Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wood for Warmth

As the nighttime temperatures start to drop below freezing we tend to think more and more about staying warm inside our homes. For most people that means turning on the furnace, baseboards, or other forms of indoor heating. I, however, start to look forward to the opportunity to light a fire in my woodstove. Most months in Wenatchee and the surrounding areas are either too warm, too dry, or some combination of both to need or safely burn a fire. But from November through March, I feel perfectly comfortable burning a fire if I think it’s cold enough outside.
A nice, warm campfire. A similarly sized fire inside a
fireplace would burn well and provide plenty of heat. 
Notice the space between the logs allowing for 
good air flow. 
I enjoy burning wood for a variety of reasons. Some are economical, while others are purely superficial. Burning a fire saves money. When I burn a fire I don’t need to run heat in the rest of my home. I can turn the thermostat off and heat my living areas with my woodstove. I grew up in a home where the heat was left at 60 degrees throughout the winter. (It was even colder during the night.) If you were chilly you either sucked it up or you put on a sweatshirt. I keep my house slightly warmer (~63). My girlfriend hates this. Given the choice she’d have it at 75. I compromise with her by building a fire. The fire will often get the house warmer than I’m willing to keep it with the central air. Everyone wins. I also enjoy the beauty of a fire. There’s something about watching the flames dance behind the glass that’s both enchanting and relaxing.

Now, what do you need to know about burning in your home? Let’s take a look at some of the ins and outs of efficiently and properly using fire.

The most important part of burning is having fuel. And not just any fuel will do. For the most part you should only be burning wood in a fireplace or woodstove. And that wood should come from a tree. Wood that has been painted, treated, or otherwise chemically altered is not fit for burning. Not only could some of those compounds cause the fire to flame up, but there’s a good chance they’re filled with harmful chemicals. Burning such wood is harmful to both your own health and that of the environment. It’s best to stick to wood that’s been cut for the strict intention of burning.
What’s the best type of wood to burn? Dry wood. If your wood is still green or left out in the rain it’s not going to burn well at all. Good firewood should dry at least a year in order to ensure that most of the water has evaporated out. The lower the water content the better your wood will burn. Split your firewood first to ensure it has the largest surface area available to dry with, and don’t stack it too tight. Make sure it stays covered as well.
A fireplace is usually open to the room. Doors or screens
are usually put in front to block things falling in or out.
When burning a fire make sure it stays good and hot. Not so hot your house might catch on fire, but hot enough to keep the wood burning as clean as possible. Don’t pile too much wood in all at once. Keep spaces between the burning wood in order to allow proper air flow. A good way to check your fire is to walk outside and look at what’s coming out of your chimney. If all you can see are heat waves than your fire is burning properly. If you see clouds of billowing smoke than you’re doing something wrong. Either your wood is wet, or it’s not getting enough air flow to burn properly. Not only are you not getting an optimal fire, but you’re polluting the air as well.
What’s the best way to get firewood? That’s up to you. Buying firewood can be quite expensive. A cord of firewood cut, dried, and delivered to your home could easily cost a few hundred dollars. (A cord of wood is a pile measuring 4’x4’x8’. Depending on how much you burn this could last a few weeks or a few months.) Cutting your own is an option, and the basic permit isn’t very expensive, but the amount of work might outweigh the low cost of the permit. To cut your own firewood requires chainsaws, axes, and splitting mauls. Not to mention the ability to haul the cut firewood out of the mountains and back to your home.
A woodstove is enclosed. The door seals, and air enters
through vents. Wood stoves can often heat better 
because of the larger surface area open to the room.
When cutting you have to be aware of where and what you’re cutting. Only cut dead trees, which in our area means watching out for Western larch that only look dead. When in reality they’ve only dropped their needles for the winter. Make sure to avoid any riparian zones. Even if the tree is dead it’s still part of the riparian ecosystem. Don’t travel far from the roadways. It may seem like the better thing to leave trees next to the road, but the dead trees will be removed when they fall over the road later anyways. Also, do you want to haul wood a quarter mile back to your truck?

