OUR FORESTS, OUR RESPONSIBILITIES
We're very fortunate here at Vermont Flower Farm to be able to live in a rural area surrounded by forests. Our home borders one of Vermont's nicest state forests which includes five campgrounds on four different kettle ponds. Our business property is bordered by the Winooski River and was once the bottom of the Winooski Ocean. The clay hard pan on which our office and sales building is built is filled with concretions and other interesting pieces of geological history. The area is dotted with many other native ponds, active beaver ponds, springs, bogs, and streams which enhance the beauty of the area and accentuate the botanical treasure that it is.
We located here in 1989. The years since have allowed us an opportunity to explore the forests and watch their change. Things are not as rosy as we might hope for. We have witnessed a significant decline in forest health in less than 15 years and this has raised our concern. Perhaps in contrast to logic, the region's relatively sparse human population does not necessarily equate with healthy and vigorous woodlands, and wild bird, animal, fish, reptile and insect populations.
As we began our gardening endeavors here, we worked away from the house, clearing the adjacent fields and forests. We reminded ourselves that the fields are much smaller now than they were 200 years ago when the area was farmland, first with sheep and later with dairy cows. The fields, once quadrants of pasture surrounded by stone walls and fences, have been infiltrated by berries and vines, wild apples, tamaracks, pines, choke cherries and hard hacks. Wild blueberries have challenged grasses from tree lines into the fields. This evolution from pasture to mixed field and back to forest is not atypical of changes to our land but it is the forests which draw our attention.
When we started to clean up the tree lines and reopen the fields, the poor health of the forests became evident. There had been several weather related events which seriously affected the forests here. A major ice storm in the mid-90's was followed three years later by back to back summer storms including powerful shear winds that toppled great waves of trees from valley floor to mountain top. This added to previous problems of overcrowded forests with concentrations of dying and diseased trees.
The situation seemed serious. Then insects added to the equation making things more a concern. Each tree species seems to acquire it's own army of insects intent upon destruction. Hemlocks have some type borers and of course the threat of wooly adelgids, elms had their own beetle, and maples have a longhorn beetle; beeches with beech scale followed by fungi, ashes, with ash yellowing and the emerald ash beetle, balsams, the balsam wooly adelgid, butternuts, suffer a no-cure, deadening canker, and on the list grows. As we worked our land, we became increasingly aware that significant and serious things were happening to our forests over which we had no immediate control. Perhaps the insects and diseases had been here all along and we had not noticed. Perhaps it was the mere overcrowding from decades of natural growth.
In a bookstore one day, a book caught my attention. The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America's Forests by Charles E. Little. I hoped that it would shed some light on the untimely and widespread tree death we witnessed. As much as I learned from Little's work, I was drawn no closer to a solution; I was offered no great hope for the future. If you are interested in our environment and our forests, it is a worthwhile read.
Farmers often keep logs, "Emma, age 3, calved today, twins, one of each, appear healthy"; "Bears got into the corn down by Jacobs--looks like a steam roller went through"; "3 inches of rain today followed by high winds...just when the June cutting looked great...now it's flat."
We keep logs too and a late July entry reminds us that it always rains heavily the first week of August. We fear these rains to a degree because early August is when our daylilies and annual flower crops are looking their best. Sales are highest then and we have to insure that our plants are healthy and strong. Heavy rains, hail or wind beating down can wipe out the crop's profitability in minutes. It was probably the "rain watch" that led us to a different realization about our forests...and to more questions too. Just what did the rain bring with it each year and how does it influence the flowers of Vermont Flower Farm?
One August, when our flower production was mostly in gallon pots, the rains were right on schedule and as strong as ever. When they subsided, we picked up the hundreds of potted flowers that had been tossed around. Most stood tall again as they dried, but the petals and leaves were greasy with black spots. By accident I noticed our truck had similar smudge marks. Within days, many of the flowers had to be marked down, damaged beyond the regular asking price. The obvious affect of the rain made me wonder....where did the storm come from, what did it contain? I wondered about the "black" rain and the health of the woodlands....was there a correlation? This same phenomenon continues and in 2009 an August storm was so intensely acidic that it melted the color out of the daylilies in a couple hours. They regained form the following day but that first response to the rain was a scary site.
The soils around this part of Vermont are naturally acidic save for an occasional pocket of sweeter alluvial soil dropped by the glaciers . The rains that arrive here bring more acid with them. The excess acids disrupt the forest soils. In some cases, ponds within the forest have almost no life within their waters. Frogs, toads and salamanders appear as visitors more so than inhabitants, their numbers are so small. And so the forests must compete with more adversity as the water that feeds them also hinders their growth.
Questions are easy, answers are a challenge. We have lots of questions here. We hope you have questions too and can assist with some of the answers. At very least, as you travel through Vermont, think about the questions, think about the challenges. Each spring and fall I will be guiding a tour of our forests to share the changes and discuss the future. Be in touch if you wish to join the tour. Groups are small, could be onlt you and me, the lunch is excellent. The next available openings are Spring 2010.
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A visual review of the state forest land surrounding Vermont Flower Farm. Forest health, wood economy, insect invasion.