Humans and Trees Share a Common Enemy: Stress!

Article by Elaine Kolish; feature photo: Plant NOVA Natives

We all know that chronic stress affects our health and well-being, causing us to go into “fight or flight” mode. That, in turn, can lead to a variety of health effects ranging from depression to high blood pressure, which itself can increase our risk for stroke or heart attack. Ongoing stress also affects the health of trees. But unlike us, they have limited options for reducing their stress. They can use internally produced chemicals and scents to deter predators and warn other trees of threats, as well as help stressed neighbors by sharing water and nutrients through an underground fungal network. But they can’t pick up and move to avoid stressful conditions. We need to step in and alleviate tree stressors to the extent we can, particularly those caused by human activity. The good news is that caring for trees and spending time in nature can reduce our own stress. A win-win.
Although there are some stressors – such as early spring frosts, extreme heat, and heavy snow and ice – where we are mostly powerless to help, there are many others where we can make a difference. And it is important to do so, because trees can die from exposure to long-term stress, such multi-year droughts.or become more susceptible to insect pests or to diseases that kill them. Let’s look at some human-caused stressors – ones that we can control – and at environmental tree stressors such as drought, where we might be able to help.

·         Use the right plant in the right spot. Right off the bat, you will stress a tree if you plant it in the wrong spot. For example, a shade loving, understory tree such as Flowering Dogwood is going to be highly stressed if planted in full sun in dry soil. Consult for help in choosing the right trees for your site.

·         Use proper planting and staking techniques, These include not planting the tree too deeply and not burying the trunk flare. Think about whether you need stakes and guy wires, because preventing a tree from swaying in the wind will weaken it. If you do use them, always remove them in a timely fashion and not later than a year after planting. When left on too long, stakes can girdle and kill a tree. For information on how to plant a tree properly, consult Fairfax CountyTree Basics.

·         Use proper mulching techniques. Mulch should be applied in a donut shape, not a volcano, and should not touch the tree. When piled high against the tree, mulch can cause decay and ultimately death. The mulch should not be more than two or three inches deep to allow the rain to penetrate. If for some reason you want to add more every year, you should remove the old mulch first.

·         Avoid competition for water. Trees and turf are not friends. Since both have shallow roots, they compete for water and nutrients, and turf wins the battle in the tree’s early life. Also, if there is grass under trees, we run the risk when mowing of damaging the bark, nicking shallow tree roots, or compacting the soil. Any of those will stress our trees. Mulch and/or dead leaves under trees is best, and the larger the ring, the better. A large turf-free ring also provides the opportunity for underplanting with native shrubs and ground-layer plants, creating a mini productive habitat for insects and wildlife.

·         Everyday activities that can hurt trees. Chaining bikes or other items to trees can damage their bark, as does allowing car doors or bumpers to hit them. Repeatedly wounding their bark makes trees vulnerable to decay and disease. Parking under trees also causes soil compaction that can suffocate tree roots.

·         Use proper pruning methods. Don’t top trees! That is a sure way to weaken a tree, make it structurally less sound, and in the most extreme situations eventually kill it. It is useful [1] to take out broken, diseased and dead branches. For example, a clean cut to remove a broken branch helps a tree recover from a wound better, and pruning out a dead branch keeps it from falling unexpectedly and damaging something or someone.  If you don’t know how to prune trees properly, hire a certified arborist to do so or consult one of the many how-to-prune books you can find at the library. A good reference book can show you how to prune trees so they are free from structural weakness and are as healthy and vigorous as possible.

·         Water during droughts. We may not think to water our native trees and shrubs, because a key characteristic of native plants is that once they are established, they no longer need to be watered. But, when there is a drought, even natives may need to be watered, and that is especially true if they have limited soil space from which to draw water, such as in a small tree box next to a street. Without sufficient water, trees will lose their fine absorbing roots and leaves and move to a dormant state. Years of drought and/or other stressors eventually can cause the tree to die.

