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The Harvard Forest

The Pre-colonial woodlands c. 1700

The Harvard Forest is located in Petersham. That is the first thing I learned about the Harvard Forest, which actually belongs to and is cared for by Harvard University. It is not located in the town of Harvard.

I first heard of the Harvard Forest and the Fisher Museum when I met John O’Keefe a year ago after he had retired from his position at the Harvard Forest. Recently I called O’Keefe because I wanted to know why I suddenly seemed to be seeing so many beech trees in our local woodlands. Beeches are easy to identify at this time of the year because they retain their leaves, even as they turn gold, and then brown and crisp. O’Keefe explained that the younger trees are even more likely to hold on to a good portion of their leaves because they are immature and do not yet produce the hormones that cause the leaves to drop.

When I told him that the trees I saw seemed to be pretty much of an age and were growing in groves he said one possibility was that these young trees were not seedlings but root suckers. “Several years ago many beech trees were attacked by beech bark disease. When the bark on the tree was damaged, stress caused the tree’s roots to send up suckers which grow rapidly.” He further explained that not all those root suckers would survive to adulthood, just as not every seed that germinates would survive to adulthood.

In another discussion with O’Keefe a few days later, he said he had been talking with a forester about the forests in Weston. Although there are only three mature beech groves in the Weston forests, this forester had also been impressed by all the ‘new’ beeches growing in the area. He cut isolated saplings in order to age them and found that they were all about 20 to 25 years old. He was so interested in this explosion of beeches that he sent samples to a lab for DNA testing and learned that they were all saplings, growing from seed.

Beech trees, obviously enough, produce beech nuts, sometimes called mast. The nuts should have germinated near the parent trees, but new groves were sprouting in new locations. The theory? Twenty to 25 years ago is when the wild turkey began its resurgence. Perhaps turkeys carried the beech nuts to more distant locations, much as other birds spread various seeds to new areas.

This is how I learn. One thing leads to another. A call to O’Keefe about my observations of  a beech tree explosion led to information about plant disease, plant hormones, propagation by root suckers, and plant dispersal by wildlife.

Having gotten so much information from O’Keefe in just a couple of friendly conversations, I decided to stop in at the Harvard Forest on my way home from Cambridge last week. Harvard University has managed the forest and used it as a research and educational facility for over 100 years. Originally intended as a laboratory to teach sustainable forest management, the focus of research changed after the 1938 hurricane destroyed 70 percent of the forest. Now research concentrates on soils and the ecological processes that affect forest development.

Since I was not ready to go trekking the trails in the forest that day I contented myself with a visit to the Fisher Museum, named for Professor Richard T. Fisher who founded and directed the first years of Harvard Forest. The Museum is small, but it is famous for the 23 dioramas that illustrate the landscape history of the New England woodlands from before the early colonists arrived, as well as issues of forest management and conservation.

John O’Keefe and David Foster have written a fascinating book titled “New England Forest Through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas,” which lays out in substantive form the history of our landscape and illustrates for the general reader, and landowner, new ways of looking at our woodlands and information about how those woodlands can be managed sustainably, with awareness of the ecological impact.

A scavenger hunt sheet will help children focus on the details of the dioramas while they begin to understand the changes in a woodland over time.

There are education programs for students beyond Harvard, from a summer research program for undergraduates from other institutions including community colleges, who need not be science majors, to a program with the Overlook Middle School in Ashburnham where students gather seasonal budburst and color change information from a webcam set up in the schoolyard trees. This Schoolyard Ecology webcam is the first of four more webcams to be installed in other school locations in the near future. The information the young students gather can be compared with webcams in the Harvard Forest. The whole program is part of a national phenology project. The goal is to study the influence of climate on the recurrence of annual phenomena like leaf budding.

Having discovered the Harvard Forest, or more specifically the Fisher Museum, I am now looking forward to visiting the Forest itself, and learning more from the volunteer guides who are on duty during the good weather. We have an old field white pine plantation that is self seeded, and so far those trees have escaped the dreaded white pine weevil. I am looking forward to learning more and becoming a more responsible forest manager.

