Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Woods Today

Back in NYC I might take a walk from time to time, but more often than not it was for the purpose of getting somewhere that I might find myself on a walk. Today, after gaining some ground on research for my (other, new) summer course Shipwreck of the Minotaur at the Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities, I chose to take a walk through the woods with some purpose in mind, but mostly to get out of doors for an hour. I did need to check on the sap buckets, as cooler weather has extended our sap season, and also to check on my Easter day's garlic mustard eradication project around the back slough.

I've kept my eye on the Tradescantia spp. that I transplanted from Brooklyn last year in a new garden where the old lilac used to dwell. It looks to have survived. The same garden is now home to the old Brooklyn 'New Dawn' climber rose (a rose that has seen four different yards over its years), a sedum I found growing here in the woods, Dicentra eximia from Brooklyn too, and whatever else was growing there that we've decided to allow (and hopefully not that horseradish I did my best to dig out).

In the front yard, all varieties of garlic are now soaking up the sun. Incidentally, these are not German Hardy, but an artichoke variety, possibly with 'giant' in the name, that were shipped gratis, likely because of poor size thanks to drought and fire in the garlic seed producing region. There are as many commas in that sentence as garlic in this row, but my point is that the sign is a stand in.

I headed into the woods, although the wind made for a biting chill and a hazardous walk through the ready-to-fall. So much dead wood squeaking and creaking like a brig on the open seas, I hesitated to pause for the earliest of ephemerals like Virginia Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum virginianum or the mystery plant, below, that caught my eye as I hiked off path to navigate a significant enlargement of the water line in the back slough.

I was motivated to get back to the slopes of the slough to check on the garlic mustard that I chose to spray with a low percentage mix of glyphosate and water last Sunday. Spring is the time to deal with garlic mustard, particularly March and the earliest of April. Virginia Waterleaf, ramps, some rosa species, a few asters, and other early, less pernicious weeds are coming up and I have no desire to affect those in the act of ridding the woods of garlic mustard. In these zones hundreds, probably thousands, of garlic mustard seedlings are sprouting from the seed bank. It was not an easy decision to spray, especially within a yard of the slough's water line. And I am frustrated to report that after six days the results were not significant. Most leaves were mottled, but the plants were not in the state of distress I would have expected. I've considered that I may need to apply a second course, although I am not happy about that. It was necessary to do so, even with a much higher percentage of glyphosate, on the buckthorn "hedge" growing alongside the garage pad. What I have to consider is the compression of the wet soil in spring. It appears to me the less foot steps, the better, especially after the frost heave has done such a nice job of loosening, aerating, and draining the soil surface.

In the past I thought garlic mustard didn't do well in flooded soil, and maybe it won't if the slough remains flooded. However, what I've seen is that in early spring the ice melts and freezes and this heave extracts the garlic mustard from the mucky soil. It then floats, roots and all, in the spring melt water, preserved in a cool water bath until conditions improve. At the water's edge the leaves and stems of garlic mustard are bluish gray to the deepest purple and often hard to spot against the dark water. The garlic mustard a foot or two away, on drier land, have some purple to the stems, but the leaves are quite green. So green, in fact, that it is a little painful to pull or spray at this time where you find yourself longing for the green of spring.

So what happens to this water's edge garlic mustard? Does it die? I don't think so. Many of the plants, some of which I simply scooped out of the water and some which were easily pulled from the muck, had the biggest roots. Garlic mustard is a biennial, so last year the seedlings emerged and grew strong, despite the waterlogged soil, and this year they are ready to grow and set seed. I'm not willing to wait for the sake of observation, yet I am sure many will escape my vision or reach, and I will be a witness to their success.

As I make my way around the slough, eyes to the ground, I think much about what good the garlic mustard could be doing. What species make use of it for cover or for food? Does it stabilize the soil on the wooded slopes? Is balance achievable? Is garlic mustard simply symptomatic of a woods so degraded by other culprits (err, humans, for instance)? In other words, how necessary is the work I've begun, and am I causing more harm than good? And, you know, I like questions.

If you would like to see more photographs of the woods, follow me on Instagram @frankmeuschke where I post regularly under the hashtag #thewoodstoday.

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