·         Protect young trees from deer browse. Unfortunately, an overabundance of deer can stress and threaten the survival of our woodies. Consult Plant NOVA Natives for strategies to deal with that.

Although human actions as well as environmental factors can stress trees, we can avoid causing harm and can take actions that keep trees healthy and vigorous. Trees provide us so many benefits, including a profound sense of well-being, that it is well worth it for all of us to do all we can to reduce tree stresses and promote tree health.

Create a Mini Meadow

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

When they aren’t being bulldozed over, the natural state of most meadows in Northern Virginia is to gradually revert to forest, but that fact does not lessen their importance to the ecosystem. Although there are many threats to our woods, it is the meadows that are disappearing the fastest, which is a big problem for birds and other critters that depend on sizable meadows for habitat. When was the last time you saw a meadowlark or a quail, for example?  So if you own land with a natural meadow, you do a great service by preventing it from reforesting (or from being developed.)  

Most of us don’t have natural meadows on our properties, but we, too, can help repair some of the damage by adding meadow plant species to our yards. In most cases, that translates to creating pollinator gardens that can serve as mini-meadows or small-scale meadow analogs that attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinating insects. Even relatively small spaces can foster meadow habitats, especially because much of the ecological value of a meadow comes from common, easy to find, easy to grow species.
Start with just two or three sturdy and meadow-loving natives that produce beautiful flowers and attract pollinators as well, such as Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Goldenrod (e.g., Solidago rugosa or Solidago caesia), Mountain mint (e.g., Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), and Hollow Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium fistulosum). Plants like to grow in communities near other plants. It’s a good idea to put three to five of them together, which mimics the way plants grow naturally in meadows. You can always increase the types and number of native flowering plants in your mini meadow, expanding it over time as your space and interest allows.
Pollinator turnout on flowering natives is high. Dozens if not hundreds of hummingbirds, bumblebees, flies, beetles, and hummingbird moths, along with many other kinds of pollinators, will show up. The more varied your mini meadow offerings, the more diverse the pollinator population it will attract. It is sure to delight and amaze you, especially when compared to the dearth of pollinator activity on non-native landscapes. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more insect-eating birds such as warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. They will certainly notice and take advantage of the opportunity.
When planning your mini meadow, don’t forget grasses. Somewhere between 40% and 70% of meadow plant species are some sort of grass, a term used here to include sedges, rushes, and grasses. All grasses are wind pollinated, so you won’t see the same level of pollinator interaction as with the native flowers listed above. But grasses are nevertheless essential to the wildlife of a healthy meadow.  Their dense roots, which you will only fully appreciate the first time you try to dig up a native grass plant and move it, help stabilize the soil, prevent erosion, corral assertive native flower species, and tamp down weeds. Birds use grasses for nesting materials. Monarch butterfly larva can use grass stems for cocooning. Grasses are host plants for skipper butterflies. The list goes on. They provide support and protection for many birds, insects, and other small meadow critters living in, on, or close to the ground.
You can find out more about garden-worthy grasses on the Plant NOVA Natives website. Good bets for your mini meadow include Broomsedge, Eastern narrow-leaved sedge, and Little Bluestem.
You won’t have to go far to find native meadow flowers and grasses for sale. Many sellers are close to where you live. Northern Virginia is fortunate to have several native-only garden centers. In addition, one-day native plant sales are held across the region in the spring and fall. Also, conventional garden centers now supply more native plant options than ever given the growing consumer demand.
No matter how modest or ambitious your plans may be, taking the first step to build a mini meadow habitat is what matters. Your new native plantings will expand meadow-like habitats, increase meadow-loving life, and ultimately improve the biodiversity of the region.

How a Return to Tribal Management is Restoring Landscapes, Webinar, May 21st

Photo courtesy of SERC

Tuesday, May 21, 2024
7 pm
Register here.