The first settlements cleared woodlands

Between the Rows  November 26, 2011

DON”T FORGET – I’ll be reading my book, The Roses at the End of the Road, at Boswell’s Books, Sunday, December 4 at 2 pm. Hope to see you there. AND I’ll be signing books at Tower Square in Springfield on Tuesday, December 6 from noon to 2 pm and 4-6 pm next to the splendid Festival of Trees.

ALSO – if you want to win a copy of my book, and a copy of Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens, click here and leave a comment. I will have a drawing on Dec. 7 to celebrate my 4th blogoversary.

Bridge of Flowers

The Bridge of Flowers officially closed on October 30, but it will be open for a few more days so people can take the scenic route from Shelburne to Buckland OR Buckland to Shelburne. Last week there was a final exciting event. Note the graceful ironwork on the Bridge sign. It was a collaborative community effort between Bill Austin and Grey Marchese of Austin Design in Colrain, artist/blacksmith Bob Compton of Rising Sun Forge in Conway, and Michael Therrien’s freshmen/sopomore carpentry class at Franklin County Technical School.

Tree of Friendship by Bob Compton

Last week Bob Compton installed this beautiful tree of friendship which will annually record the names of all the Friends of the Bridge who support the plantings and maintenance of the Bridge. As you can see this is a blooming tree and we look forward to the blooming of a strong neighborhood of Friends. Thank you, Bob!

Now that the flowers are gone from the Bridge of Flowers it is easy to see how important foliage is in any garden. Obviously conifers are an anchor in the fall and winter garden. The Bridge has two magnificent weeping hemlocks, one at either end.

Some shrubs have foliage that turns gold.

Others have scarlet foliage. I am not sure what this is, but it is not the invasive burning bush.

Some foliage stays green well into the season, but adds berries.

Some foliage, like this Pieris japonica is very dark.

The foliage of  this azalea is almost black in the fall.

Hakonelochloa 'Aureola'

The crisp dried grass adds a very different note,

As does the annual ornamental kale. There are many ways to have color in the garden after the flowers have gone.

Only Bob Compton’s flowers will bloom all winter.


Things I Never Thought About

Norway Spruce Pinecones

It is one thing to know about the life cycle of a tree.  It is quite another thing to know about the life of a pine cone.

Today we parked our car near some low hanging branches of a Norway Spruce, and I could not help noticing little groups of tiny cones.  Then I looked down and saw six inch cones under my feet. I had never thought that ‘pinecones’ did not start out at mature size.  Did you?

Another Lawn-less Garden

Yesterday I attended a reunion of the book club I helped found in 1965. The book club continues, and the book under discussion was Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time.  I very much enjoy Petterson’s books, and indeed many of the chilly books of the Scandinavian writers, but it is ironic that this book of lonliness and the failure of emotional ties was the topic among a group of women friends meeting over tea and cake while rain fell on the verdant garden outside the windows.

The club membership has shifted over the years, but all of us could look back over the river of time we each have swum and been generally happy – while admitting that there may have been dangerous rapids from time to time.  We are all women of  “a certain age’, no one gets to this point without having experienced sorrows, but we are all fortunate to have many joys.

The Gazebo

I enjoyed the view of this charming gazebo from the window, but just before we left I got a tour of Audrey’s dripping garden and got to peek into the windows where other meetings of the book club have met.

The brook next to the gazebo was racing and tumbling over the stones.

Next to the screened gazebo was a little seating area. I loved the little side table made of pots and a board.

Audrey said she has seats all over the garden because she can’t work for very long without needing a respite.

I looked at all those seats and saw the reminder that we all should sit and enjoy the garden from time to time –  without a weeder clutched in our hand.

Every garden should have a touch of humor.

Did you miss a lawn?  I didn’t.

The First Dandelion

The appearance of the first dandelion means spring has really and truly arrived. It also means that lawn mowing will not be far behind.

Because of a family obligations, and a joyous publication party for Carol Purington and Susan Todd’s poetry anthology, Morning Song: Poems for New Parents,  Saturday was taken up with family and friends. On Sunday we were eager to go out and play in the dirt. Some of the seedlings I have had out in the cold frame were ready to be transplanted into the Front Garden – Tango lettuce  and Amadeus broccoli.  In the meantime my husband was busy mowing along the old fence line. With the old barb wire fence gone we have to integrate new space into the garden.

