Saturday, November 12, 2016

Maximizing Tree Growth - Health - through Root Zone Management

Imagine a world in which at least the drip zone of Tree Root Zones were managed for health/longevity and vigor.

This blog post will cover a few things you can do to maximize tree growth, survival rate, health,  production (fruit/nut), and longevity.  The following instructions should lead to the following benefits to your tree.

1. Reversing soil compaction around the tree, increasing percolation of water, porosity, bettering soil structure and water + air holding capacity which benefits ability to photosensitize and grow. 
2. Minimizing root competition from lawn which boosts growth, health, and longevity especially during the immature years of the tree. 
3. Inoculating your tree with host-specific mycorrhizae, proven to boost tree growth/health. 
4. Localizing an abundant reservoir of bio-available (plant absorbable) minerals and nutrients, while creating a biological hot zone around the tree providing natural benefits to the soil. This includes the restoration of a very biologically active O layer.

This is our current, most common state of root zone management, lawn up to the trunk...or perhaps a small mulch ring. Small in comparison to the canopy of the tree. 

Negative effects of managing tree root zones with lawn or small mulch rings + lawn.

  1. Mowers + the weight of human traffic (we're big animals!) maintains a level of compaction one does not encounter on a forest floor. That is why you can "sink" an inch or two into the topsoil of a forest floor, but in a lawn, it is more sturdy, solid, compacted. Compaction means less pore space, less pore space means the soil has a lessened ability to hold air and water, both essential to plant photosynthesis. Compacted soil can be one of the most limiting growth factors that a plant faces. Newly constructed developments, especially within the past decade or so, are notoriously compacted, but we can reverse that. Compacted soil not only has poorer pore space, but directly related to that issue, water has a more difficult time percolating, so more water runs off the surface instead of seeping into the soil.
  2. Lawn gets an early start in up taking available nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil. Because most lawns in the midwest are composed of cool season grasses, they begin growth in late march/early April in many springs, just when many of our native trees are sending sap back above ground, but well before our native trees begin to leaf out. Turfgrass then continues rampant growth throughout May and June trying to reach flowering height so it can set seed by July, we interrupt that cycle through mowing causing the turf to perpetually attempt to reach flowering height absorbing significant amounts of nutrients as long as the soil is moist enough to promote new growth. One positive thing though is, since we mow lawn, it has very short root systems, and tree roots can often monopolize moisture in the subsoil. 
  3. When we're trying to establish saplings or even large balled and burlap trees, the trees have to send roots that fight through the tight sod of lawn, inching year by year to find underground niches of available water/nutrients that either the lawn isn't using or the tree outcompetes the lawn for. This competition that lawn provides to establishing trees, is one of the main retardants of tree growth while immature. Most trees if planted correctly and sited well, eventually over come the lawn and establish their dominance, but the lawn still played a retarding role in each of those tree's establishing growth, and possibly the tree's longevity. 
  4. Lack of O layer; the O layer (Organic matter layer) within the soil profile is different from ecosystem to ecosystem. A prairie O layer is very thick and well developed unless it's a glade like prairie. O Layers of temperate forest soils are often rich of partly decomposed leaves, twigs, branches, and logs, all the while relatively shallow compared to a Prairie O layer. The O layer in a wetland or boreal forest is often very deep, as organic matter has a hard time breaking down due to too much moisture (anerobic conditions) or not enough heat and unfrozen moisture (boreal forest). The O layer of a lawn (thatch) is typically plain pitiful in comparison to the O layer of a real ecosystem. So our trees are growing without the most biologically active, and nutrient rich layer of the soil profile. We'll talk about reviving the O layer later in the blog. 