Another important facet of wood burning is the environmental factor. Burning wood does decrease the amount of electricity you might need for heating your home, but in our area the electricity comes from dams, so you’re replacing a non-air polluting power source with an air polluting heat source. This air pollution includes a lot of fine particulate matter that may be harmful to anyone that breathes large amounts of it. Wood burning can contribute to poor air quality during certain winter conditions. Winter often creates conditions where the air tends to settle in valley areas. The smoke from fireplaces doesn't have a chance or the ability to escape the valleys. We’re left with unhealthy air to breathe. Pay attention to any burn bans that might be in effect. If burning is banned it’s not done to spite you. It’s done because the air quality is poor and doesn't need any more added pollutants.

So, if you’re like me and planning on burning in your home, do it the right way. Make sure your wood is properly prepared. Don’t burn unsafe materials. Watch your fire and make sure it’s burning efficiently. And don’t forget everyone else in your area. Fires are great for heat and entertainment, but keep in mind that other people and the environment might be affected in ways you don't notice.

Stay tuned for next week's article.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fungi

© Hartmann Linge, 
Wikimedia Commons
What comes to mind when you think about fungi? Perhaps it’s mold on a bread slice, a bright red mushroom on the forest floor, or maybe you’re not sure what a fungus is. Regardless, fungi are so much more. Not only are the visible portions of a fungus usually just a small part of a larger organism, but many fungi are difficult to see because they’re under the soil, inside a tree, or microscopic. The truth is fungi are everywhere. 

A fairy ring. The mushrooms mark the outer reaches
of the entire underground fungal growth.
Mushrooms may be easily visible, but they’re only part of a larger system. A mushroom is simply the fruiting body of the larger, unseen mycelial mat. (A mycelial mat is the portion of a fungus not usually seen by human eyes. It’s responsible for uptake of nutrients and water and for most other functions as well.) Mushrooms are responsible for releasing spores into the air. The spores then travel on air currents in the hopes that they land somewhere with the right conditions to allow for growth of a new fungus. While a single mushroom cannot show the true size of the underground mycelium, a group of them might be able to. This is seen in fairy rings where the mushroom ring outlines the entire area of growth.

Walking through a forest you often see fallen trees and other debris rotting on the floor. What causes that debris to rot? Fungi. And it’s a good thing too. If that material didn’t rot and break down the forest floor would slowly accumulate more and more stuff. Eventually the floor would be so full that nothing could grow up through the choking mass of debris. The only things that would survive would be the trees already present, but even they would eventually die. At some point all the trees would die and nothing would be left except a pile of dead logs and accumulated leaf litter.
© Mary and Angus Hogg, Wikimedia Commons
Decomposition (the same thing as rotting just a more technical term) is important for two main reasons. One, as mentioned above, it helps break down debris and keep the ground clear. Two, by breaking down the debris it returns the nutrients in forms that can be reused by other plants. Without this cycling of nutrients plants wouldn’t be able to grow and thrive regardless of the availability of space on the forest floor. Fungi’s roll in decomposition makes it one of the most important players in the plant cycle. Without fungi the cycle would stop.
While decomposition of fallen trees and debris is generally good for still living and future plants, rotting of living tissue is not. Some fungi will infect a tree and start breaking down the inner part of the tree. The tree may look perfectly healthy and then one day fall over. And it won’t be until it’s fallen over on the ground that you can tell it had been rotted from the inside out.

Fungi can also help plants grow and thrive in environments that might normally be inhospitable to a plant. Fungi do this through a mycorrhizal association with the roots of a plant. This association is symbiotic between the plant and the fungus. (Symbiotic relationships are when two or more species form a close working relationship, often for long periods of time. These relationships can take different forms: benefit all; benefit one and hurt another (parasites); and benefit one without hurting the other.) The fungus is able to pull water and nutrients out of the soil that the plant may not be able to get at for a variety of reasons: soil pH, water content, etc. The fungus then transports these to the plant’s roots where the plant exchanges the nutrients for carbohydrates.