The Frog Pond

We took a walk down to the Frog Pond and found that the overflow was stopped up and the water level in the pond was higher than it had  ever been, just starting to seep over the edge here where my husband and looking for the overflow which is hidden by the deep water. He successfully found the overflow, unstopped it and the level rapidly went down.

The Frog Pond's proper level

When we started the lawn chair’s legs were at the water’s edge. Now we’ll be able to walk along the edge and check the frog population.

Frog eggs

We could see frog egg sacs sparkling all along the edges of the pond. Some of these eggs got caught up on weeds that were submerged – until Henry got the overflow cleared out.  We were able to get the captive sacs back into the water. We saw some pollywogs and lots of newts. Things look healthy down at the pond.

Having read Sue Reed’s book, Energy Wise Landscaping, we decided it was finally time to plant a windbreak to shelter the house from the winter winds. We began by digging up and transplanting three white pine trees and a small spruce. I am expecting 30 more conifers to be delivered this week along with some small ornamentals that will be planted on the house side of the windbreak.

Windbreak May 1, 2011

It is not very clear in this photo but I have set out a pagoda dogwood that will be planted just where we can see it from the dining table in the Great Room.

Rose Bank May 1

My final task today was planting three more roses on the Rose Bank, Rugosa Agnes, Goldbush, by the hybridizer Kordes, and Gentle Persuasion, a Buck hybrid.  I had hoped to get the Rose Bank remulched with chips – but that will have to wait for another day.

Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

The need to find symbols for eternal mysteries lies deep in the human family. At this time of the year the landscape is bare and frozen. All the life of nature seems to be frozen and dead. Gone is the verdant green, brilliantly colored flowers, rushing waters. The days grow ever shorter; even the sun seems to be failing. Ever since the beginning of time humans have faced the terror of this seeming death and looked for hope. Many cultures have found it in the family of evergreens that flourish in the cold and the dark. Life is not extinguished, it keeps burning in these trees and shrubs.

Long before there was Christmas many cultures considered trees to be sacred. The evergreen, whether the fir of the Northland or date palm of Egypt, spoke of an enduring life at a time when nature seemed to be dying.

The oak was sacred in Germany and worship of this tree was still strong in Germany in the early 700s. St. Boniface who came from Britain to convert the Druids is the hero of one tale about the fir tree. As part of his sermon on the nativity and to prove that the sacred oak was not inviolable, the saint chopped one down. The huge tree crushed everything in its path except for one little fir sapling. According to legend, Boniface said this was a miracle and called the little fir the tree of the Christ Child.

Another legend says that Saint Winfred in Scandinavia came upon the war god Thor’s priests about to make a human sacrifice in front of the sacred thunder oak. Saint Winfred drew out his axe which almost magically cut down the great tree. The tree fell and split apart, but a young fir tree stood by. The saint declared the fir a tree of peace, and that when brought into their homes it would not mark deeds of blood but acts of love and kindness. Like Boniface, he called it the tree of the Christ Child.

The decorations are a reference to the old Paradise Plays which brought Bible stories to life with settings and characters. In the play’s Garden of Paradise there was a tree hung with apples. Eventually, Christmas trees were decorated with paper flowers and glittery ornaments as well as paradisiacal apples.

We think of Christmas trees as being tall, but the earliest trees were small. By the mid-1500s there were rules about how high a Christmas tree could be. Not very high. For centuries  most Christmas trees were table top trees. It was an illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating with their children and a lighted and decorated table top tree that captured the fancy of the greater public and made the Christmas tree a more common part of the holiday festivities.

The Germanic people can take much of the credit for the decorated Christmas tree. Martin Luther is even credited with adding lights. According to the legend he was walking home one winter night working on his sermon. He was struck by the beauty of the brilliant stars shining above the evergreen woodland. When he got home he wanted to create this loveliness for his family. He put up a tree and wired candles to its branches.

The custom of decorating and lighting trees traveled to Scandinavia and England (the English royal family had Hanoverian antecedents). It was German immigrants who brought the Christmas tree to the United States in the 17th century.

On the other hand the puritans who first settled in Massachusetts were against customs that joyously celebrated Christmas. For them the sacred solemnity of Christ’s birth outweighed the joy related by the angels.  William Bradford, the second governor of the colony, wrote about the “pagan mockery” of festive Christmas celebration and set penalties for those who indulged in such frivolity.