Tribal people have lived in North America for at least 10,000 years, shaping how the landscape evolved and functioned. During that time, they developed cultures and traditions that stressed the obligation tribal people had to the foods, medicines, and places that sustained and defined their way of life. However, disease and settlement disrupted the balance, replacing it with the extractive management approach that has dominated the landscape for the past three centuries. On May 21, discover how a return to tribal practices can help restore that balance. Cody Desautel, executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in northern Washington State, hosts our next Life on a Sustainable Planet webinar. He’ll reveal how the last 50 years have seen a resurgence of tribal self-determination, and how indigenous knowledge is helping reestablish healthy relationships between people and the land.

Discover stories of hope and resilience every month, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) free webinar series! SERC’s monthly science talks highlight the research and conservation that are leading us to a more sustainable future, featuring scientists from the Smithsonian and around the world. They air on Zoom every third Tuesday of the month at 7pm Eastern, January through October, unless otherwise noted. All of their talks are recorded. By signing up online, you’ll be able to watch live and receive a link to the recording after the event. Closed captions available at the event and on the recordings.

View recordings and slides from their past years here.

The Amazing Camp Zama Hornet’s Nest

Feature photo:  At the Buildings and Grounds Office, Camp Zama, Japan.  The size of the hornet’s nest is placed in context with the office surroundings.

Photos and article by FMN Stephen Tzikas

Every now and then I see a wasp building a mud-based tubular shaped nest in some corner of my home’s front door portico. These are mud dauber wasps. Mud wasps are solitary wasps, which means it builds a single nest for itself.  They are fairly common and the internet has photographs of their nests.  That got me thinking about the most magnificent insect nest I’ve seen.

While serving as the Chief, Environmental Management Office for the US Army in Japan, I had many partners and stakeholder on the installations. One of them,

Close-up of the hornet’s nest from Camp Zama, Japan

in the same Directorate of Engineering and Housing as my office, was Buildings and Grounds.  In the pre-internet age, we visited other offices in person to conduct business, and the live interaction was always valuable and rewarding. During one visit to the Buildings and Grounds Office on February 10, 1993, some of its employees came back with a nice catch from someplace on the installation.  It was the largest hornet’s nest I ever saw.  I didn’t know it at the time, but years later after I took the photographs, I would be in a much better position to appreciate them as a Master Naturalist.

Close-up of the intricate and beautifully scalloped pattern of the Camp Zama, Japan, hornet’s nest

Hornets are a type of wasp, though wasps typically are paper wasps and yellow jackets.  There are differences in the way the insects build their nests.  Hornets construct nests using chewed wood and saliva and can take months to build, giving it a papery look.  Hornet nests are also much larger than wasps nests, being larger than a basketball size.  If you ever encounter such a nest, be careful.  Hornets can sting repeatedly, and may cause allergic reactions that can be life threatening.  If you discovered such a nest on your property, it may be wise to have a professional exterminator address the problem.  Hornet nests are structured in a closed architecture, that is, the nest has a surrounding envelope, with a small opening at the bottom of the nest.

Paper wasps also create nests out of a paper-like product of maceration.  Paper wasps nests may have an exterior that looks less elegant, a sort of conglomeration of parts and crater-like surfaces often lacking an envelope. A yellowjacket wasp nest will have a single opening, but these wasp nests are usually in the ground, and only visible as a small hole in the dirt.

Upon returning to the US in 1994, I worked at the Washington Navy Yard for a couple years.  One of Naval installations under our responsibility was the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.  At least on one occasion if not more, I drove out to the location for an environmental evaluation. Runner up to the Camp Zama, Japan, hornet’s nest were the termite mound nests at this Maryland location.  I recall they looked nearly as high as humans, but in some parts of the world they can be 25+ feet.  Besides those tall termite mounds, I saw many wild turkeys and large bulb eye insects nearly a couple inches in length.  I was beginning to think about what an unusual place this Patuxent River area was.


