October 2022

Sometimes in life it is the bad things that happen that really teach us lessons we otherwise would never have learned. In this case, I am talking about a 180-year-old barn with a lot of character. It was in sad shape when I bought the property – or at least one side of it was. A few months ago, I noticed one of the walls was starting to cave in! This began my lesson on the American Chestnut. 

A good portion of the rotted 7×7 barn post that was cut out during my recent barn-saving repair. Photo by mrl2022.

The American Chestnut used to be plentiful in the American landscape. It was roughly found from Maine to Louisiana, staying away from the southeastern coastal United States. Here in Connecticut, it was plentiful. My barn was built largely out of Chestnut, as were many in the countryside. Long before I was responsible for it, water infiltration and termites took out a back-corner post and two of the main structural beams. Only something built in the mid-1800s could still be standing given that description. I am part of the way through replacing the missing and/or rotten framework. It was during this time that I developed a respect for this species of tree.

Even though there were beams over half way rotten or eaten, they were still incredibly strong.  From my observation, the wood does not behave the same way as other modern-day lumber.  Even when only one third of the beams are left, it was extremely difficult to cut through. It is a very hard, dense, strong, and most of all a highly rot resistant wood. In fact, there are pieces that are in contact with the ground that are still solid in both my barn and house. Now I have no way of knowing for sure if some of the ground pieces were replaced, but I do not see any evidence of it.

Even though the wood was largely rotten and riddled with insect damage, it was the hardest wood the author ever had to cut through. Photo by mrl2022.

The American Chestnut was used for building houses, barns, fence posts, animal housing, furniture, and just about anything else one can imagine. The bark is reportedly medicinal for coughs, arthritis, and a sore throat. The chestnuts themselves, like a famous holiday song suggests, were good to eat when roasted over an open fire. I have read about farmers turning their cattle and hogs loose in the forest in the fall to enjoy the fallen nuts. I can only imagine how many native wild animals used it as a food source as well. All in all, it seemed like the absolutely perfect tree. Then, in the early to mid-1900s, the Chestnut Blight wiped out most of them. It is a type of fungus that kills the above-ground portion of the tree. Many times, the roots below ground remain alive. They send up shoots that only live five or ten years max before they too die off. This stump sprouting is another beautiful aspect of this tree species. When they were cut down for lumber, they would simply send up another shoot that would grow into a beautiful tree a number of years later. You did not even have to replant it! 

There is hope, however. There are different organizations and teams of scientists working to bring it back. Some are looking for disease resistant varieties and trying to selectively breed them, while others are trying to genetically engineer resistance to the blight by introducing a gene from a type of grass. Some purists resist such genetic tampering, but I believe the ends will justify the means. There are plans to freely distribute the trees to anyone who wants one once there is a stockpile of resistant specimens ready to go.

So, this brings me to the point of my story. The loss of the American Chestnut was not just an ecological disaster, but one that hit us humans hard as well. We lost one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, species of tree in this part of the country. As such, humans were forced to replace what nature had provided for us with pressure treated lumber. Pressure treated lumber is treated chemically, under pressure, to produce a product that is rot and insect resistant. It has gone through a number of formula changes over the years. There has been great concern over what chemicals were used in the process. In the past, arsenic was the main ingredient in the wood treatment, but copper is now the main ingredient used (except in marine applications due to toxicity to marine life). Either way, boards that are rated for ground contact contain much higher levels of the chemical preservatives. The newer formulation does not possess the same risk as the old. It can be used for playscapes and furniture, but is not recommended for food contact. This leaves a bit of a gray area when we consider its use in raised garden beds or chicken coops. Much of the school of thought says that it is generally safe to use, but I don’t use it for these purposes. So many times, something thought to be safe ends up not being so. It is extremely difficult to determine what amount of leaching of the chemical preservatives does enter your garden soil, and how far they may migrate from the source. A lot will depend on the various soil properties, chemistry, hydrology, and other biotic and abiotic factors. Being that plants indiscriminately take up elements from their surroundings, you could be eating some of the preservatives. Chickens tend to scratch up the soil and move it all around, so they could be coming into contact with the preservatives as well. If you eat the birds and/or their eggs, you could be exposed so some small levels. Remember that these chemicals are actually toxic to life.  That is why the wood isn’t eaten by insects or rotted by bacteria or fungi. I am in no way trying to alarm anyone or imply that there is an enormous danger. I do know many people who have used it in agriculture, and it is generally considered safe to use in these manners.

