Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Getting the Family Outdoors

Karma Larsen

Kids will be out of school next week and it may be difficult to get
them away from all the residual bounty of Christmas gifts—movies, video games, new phones or apps. But don’t waste your days indoors. Here’s some ideas to get your family outside.

  • Do some sleuthing and take a good inventory of all the tracks in the snow. Try to figure out what animals might have made them, and track them as far as you’re able. If your own yard is limited, take a trip to Pioneers Park or any wild areas nearby.
  • Make a campfire. It may be a little chilly but it’s not too cold to roast some marshmallows, look at the night sky and listen to the subtle sounds of a winter evening.
  • Walk around the yard or neighborhood to notice which trees still have leaves, how the snow drifts in different places and what things are most colorful mid-winter.
  • Pay attention to evergreens and notice the difference in needles and cones. Which cones do you like the best?
  •  Use some of the needles to make prints that look like snowflakes.
  •   Do some bark-rubbings. Take paper and crayons or other art supplies outside and see what kinds of patterns the barks of various trees imprints.
  •   Feed the birds!  Cover pine cones with peanut butter and roll them in birdseed; then watch to see what birds show up for the feast.
  • Jump in the snow, or in wet leaves if the snow is disappearing.
  • Nature journal—record what you hear, see, smell and experience in homemade journals.
  • Gather leaves, cones or berries for collections.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Memories

Justin Evertson
Justin building a snowman with nieces & nephews in Kimball.
I grew up in Kimball, Nebraska, and I remember our family heading out to cut down Ponderosa pines for Christmas trees. My memory is now confused with the Griswold’s experience in “Christmas Vacation,” but I don’t think we ever forgot to bring the saw!
       Mostly I remember that, growing up on the farm, even on cold and snowy Christmas mornings we were outside doing chores—feeding cattle and other critters. The air is never so crisp or still as it is on a cold winter morning. In all my memories there is hoarfrost on the few trees we had. I did NOT want to be there at the time (I thought we were being abused by our mean father! – ha) but looking back now they are good memories.
       When my kids were little, we used to go to Walt Bagley’s place to get live trees and I was always so impressed with how spry he was for a 75-year-old guy—out cutting and hauling trees around.
       Now I like to cut young cedar trees and put them on the back deck as a Christmas tree festooned with seed-covered pine cones and popcorn strands for the birds (and squirrels) to enjoy. My kids have grown and left the house so part of my enjoyment of the holidays is to watch the birds frolic on my deck. I think they’re thankful for my efforts.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Rethinking Shelterbelts

Justin Evertson

        Since the first settlements in the region more than 150 years ago, trees and shrubs have been planted to protect people, livestock and soils from the harsh Great Plains climate.  Although shelterbelts are typically associated with farms and ranches, they are also used to protect and improve important community features such as parks, schools, large public properties, acreages, subdivisions and commercial areas.  Shelterbelts also provide habitat for wildlife, they help reduce snow drifting and help screen unsightly views. 
        Shelterbelts became very common in the Great Plains during and immediately following the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.  Such plantings were promoted by state and federal governments to help prevent soil erosion and improve crop production.  The shelterbelt design has changed little from that era.  Most still consist of just a few species of plants, including a row or two of evergreens, planted in straight lines. Time has proven this traditional method of design to have several shortcomings:

  •  A lack of plant diversity can lead to large sections of a shelterbelt dying quickly when certain diseases, insect pests or weather events impact a planting.  Recently, this has become a very serious problem in southeast Nebraska with the sudden loss of many Scotch pines (Pinus sylvestris) from Pine Wilt Disease (see article on back). Scotch pine has become the most commonly planted tree around farms and acreages and it is possible that millions of trees in the region could die in the coming years
  • Evergreens planted tightly in rows can suffer from several needle blight diseases in the more humid air of eastern Nebraska.
  • Species choices often do not reflect soil and topographical changes that occur within the planting line of many shelterbelts.

        To help improve the long-term success of shelterbelt plantings in and around communities, the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum has developed the following design recommendations.