The Tree Trimming Scammers

Article by Cindy Speas, Chair of the Fairfax County Tree Commission

The doorbell rings, and at your door is a young man who says, “Hello, I was driving by and noticed your trees need some pruning. I’ve been working at your neighbor’s house, and thought I’d stop and offer you the same deal!”

It must be spring. We often hear about telephone or online financial scams, but what about the “woodchucks” or tree scammers that arrive at your door? These are seasonal workers, usually untrained, uncertified, and unlicensed.  Beware! They come bearing disaster for our trees, as well as our wallets.

Last spring Fairfax County posted a great article about the tree trimming scam. One police officer is quoted as saying this is “one of the most pervasive criminal problems this county is facing right now.” It happens in all seasons, of course, when trucks drive by looking for accessibility ramps or seniors working in their yards, or in spring seeking “unkempt” yards. So, if you have a yard full of native plants and little lawn, and you wait for just the right time after winter to clean up your beds, you could be a target.

These folks are not arborists and may remove living wood or, at worst, “top” your healthy tree. When the growing end of every tree limb or branch is lopped off, the tree can lose as much as 75% of its leaves, which provide a majority of the tree’s food. When a tree is weakened by less food and water, it becomes vulnerable to insect, sun and wind damage. These stresses mean that the tree may not survive the butchering. When you see a lot of fast growing shoots where major limbs were cut, that is a major sign of stress and poor health. Many municipalities and counties have great resources for resisting this fraudulent behavior. Here’s one from Fairfax County: It’s one thing to spend—or even overspend­—on taking out a dead limb, but quite another to fall for the “just let us prune your trees and everything will be fine” pitch. And don’t forget, untrained workers may use spikes on their boots because they are not taught the best practices of a reputable tree care specialist. This is highly damaging to the health of your trees.

Our trees are critical to our quality of life, and to the economic value of our homes, but they are threatened by “woodchucks.” Become informed about tree care—a good arborist can be as valuable to the life of your tree as a good electrician or plumber is to the life of your home. It is worth taking the time to find out if these solicitors are licensed and insured, certified in their area of expertise, and have good recommendations. Compare and weigh the costs and benefits of particular work that you know you need—don’t take the cheapest and easiest course of action. Be a good consumer and do the research. Just say NO to the door-to-door solicitor and yes only to the company YOU call that has good reviews, an arborist on staff, and free initial consultations.

Beware! Your beautiful trees are counting on you to speak for them and protect them.


Build a Mini Bird Sanctuary

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

Photo: Common Grackle by Paula Sullivan

The best sanctuaries for birds are undisturbed expanses of forests and meadows. Anyone can see that those are rapidly disappearing in Northern Virginia, and where they remain, they are rapidly shrinking below the size needed for many bird species. Those in charge of any patch of land can help some of these birds by adding plants to expand the habitat value of nearby parks and natural areas.

The partnering organizations that together make up Plant NOVA Natives are inviting individuals and communities to participate in a “Bird Sanctuary Planting Weekend,” October 25-28. People will be installing native canopy trees and understory plants all on the same weekend, all across the region, in a big celebration of trees and the natural world. In Fairfax County, the first twenty faith communities to apply will receive a free “mini bird sanctuary” – a native canopy tree and two native shrubs – assuming they have an appropriate location, as confirmed by volunteers who will be doing site visits to help the communities evaluate their properties for opportunities to improve habitat.

What does it take to provide sanctuary for birds? The first requirement is that the plants be native to the local ecosystem. This is because the diet of baby birds consists primarily of caterpillars, and most caterpillars can only eat the plants with which they evolved. By far the biggest source of food for caterpillars is the leaves of large native shade trees, by virtue of their immense canopy compared to smaller plants. The second requirement is to provide food for the adults. Adult birds also require caterpillars and other bugs for protein. They also need the seeds and fruits from the smaller native trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers that are tailor-made for their nutritional needs (unlike those of many non-native plants.) Different bird species feed and nest at different heights from the ground, so native plants are needed at all levels. You may notice, for example, the preference of sparrows and robins for the ground layer, bluebirds for the shrubs, bluejays higher still, and woodpeckers in the canopy. (The fact that some birds require the lower levels is the reason why it is so imperative to keep cats indoors.)