The Short Version (Recap)

The Many Effects of Compaction
Mowers + human foot traffic maintain an unnatural level of compaction, reducing pore space in the soil which reduces available soil moisture, air holding capacity, and reducing percolation all of which are retardant factors affecting of growth, health, and longevity. 
Nutrient and Resource Competition
Cool season turfgrass gets an early jump on available nutrients, and spends a lot of energy spring and early summer trying to flower causing the grass to continue to compete for available nutrients. Turfgrass roots/sod must be conquered by every tree we're trying to establish in a lawn, traditionally, (we're going to discuss a new way) therefor in the establishment years of a tree, they're forced to fight inch by inch through the already established, perennial turfgrass to create their own root zone retarding growth and vigor. Imagine putting a Zinnia in a lawn, and a Zinnia in a container, which will row faster, mature larger, and possibly even live longer?
Absent O Layer
Outside of Deserts, nearly all ecosystems have significant O layers (Organic Matter Layer) which often hold the largest reservoir of bio-avaialble nutrients and biologically activity (soil life). The O layer of lawn is a very thin layer of thatch that cannot start to compare with the value of a forest, prairie, or wetland O layer. Our trees are essentially missing a very important layer of their original soil profile. Lack of O layer also creates highs and lows in soil temperatures and lessened ability to hold moisture in the A layer (topsoil), which is not good for anyone :-(

So we need to flip all of these limiting factors, into reasons why our trees are thriving, live long, and grow vigorously. This requires biomimicry with some modification to speed up, maximize , and sustain nutrient availability + humus production. 

Instead of planting our new fruit tree, native tree, or ornamental tree in a lawn subjected to mowing, foot traffic and lacking an O Layer, we're going to give our newly planted tree a patch of forest-like soil conditions and add some deer protection, which is often lacking but completely essential in Midwestern metropolitan property open to deer browse and rubbing.

Have you ever "potted up" a young tree? This means to move it from a 1 gallon to a 5 gallon pot, or a 5 gallon to a 15 gallon pot. When this happens the tree has a chance to expand it's roots, which corresponds with an increased ability to grow above ground in stem/leaf form. When you plant a tree sapling, or 1 gallon or 5 gallon or whatever sized tree into a lawn, you're essentially potting it up, except the pot has no bottom.....or edges.....but this new pot (the lawn) has water and nutrient thirsty turfgrass.....and heavy animals called humans compacting the soil.....and the sometimes heavy machinery, mowing the thirsty grass.

So what can we do to give our new planting a easier time expanding it's root system?
Get rid of the grass. How? Smothering with cardboard if organic, herbicide by the label, if not. Organic method is better for soil biology in the short-term, at least. Tilling and Solarization with black or clear plastic damages soil biology in the short-term, at least.

We've stopped mowing, and stopped walking around the tree. We've also gotten rid of the grass within the recommended diameter circle pictured above.
Ok easy enough, so what's next?

Next we work on restoring the O layer.

We're concerned with restoring a biologically active, moisture retentive, nutrient dense O layer which doesn't significantly form within a lawn, but was part of all of our major ecosystems soil profiles excluding deserts. If you used cardboard to kill of the grass in the rootzone, remove it before adding the below recommended materials. 

If you're installing the zone in the fall, get as diverse amount of tree leaves as possible. Some tree leaves aren't very carbon dense and break down quickly like Hackberry, Silver Maple, Black Cherry, Black Locust, Black Walnut, and Honeylocust. Sugar Maple, Black Maple, Oaks, Hickories, Beech
Trees, and a few other trees produce leaves heavier in carbon, and longer lasting. Try to collect more of the latter than the carbon-lite leaves.

If you use a strong push behind or walk behind mower that can bag the shredded leaves or mulch them in place, go for a a <1" application of shredded leaves. This is a bit more than would naturally fall in one area, but since they're shredded, they shouldn't last more than 1 year which means the soil biology is releasing their nutrients through decomposition into the root zone of your new tree.

If you can't shred your leaves go for a 4-6" application of un-shredded leaves, but be sure to not pile the leaves directly around the trunk, as that can promote negative fungal activity on the bark of your tree and rot it to death. By the end of the winter the 4-6" application should look like a 2-3" matted application of tree leaves. Shredding the leaves is best for quicker release of nutrients aka decomposition. Though unshredded leaves may be better for attracting benefical insects due to the micro-habitat created within layered leaves.