  • Shelterbelts should contain a broader diversity of trees and shrubs than they have in the past.  This does not mean planting one of everything, but rather the use of several species in complementary groupings.  A good rule of thumb is to limit any single species to no more than 20 percent of the total planting. 
  • In the more humid air of eastern Nebraska, evergreen trees are often more prone to foliar diseases.  This is especially true where trees are planted tightly together, as in many older shelter plantings.  For this reason, new shelterbelts in eastern Nebraska should never be a solid wall of evergreens, but should include many deciduous trees and shrubs.  In fact it is very possible to have an effective shelterbelt here with no evergreens at all.
  • In the more arid western Nebraska, evergreens are less prone to foliar diseases and in general are better able to survive the frequent drought conditions than most deciduous types.  As such, evergreens will likely be a larger component of a shelterbelt in the western part of the state. 
  • Several species of deciduous trees and shrubs hold their leaves well into winter or have denser branching that allows them to block more winter wind.   
  • Species selections should better reflect soil conditions. More specifically, species selection should change when soils move from dry uplands to wetter bottom areas. Many shelter plantings extend up and down on slopes with no change in species.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Favorite type of Christmas tree?

Karma Larsen

I have a strong suspicion that, for most of us, our favorite types of Christmas trees are the ones we remember from our youth—when trees were bigger, sparklier, more magical than anything we’ve seen since.
       So what’s your favorite?  Fir, pine, spruce?
       Or, if you grew up at a time when there wasn’t money for buying anything unnecessary and getting a Christmas tree meant one less redcedar filling up the ditches at the side of the road, maybe it’s a redcedar?
       I confess it’s my favorite. What other tree comes with its own beautiful blue berries, is airy enough to let ornaments visibly dangle between its horizontal layers and can be gotten for free from almost anyone with a pasture?
       We would cut one out of the pasture or roadside at Thanksgiving, and then place it in water in the garage to let it green up for a few weeks before Christmas. I don’t know whether it was the warmer temperatures or the green food color my parents added to the water, but the trees always greened up quite a bit by Christmas. (Note: if anyone in your family is allergic to pollen, dust or mold, they can be hosed off before bringing them in.)
       So before you head off in search of the perfect Christmas tree, take a good look at your neighbor’s pasture and put your money in the next Salvation Army bucket you see instead. Thanksgiving greetings, friends!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't waste those leaves, turn autumn gold into "black gold"

Karma Larsen

As beautiful as fall foliage is when it's on the tree, once the leaves hit the ground those striking colors just don’t elicit the same excitement.  Rather than bringing out gas-guzzling, noise-making mowers, blowers and vacuums to deal with the residue, consider layering them with soil and other organic residue to make compost or create a new garden bed.
                Whether you call it “lasagna,” “berm,” “mulch” or “layer” composting, there’s a myriad of benefits: garden beds can be built on top of soil or even on top of existing lawn; requires less physical labor than bagging and hauling; decomposes to create a rich humus; more closely mimics nature’s way of creating new soil; uses materials already at hand—with the exception of hay, which can help loosen the mixture and increase aeration; and, if it’s done correctly and with a lot of water, can do its work in the course of just one season.
                Though composting can be as simple as throwing waste in a designated spot, many “how-to’s” recommend a very structured process that discourages all but the most enthusiastic follower. In mulch gardening, a series of thin layers of organic waste is built up and then—the essential part—the whole area is heavily watered down to decompose. Watering encourages insect and worm activity, settling in, decomposition, and prevents drying out or “pressing” the materials. Since layers are quite thin, moist and not stacked very high, the temperature doesn’t get as high as in normal composting; and since it offers the right conditions for worm and insect activity, more labor-intensive methods of turning and mixing the layers are unnecessary.
                To start a new bed on top of lawn, you may want to first lay down soaked layers of newspaper to help smother existing grass.  Then begin the layering process, alternating thin layers of leaves (the more decomposed or broken the better), soil, kitchen waste, compost, grass clippings and hay.  Moldy, rotted hay is best if you can find it. You can also add used coffee grounds, still in filters if you want, from home or work.  Water it in periodically as you’re layering it and don’t add woodchips or sawdust, which will slow down the decomposition.  As it breaks down, it will settle to about half the depth of the original layers.  Keep it moist through winter, and by spring you will have turned autumn’s gold into “black gold.”