Butterflies, Waterwise Gardening, Groundcovers and more – Webinars abound!

The Hospitable Gardener
When: July 17, 10-11:30am
Are you interested in inviting butterflies to visit your garden? This talk will help you learn how to be a good host to Lepidoptera, providing cultural tips and plant suggestions to help your winged guests feel at home. Learn more and register.

Groundcovers
When: July 22, 11am-12pm
Do you have spots in your landscape that turf won’t grow, have high erosion potential or you would like to add a little seasonal interest, color and texture? Plan to attend this seminar to help you choose the right groundcover for each place in your landscape. Learn more.

Fruit Trees and Berries for the Urban Landscape: Part II – Natives
When: July 24, 10-11:30am
From shade to supporting wildlife, erosion control, and screening, you can choose a fruit crop to suit your home garden. Learn about growth habits, pros and cons, and how to acquire and care for these native plants. Learn more and register.

Waterwise Gardening
When: July 31, 10-11:30am
We will discuss which plants can best survive our long, hot summers, how to group plants to take advantage of existing water sources, and use of water gardens, rain barrels, and best landscaping practices. Learn more and register.

Soil Your Undies Campaign

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District is challenging residents all across Fairfax County to bury a pair of cotton underwear as part of a campaign to promote soil health awareness. How does it work? Just bury a pair of cotton underwear and dig it back up after at least 60 days. It’s the quick and dirty way to test the microbial activity in your soil. The more the underwear is deteriorated, the healthier your soil!

Although you can use the Soil Your Undies Challenge to check your soil health at any time, the 2020 NVSWCD Soil Your Undies Challenge runs from July to September 2020.

JOIN THE CHALLENGE!
Step 1: Look for a place where you want to study the health of the soil. Make sure you are only studying sites on your property or with the permission of the landowner.
Step 2: Bury a pair of white cotton undies (or any white cotton clothing item) 3 inches under the soil’s surface. Be sure to take a “before” photo.
Step 3: Don’t forget to mark your study site with a flag or other easily-identifiable marker!
Step 4: Wait at least 60 days (this is the hard part…)
Step 5: Locate your marked study site and dig up your cotton undies. Be sure to take an “after” photo.
Step 6: How healthy is your soil? Healthier soils have a lot of microbial activity, and the healthy fungi and bacteria in the soil will break down your cotton undies. The more degraded your undies are, the more microbial activity you have in your soil, and the healthier your soil is.
Step 7: Share the results of your citizen science project! Email your photos and any notes you may have to conservationdistrict@fairfaxcounty.gov, and share your results with us on Facebook @nvswcd and on Instagram @NorthernVirginiaSWCD. We’ll be sharing our results with you, too!

Learn more about the challenge and soil health here.

Introducing Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR)

Jerry Nissley

Many of you know that effective 1 July 2020, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) changed its name the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to encompass the greater expanse of their responsibilities.

After reading the notice, I poked around their web site and found a link to Virginia wildlife resources that is interesting on several levels.

Topics include Virginia Wildlife, which describes many of our state’s fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. A link to Wildlife Habitat provides resources on how to build backyard habitats that attract and help sustain wildlife in our communities. Restore the Wildlife describes how folks can get involved with restoration projects around Virginia. There is even advice and phone numbers on what to do with injured wildlife and so much more.

New department icon

So please take some time to review the resources provided by the new and improved DWR. They do a great job at providing state level information, and they sell cool t-shirts too!

Annual Butterfly Count at Clifton Institute

Saturday, July 25, 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Join Clifton Institute, as they host their 25th annual butterfly count and celebrate their 18th year of collaboration with the North American Butterfly Association. 

Novice and experienced butterfly enthusiasts are needed! Citizen scientists will be assigned to small teams, led by an experienced butterfly counter. Teams will survey a variety of sites within our count circle.

Fee: $3 per person (Children 8 and older may participate for free, when accompanied by a parent.)

Register here

Native Plant Landscaping: Three Factors for Success

Margaret Fisher, Plant NOVA Natives

For anyone who wants to help the birds and butterflies but is not an experienced landscaper, a few design concepts can help make the difference between a random collection of native plants and a beautiful but manageable landscape that supports our local ecosystem. Three major considerations come into play.

The first is the understanding that basic garden design principles apply to any garden, whether using native plants or not. For example, the human eye has trouble with randomness and will rove around seeking meaning and a place to rest. You can control that process by adding repetition, lines and focal points, which can be provided by plants and also by human-made objects such as pots, walkways, or benches. Since most plants only bloom for a short while, for consistent beauty it helps to choose plants with contrasting size, form and foliage and not just interesting flower colors.

