Friday, May 30, 2014

Orchid Colonization

As a youngster, I always thought of orchids as being extremely delicate plants that needed exacting conditions in order to grow and flower.  I probably formed that opinion from watching TV shows in which hothouse orchids expired from encounters with cold drafts or little boy’s fingers.  I held on to my opinion until adulthood, but things changed when I was introduced to some of Ohio’s resident orchid species.  If these plants could survive the wild extremes of our weather patterns, they must possess a healthy dose of toughness and stamina.  The Blue Jay Barrens orchids, such as these Large Twayblades, express some of those qualities.

These orchids are growing in what, 30 years ago, was an annually plowed field devoted to the production of agricultural grain crops.  This exact spot is near the edge of the field in a location that was also used as a travel lane to move harvest equipment in and out of the field.  I planted a White Pine windbreak here 28 years ago that has since developed into a pine shaded strip with a thick bed of needles.  Into this, orchids have arisen.

If these flowers are properly pollinated, there will result a multitude of tiny seeds that are light enough to be picked up and carried long distances by the wind.  Those seeds just have to find the proper environment in which to germinate and develop new plants.

It’s encouraging to think that the cropland soil could recover sufficiently in less than 30 years to be the proper medium for an orchid plant.  This event doesn’t fit my earlier perception of orchid behavior.  Highly compacted, heavily eroded cropland soil just doesn’t seem to be an ideal environment in which to find a plant as exotic as an orchid.

What was once a single blooming plant has become two.  This small leaf, growing beside the two mature plants, is indication that next year may bring a trio of blooming orchids.

Marked by sticks on my walking path is another species of orchid that has found the old crop field a suitable site for colonization.

Ragged Fringed Orchid is a plant of the open fields.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to see when growing in a field full of tall grasses.  Each year I mark those growing up in the trail, but something always seems to happen to them before they bloom.  I’m hoping one will produce a flower so I can get some photos.

This plant is looking quite healthy.  That bud should produce an impressive display.

This one isn’t faring nearly as well as the first.  Weevils have been feeding heavily here.

A third has succumbed to some type of wilt.  I’ve seen Ragged Fringed Orchids blooming in the field in the past, but that was pre digital camera.  I’ve already give it credit for being a tough plant and it has certainly established itself widely across the field.  It would just please me greatly if one of those tenacious plants would favor me with a flower.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Seed Harvest

This was a rough year for the small winter annuals that live in the barrens.  These plants begin their growth in the late fall and flower in early spring.  They grow as long as sunlight is available, but this year, frequent snowstorms kept the ground covered for most of the winter. When winter finally ended, the plants had developed to just a fraction of their normal size.  Small plant size corresponds into a reduced seed crop.  For a plant that dies following seed production, fewer seeds likely mean a reduced population size the following year.  Several bad years in a row could eliminate a population.

My container grown plants came through the year in excellent shape.  Unlike their wild counterparts, these plants displayed the best the species can produce.  They proved an excellent example of how slightly different growing conditions can make a big difference in results.  The Leavenworthia uniflora shown here are as robust as any I have ever seen.

I grow plants in containers so that I can observe the daily changes in plant development.  A secondary goal in raising the more rare species is to produce seed that can be used to augment what is being produced naturally.  The original seed for these plants came from the barrens of Blue Jay Barrens.  Extra seed produced in containers is returned to the site of the wild population. 

The fruits are stuffed full of seeds.  This is about an average yield for the container grown plants.  Those in the barrens only produce four seeds at best.

I’ve been collecting seeds from the container for a week now.  The photo above illustrates a typical day’s harvest, a total of about 40 fruits.  I harvest the fruits just as they begin to split and expose the seeds.  I miss plenty, so there are more than enough seeds left in the container for next season.

Harvested fruits are left to dry for a few days.

When the seeds have completely dried, they are stored in an envelope until planting time.

Once I harvest the last of the seeds, I’ll take them out and scatter them on the barrens.  Leavenworthia seeds need a period of hot weather to allow them to break dormancy and germinate in the fall, so it’s important to get them planted while there is still plenty of summer yet to come.  I’ve also found that it’s best to plant seeds at the same time they would naturally be dropping from the plant.  That way they are naturally going to get the treatment they need for germination.  Hopefully, the coming winter will be more conducive to Leavenworthia growth and the barrens will produce a record crop next year.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Water Garden

The Water Garden has now been in existence for 14 years.  In that time, the composition of flora and fauna has been constantly changing.  I’ve tried to guide that change to create what I believe would be the ideal situation, but the Water Garden has proven to be a dynamic force that will not be tamed.