I personally use some kind of alternative for anything I will consume, like vegetables and chicken eggs. There are a number of rot resistant woods on the market that you can use in place of treated lumber. They are not nearly as rot resistant as Chestnut, but they have varying levels of resistance. By and far the best of the remaining woods is Cedar. This can last an extremely long time. The downside is the exorbitant cost. I used to use it in certain instances, but since the lumber price hikes during COVID, I have not seen this being a feasible option. According to a manager at a local big box lumber store, the company does not stock cedar anymore due to the price – consumers and just not willing to pay that much. Redwood, cypress, and locust are also better at resisting rot, but they can be more costly and harder to come by as well. You will have to price things out if you have a project in mind. Lumber prices fluctuate frequently. 

My recommendation for raised garden beds and chicken coops is Douglas Fir. This wood is somewhat rot resistant. This is the slightly red colored wood you will see in most box stores. It is widely used in construction. I have used it in ground contact for a number of animal housing projects and got 15 years or more out of it before it started to significantly break down and need replacing. I have done this in a number of locations and soil types, both wet and dry, and have had really good luck. The advantages are much lower cost, it is readily available, there is no risk of chemical consumption, and it has a decent life expectancy. Couple this with the statistic about how often people move, and you are more likely to sell your home before you would have had to replace your chicken coop or raised garden beds. Even if you stay put, you most likely will only replace the wood once or twice. The only exception I make to this rule is fence posts and barn posts and beams. These I see as structural components, and here the greatest risk would be failure of the lumber components. As such, I used treated lumber in these places.

Douglas Fir being used in a ground-contact situation for a chicken coop. The author gets about 15 years out of the wood used like this. Photo by mrl2022.

Overall, you have to decide what is best for your particular situation. There are many factors that go into picking the right wood product for the job. Cost, aesthetics, longevity, type of use, and years of expected use are just a few. I really hope science can figure out a successful, permanent solution to the Chestnut Blight. It would be great to have a future where our children can use American Chestnut trees the way our forefathers did.   

Matt Lisy

A couple of weekends ago, the Charlton Garden Club (of which I am a member) had arranged for a Saturday morning tour of Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary. It was a chilly but sunny October weekend, and our tour guide was Dan Jaffe Wilder, Director of Applied Ecology at Norcross. Over the course of a couple hours, we ended up walking a couple of miles and were overcome with appreciation of what both Dan and the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary had to offer. Anyone looking for a veritable ecological experience from mid-May to mid-November, please check this place out.

First a little background. The Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Monson, MA was established in 1964 by Arthur D. Norcross. He was born in 1895 in Monson and roamed the woods and fields as a child. After serving in World War 1, he and his sister went on to establish the Norcross Greeting Card Co. While he relocated to New York City, much time was spent on the one hundred acre parcel of land in Wales, MA (next to Monson) he inherited from his father and referred to as ‘Tupper Hill’. An avid outdoorsman, over the years he acquired land in Monson, Holland and Brimfield, MA as well as Tolland and Stafford Springs, CT. Now more than 8000 acres have been set aside for sustaining, improving and protecting wildlife habitat. Key to the Norcross Wildlife Foundation’s mission is to propagate, establish, restore and maintain populations of threatened and endangered New England species but also to offer public educational programs in natural and environmental science.

Dan talking to Charlton Garden Club members. Photo by dmp2022.

Our tour first took us up to the dry meadows by the greenhouse. A large field was covered in little bluestem, a native warm season grass. Being there late in the season, we could see stiff asters and various species of goldenrod amid the seas of swaying, silvery-white, little bluestem seedheads.

Little bluestem grassland. Photo by dmp2022.

Near the Trailside Museum and greenhouse areas, a native edible garden had been planted and was still getting established. Not many people are aware of the wealth of native plants that supplied/supply food for Native Americans, wildlife and even us. Plants like wild strawberries can be used as ground covers or as substitute lawns. Raspberries and blueberries are often planted in backyard gardens but consider elderberries, June berries, pawpaws and hazelnuts in your landscape for both the benefits to you and other Nature’s beings.

Edible garden area. Photo by dmp2022.

On to the cedar swamp with Atlantic and Eastern white cedar along with wet, shady conditions favorable to a carpet of moss. Interestingly, seedlings of cucumber magnolia were popping up and not being eaten by deer.  

About halfway through our tour, we reached the wet meadow where the flower that I so anticipated seeing was in bloom. Fringed gentians dotted the slightly sloping hillside their 4 fringed petals unfurling as the sun warmed them. The beautiful blue flowers twist close at night and open during the day. They are one of the last wildflowers to bloom in New England and are quite uncommon.

Fringed gentian with petals unfolding. Photo by dmp2022.

Fringed gentians are biennials meaning the seeds germinate and form a foliage plant in year one and then the second year, they bloom, set seed, and die. Seeds need to land on bare soil to germinate so to encourage greater self-seeding, the crew at Norcross mows this section of the sanctuary low to disturb some of the soil so seeds can reach it. Plants range from maybe 8 inches to 2 feet in height. Fringed gentians do best where the competition is not too great and in moist, neutral to alkaline soils in full sun to filtered shade. There certainly are a glorious sight on a sunny, crisp New England fall day.