A elm tree showing the 
effects of Dutch elm disease.
© Luis Fernández García,
Wikimedia Commons
Not all fungi are helpful though. It’s estimated that more than 80% of all plant diseases are caused by fungi. These diseases cover a broad spectrum of symptoms and effects. Some fungi simply infect a few leaves and don’t hurt the overall health of the plant, but others can start on a leaf and quickly make its way through the whole plant. Destroying the plant host as it goes.
Most plants and fungi in an area have evolved together over time. The fungi come up with a new way to infect, and the tree responds with a new defense. In general this keeps them fairly well matched. Fungi still infect certain specimens, but most are able to fight off the infections. The issue arises with introduced pathogens. Fungi from other continents might present challenges to native species. Diseases like Dutch elm disease and sycamore anthracnose are the result of fungi that were introduced into areas with plant species that had no defenses to them. This has led to the death and disfigurement of large numbers of both elm and sycamore trees.

Next time you’re out walking around I hope this blog helps you understand the role of fungi in your life. Remember that many things in life wouldn’t be possible without them. They help the plants grow and through them help us as well. And while fungi do cause many problems, their positives far outweigh their negatives. And last, but definitely not least, without fungi in the form of yeast we would have neither bread nor beer. Mull about that next time you’re sitting in a brewery/bakery enjoying the fruits of a fungi’s labor.

As always tune in next week for another informative article.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Plant in the Fall

Planting in the fall may seem like a poor choice. Winter is knocking on the door, and whether we like it or not will soon force its way into our lives. With freezing temperatures and snow on their way it may seem like the worst time of year to plant, but it's actually a great time. Bulbs, shrubs, and trees can do very well when planted in the fall.
Fall planting works well because of the weather associated with it. While it may seem cold and wet outside when compared to the summer we left behind, fall weather is often more pleasant than spring. The weather is still warm during the day, but not overly hot. There are usually less rainy and cloudy days, but rain still comes fairly regularly. Also the soil is quite a bit warmer in the fall than in the spring.

Bulbs that have been in the ground for over a year follow their own natural rhythms. It's only the first year that can cause them some issues as they adjust to life back in the ground. Bulbs normally sprout in the spring, grow, and then go dormant in the fall. When planted in the spring it can take a little time for the bulbs to start the process of sprouting. They have to adjust first. Planting in the fall can remove some of the issues of spring planting. The bulbs have a chance to acclimate to the soil before going dormant for the winter. This leaves them well prepared to start spring growth based on their natural rhythms. Plant bulbs too late in the season and they might miss the signals necessary to start growth. This may lead to them developing far later in the year than normal, or they might not sprout at all.

New shrubs and trees, when planted in the spring, spend a lot of their first year trying to establish a good root system. The resources spent on root growth are necessary, but at the same time they limit resources available to other plant growth. Water requirements the first year are also quite higher than subsequent years due to the lack of an established root system.
Fall planting can remove these issues. Even though shrubs and trees are headed towards dormancy in the fall they still have time to grow. Planting them in the fall gives them a month or two to establish roots without also trying to grow the other parts of the plant as well. This preparation allows the plants to grow in the spring without diverting so many resources towards root growth. This helps cut down on the watering necessary the first spring and summer.

The last benefit to fall planting is money. Often the plants available at the end of the season are much cheaper than they were during spring or summer. By fall most businesses with plants still in stock just want to get rid of them. Anything they have left that you want will typically be much less expensive.

Hopefully this gives you an option to consider when planting, instead of automatically planting in the spring. Next time you have plans to plant in the spring; consider the alternatives and plant in the fall. You'll save yourself time, effort, and money. When spring comes you'll be able to enjoy your new plantings without slaving away in the muck trying to get them in the ground. 

Make sure to tune in again next week for another article. I plan to talk about fungi next and explore some of their roles in our environment.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Don't Throw Out Your Fallen Leaves

As the sun rises later each morning and sets earlier each evening, the nights creep closer to freezing and the day doesn't warm until late afternoon, it's time to start preparing your yard for the coming winter. Depending on the size and complexity of your yard, and your individual interest, preparing for winter can be a half day's project or a month's worth of Saturdays.
One project in particular can vary greatly in its difficulty depending on the number of trees in your yard. A single ornamental tree may barely register a blip on your work meter, while four or more large trees can easily peak your work meter, and leave you with dozens of bags of leaves to deal with. Don't toss your leaves though. Not only is that a waste of valuable landfill space, but those dead leaves still have plenty of life left in them.