If you're installing the zone in the spring, utilize straw bales going for a 4-5" layer somewhat loosely laid, perhaps 2-3" if  straw is compacted well. Straw won't have the mineral quality of tree leaves, but will provide some trace minerals, nitrogen, and carbon for humus (o layer) formation. Alternatively apply 1-2 inches of leaf compost, or 3-4 inches of regular compost throughout the root zone with 2" of straw on top.

Pictures to the right: Fill the Root zone with fall leaves from as many different species as possible. Then mow all of the leaves up in place or bag them with a mower and spread the shredded leaf matter throughout the zone. Your finished product should have turned the leaves into not much visually, rest assured, there is an abundance of nutrients ready to be released from those leaves.

Maximizing Available Nitrogen + Other Nutrients within the No Mow Zone

The tree leaves or straw will be providing a broad spectrum of minerals as they decompose over the course of 8-12 months after applying. Again, shredding is best, though it is more difficult to shred straw without an actual leaf shredder. These materials are high in carbon and many minerals, promoting the formation of the O Layer (partly decomposed organic matter). These materials are not very dense in nitrogen though, and to make sure your tree has an abundance of this key nutrient available, the rootzone will need some nitrogen rich materials added throughout the growing season (Late March-September).

After the first growing season

The rootzone of your tree should be developing humus (mostly decomposed organic matter). It should also be inhabited by beetles, ants, spiders, and many other insects moving throughout the O layer. You can add a log or two into the root zone which may attract beneficial insects. As long as it's not buried, it wont' significantly affect your Carbon : Nitrogen ratio balance, though it should be colonized by the fungal community over time which may be connected with your establishing tree exchanging nutrients and biochemicals. If you're limiting your walking in the zone, you should also feel the soil softening/aerating after the first growing season, perhaps you can push your finger into the soil a bit, or a lot, if you're so lucky to have a burrowing animal tunneling through your root zone! All of this soil life, burrowing/tunneling activity, and insect activity are positives for our key goals: nutrient availability, reversal of compaction, moisture retention ability of the soil profile, humus formation, and water percolation.

Supplemental Watering

Throughout the summer months (May-August), if you're local area is falling behind on average rainfall, give the whole rootzone 1.5" of water, twice a month. You can measure that setting up a sprinkler, and placing an open evenly shaped container in the zone watching to see how quickly it is reaching 1.5" of water in the container. Tuna cans work great for that or just a rain gauge.  

By the end of your first summer, your root zone should not have an O layer thicker than 2". Also un-decomposed organic matter, again, should not be pilled up or in direct contact with the trunk. It would be best to add only shredded leaves each fall, this will ensure quicker breakdown of the leaves, preventing the O Layer from being "too thick" and carbon dense. How thick is too thick? I'm not sure. But the objective isn't to create a compost pile around your tree. Revisit the soil profile picture above. 2" is probably the thickest you want the O layer,  after the first summer has passed.  This recommendation may change as my own experiments mature or as I receive feedback from others' trials.

After 7-10 years (Growing seasons)

Keep the root zone protection in place to protect the drip line, and instead of adding tons of carbon and nitrogen rich organic matter, simply add enough tree leaves in the fall to maintain a 2-3" thick O layer. There's also no need to shred the leaves at this point, they can decay at natural rates, gradually becoming available to your very well established tree. 

At this point you can also expand the root zone, to give you're maturing tree more biologically active, non-compacted soil, if you can afford to loose more lawn, the tree will be most appreciative. 

Ornamentalizing the Root Zone

Above is the wild native sunflower, that was cultivated into the plants that occupy the sunflower fields we know and love. When you grow the wild uncultivated Helianthus annus - Annual sunflower, they bloom with more heads per plant, and smaller heads with brownish centers. Using weakly rooted perennials and native annuals may enhance the soil biology within the Root zone, through the addition of plant diversity. Using only native plants maximizes diversity in fungal, bacterial, and insect interactions with the plant through evolution-based established relationships. Once again, bio-mimicry is almost always the best solution because nature is perfect like that.