Another reason to install native plants at the ground layer Is that many of those caterpillars feeding up in the trees spend part of their life cycles sheltering on the ground. They cannot find the habitat they need in mounds of mulch, not to mention in lawns where they get chopped up by lawn mowers. What does provide shelter is native perennials and dead leaves.  So once you have your trees and shrubs in place, you can have the fun of exploring the numerous native groundcover options, gradually expanding the landing pad out to the drip line as the trees grow.

The Braddock District Tree Forum, Trees Need More Than Hugs: How to Care for Your Trees! March 20th

Photo: Plant NOVA Trees

Wednesday, March 20, 2024, 7-9 pm
7:00-9:00 pm

No registration is required.
Kings Park Library Conference Room
9000 Burke Lake Rd, Burke, VA, 22015-1683

Questions: [email protected]

Come to this informative event to hear three experts in the field talking about tree care.  Information tables will be set up to visit before and after the talk. Win a chance to receive a free native tree seedling!  Free, no registration, all are welcome. Come to learn about why you should care, and how to care, for your trees.  For more information, click, or copy and paste, this link:  2024 Braddock District Tree Forum flyer final.pdf

The Magic of Winter Trees: Making a Deeper Connection

Photo: Plant NOVA Natives/Plant NOVA Trees

Article by Cindy Speas, Fairfax County Tree Commission

Winter is a lovely time to get to know your trees better. Many folks spend some of the colder days of January and February planning their spring gardens, winter sowing, or putting in nursery orders for spring delivery of native plants. Dreams of warmer days are lovely, but if you have trees in your yard or a nearby park, winter might also be the time to learn how to appreciate and protect their incredible beauty.

When our trees are bare of leaves, you can visualize more clearly their beautiful shapes, identify some species characteristics and assess their health status. There are several local organizations that provide winter educational hikes or webinars to examine and learn about our forests, including Nature ForwardVirginia Native Plant Society – Potowmack Chapter, Capital Nature, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, Prince William Conservation Alliance, and others.

If you haven’t taken a long walk or hike in the winter before, it’s time to bundle up and head out on the trail. Even if you aren’t an experienced birder, it’s often easier at this time of year to observe hawks, owls, or other raptors at work. Smaller birds can be spotted searching tree bark or leaf litter for insects and berries, and mammals often make a long-distance appearance as they look for food. Native evergreens or the lovely marcescent (persistent) leaves on oaks and beeches provide beautiful color among the gray tree trunks. While you may not want to linger for contemplation, if you walk gently, there is a type of forest bathing you can experience surrounded by the still, silent trees in the chilly air. One of the loveliest things you can see in a winter forest is found by looking up to the sky:  it is in this season that you can see how the tree canopy develops—trees grow side-by-side leaving a path around each canopy’s branches so that sunlight may reach down to the forest floor. This is called canopy shyness. While more common in rain forests, these fascinating patterns of sky and crown branching can sometimes be seen in groupings of the same tree species, and are spectacular to observe.

For those that love to undertake vigorous outdoor work in the winter, now is the time to protect our trees by starting to pull, dig, or hack and squirt the invasives in your yard or to volunteer for similar ongoing activities in your community. With the exception of a few native evergreens, almost all the large swaths of green you see in your neighborhood and along the roads are invasive, non-native plants—from Wintergreen to Vinca, to English Ivy, from Privet to non-native Holly species, to Bamboo. You can find organizations with volunteer opportunities on the Plant NOVA Trees website. Invasive plants displace the tree seedlings that are essential for our future forests, and some of them directly kill the larger trees.

So, if you want to learn about trees, to more closely observe nature, to find quiet time for spiritual reflection, or to vigorously get rid of tree enemies, winter is a magical time to spend outside in the stillness and beauty of the forest.


