Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Diamond in the Rough

As I aspire to leave my mark on VINS and with the summer quickly coming to an end, I am using the time I have left here to help lay the foundation for what will be VINS' newest exhibit: a model backyard habitat which will be located at the site pictured below.

This project will benefit both the environment and local community in a number of ways. For local wildlife it will provide cover and food sources in the form of native flora that will occupy the entire strata of this habitat; from the canopy trees of the forest edge, to the stands of dogwoods and hawthorns, to the edible shrubs like raspberry and blueberry, right down to the wildflowers, forbs, grasses, and sedges. As tracts of forest are cleared or wetlands drained in the name of development, coupled with the relentless push of invasive species, an oasis such as the one being proposed are critical to the survival and propagation of our region's native flora and fauna alike. 

With 30,000 annual visitors to VINS, this backyard habitat exhibit has the opportunity to expose a large number of people to the benefits of reducing the size of their lawns and planting native species that are aesthetically pleasing while serving to sustain local wildlife and native plant populations. If each of those visitors where to convert only 10 sq ft of their suburban lawn to a wildflower bed or native shrub thicket that would amount to 300,000 sq ft of suburban lawn conversion annually! Knowledge is contagious and VINS is hoping to spread the bug about the importance and obtainable goal of increasing biodiversity in one's own backyard by simply choosing native plants to their region over exotic ornamentals.

Intrigued by what you can do?  Check out these helpful links.

Educated Homeowners blog on natives in your backyard -
Step by step instructions from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) -
Publication from NRCS -

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Diversity of our Meadow Ecosystem

The summer is now in full swing and my first round of data collection is finished. It is one of several sampling sessions, which will coalesce into snapshots of the pollinator–wildflower relationship through the summer. The sampling process came with periods of frustration, elation, and the excitement of collecting this data in the meadow for the first time.

What kind of data am I collecting exactly? The type of data can be divided into two parts: pollinator activity and wildflower diversity. The first can be trickier than the second, mainly because pollinators (bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and others) can move quickly and plants don’t. Every two weeks I inventory pollinators present in the study area and which wildflowers they are visiting. I also record the flowers that are in bloom and the number of inflorescences (groups of blooming flowers) to measure the resources for pollinators in the meadow over time.

Wildflower diversity is the second part of the study and is simply a measure of the amount of species and their relative population densities. Both of these values together (what scientists like to call species richness and evenness) combine to create an index of biodiversity. The more diverse an ecosystem is, generally the more resilient it is in the face of adversity.

The central question behind this research project is: what management practice (controlled burns or mowing) will keep the meadow from reverting back into forest while maximizing the diversity of wildflowers and activity of pollinators? Timing also matters and experimental mowing and burning over the next couple of years will provide insight into what is best for the meadow at VINS and what may be best for landowners around Vermont. For now, I am off to the meadow to collect data for round two...  

Monday, July 11, 2011

To pull or not to pull?

As part of my research project this summer at VINS I have been charged with investigating invasive species ecology – how these species interact with the ecosystem they have invaded, as well as management strategies to minimize their impacts through eradication.
Exotic invasive species are managed because of the threat they pose to native flora and fauna by physically displacing native species. However this is not the only way invasives do harm to local ecosystems.  Some exotics like the stump-sprouting Japanese Knotweed pictured above, have the ability to alter the actual physical and chemical composition of soil.  Doing so disrupts the hydrology, nutrient cycling, soil microbial and fungi populations which all exacerbates the problems posed by invasives.

As the above picture illustrates, managing invasive species is not always effective, in-fact, managing an invasive species population never really ends. Seed dispersal of a plethora of invasives, whether it be by wind, bird, animal or human is inevitable. So it seems the same question must be asked, “To pull or not to pull?” Concentrating management efforts to the most sensitive areas seems the most economical, but if invasives cannot be managed everywhere are our actions fruitless?  When exotic ornamental Japanese Barberry still holds a multi-million dollar market share in the horticulture business (Lehrer et al, 2006) it would seem our attitude towards acceptable landscaping practices needs to make a change before real progress towards managing invasive populations can take place.

Works cited:
Lehrer, J et al. (2006). Four Cultivars of Japanese Barberry Demonstrate Differential Reproductive Potential under Landscape Conditions. Journal of Horticultural Science. Vol. 41 Iss. 3 (pp762).