Celebration has won out, of course. In 1823 in York Pennsylvania the Society of Bachelors set up a Christmas tree and advertised it as “Superb, superfine, superfrostical, schockagastical, and double refined.”

Later in the late nineteenth century the desire for Christmas trees was common enough that Christmas tree lots sprung up in New York City.

Public Christmas trees with electric candles were set up in Finland in 1906. It is easy to imagine the appeal of such a tree in a country where winter days are so short and dark. But New York was not far behind.  It had its own electrically lit Christmas tree in 1912.

In addition to their cultural traditions every family has its own Christmas traditions. Some families put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve but mine is always up well in advance so that I can enjoy its gaiety with my family and friends. It doesn’t come down until the arrival of the Three Kings on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

Between the Rows   December 2003

Evergreens in the Border

Holly "Blue Princess"

Thinking that they were too tender I avoided hollies for many years, but I finally decided to give them a try. I planted “Blue Princess” and “Blue Prince” about ten years ago. They are said to grow slowly, so I don’t know if I am too impatient, but they have grown very slowly.  They are growing in full sun, and there is no question that they are in acid soil. No need for Holly Tone fertilizer here.

Holly "Blue Prince"

The male plant, “Blue Prince” is growing even more slowly than his princess. And he didn’t even suffer from kids sliding down the hill and over the princess a couple of years ago.  The obvious point being made here is that hollies require male and female plants, whether evergreen or deciduous.  One male plant can pollinate several females.  My Princess has had berries, but not this year for some reason.  Once the berries have been frozen a few times they soften up and birds find them quite delicious.

Weeping Hemlock

Right next to the Prince is this Weeping Hemlock, planted at about the same time.  This has proved to be even slower growing than the hollies. It has spread out, but is still only about six inches tall. Maybe there is something going on with my soil. It is heavier, more claylike in this area.

Gold Threadleaf Cypress

At the other end of this border is the Gold Threadleaf Cypress, actually a chamaecypris. The deer have left it alone, which was a happy surprise for me.  The bright color is beautiful in every season, and I love the graceful way it falls. If the soil is limiting the speed of growth of the hollies and hemlock, it is having no effect at all on this shrub. It is growing just as vigorously as promised.

Fountain Juniper

The Fountain Juniper is also doing well in this bed. I bought it from Lilian Jackman at Wilder Hill Garden, along with a big pot of Northern Sea Oats. After two years both are thriving.

It is funny that I don’t realize how many conifers I have in the garden until I really took stock.  Now we are thinking about a BIG conifer project.  Just thinking.  I’ll keep you posted.

Choosing Our Christmas Tree

Henry and Holly

Henry and I set out Saturday morning to cut our Christmas tree. Unfortunately, this photo does not capture the field of diamonds that surround our house, but it does capture our cat Holly who likes to hike with us. This time we had to stop and put her back in the house.

Mystery tracks

We saw lots of animal tracks as we walked down the Rose Walk. I thought these were deer tracks, but Henry wasn’t so sure. A fair amount of activity though.

Me on the march

We left the Rose Walk and set off across the field to our Snow Break. This is a mixed planting of pines, with a few spruce and some balsams. The original planting has been added to occasionally over the years, partly so we can come down and choose our Christmas tree. I must tell you that as a snow break, this long grove of trees has been of great help to the road crew and to us in keeping the drifts on the road manageable.

Our choice

This balsam is much taller than the trees we usually cut, but it seemed to be the only one that was suitable at all. We cut high, and then we cut down the top a little; our ceiling is only eight feet.

It is a great joy to be able to cut our own tree. It is not always a perfect shape, but we figure that any bare spots just give us lots of scope for the ornaments and lights. The house smells wonderful.

Our Own Charlie Brown Christmas

My youngest daughter Kate, formerly known as Kathy, requested that I reprise this column. I am amazed that I found hard copy; it was written on my old Kaypro and published in 1985.

Our Christmas Tree 2009

The year 1971 was important for me. In January I was a suburban housewife, busy with PTA, chaufferring the children, the Ladies Literary Circle, chauffering the children, and chauffering the children some more. By September I was divorced, settled in Greenfield with my five children (ages 6 to 12), a member of the Food Coop and the owner of my own business.