On the way back, we passed through the pine barrens, which Dan and his crew are working to restore. Many of our rarer species of plants are dependent on occasional fires to open up areas and stimulate seed germination. Seeds of some plants can lay dormant for decades in the soil. As humans, we typically try to repress fires as they can threaten our homes, businesses, etc. Prescribed burns might occur in a couple of years but for now, they are concentrating on removing competing vegetation but allowing the pitch pines and oaks to grow.

At the former gravel bank, soils are sandy and low in nutrients. We could see the lovely yellow fall foliage of amsonia along with ripe, opened seed pods of milkweeds and the warm glow of downy goldenrod. Sweet fern with its camphor scented leaves thrives in these harsh conditions.

Downy goldenrod. Photo by dmp2022.

While Norcross will be closing soon for the season, check out their website for visiting hours and educational programs and if you do get the chance, plan on hiking the trails of this gem of a wildlife sanctuary.

Dawn P.    

On Oct 6-7, the Northeast Coordinating Committee on Soil Testing (NECC1812) hosted its annual meeting in Milford, PA. The NECC-1812 works to ensure that soil, plant, water samples are analyzed and interpreted properly for Northeast states. The committee members consist of soil fertility specialists and key lab personnel from Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and West Virginia. The committee discussed opportunities and challenges of soil testing for evaluating soil health. Examples that were involved in our discussions are testing for soil aggregate stability, which is a soil property that is important for evaluating soil erodibility; testing for soil organic matter, which is important for soil chemical, physical, and biological properties, and ultimately to soil’s capacity to supply nutrients to our plants as well as sustainability of soil’s ecosystem service; and nickel as plant nutrition – why does it improve plant yield under specific situations.

Dr. Stephanie Murphy, the director of Rutgers University Soil Testing Laboratory, shared with us a recently published guideline for dealing with soil for raised beds. If you use raised beds in your garden and are wondering what type of growing media and soils would work best, how much organic growing media and organic amendments are needed, and how you would send samples to soil testing labs when analyzing organic growing media and composts, please visit this newly published extension article Soil For Raised Beds at https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs1328/.

A nice treat that we had from this committee meeting was that we got to use Grey Towers National Historic Site in Milford Pennsylvania for the meeting to take place. The Grey Towers was built in 1886 by James and Mary Pinchot as their summer retreat, it is truly a beautiful property with full of history.

Grey Towers Historic Site in Milford, PA. Photo by Haiying Tao

James recognized the reckless destruction of nature resources and committed his effort to advance his conservation ideals to preserve the nature heritage and the family donated the Grey Towers and its surrounding 102 acres to the US Forest Service in 1963. Besides the astonishing architecture and the design that reflects the French heritage, the history of the family and their involvement and great impact on natural resource conservation, we truly enjoyed the beautiful garden surrounding the Grey Towers.

Climbing hydrangea at children’s play house. Grey Towers. Photo by Haiying Tao.

Thanks to Gifford, the oldest son to James and Mary, and Cornelia Pinchot, who designed and constructed much of the landscape that we get to enjoy now. They planted 30 prominent fruit and ornamental trees on the property, and some of them are from Europe and Asia. As soon as we parked our car in the parking lot, our eyes were immediately caught by the blooming oxydendron  and its stunning color of leaves and think you may enjoy seeing a picture of it as well.

Oxydendron in bloom. Grey Towers. Photo by Haiying Tao.

My favorite part of the landscape is the Swimming Pool Terrace. Although the swimming pool is now filled and a tent is built on it for outdoor public programs and meetings and conservation education, I love the climbing hydrangea-covered stone walls and the beautiful grape arbor with stone foundation and seating inside.

Grape arbor. Grey Towers, Photo by Haiying Tao

In a corner near the arbor, I noticed a huge grain mill and was wondering what it was doing in a garden of a rich family’s mansion. As I walked around in other gardens, I noticed more of them. It was later on that I learned from the guide that these mills were brought in by the residence of Milford during the recession. With a warm heart to help people during the recession, the Pinchot family announced that they needed a mill wheel, and they would pay $5 if anyone would bring them one.

One of the 17 mill stones at Grey Towers. Photo by Haiying Tao.

They ended up receiving 17 of them. Some of them are now displayed in the different areas of gardens, and a few of them are buried underneath other structures in the gardens. In addition to the dedication of the Pinchot’s family to natural resource conservation, this is the next best story that I enjoyed during this visit. There are truly a lot more interesting histories and beauty for you to explore if you will be ever passing through Milford PA and can allocate some time to visit the Grey Towers.

Haiying Tao, Ph.D. UConn PSLA