This picture was taken on a misty, dawn morning of the Buffalo Creek that meanders along the northeast edge of our property. Eric and I bought this 3.5 acre property 9 years ago because of this creek. We understood early on (before our sons were born), the significance that this forested wetland would have on our ability to teach ecology to our children. Eric and I are trained ecologists, and we immediately fell in love with the diversity of plant and animal life surrounding the property. Time has granted us many opportunities to learn about how our environment influences the animal and plant life here, and we have diligently worked on enhancing its diversity through the manipulation of plant species.
When Eric and I first bought our property it included a post and beam structure built in the 1850's for use as the community church. Many decades later, it was converted into a living home. After we moved in, we spent 3 full years remodeling it in our spare time. A garage and shed were also here on the property when we bought it, and were fairly new at the time. The acreage had mostly been converted to lawn. Almost two acres had been kept freshly mowed, while one acre of forest, consisting mostly of black locust (Robiniapseudoacacia) with an occasional sugar maple (Acer
saccharum) and black cherry (Prunus serotina) interspersed, were present. The forest understory was a monoculture of common periwinkle (Vincaminor). Common periwinkle is an invasive and fast spreading plant that can choke out many native plant species (http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=VIMI2 ). The previous owners of the property enjoyed common periwinkle because it created a neat and tidy appearance. Our goals were to plant a diversity of species in order to may make our property more resistant to weed invasion and establishment. Therefore, the summer we moved in we ripped out as much common periwinkle as we could (along with other invasive plants), knowing it would take years for us to undo much of the damage this plant had caused.
Eric and I began to notice the succession of native annual and perrenial plant species shortly after clearing out much of the introduced, invasive species like common periwinkle and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). It took a couple of years of ripping out the invasives and cutting down the black locust mono-culture to allow understory and forestedge plants to repopulate, before we could get a true survey of native inhabitants on our property. Eric mowed the grass about every two weeks in the full sun open areas, which allowed grass to grow tall and produce seed. Soon we were seeing more than just grass grow in these full sun meadows. Multitude's of wildflowers repopulated our property, as seen in these beautiful pictures of a patch of blue bonnets and dame's rocket.
One can buy restoration seed mixes to help promote the development of diverse and weed resistant plant communities, but Eric and I decided to take a different approach. We believed that if we kept the invasive plant species to a minimum through mechanical harvesting, then the seed bank stored with in the topsoil would eventually yield native plant proliferation. Instead, we decided to put our monetary efforts into purchasing tree seedlings from our county's Soil and Water Conservation District tree seedling program. This would jump start the re-introduction of native trees found on our property without having to wait for tree seedling germination. Our efforts paid off within a few years. Native wildflowers appeared almost overnight, and we now have native trees standing over twenty feet tall that grew from seedlings planted 8-9 years ago. We choose native trees with the capacity to feed local wildlife, along with selecting tree species well suited to our property's soil and drainage characteristics.
After the first few years, Eric and I had planted over 400 tree and shrub seedlings consisting of the following species: American chestnut, sugar maple, flowering dogwood, elderberry, hazelnut, American sycamore, black cherry, serviceberry, larch, red oak, blueberry, and wigelia. We had a 20% survival rate which established a more balanced tree diversity on our property. Through the years, we have cut down at least half of our black locust stand that has helped pave the way for other tree species establishment. Our nut trees now produce mature nuts that attract wildlife and offer us harvesting opportunities each fall. Elderberry and blueberry shrubs offer local birds berries all summer long. We are fortunate to see increases in bird species colonize our property, and thus continue to keep a seasonal bird survey to compare differences in species count throughout the years.
As an aside, we process our elderberries into syrup every September. The syrup helps our children rid themselves of cold and flu viruses all winter long. The elderberries are picked, pressed and strained into juice and then boiled down into a thick syrup. I then store the syrup in dark colored glass bottles for freezing. A teaspoon of syrup each day your child is sick can lessen their symptoms tremendously and can even help to prevent a secondary infection. I also use the syrup on my children as a preventative supplement when they're exposed to airborne viruses.
The American chestnuts Eric and I planted almost 9 years ago, are our contribution to the Eastern US reintroduction program. The American chestnut is making a comeback thanks to this program. Our American chestnut trees are producing mature fruit, and we now have a beautiful stand of around 15 of them. By doing our small part in helping to bring these historical giants back from the brinks of extinction has been our passion and pleasure. We will enjoy these trees today, and so will many future generations (our son Aidan pictured showing off one of our American chestnuts at age 3 years old).