THROUGH THE WOODS: Fall is my favorite

Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

LOOKING OUT AT THE BEAUTIFUL LEAVES and sunny blue skies that characterize this time of year makes me very happy. I love this time of year and even the rain is enjoyed as it papers the falling leaves to my yard and drive. Each season offers its own beauty and special times, but October and fall is the best. As a young child my family ran and played with abandon on the ground and under beautiful maple trees of orange and golden leaves. We piled the crunchy brown fallen leaves up and took turns burying each other and rolling around in them. I also remember how I helped my grandfather pack the leaves against the old farmhouse foundation and placed boards on top to hold them in place. Those leaves made good insulation against the winter cold.

It also brought back the smell of fall. I would grab my horse after school, put on his bridle and take off riding bareback. I loved the smell of the horse and all the smells of damp leaves, trees, and forest floor. I am not sure why, but the woods smell different in fall and I like it. My horse loved these rides too and the cool air made him frisky and his winter coat of thick hair helped keep me warm. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: More bitter than sweet

Oriental bittersweet climbs trees, shown here. Photo contributed

IMAGINE AN ORNAMENTAL PLANT which grows quickly, with no insect pests or fungal diseases. It produces highly attractive orange fruits in fall, perfect to pair with pumpkins and mums. It requires no watering or fertilizer, grows in any soil, and thrives in sun or shade. And best of all, deer don’t eat it! Did these positive qualities run through someone’s mind as they brought the first plants of oriental bittersweet to the United States in the 1860s? Certainly they couldn’t have foreseen that this plant would grow into the environment-changer we live with today.

Once you know oriental bittersweet, you’ll find it’s just about everywhere in our part of the Hudson Valley. It’s a vine that can climb 60 feet or more into the trees, sometimes pulling them down as it spreads. It grows on top of less aggressive vines, such as native Virginia creeper, smothering them, too. It also forms dense thickets, leaving no room for woody plants or wildflowers to survive or regenerate. It turns the landscape into a mass of indistinct, foliage-covered forms, making things look strange and degraded. Oriental bittersweet covers natural places, like Schodack Island State Park and Papscanee Island Preserve. Its abundant in cultivated landscapes too, often seen growing up chain link fences in the city and scaling spruces in the suburbs. I’m pulling up seedlings like crazy at my place, trying to hold a line in the shifting sand. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Calm above, trouble below

These grubs are larval stage of beetles common to this region and the writer’s lawn. Photo by David Chinery

 ALL I WANTED was some new photos for my lawn talk, but I got a bit more than that. Since my pictures of looking in a lawn for grubs date back to the film era, I headed into the backyard with my digital camera to get some new-century shots. Scouting for grubs involves cutting out a one square foot section of turf, turning it over, and pawing through the soil in search of larvae. Due to the droughty summer and my weedy lawn, I wasn’t expecting much, but a grub soon appeared; then more, and still more. I stopped looking and counting after I had 13 Japanese beetle grubs writhing in a yogurt cup. While a few grubs are of little concern, over eight per square foot can cause serious damage. Lawns with high grub populations can turn to barren fields by spring. This excited my inner entomologist while nauseating the horticulturist.

If you’ve somehow gotten this far in life and don’t know grubs, here’s the scoop. Grubs are the larval stage of beetles, including Japanese beetles, Oriental beetles, and European chafers, the three most popular characters in the Capital District. The adult mom beetles lay eggs in August, which quickly hatch into grubs. The grubs are white, C-shaped, have six legs on the front end, and a brown head capsule. They voraciously devour the roots of grass plants. They survive winter underground, eat a little more in the spring, pupate, then emerge as the next generation of beetles in late June or early July. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: White pines

White pines. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE WHITE PINE TREES AROUND THE HOUSE sure get scruffy this time of year. This is a normal phenomenon and is called seasonal needle loss or fall needle drop. In the spring a tuft of new needles forms on branch tips. Toward the fall and winter, the oldest needles, about 2-3 years old, turn brown and are shed. So, if you are wondering about the health of your pine trees this may explain a recent change. It seems to be occurring early this year and may be related to our unusually cool, wet weather.

Eastern white pines, or Pinus Strobus, are beautiful trees and have been referred to as the “monarchs of the forest.” If you have visited Saratoga Springs think of the Avenue of the Pines, which is a landmark site on the way to the Gideon Putnam Hotel. The trees there are mature and tall, exhibiting their usual height of 50-80 feet or more, and spread of 20-40 feet wide. They grow fast (over 25” per year) and do well in sunny locations under a variety of conditions. They make good windbreaks and evergreen fillers for many spaces. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Cider making time

Juicy apples. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

AN APPLE FROM THE OLD TREE down the hill from my house was a reminder of preparations that used to be made for winter. Grandfather took us around the farm this time of year to collect apples before the deer and other wildlife ate them. He would back the old pickup truck up to a tree and we kids went up it to shake out the apples into the truck. Gramp had lived on this family farm since the 1880s and knew how all the apples on various trees tasted and which ones combined to make a tasty cider. They were definitely organically grown and occasionally wormy. If we asked about the worms, the answer was “if the worm can live in it, it’s good for you too…. Besides, they’re good protein.”

We drove to different apple trees in different hedgerows until we had enough to go to Barton’s Mill near Martindale. This was fascinating. Mr. Barton was a character and ran a real water-powered mill from the large stream that ran into the mill pond out back. Inside there seemed to be gears, levers and belts everywhere. A whole series of processes started with shoveling out the apples from the truck bed for the grinder. The chopped, unwashed apples and leaves went into an old brown burlap lined wooden box that went under the press. Eventually by creaking gears and unknown magic a vat somewhere was filled.

Mr. Barton then filled the gallon glass jugs plus the small hard cider keg. This had been prepared by filling it with water plus a handful of gravel, plugging the bunghole, and rolling it around the yard. This was all rinsed out and the primitive scouring did a good job. Enough apples were left in trade to cover the cost of the pressing, and that fresh cider was nectar! Read more…