The second consideration is maintenance. Some people are allergic to weeding while others find it a relaxing pleasure. Either way, no one has infinite time to put into it. When adding new planting areas, there is a lot to be said for starting small. For maximum ecological benefit for a minimum or work, you could simply add a small grove of native trees, or swap out the non-native shrubs for native ones. Gardening in the shade is always easier than in the sun where plants and weeds grow so much faster.

The third consideration is the needs of the critters you are trying to help. They don’t care how your property looks, but they do have other strong preferences. For example, the more plant diversity, the more biodiversity in general. It is also useful to provide clusters of the same plant species since that will increase the foraging efficiency of the bees. A diversity of plant height is also important – from the canopy trees to the ground – for critters such as birds that nest at different levels. The closer you can come to reproducing the original plant communities, the more your home habitat will contribute to a functioning local ecosystem.

The above examples are just a few of the many helpful tips you can find on the new Plant NOVA Natives web page on garden design. The campaign is also planning a series of quick virtual “workshops” where you can ask your questions of garden designers – sign up for campaign updates to get notifications of the dates. And be sure to sign up for the August 3 talk by Rick Darke, co-author with Doug Tallamy of The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

My $20 Dollar Stay-At-Home Ecology Kit

By Michael Walker

This past winter I had a wide variety of birds at my feeder including several charming Carolina wrens. For their size, they often “ruled the roost” and I was interested in having them nest in my yard, so I created some brush piles and bought two small “wren” houses. I was never a Boy Scout skilled at making bird houses and I knew my dad would be disappointed that I did not make the houses myself but being concerned about the loss of a finger on the power saw, I went unpainted pre-fab.

In mid-January, I hung each birdhouse with wire in shrubs about 4 feet above the ground since I read that wrens like to nest “low.” They were about 25 feet apart, one in a viburnum and the other in a magnolia. Over time I noticed some black-capped chickadees took an interest in one house and the other bird house was filling up with small sticks though I never seemed to be able to determine what bird was doing this work. I had lots of chickadees and Carolina wrens at the feeder along with cardinals, juncos, tufted titmice, nuthatches, blue jays and even crows. But the tenants of this property remained a mystery despite by best detective work.

As late spring approached, I finally identified the elusive residents of the other house: house wrens! For about two weeks they were very active, shuttling food into the box opening. Despite my best efforts, I never did get to see any of the baby birds. I hope they all fledged safely.

Chickadee house bedding

When activity ceased, I decided to clean out each birdhouse in the event another tenant wanted to have a go at family life. Each birdhouse has a convenient slide out base. When I carried each bird house to the table to remove the base, I was astonished to find that both houses were still fully occupied! Dozens of small angry ants were crawling out of the birdhouses onto my hands and arms. In addition to a healthy ant colony the chickadee birdhouse was filled with beautiful soft green moss. It looked like the moss one would find on the forest floor in Canada. No twigs or straw only this beautiful moss and lots of it for such a tiny bird couple to gather.

Wren house twigs

The vacant wren house, also loaded with thousands of ants, had no moss but was filled nearly to the top with twigs and feathers. After the ants made their frenzied escape, carrying away eggs and larvae, I pulled apart the nesting material to do a citizen science inventory of the sticks and twigs. There were over 460 sticks and twigs. Some as long as six inches

An enviable magic trick for a tiny bird, small nest box opening and no exterior perch! Of additional interest were the more than 50 feathers, some pure white, others black that were obviously not house wren feathers.

Wren house flotsam

And the ants! To get into the bird houses they had to climb up the branches of the shrub and carefully navigate a Wallenda-like high-wire into the nest box. Which ant explorer looked up from the dirt to see the empty bird house hanging in the air, beckoning exploration like we see with the moon or mars. Which ant pioneer was the first to cross the thin wire? How do they find their way up the tree without Google maps? How many individual trips did each ant make from ground to nest during the duration of the colony?  And what could we learn from the altruism that guides the cooperative spirit of these tiny relics from the Cretaceous?

Much, much to ponder on a summer evening on day 108 of the 2020 pandemic!

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve Service Opportunities

7400 Georgetown Pike (use 7500 for GPS location)
Great Falls, VA

Cleanup Days

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is an ecologically and globally unique preserve and home to remarkable plants and wildlife. Join their Stewardship team and partake in their upcoming volunteer cleanups. Volunteers under 14 years old must volunteer with a parent/guardian. Limited spots per event

Sign up here

Natural Resource Projects

The park is in need of volunteer support to complete several resource management projects. All projects are outdoors and vary by season. Duties may include walking on hilly trails, lifting, planting, weeding/pulling invasives, using work tools, building/assembling, and labeling/reporting. Project details and meeting location will be sent prior to the work day. All volunteers must dress appropriately and follow park etiquette.

