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In case you missed it, I am a big fan of the natural world so it's no surprise that I enjoy birding as much as gardening.  However, there's one passeriform I abhor: the European Starling.  My fellow gardeners complain about thrips, aphids, gophers, chipmunks, etc. but my number one nemesis is Sturnus vulgaris.  While many consider them unattractive, they have a glossy, speckled plumage that's colorfully iridescent with glints of green and purple, which I find rather stunning (perhaps how a peacock might appear in the Terran Empire). They are also omnivorious and they are voracious.  They eat EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. 

I garden in several places but I must confess my favorite garden is an illegal one - it's on my fire escape (before you call the FDNY please know that I keep a clear path for easy egress!). I prefer this location because there are fewer pests (namely, humans) but the one that persists, the starling, is the bane of my horticultural pursuits.  Of their omnivore's diet, sprouting crops are a favorite.  That means young tomato, pepper, kale, basil, and other plants that I lovingly nursed from seeds through the cold, dark winter are on the menu.  Since, as far as I can see, I am the only fire escape gardener on the block, there's little else for them to choose from.  This year I started seedlings earlier so that they'd be bigger when I transplanted them outside.  But this morning I looked outside and my garden had been pretty much obliterated since last evening.  I hate these damn starlings so much!!!

As their name suggests, they are not a species native to North America (but then again, like many of us, neither am I). They were brought here in the late 19th century by members of the very Victorian-sounding American Acclimatization Society.  Long story short, they revered Shakespeare (though whether or not they understood his writing is up for debate) and because starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, Part I, they took it upon themselves to introduce the birds here (in Central Park, to be precise). They thrived and are now wreaking havoc on our ecosystem.  And my garden.

In 2009 artist Klara Hobza embarked upon a project to return starlings to Europe.  NYFA, if you're reading this, please give this girl a huge grant so my garden can grow.

 
 
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There's a cucumber explosion in my garden right now and I can only eat and pickle so much of it.  Mint grows wild throughout the garden so I decided to make mint iced tea with cucumber ice cubes. Very refreshing!

 
 
Before Saturday I’d never heard of hairy vetch (I’m a complete novice at this) but this past weekend, while I was volunteering at the New York Botanical Garden, the kids planted hairy vetch seeds as part of the children’s gardening program.  The classes are a bit like gardening boot camp for tots (though far more fun than that!) so I try not to pester the instructors with too many of my burning hort questions.  I made a mental note to look up ‘hairy vetch’ later.  I’m a librarian so I compulsively look up everything. 

On my bike ride home from NYBG, however, I made a rare unscheduled stop at the library where I work (as a general rule I try to make work off limits during off hours!) for different reasons.   It’s a small academic library and we get a lot of random free magazines and donations, which I place in the racks for students, along with our paid subscriptions.   There was a few-months-old issue of Mother Earth News, which I took home (it’s okay – it’s a freebie so not like I was stealing an official library acquisition) and read it cover to cover.   One of the feature articles was about the benefits of cover crops, with hairy vetch being one of them.   The issue included a number of other interesting useful pieces, as well.

Soon after I visited the Bronx community garden I recently joined and saw that someone is carefully cultivating several large containers of hairy vetch.  I’d seen it before but had no idea what it was.  It’s funny how once you become aware of something, you suddenly notice it everywhere. 

Vetches are part of the legume family (Fabaceae, as I learned in my class. That’s peas and beans to you and me) so it has nodules on the roots which release nitrogen into the soil, providing valuable nutrients for other plants.    It is winter hardy and is cut down and chopped up in the spring, when it’s sown into the garden bed as ‘green manure.’ This makes the soil much more fertile for tomatoes or whatever else you plant in that same bed.  It also makes a good mulch, prevents erosion, hosts beneficial insects, and is loved by pollinators.  An herbaceous plant, it can be annual or perennial, climbing or trailing.

The scientific genus and species is Vicia villosa, which sounds viciously and villainously poetic.  In addition to having a great name and obvious gardening benefits, hairy vetch produces pretty violet flowers and lovely green compound leaves.  Fine fuzzy hairs on the leaflets give this vetch its name and it also produces delicate wispy tendrils.  Introduced in North America from Europe, it can be invasive.  I assume that if they’re controlled in containers we can stop the vetch invasion and just reap its benefits. 