Water Lilies are the only introduction I made of plant species not found on the property.  Even these lilies don’t follow my original intent.  Planted in weighted pots, their root systems become so massive during the summer that they rise to the surface to float about as islands.  The root masses have totally engulfed the pots along with several bricks that I tied on in an attempt to keep the roots on the bottom.  Several species of aquatic plants have colonized the islands and survive the winter immersion while waiting for the islands to pop back to the surface in summer.

Water Lily flowers always fascinated me as a child.  I would spend hours staring at them.  This year, you have to view these white flowers early in the day to catch their brilliance.  Tree pollen is falling so heavily that white quickly turns to yellow as the day goes on.  The bud to the left has collected several rings of pollen already.  The pollen forms a skin on the water’s surface that remains until a rain causes it to sink to the bottom of the pool.

I put in some pots of native aquatic plants when the water garden first filled.  Since then, a variety of seeds has arrived to add diversity to the pots.  The actual lip of the pot is about an inch below the water surface.  Accumulation of moss, roots and organic debris has raised the soil level above the water line and doubled the diameter of the original pot.

Common Milkweed arrived on the scene just a few years ago.  Although I have several stands of milkweed around the yard, the plants growing next to the Water Garden are most favored by the Monarch butterflies.  Even though the plants become quite unruly later in the year and lean out to threaten visitors to the house, I’ll leave them to grow here.  With all of the reports of possible Monarch extinction, I would hate to deprive even one individual the opportunity to deposit some eggs.

Field Horsetail has now formed an almost solid border between the driveway and the Water Garden.  Along the creek, where I originally collected this plant, the horsetail grows in tiny patches and seems to be struggling to maintain a presence.  I was hoping it would maintain this same pattern in its new location.  Instead, it has set out on a campaign to claim as much territory as it possibly can.  If I didn’t keep it in check with a little glyphosate application, it would have taken over the driveway and half the yard by now.

I collected some rushes from the pond and installed them in pots on the back side of the Water Garden.  They have formed a floating mat that bridges the pots and extends into deeper water.  The floating roots are unable to keep the tall plants upright and the tops soon fall over.  Other plants have colonized the rush mats, including the invasive Narrow Leaved Cattail.  The one in this photo will be cut and sprayed.

The cattail leaves do make a sturdy support for a dragonfly nymph making the transformation into an adult insect.  Several species of dragonflies deposit eggs in the Water Garden and the discarded exoskeletons of mature nymphs are a common sight.

Being a permanent water body, the Water Garden has provided conditions conducive to the establishment of aquatic predators.  I no longer see explosions of tadpoles, crustaceans or insects, because the various established predators keep those species at lower levels.  Dragonflies are one of those predators.  This dragonfly skin may be empty, but you can still see the labium, or lower mouth part, used by the dragonfly nymph to capture prey.  The nymph extends the labium like a long arm to reach out and snag any creature small enough to hold. 

At the end of the labium is a set of curved hooks that trap the prey and hold it while it is consumed.  A pool full of dragonfly nymphs can easily cut down the number of smaller organisms.

Another predator with a never-ending appetite is the Red Spotted Newt.  These guys will feed on any animal matter, dead or alive, that is small enough to swallow.

In time, larger predators arrived.  The Common Water Snake feeds on the larger pool inhabitants, including other predators.

Bullfrogs have massive mouths and will try to eat anything that moves.  When Bullfrogs move into a small pool, they quickly consume the smaller frog species.  I’ve tried removing predators in an attempt to keep the pool in an earlier stage of development, but have decided that type of activity is not practical.  The Water Garden will be left to those species adapted to living in a permanent pool environment.  I will construct new pools with the proper conditions for the other species I enjoy so much.

The Water Garden still holds Green Frog tadpoles from eggs laid last year, but there are no adult Green Frogs left.  The tadpoles feed algae and other plant debris.  More tadpoles mean clearer water.  This tadpole has been skimming pollen from the surface.  I guess next year’s tadpoles will be those of the Bullfrogs.

Water Boatmen colonized the Water Garden before it had completely filled with water and have maintained a continuous presence since then.  These are true bugs with the signature tube-like mouth parts.  They feed primarily on algae and decaying organic matter.

Air is carried by the Water Boatmen as a film covering the body surface.  This gives the bugs a shiny appearance and makes it difficult to view body details.  They stay submerged by anchoring to stationary objects and periodically come to the surface to exchange stale air for fresh.

Great Blue Herons have eaten all of the goldfish, so the 100 gallon tub has lost its top predators and algae eaters.  Algae is a quality food item and where food exists, something will come along to eat it.

Since a population of new predators has not yet had a chance to colonize the tub, the Gray Treefrogs have a safe place in which to lay their eggs.  New egg clusters are placed almost daily.

