadillac
Carlon Parmelee Recreation Technician from Baldwin
Steve Sawyer former Forest Service employee
US National Parks:
Jeff McCusker, NPS Superintendent - Retired former NPS Trail Manager
Chris Loudenslager, NPS Superintendent
Don King, National Park Service, Realty Officer, National Trails Lands Resource Center
Joe Sobinovsky, NPS, Realty Officer, National Trail Lands Resource Center
Paul Salvatore, US Forest Service Huron Manistee National Forests Lands Program Manager
Iron Belle Trail Funds
Fremont Area Community Foundation
With gratitude to all the unnamed volunteers that will take tools in hand and spend their weekends working to bring this project to a successful conclusion.
Hands in the Dirt: Common Milkweed
Photos and story by Donna Iverson
It may not be the most beautiful plant in your garden, but Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has a lot to be said for it as a garden plant.
First, Common Milkweed is native to the United States and if you want to introduce native plants to your garden or yard, Common Milkweed is a good place to start. Ecologists have been warning us for years that many native plants are endangered and being crowded out by invasive cultivars, and destroying the natural ecology of our neighborhoods. So growing native plants will help to restore that balance.
If you have a brown thumb, Common Milkweed is easy to grow and may turn that brown thumb green increasing your confidence in gardening. It is an undemanding plant. It likes sun but will tolerate shade, doesn't need fertilizer and repeals harmful pests. In fact, it acts like a natural bug zapper protecting surrounding plants from infestation. It is a plant that pretty much takes care of itself. Common Milkweed is also drought resistant ..and with longer and hotter summers forecast, it won't need watering once it is established.
Further, Common Milkweed isn't really ugly. In fact, in the summer it produces beautiful flowers that vary from white, to pink, to lavender sometimes on the same 6-foot stalk. And it smells delicious too.
For those of you interested in foraging, the plant can be eaten when Immature. Once you start looking for milkweed, you will see it everywhere, in fields, in gardens, and along roadsides. It also grows on our dunes alongside of Lake Michigan beach grass. Be sure to ask before picking on private land, however. And it is illegal to gather milkweed seeds in federal or state parks. The young shoots, leaves, flowers and flower buds are edible when they are immature and most often cooked like greens, such as ochre. All parts of the mature plant are toxic so unless it is early spring, leave it be. For crafters, the milkweed stalk can be turned into cord or string.
For history buffs, milkweed floss was used in WWII as a substitute for kapok in flotation vests. In the 1940's, over 5000 tons of milkweed floss was collected, mostly by children. Today, it serves as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows and even quilts.
If you are contemplating starting a butterfly garden, milkweed is the foundation plant you will need. Monarchs can not survive without it. It also provides nectar for native bees, bumblebees and honeybees. It offers them protection to as the "milk" sap in the plant is toxic. Butterflies and bees which consume this nectar for food also become toxic to predators, like birds.
If you want to start collecting, saving and planting native seeds, milkweed is one of the easier plants to do this with. The seeds are large and easily disengaged from the milkweed pod. And as milkweed is so easy to identify and collect seed pods, this could easily be a family activity. When collecting, be sure not to take all the pods but leave enough for the plants to reseed themselves the area they are growing in. Directions for collecting and growing milkweed seeds can be found at www.wildflower.org/learn/how-to-germinate-milkweeds.
Or if you want an easier route, you could wait till spring and order plugs from the Muskegon Conservation District on 4725 Holton Road in Twin Lake. Check their website for ordering information. When you pick them up, just stick the plugs into the ground and water in. Simple enough.
Hands in the Dirt: Mint
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
The snow is falling. The temperature has dropped to 25 degrees. Most everything in the garden has frozen.
It's only November, and already I am feeling the loss of growing green things. I even miss the weeds.
Walking through the community garden this time of year seems like a forlorn exercise, until I spot the mint.
It is green and still growing though partially buried in snow and even spreading both above and below ground, taking over an entire bed. I smile and rub some of the leaves between my fingers. It is one of my favorite herbs, partly because there is no stopping it. So be careful where you plant it.
If you don't want it strangling out your other plants, buy an earthenware pot and plant the mint seedling inside. You can buy small mint plants at grocery stores these days, in the middle of winter. Then dig a hole in your garden, and drop the pot with the mint into it. Cover with soil leaving about two inches of the pot above ground. This prevents above-ground runners from spreading and becoming invasive.
Come summer, your mint will grow to be about a foot high and bloom during the summer months, spreading its minty fragrance far and wide.
As for me, I decided to bring the outdoors inside so snipped some mint cuttings and brought them home. There are two methods of growing mint from cuttings and I prefer the first. Which is to stick the cuttings into s small pot with moist soil. In a few weeks it will root and you can place your mint plant in a sunny window. The other method is to place the cuttings in a jar of water, and roots will form in a few weeks. The plant can then be transferred to a pot with soil, being careful not to damage the leaves while potting. Or, you can just buy a mint plant at your grocery store and skip the wait.
The most popular mints are spearmint and peppermint but there are a lot of cousins out there including apple mint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, water mint, horsemint, forest mint, and one of my favorites, wild mint. You can identify mints in the wild by their square stems and fragrance. It's natural habitats is along stream beds, which provide the moisture it needs to thrive.
In addition to its culinary uses, mint is useful in the yard where it will deter mosquitoes, ants, fleas, flies and moths. It is even said to deter deer, although my sister-in-law swears nothing deters deer. If you are into companion planting, grow mint near tomatoes and cabbage where it attracts beneficial insects and deters harmful ones.