Multiple options are available that make use of your leftover leaves, and almost all of these options are far simpler than you might think. The nice part is that you start with the same basic prep for all options and then you get to decide what you want to do with them. Use all of them in one or split it between all your options.
The first step is to shred the leaves. There are two basic options for shredding. The first option is to simply mow over the leaves on your grass. If you have a mower and bag this is a really simply way to shred. Simply mow into the bag and then empty the bag where you want it. If your mower doesn't have a bag you can still mow the leaves, but you're going to have to rake them up afterward. The other option is to gather the leaves up and run them through a chipper/shredder. This option may seem unnecessary if you own a mower, but a mower isn't usable in all areas of a yard. Of course, the leaves could be moved onto your lawn and then mowed. But if you have access to a chipper/shredder it may be simpler to pile, shred, and use without moving the leaves too far.
After the leaves are shredded you have to decide what you want to do with them. The simplest option is probably mulching and from there you can go through more and more complex forms of composting. If you want to use them for mulching they're ready to go. Simply take the shredded leaves and place them where you want, around plants or across entire flower beds. Mulching serves a couple purposes. The first is it helps keep the soil moist by blocking the soil from direct sun exposure. The second is that it helps provide a barrier against weed growth.
Composting takes more work. While mulch may eventually turn to compost after enough time, if you want true compost it needs to be helped along. This involves mixing the shredded leaves with soil to introduce microbes that will help break down the leaf matter. It also needs to remain warm and moist. A compost pile may need to be periodically watered in dry climates. Compost can be done on the ground in piles, but it's more efficient to place it in a dark, above ground bin. This helps heat the compost, especially during the colder months. Compost also must be periodically turned to allow proper mixing and decomposition.
By themselves leaves don't make the most ideal compost. Leaves are heavy in carbon, but low in almost all other nutrients. It's best to add other green plant matter and food scraps from the house into the compost to build up other nutrient levels. Doing this will help create compost with a wide range of available nutrients, perfect for adding to gardens and flowerbeds the following spring and summer.
Another variant on compost is making leaf mold. The difference between leaf mold and regular compost is the composition of the starting ingredients. Leaf mold is entirely made of decomposed leaves. Simply take the shredded leaves, place them together, and keep moist. You can use compost bins, plastic bags, or just make piles on the ground. Every few weeks simply turn and mix the leaves like you would with a regular compost pile. Wait several months and then it's ready to use. Leaf mold is less a fertilizing compost and more a conditioner for the soil. It helps fluff up the soil while at the same time increasing the water holding abilities of the soil.
If you want to create new garden beds for the following spring the leaves will be a great asset. Start by spreading several sheets of newspaper over the ground you want to use. This will help keep underlying vegetation from growing through. From there spread alternating layers of shredded leaves and green plant matter (basically anything except leaves), aiming for about twice as much leaf matter as green matter. Layer until it reaches a foot or two in depth and then let it sit. By springtime the matter should have decomposed enough to leave a rich soil, perfect for spring planting. Fall is ideal for this because the new garden has the rest of fall, all winter, and early spring to decompose. The higher amounts of rainfall and the winter snows also benefit by keeping it moist. By spring the two feet you started with will have shrunk down, but the soil should be very good for planting.

Whichever of these options sounds the best is completely up to your tastes and needs. Just use at least one of them. The amount of time it takes to rake, gather, and bag all the leaves just to throw them away is probably on par with at least a couple of these options. So take the time to help yourself and make good use of all your available resources, even if those resources are dead leaves.