Another disadvantage is that the seeds contain a cyanide-like toxin and can be poisonous to livestock.  Though goats and chickens are known to eat the stems and leaves, it’s probably best to keep them away, if possible.  But I’m giving you the Krisipedia version.  For more information, consult the USDA’s plant profile for hairy vetch: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=VIVI

 
 
The Mayor's street tree planting initiative couldn't make me happier and is somewhat responsible for my late blooming (pun intended) interest in horticulture.  Surprisingly, not everyone is as happy about all the new trees but I won't get into that.  Instead, I'll focus on my own devotion to being a tree steward, which goes beyond the trees I've 'adopted' in front of my building.   Check out MillionTreesNYC for more information about becoming a tree steward yourself (get free gardening tools and bulbs!) and Trees New York about becoming a Citizen Pruner (word I made up:  treet: the treat that is a street tree.

Since becoming a tree steward myself, I have become hyper aware of every tree thing and with my Intro to Plant Science class at NYBG, my observation skills are even more heightened.  Last year I noticed that several newly planted bald cypress street trees looked a little sickly (actually, I'm not entirely certain that they're not dawn redwoods but I'm leaning more toward bald cypress).  This spring they're coming back to life, their branches covered in spiky verdant needles.  I also saw what I took to be pine cones.  However, the other day I stumbled upon an article about bagworms so I went back for a closer look.  I plucked two from a branch, took them home, performed a home dissection and confirmed that they are indeed the egg cases of the bagworm moth (Psychidae).  

Bagworms are clever architects.  Their egg cases are made from their host's material (in this case, the bald cypress's needles) and mimic pine cones.  They are destructive pests, particularly for arborvitae (an aside: I love this word - sounds like a tree's résumé), and juniper but also spruce, willows, locust, sycamore, linden, silver maple, and boxwood.  They will defoliate and destroy the tree.  The bags are extremely tough, made of silk and as mentioned above, well camouflaged.  When the larvae hatch, they take their case with them, moving it about as they feed on leaves. 

For once, a non-native species is not to blame as the bagworm is native to this part of North America.  Integrated pest management (IPM) and hand picking is the best way to rid them.  I took two home (and while normally I'm loathe to kill anything, I didn't feel too bad about destroying these) but most were well out of arms' reach.  I confess that I broke a branch trying to get a bag and I feel absolutely sick about it.  I don't know if bald cypress has naturally weak wood or if it's because of extreme dry conditions as of late.  I guess I need to procure some grabbers and go back to remove the rest.

 
 
 
While I intended to reflect on plants here, it's hard not to also be interested in species from other kingdoms that depend on (for food, shelter) and/or cohabitate with plants, as well those that plants rely upon in turn (for pollination, or in some cases, for food (such as the insectivorous kind).  So often when looking at plants, I find myself focusing on birds, insects, fungi, and more.  Last week I was in Florida visiting family and spent a great deal of time in some of the state's beautiful natural areas, exploring the local flora and fauna.  

Our first hike included several trails along the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, an incredible swath of public land that includes forests, swamp, scrub, and prairie.  Most impressive of all is that it is a testament to the accomplishments and determination of environmental activists.  Named for the conservationist who opposed the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal (a project that would have had a devastating environmental impact), the park is spectacular and Marjorie Harris Carr is my new hero.

For my herbarium (which I will eventually scan and post here), I respectfully (and guiltily) collected just a few specimens, several of which were bryophytes and fungi.  Amazing mosses and lichens are to be found in Florida, including British soldier (so named for their red caps, pictured below) and reindeer lichens.  I may have missed a lot of trees as I crawled around the forest floor!  I feel good when I see lichens (a rare sight in NYC) because their presence confirms good air quality.  

Although indian pipe, or ghost plant (also called corpse plant), does grow in Inwood Hill Park (the park closest to me), it is uncommon there.  However, it was growing in abundance in the Greenway forest so I didn't feel *too* awful picking one of the chlorophyl-free wildflowers.  The only problem is that Monotropa uniflora turns black almost immediately after picking so that page of my herbarium no longer looks so pretty.

While there is much more I could write about, I'll end with my encounter with a rosy wolf snail, or cannibal snail (Euglandina rosea).  I picked up what I thought to be an empty shell (it sure looked empty) along a trail in the Sunnyhill Restoration Area and carried it around for a bit until I placed it on a table at the Blue Heron and forgot about it while we quenched our thirst.  Some time later, my Mollusca friend surprised us all by coming out of his shell to drink the condensation on the side of my beer bottle.  He retreated when some loud native Pennsylvanians at the next table got overly excited when they saw us drinking Yuengling.  