Here is a list of native plants that can ornamentalize the root zone area while adding some valuable plant diversity-enhancing the soil biology, without strongly competing with the tree roots. Try to keep 40-50% of the rootzone free of plants, for the tree to quickly (without competition) establish it's root dominance. This also means no rhizomatous plants like mistflower or obedient plant, which can quickly occupy the whole root zone within a few seasons through running rhizomes.

Non Root Competitive Non-Rhizomatous Native Perennials for the root zone

May-June Bloomers
Wild Geranium
Hairy Wood Mint 
Sand Coreopsis
Foxglove Beardtongue

June-July Bloomers
Long-headed Coneflower
Nodding Onion
Purple Coneflower
Wild Bergamot - Limited
Mountain Mint-Limited
Early Sunflower-Limited
Marsh Blazing Star-Liable to flop

August-September Bloomers
Cardinal Flower
Great Blue Lobelia
Gentian species
Meadow Phlox

Dwarf Goldenrod
Frost Aster
Aromatic Aster - Limited
New england Aster-Limited

Grasses-Native Ryes
Native Sedges-limited

The plants noted with "limited" can be root competitive with the tree if they are allowed to take over the root zone, or if planted too densely. 

If you're going to use annuals, stick to native annuals, or annuals native to this continent. They tend to be used heavily by local pollinators when at least native to the continent. 

Native Annuals (At least native to this continent) 

Helianthus annus (Wild Type)- search for Wild Helianthus annus on google to find smaller flowred “origninal” uncultivated sunflower with black or brownish centers on 4-5” wide flowers. These will have non-competitive root systems. Wont’ bloom until August.

Partridge pea germinated in Late April in a small pot will be ready to plant my Late May, and will flower in August. Fixes nitrogen, and since it is an annual it releases that nitrogen upon dying each year. Should reseed each year, depending on how thick the O Layer is. 

Rudbeckia hirta-germinated in april in a small pot again will be ready to plant by late may, flowering in June-July, a reseeding it self each year afterwards depending how thick O layer is.

Bidens aristosa will get 4-5 feet tall, so must be stragetically placed, and won’t be bloom until September, but will with an outstanding show of larger yellow blooms.

Zinnas- Because Zinnias are native to central america, southwest America, the least manipulated flowers attract a lot of native pollinators. Look for Zinnia varieties that are not “double” and “tripple” flowered/petaled, pollinators find thickly "petaled" flowers confusing. Chose Orange or Yellow or White over Red and Maroon which are not colors that attracts most pollinators.

Salvia farinacea- cultivars such as Victoria blue are good selections. Bees love these plants, which are native to southern United States as perennials and into Mexico.

Cleome serrulata- most cultivars of Cleome are really popular with bees, this is another annual native to the united states, that pollinators agree with, at least in the midwest. 

Agastache foeniculum-there are a few cultivars of this native annual as well, that remain favorites among pollinators, likely due to the plant's origin within the united states. 

If you decide to help your tree breathe easy, and grow vigorously using these Root Zone Management techniques please email so we can exchange information and hopefully exchange success stories/pictures. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Big Picture Land Use and High Impact Local Action/Outreach

(The millions of acres of farmland and pasture in-between metropolitan areas colored light green)

This post is about overall land use in the U.S.A. and is meant to deliver a large picture. The dark green streaks in the picture above represent private and publicly owned forest-land likely on topography that didn't favor agriculture which is all of the light green colored land in between these Indiana and Ohio Metropolitan areas. 

Not counting Alaska which has effectively no agricultural land, at least 43.5% of the total U.S. Land was devoted to livestock grazing or cropland growing silage and/or fodder in 2002.

To find this number you must find out how much Corn, Silage, Alfalfa, Soybeans, Sorghum, and Wheat were grown for livestock, which is part of the cropland land use but not attributed to livestock. Where as Rangeland and Pasture are directly attributed to livestock use. One must also add the 134 million acres of Grazed Forests under the Forest-use land category.