In addition to adding it to a winter windowsill garden, I like to use it as an air freshener, by putting some sprigs in a vase in the bathroom.
Mint also has medicinal qualities, and is said to smooth an upset stomach. But be careful if you have acid reflux, as it is contraindicated. It can also cause a rash in some people, such as contact dermatitis.
Hands In The Dirt: Northern Spy
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
Every fall, I develop apple nostalgia.
All this goes back to my childhood and the family farm in Whitehall, Michigan. In a rundown orchard, my grandfather grew two Apple varieties, Jonathan and Northern Spy. Always a big fan of children's detective novels, like Nancy Drew, I figured Northern Spy was my signature apple. And I liked a sour apple, so I picked them before they ripened. ..even though I was warned it would cause stomach aches ..which it never did.
I lost touch with Northern Spy during my adult life, when I lived in Vermont. There, I bought my most of my apples at the supermarket, usually choosing Granny Smith, which like Northern Spy is an heirloom variety.
When I retired and moved back to Michigan, I started buying my produce at local farmers markets, and rediscovered Northern Spy.
"Spies for pies," said the woman customer standing next to me at Knudson's Farm stand out of Ravenna. I wasn't planning on making a pie, I just wanted to taste that favorite apple from my childhood.
Back then, I would wander through the "back 40", searching for wild edibles. I considered the orchard to be a source of wild edibles, because as far as I could see my grandfather did absolutely nothing in the way of orchard care . No pruning, no pesticides, no checking for infestations, no harvesting, .....he seemed to give it no attention whatsoever.
But the apples grew in spite of him.. As did the large garden down by the chicken coop, which had as many weeds as vegetable plants.
Fresh from the farmers' market, I brought my apple home and took a bite ..yup, that was the taste I remember, although a little sweeter because it was ripe. Almost immediately, that bite raised questions?
Was Northern Spy a Michigan native apple, I wondered? An online search revealed that Northern Spy originated in upstate New York circa 1800 and is grown today mostly in New York, Michigan and Ontario. It is definitely a northern cold loving apple whose tree produces fruit in October and November. At one time, it was the third most popular apple in the country.
This heirloom apple remains extremely popular along with MacIntosh in this part of Michigan, according to farmer Dave England who grows them in his orchard in Mears. While American taste is trending toward sweeter apple varieties, Northern Spy is holding its own, England said. It's prized for its flavor, not its looks. What it lacks in appearance, it makes up in taste, with a balance of sweet and acidic undertones.
Although the Northern Spy is sometimes misshaped and bruised due to thin skin, it remains the first choice of many people, according to England. Give me a bruised heirloom apple over a modern hybrid any day, said the customer behind me, waiting to purchase this locally grown, open-pollinated variety.
An heirloom apple is one that was grown in the early parts of human history and genetically distinct from commercial varieties, which are bred for bright color, sweetness and ship-ability. Other heritage apples that are grown in Michigan include Macoun, Cortland, Empire, and Baldwin.
Apples are in fact the state's largest fruit crop, and Michigan is the third largest producer of apples in the country, behind Washington and New York. The average US orchard size is about 50 acres. An apple tree can live around 100 years and in colonial times, almost every farm had at least one apple tree.
The Northern Spy is winter hardy and stores well, for the entire winter, in fact. It is especially high in Vitamin C, and is popular for making pies and cider. So if you should run across Northern Spy at the market, give it a taste test and see if this antique apple wins you over.
Hands In The Dirt: Tree Burls
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
I don't know why I find tree burls so fascinating. Partly, it's because I admire the trees ability to heal itself. And not only that, to make something beautiful out of the injury.
The wood inside the burl is swirled, beautiful and rare. Many of these burls are decades old and grow each year that the tree is alive.
While you may not immediately see the beauty in a tree burl, pretty much any woodturner does. They covet tree burls, transforming them into one of a kind bowls that can sell for hundreds of dollars. And they have been doing it since colonial times.
My first introduction to these exquisite one-of-a-kind burl bowls was at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont which displays these two-hundred-year old wooden treasures alongside handmade quilts, blacksmith art, and pewter cups. Burl is also used to make furniture, guitars and even watches.
Burls are most commonly found on maples, walnut trees, oak and cherry. But burls can grow on any kind of tree that has been subjected to some kind of stress, such as injury, virus, fungus, insect infestation or mold growth. Once a burl forms, it takes 30 to 40 years to get to a size where it can be transformed into a man-made work of art.
The grain of the burl can be compared to a ball of yarn. It’s as though the tree’s cells went haywire and decided to tie themselves into a knot, according to Kevin Smith, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Because burls wood is so valuable, a pouchier industry has developed with chain-saw welding thieves harvesting burls in our national forests. The redwood forests out west are especially attractive to burl thieves, as these burls can be several feet in diameter. It has gotten to the point that rangers have positioned cameras to catch these thieves.
While wood artisans and poachers are known to take a chainsaw and cut the burl off the trees, ecologists recommend against it. The burls contribute to the forests ecosystem of growth and regeneration. And if the tree is in your yard, cutting the burl off will kill the tree. So best wait until the tree dies or has to be removed to get your hands on one.
So next time you are out and about and spot one of these surprise treasures still attached to the tree, stop to admire its beauty growing out of deformity. Burls stand as testament to an old time craft that modern technology can not replicate or mass produce.