Although collecting specimens for an herbarium was a class assignment, my New Year's resolution is to not pick or move anything - just take photographs!

Check out my brother's photos here.  
 
 
A Sunday blogger aiming to overcome a little blogger's block, I paid a visit to one of the city's great parcels of public land, Inwood Hill Park, looking for inspiration for my class-required journal, as well as this self-induced companion project.  Today was the coldest it's been in some time and the forest floor was carpeted with beautiful ice crystals that my camera refused to capture, a sparkly surprise after an unusually warm fall.

I love the woods in winter.  It puts my tree identification skills to test as I examine branch patterns, bark colors, and leaf scars (I actually fail at this...for now, anyway.  Wait til I complete my horticulture certificate!).  Bare branches make it easier to spot jays, cardinals, hawks, and if you're lucky, owls.  But the thing I love the most is the quietude.  As wild as it is, IHP is not so large compared to Central Park.  Its 196.40 acres don't provide instant escape from the aggressive hollers of players and spectators during an interminable baseball season (the sport is huge here) though there are spots where, even in fairer weather, you might imagine you're in a game-free Adirondacks.  Winter, however, provides a wider respite from all that, transforming the park into a much more peaceful place.

On a trail in the Clove, between the caves and the glacial pothole, I hear only the sounds of brittle leaves crunching under my boots and when I stand still, the wheezy chatter of chickadees and titmice.  Several pairs of mourning doves coo sadly on a low branch and from somewhere else I hear the pip, peep, and drum of a downy woodpecker.  All around me leaves, pine cones, twigs, stumps, and stones have been carefully arranged into intricate mandalas and Goldsworthy-esque earthworks.  The creator is Mr. Young Jee, a friendly and familiar figure in this part of the park.  He is happy to discuss his work, show you a few of his wonderful photographs, and share some seed so that you can have birds eating out of your hand as they do his.  While I initially intended to write about how delightfully devoid of people the park is this time of year, I instead introduce to you a true friend of the forest.





 
 
From the northernmost tip of Manhattan (a bit of a secret in its own right), I cross the University Heights Bridge (where 207th Street meets Fordham Road) to the University Heights section of the Bronx, to work at a college near several other colleges, proving the neighborhood and surrounding landmarks aptly named.  I'm constantly analyzing the map to see if there's a safer bike route (don't think such a thing exists in the Bronx) and for a while now I've been intrigued by an area labeled "University Woods" but haven't explored it until today.

Nestled between Sedgwick and Cedar Avenues, 180th Street, and the Hall of Fame Terrace, University Woods Park is a narrow strip of forgotten woodlands overlooking the Major Deegan Expressway and Harlem River.  Adjacent to the Bronx Community College campus (née NYU), the park's defoliated late fall trees make clearly visible Stanford White's stately structures and Hall of Fame monument, along with Marcel Breuer's contrasting brutalist concrete building.  Today, the park is quite different from when it was occupied by British forts during the American Revolution.  In recent years it has been a popular dumping ground for Santeria animal carcasses, frequented by prostitutes and junkies, and occupied by homeless people. I saw no signs of any of this on today's excursion - just a completely abandoned and neglected park with a lot of potential and stunning views of Swindler Cove and Highbridge, two parks that have recently undergone miraculous makeovers, thanks to the New York Restoration Project.  Bette, if you're reading this: University Woods could use your help!



 
 
I've spent most of my life studying art and literature and also trying to make art and literature.  I've spent my professional life, as a librarian, collecting, organizing, and disseminating it.  Many of the artists and writers I admire and emulate pay homage to our natural world but now I have decided to study botany and horticulture firsthand.  It's a bit like learning a new language and it's very exciting. It's stretching my brain in new ways and really wiping the cobwebs off my memory skills.  I still have a long, long way to go as there is soooo much I don't know.  It's very humbling!  I'm now looking at plants -  I mean *really* looking at them, and trying to identify them.  For every plant I learn to identify, there are hundreds I can't.
 
 
I have always loved farmers markets and try to buy as much from them as I can.  I've long understood the importance of eating local but it's more and more on my mind lately - especially after having recently read (and watched) Michael Pollen's Botany of Desire (I know - I'm a late bloomer!  It was on my reading list for a long time...along with so many other books).  My cat likes to check out my haul every week and he especially likes to lick bread (he's weird, what can I say?).  Notice how he ignores the cat grass.
 
 
I blame it on the dizzying effects of chlorophyll (or, lack thereof).