River Farm Blue Bird Boxes and a Ha-Ha.

January 13, 2024 – FMN was able to kick-off the stewardship activity to replace and monitor the Blue Bird Boxes at River Farm.

FMN Susan Farmer with Bob Farmer

Susan Farmer is the FMN coordinator for service and citizen science activities at River Farm. When the American Horticultural Society (AHS) notified her that the donated boxes were in, she organized FMN volunteers to help Jack, the River Farm groundskeeper, with installation. Eight boxes were replaced and ten sad boxes were removed and salvaged for parts.

The long-term plan is to officially monitor and maintain the boxes. To officially monitor and report hours to the Virginia Blue Bird Society requires training, so Susan is arranging that for early March. Susan is also creating a presentation for an FMN CE program. Along with general history of bluebird trails and how they have helped bring back the bluebird, she will discuss specifics on the River Farm opportunity.

Parts in the cart for 8 boxes – photo Jerry Nissley

As an aside to this … notice the Ha-Ha Wall (or saut de loup) behind the chain in the river view photo. You don’t see it? That is precisely the intended illusion. These walls are a feature developed by the French in the 1600s. Chateaus and estates would incorporate Ha-Has in landscape design to prevent access to a garden by, for example, grazing livestock, without obstructing pastoral views. I’ve seen these now at Gunston Hall, Mount Vernon, and here. River Farm was once owned by George Washington.

Crude illustration of a Ha-Ha -graphic by WikiMedia Commons

For the garden design enthusiasts among us … the name Ha-Ha was first used in print in Dezallier d’Argenville’s 1709 book, The Theory and Practice of Gardening. He explains that the name derives from the exclamation of surprise viewers would make on recognizing the optical illusion.

Mount Vernon incorporates Ha-Has on its grounds as part of the landscaping for the mansion built by George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington. President Thomas Jefferson built a Ha-Ha at the southern end of the South Lawn of the White House, which was an eight-foot wall with a sunken ditch meant to keep the livestock from grazing in his garden. Yes, livestock used to graze the White House lawns.

A Ha-Ha view – photo Jerry Nissley

A 21st-century use of a Ha-Ha is at the Washington Monument to minimize the visual impact of security measures. After 9/11 and another unrelated terror threat at the monument, authorities put up jersey walls to prevent motor vehicles from approaching the monument. The temporary barriers were later replaced with a new Ha-Ha, a low 30 inch granite stone wall that incorporated lighting and doubled as a seating bench. It received the 2005 Park/Landscape Award of Merit.

FMNs Kristin, Susan, Donna, Sarah, Jerry, Monica, and Paul – photo Jerry Nissley

But I digress … we had a great winter’s day start to this wonderful stewardship opportunity at River Farm. Thank you to the 7 FMN that helped Jack on installation-day. We look forward to working with other volunteers and staff to learn more about River Farm and grow this partnership in 2024.

Fairfax Master Naturalists Donate to Mason Neck State Park

Article and photo by Sarah Mayhew

As part of FMN Chapter Project at Mason Neck State Park, FMN budgeted funds in 2023 to assist the Park maintain its pollinator gardens.  The Park requested that we use the funds to purchase equipment that will assist with that mission.  We delivered a gorilla garden cart, a Stihl battery-operated weed whacker and a battery-operated hedge clipper to the Park on January 7, 2024.  Shown with the equipment are Chief Ranger, Visitor Services Jaime Leeuwrik (also our Chapter’s Co-Advisor) with Ranger Alex Dullea accepting our donation.

Our Chapter Project has been dormant but will soon resume activity.  If you are interested in designing informational signs, please join us.  Contact Sarah Mayhew for details ([email protected] with MNSP in the subject line).

We will soon begin garden workdays.  Since we are joined by volunteers from the Friends of Mason Neck State Park, our sign up for these workdays will be via a Sign Up Genius link.  It will be posted to the Google Group with workdays expected to begin in early March.  For more information, contact Sarah as above.