Sign up here

Communicating and Acting on Climate Change: A Success Story from Thriving Earth Exchange

Hallandale Beach, Florida operates a Green Initiatives Program within its Department of Public Works to provide sustainability-related information and programs to residents and employees. Most of the City’s Green Initiatives work focuses on Water and Energy Conservation and Recycling. A main impetus for the water conservation focus includes the loss of 6 out of 8 of the City’s freshwater wells to saltwater intrusion in the past decade. In 2018, the City adopted the Sustainability Action Plan which includes short-term and long-term projects to help the City increase its sustainability and resiliency between now and 2040.

Thriving Earth Exchange supported this program. Keep reading for details of how the team carried out its mission, their sensible reflections, and a link to a nifty table top climate change awareness game that you can download and reproduce for your own workshops or classes.

This is a wonderful success story.

Nature’s Notebook Mobile App Course

The Observer Certification Course provides instructions to help you get started using Nature’s Notebook, or provide a refresher if you need one! The organization just released the second module which provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the Nature’s Notebook mobile app. You will learn how to use the app to set up your account, create sites, add plants and animals, and enter and review observations. You will need to be logged into your Nature’s Notebook account to take the course.

Take the course 

Create an account if you do not have one

Are You Really Sure You Want to Water Your Plants From the Tap?

Author: Anna Gershenson

Some plants may benefit from chlorinated water, due to its ability to kill unwanted bugs or microbes in the soil. However, chlorine is actually toxic and harmful to plant growth in high concentrations. It injures the plants’ roots and accumulates in the leaf tissue, causing enduring damage.

So, how much chlorine is too much chlorine? And what can we do about it given that most people water their gardens and houseplants straight from the tap, and the tap water in Virginia contains small amounts of chlorine? I have a tip for you based on research that I performed in school.

As a freshman at Fairfax High School, I participated in the school’s Science Fair for my Honors Biology class. For our project, my partner and I designed a project to test the effect of chlorine on Wisconsin Fast Plants, a type of Brassica rapa plant, developed by the University of Wisconsin as a research tool.

We grew four groups of the Wisconsin Fast Plants, from the seeds, and fed each group natural spring water with different amounts of chlorine mixed in. The first group received the water without chlorine (this was known as the control group). We watered the second group with a mixture of water and one teaspoon of chlorine, the third with 2 teaspoons of chlorine mixed with water, and the fourth with 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) and water. My partner and I used powdered chlorine, so before we gave each plant the mixture, we let the chlorine fully dissolve in the water. We watered the plants every two days and measured their heights during those days. We studied the plants for two weeks.

The results were significant. The images below represent the four plant groups at the end of the two weeks. 

As you can see, the group that did not receive the chlorinated water grew the most and looked very healthy. The average final height for the plants in that group was about 5.10 centimeters. 

The plants that received 1 teaspoon of chlorine grew a little bit, but looked unhealthy. The plants looked more brown than did the healthy plant. Their final average height was 1.50 centimeters. 

A small plant sprouted in the pot that got 2 teaspoons of chlorine,, but it did not grow as much as did the previous two. That group’s final height was about 1.00 centimeter. 

And finally, the plants that received 3 teaspoons of chlorine barely grew. Though it is difficult to see the plant, the calculated height of that group was about 0.50 centimeters.

It was clear that even 1 teaspoon of chlorine stunts the growth of plants and makes them lose pigment.

Now, you might be wondering: “What can we do to solve this problem? Buying natural spring water costs extra.”

Don’t worry, I have the perfect solution for you!

My mom actually familiarized me with this technique. She enjoys working in our garden and knows all sorts of tricks. When I decided to grow a vine plant in my room, my mom suggested that rather than watering them with tap water fresh out of the faucet, to begin by pouring the tap water into a plastic cup and letting it sit a couple of hours before watering the plant. Letting the water wait enables all of the chlorine to evaporate, clearing it and making it healthy and safe for the plants.

I did the controlled research to validate her advice. You don’t have to subject your plants to extra chlorine, but you can see if letting the chlorine evaporate helps your house plants and garden do better. Enjoy watering your plants chlorine-free!

Anna Gershenson is a rising senior at Fairfax High School.

This post is part of the series Creative Counsel from Students in the Time of COVID-19. Do you know students with research to report on the natural world? Encourage them to direct their proposals to vmnfairfax@gmail.org after reading the instructions in the link above.