The tadpoles develop quickly and it won’t be long until they are growing fat on the algae.  I’m looking forward to seeing what other changes this year brings to my Water Garden complex.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fescue Control Trial

There are over a dozen invasive plant species that are on the priority list for control at Blue Jay Barrens.  For some, I’ve found effective control techniques and those species are slowly being removed from the landscape.  For others, I’m still trying to discover effective control techniques.  One group that I am currently working on is made up of introduced cool season grasses commonly used for pasture, hay or landscape purposes.  The most visible members of that group are Tall Fescue, Orchard Grass, Timothy and Kentucky Bluegrass.  They all begin growth early in the season, slow down or enter dormancy during the heat of summer and revive to grow into late fall.  They are most easily detected in late spring when they overtop slower growing vegetation and send up their flower stalks.

Varieties of all of these grasses have been developed to be super vigorous and highly competitive.  Many native plants cannot survive the competition and disappear.  The challenge is to find a way to remove the invasive grasses from the stand without harming the natives.  I have some ideas and decided to try one out on the grass along the trails.  This is what a typical untreated trail edge looks like.  A secondary reason for conducting my trials along the trail edges was the fact that the mature fescue seed stalks lean out into the trail at the precise time that chigger activity peaks.  Brushing the stalks while walking invariably results in chigger bites, so no grass also means fewer chigger bites.

This point, formed by a fork in the trails, was last year thick with Tall Fescue.  Tall Fescue is the most aggressive of the four grasses mentioned.  Having been used for years for pasture, hay and erosion control, Tall Fescue is present on probably every farm in southern Ohio.  Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue was considered the farmer’s friend and because of its ability to survive on the poorest of soils, is probably responsible for much of the farmland soil remaining on the hillsides.  It’s a tough grass, but it has been eliminated from this small spot and the natives remain.

Last December 2, I used the brush mower to trim down dead stalks along the trail and expose the still green fescue beneath. I then applied a 2% solution of glyphosate to the cut grass.  Since most of the native species were dormant with top growth dead, there was no danger of their being damaged by the herbicide.

The effect of the herbicide is clear to see.  In the treated area the non-native grasses have been eliminated.  The untreated area farther from the trail still has a thick stand of grass.

In a very few areas, the treatment was not successful.  Even though the forecast was for dry conditions throughout the day of treatment, a rain shower hit the area about three hours after the herbicide application.  The spray should have had time to dry and adhere to the grass leaves, but since it was cool and I had just mowed off a large part of the leaf, it’s possible that the chemical was diluted enough to render it ineffective.  It could also be that a clump of cut vegetation covered this patch of grass and intercepted the spray or, even though highly unlikely, the guy wielding the backpack sprayer may have just missed this spot.

I noticed just one native species that did not survive the herbicide treatment.  Golden Ragwort, notorious for maintaining green leaves through the winter, went the way of the exotic grasses.  In this case it was just an area about three feet long that contained the ragworts, but it does illustrate a potential problem with this treatment method.  Any green plant still actively growing will fall victim to the glyphosate.  Before using this method of grass control it is essential that you know what other plants might be susceptible to the spray.  Then a decision can be made as to whether those plants should be sacrificed in order to remove the grass.  In this case, Golden Ragworts are quite common here and will quickly move back into their former haunt.

Other species are taking full advantage of their life without competition.  These Wingstem plants are out to set an all time height record.

The area along this trail used to contain a great stand of Monarda fistulosa.  The Monarda suddenly disappeared a few years ago.  It’s been slowly recovering and shows no damage from the glyphosate treatment.  I’m hoping that a few more years will find it back in its glory.

I’ve tried the December applied glyphosate treatment in the past on small, nine or twelve square foot plots.  One potential problem is leaving bare ground into which invasive plants can get a foothold. This is especially true with extremely thick stands of grass.  If native species cover less than half of the treated area, there is a high likelihood that colonizing weed species will appear on the site.  Teasel, Johnson Grass and Canada Thistle are some that are problems in this area.  Native annuals, such as the Giant Ragweed shown here, also take advantage of the exposed ground.  Giant Ragweed has always been a part of the flora along this section of trail and doesn’t cause me much concern.  It may be a bit more prevalent for a couple of years, but will soon return to its normal scattering of plants.

The native prairie grasses suffer no damage.  Their top growth has already died back by the time the glyphosate is sprayed.

This section of trail shows a healthy Indian Grass border.  The grass will be leaning in and just about closing the trail by September, but it doesn’t bother me as long as it’s native.

The next step in controlling the invasive grasses will be to move away from the trail and into the field.  I’ll monitor the area along the trail through the summer and if things seem to go well, I’ll treat some larger sections of the field this winter.