Also, when you don’t count the 375 million acres in Alaska which are again, mostly unusable to agriculture, agricultural purposes in total (including grazing) occupied over 62% of the U.S. Land Area in 2002.  Counting Alaksa, the number is 52%.

(Overview of Urban-Suburban and some Rural Residential land in NKY/Cincinnati Metro Area)

In comparison, Urban Land (2.6% - 60 million Acres) and Rural Residential Land (4.2% - 94 million acres) only occupied a total of 6.8% of the U.S. Land’s surface.  Lawn occupies an estimated 40+ million acres of that land (26%). Here’s the bad news, 6.8% of a highly fragmented land surface will not save biodiversity through native plant landscape renovation and invasive species removal alone, the footprint is too small and spread out throughout the country. But the people! Here’s the good news; 100% of the population is concentrated on 6.8% of the land!

Why does this matter so?

Our ecological integrations on our hometown properties could quite possibly be the most effective cultural outreach ever attempted on behalf of the environment/nature. Why focus on cultural outreach? Because it is our collective culture that is indifferent to/unaware of/or ok with 43.5% of the land being used by livestock, and 62% of the lower 48 states being occupied by largely unsustainable, ecologically destructive/limiting forms of industrial agriculture.

Though I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as education and giving people “facts”. People know that climate change is happening, they’ve heard plenty of facts, that hasn’t translated into cultural change/reaction that shows we as a society are ready to face this dilemma.  The majority of the country is still carrying on with our energy wasting lifestyles for the most part. Education and awareness campaigns have their place, but if they’re not bringing about a grassroots transformation, literally, then they’re likely supplementing/attracting the people who already would support more sustainable land management-the people like you and I who are reading and writing blog posts like these,  leading/attending conferences and workshops, and putting these earth balancing methods into practice.

(Birds eye view of a section of the suburban-city Mason, Ohio)

My question is, given our small piece of land that homeowners own, work in, attend school/church/events, shop, and commute about (6.8% of the U.S.), how do we engage the masses? If provided the proper directions, anyone can construction a native prairie planted with edible fruit producing trees and shrubs, and tree/shrub nut-crops, but how do we involve our communities who are mostly compromised of people who would never think to engage in such lively land management. I don’t mean to paint them as hopeless or aversive to these ideas, but I certainly mean to express the tasks we are given as people wishing to reconnect the masses to nature culturally who are currently disconnected.

When I say we are disconnected I mean I would bet that 9/10 of my neighbors can’t describe the destruction that Bush Honeysuckle is doing to our local ecology, 9/10 of my neighbors can’t list any health risks to their families, wildlife, or the watershed of applying pesticides and herbicides to their lawns, and 9/10 of my neighbors can’t identify 3 of the native trees on my street, on their properties with the 1/10 being myself.  I’m also willing to be that 9/10 people don’t have a basic understanding of land-use in the U.S., any idea of how much land is devoted to livestock production, the carbon footprint associated with non-local/regionally sourced foods and meat production, soil degradation associated with industrial agriculture, the 6th mass extinction, or even name 3 trees that may have once grown where their property now sits.

We can supply that kind of information to paint a vague picture of a scary reality that us earth-conscious people must bare, but I again emphasis the point that education campaigns and awareness raising campaigns have had very variable and many unsuccessful results. A study done on a community based tree planting program in California showed that the community members who were involved with tree selection, organizing the planting events, and executing the planting the tree were much more likely to nurture the tree they received.  That demonstrates that a bond was formed, and care for this “other” life form had become desirable to an individual. Where as community members who received trees, but weren’t involved in selection, planting, planning, or event execution were significantly less likely to nurture the trees.