The year was so full of activity, so full of new people and new schedules, so full of change, that I was determined that Christmas would be filled with tradition – gingerbread, candles and carolling.

As the December days shortened a new young friend suggested the ultimate Christmas tradition, an expedition to the woods to choose and cut down our own tree. He even volunteered to lead the way. Unfortunately, though our friend was kind, he didn’t know much about Christmas trees, or even about the woodlot he drove us to.

Snow had fallen early and heavily that year. December was very cold, but the day chosen for our excursion dawned mild and sunny.

After a busy Sunday morning and a late lunch a new friend drove me and the three girls, Diane, Betsy and Kathy, into the snow covered hills of Heath (as yet unknown to us) to find the perfect Christmas tree – a tree that would reign in the corner of our new living room, crowned with sparkling ornaments and twinkling lights as a beautiful and substantial symbol of stability.

We sang and laughed as we drove along, leaving the main roads and heading into the forest.

The woods were thick, but the trees seemed rather spindly so we continued on. The sun retreated behind gunmetal clouds. We drove a little more.

At last, although the trees didn’t look any more attractive we parked the car, tumbled out and breathed the woodsy air. I thumped my chest and declared that this was the way to celebrate Christmas. Yes, sir!

As we tramped through the snow I tried to generate interest in another chorus of ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” but no one had much breath to spare.

Although the sun had disappeared, it had done its damage, melting the stop of the snow that had frozen into an icy crust that caved in beneath our feet.  With every step we plunged knee deep into the snow. Or more accurately, I plunged knee deep into the snow, my three daughters (the boys had managed to avoid this excursion) had considerably more trouble. Six year old Kathy could barely lift her leg high enough to take the next step.

I looked around at the trees picturesquely bent beneath their burden of snow and realized I had never seen such scrawny trees. “Aren’t they beautiful?” I insisted, ignoring reality. “I’m sure the perfect tree is just waiting for us – just a little further.”

“I’m cold,” Diane complained.

“I’ve got snow in my boots,” Betsy wailed.

Kathy fell and started to cry. She had scraped her chin on the icy crust.

There are times when it’s best to bow to the inevitable. “Look, there,” I cried exultantly, pointing to the least skinny tree in view, “It’s OUR tree!”

We shook the snow off the branches and it didn’t look bad. Not really. Within minutes the tree was down and our task accomplished.

The walk back to the car, dragging an 8 foot tree through the deep snow took a long time. We were all exhausted by the time we tied our find on top of the car.

There was no singing on the way home. We were cold and wet and the tempermental car heater failed. By the time we pulled into the driveway it was dark.  Happily, Henry, the man I had recently met and  would eventually marry, met us at the door. While I got the girls into hot baths and their warm nighties, Henry set up the tree. The trunk was crooked and it took lots of  guy wiring to hold it stable.

Despite a noble struggle the tree still listed dangerously to one side. The sparse branches hadn’t looked so bad in the shadowy woods, but now they drooped dejectedly against the white wall and the hemlock needles were already starting to drop.

All the children trooped into the living room.  We stood there in silence. The tree was pathetic.

And then we started to laugh.

Some how most of our Christmas ornaments had been lost in the move, including all the treasures the children had made over the years. Yet, as we fastened a new paper star to the top of the tree, I realized that the promise of joy heralded by the first Christmas star had been fulfilled, once more.

Now we take down one of our own trees – balsam. 2009

Do you have a family Christmas story?  I’d love to hear it.

Christmas Lists

I have barely begun my shopping, but I admit that much of my shopping is done in the bookstore.  On the other hand many gardeners like to get plants – or gift certificates for plants to be used in the spring.  I did let a comment slip about how many new roses I’d like in the spring.

Fountains and birdbaths attract the birds, but they are also a beautiful ornament in the garden.

Of course some things wear out and need to be renewed from time to time. Gloves. Clogs.  What do you need or desire?What’s on your Christmas list? Plant society memberships?  Garden magazine subscription? If you want books be sure to comment on Monday’s post, and next Monday’s post, and the Monday after that. Storey Publications we love you for helping me celebrate my third blogoversary!