(An infographic of a temporarily shelved pilot program to engage people in nature)

Back when I was working 40 hours a week at Cincinnati Parks as a Horticulturist, while building Pioneer Landscapes LLC after work and on the weekends, I naively but innocently attempted to pioneer a community based tree planting program that would later grow to include native shrubs, native wildlfowers, native grasses, and edible native and edible non-native plants for food production. Our target was to work with non-profits, churches, and business that were interested in being more involved with their communities and carrying out environmentally positive actions. I along with a few volunteers even completed a piolot project in which a non-profit grew over 70 Oak trees and distributed them freely to those who wanted them. The idea of Oak trees turned out to be scary to our big-tree wary culture and perhaps only 20 were adopted, but we had to go with Oak trees as the pilot project was rushed and that was the only seed we had available that spring. In the future when I have the free-time to revive this project, we’ll be focusing on the most nature/people bonding plants such as those with outstanding beauty like Black Gum, Eastern Redbud, and Flowering Dogwood, as well as those that produce human edible foods like Persimmons, Hybrid Hazelnuts, and PawPaws, as well as canopy sized trees like Hickories, Oaks, and Sugar Maple.  The quick instant gratification of native wildflowers and grasses will also be distributed through a model like this to directly engage people (-video link) in the growing, pot loading, planting, and nurturing of plants while reaping the fruits of the labor figuratively and literally. This model was also very economically affordable, costing the community organization partner only 25 cents to produce a native shrub, wildflower, or grass and $4.25 to produce a native tree of which about $4.00 was for deer protection.

(Oak Saplings being grown and nurtured by Happen Inc.- A community focused non-profit)

I felt like that model had many of the ingredients to engage communities actively in the physical/natural environments of their neighborhoods attracting those interested in ecology, aesthetics, and food production to be leaders/facilitators, while also being educational, unique, and fun enough to attract school and community youth participation. After breaking down under the stress of leading that non-profit program, while building a for-profit business, and working a 40 hour week job, I had to shelf the program but I believe it is experience based programs like these that can effectively connect people to nature, as opposed to just education/awareness focused programs. Letting nature be the teacher…..bees pollinate,  grasses dance in the wind, butterflies flutter, fruit tastes sweet…… one our jobs as people interested in saving nature I believe is creating the landscapes or programs that create the landscapes and experiential opportunities; that allow nature to change the minds and hearts of those who experience her in good health.  

In closing I’d like to tell a short story. I was walking the Cincinnati Botanical Zoo a few years ago in early spring. Forsythia, a non-native with no local genetic ties to our pollinators, was in full bright yellow bloom. It blooms so thickly and early in the season, one would think people would crowd around them in a high traffic area like the Zoo to see the spectacle. But to the left of the patch of forsythia stood one small cherry tree. Even though the Cherry tree wasn’t a native or native cultivar, since Cherries (Prunus species) have close genetic ties to local cherries species (Black Cherry and Wild Plum species) local pollinators have adapted well to landscape cherry trees. I must say, I do not advocate the planting of non-native ornamental cherry trees as there are strains locally that are shade tolerant and becoming dangerously invasive in local forests out competing Beech and Sugar Maple in the understory. Anyways, there were 2 or 3 ladies standing directly under this cherry tree, who bloomed a modest soft whitish pink, enamored by the activity occurring in, around, on, and through it. The tree was buzzing  with easily over 100 pollinators with native bees and honeybees well represented which was deeply captivating to the pedestrians. Meanwhile the brightly colored patch of forsythia may have briefly caught a few wandering eyes, it did not stop people in their tracks and captivate their minds like that little cherry tree covered in life, pollination in action. Native plant landscapes integrated with food producing tree and shrubs have the potential to reconnect people back to the land/life. Let us focus on building these cultural connections, and keep in mind, we have the whole population concentrated on 6.8% of the land, that is an opportunity to move people, an opportunity to change culture, an opportunity to save nature through paradigm shifts.

I digress with this parting note, without competing with other social action movements or threatening the art of horticulture creating opposition, we with bonds already developed with nature must be the ones to cultivate a greener tomorrow, today. Think about it, if not us, than who would care enough to?

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