Tune in next week for another interesting article.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fall is for the Trees

A look at an orchard in early fall. Notice the variety of colors present.
Fall is a special time of year. It’s a time to enjoy the beauty of nature, but it’s also a time for preparation. We prepare our cars, homes, and yards for the coming snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. We insulate our homes and switch out our bald tires for studded snow tires. Once the cold sets in we try to avoid going outside. And if we do have to venture out we dash from one heated location to another, out the door of our home into the car and from the car into the store. We have the options and the abilities to protect ourselves from the winter weather by removing ourselves from it. Trees don’t have that luxury. A tree can’t simply uproot and walk into a warm house. It’s stuck where it’s rooted. It must prepare itself for winter.

A maple tree girded in full fall foliage. 
Perhaps the most visible preparation is the changing colors and eventual loss of leaves on deciduous trees. Nothing quite brings to mind fall as seeing the multitudes of colors across the different species of trees. Reds, oranges, and yellows dot our cities and forested hills. The landscape becomes a kaleidoscope of colors for a short time. Slowly the kaleidoscope fades as the once colorful leaves fall to the ground. Our cities and hills lose their vibrant colors. All that remains are leafless trees, bare until the spring.
Trees lose their leaves for a very basic reason. It’s better for their survival. They wouldn’t necessarily die if they kept them throughout the winter, but it would cost them more energy than they would take in. Photosynthesis uses sunlight to create carbohydrates. Plants use these carbohydrates for almost everything. They need them to grow. For photosynthesis to work, however, there needs to be sun and heat. However, winter days are short, often cloudy, and cold. Opposite of the ideal conditions. So the trees drop their leaves.
Why do the leaves change first though? Why aren't the leaves just dropped, still green, to the ground? Nutrients. The tree spent energy and resources to grow the leaves. There’s no reason to just throw them away. So first the tree resorbs what material it can from the leaves. It uses enzymes to break down complex molecules into their base amino acids or carbohydrates. These are then funneled into the branches, trunk, and roots of the tree for storage until the new growth in the spring. Of course this process isn't free. The tree must continue photosynthesizing as this occurs.
An aspen grove with its brilliant yellow foliage.
Where does the red, orange, and yellow come from? For the most part the colors are already present in the leaves. They’re just not seen because the chlorophyll is so much more prevalent during the growing season. The color change occurs in the fall because the chlorophyll stops getting replaced as it degrades under constant sun exposure. This allows the carotenoids (orange), xanthophylls (yellow), and anthocyanins (red) pigments to show through. Oddly enough production of some of these pigments can often increase in the fall as the leaves get closer to dropping. Leading to brilliant colored leaves in some trees. One reason that production of these pigments might increase is because of nutrients available in the leaf. As fall progresses the pathways out of the leaf eventually close. This leads to a buildup of nutrients. These nutrients are then used in the production of lesser pigments. But eventually even these pigments degrade from light exposure. At this point the only color left is brown, which comes from tannins.

What about internal changes? What goes on inside a tree to protect it from freezing temperatures? The first thing to know is that the cold temperatures themselves aren't necessarily harmful to the plant. The bigger issue is that water expands as it freezes. Fill a water bottle full of water and put it in the freezer. When it finishes freezing you'll see that the water has either burst out the cap or through a side. The same thing would happen if water froze inside a cell.
So why don't tree cells burst when the temperature drops below freezing? The simple answer is that all water doesn't freeze at 32º. The freezing temperature varies depending on the concentration of solutes in the water. Increase the solutes, decrease the freezing temperature. Trees make use of this property by increasing the concentration of solutes in their cells as winter approaches. These solutes function as an antifreeze for the tree.
Another benefit that all plants have are cell walls. Cell walls are rigid structures that surround the softer cell membrane. They provide support, strength, and protection. They're one of the reasons that trees can grow so large. They allow the individual cells to flex and move while relying on the cell wall to maintain integrity. If water does have a chance to freeze in a plant it often occurs outside of a cell. As the ice crystal expands it can punch through the cell wall and push on the cell membrane. The cell membrane is flexible. It can wrap itself around the encroaching ice. As the cell shrinks it forces water out, increasing the solute concentration inside the cell. Further protecting the cell from internal freezing.
The downfall of increasing the solute concentration is that it takes up space in the cell. Space that otherwise would be used by the cell for normal operations. This forces the cells to go dormant while they're full of this antifreeze. The cells are protected, but they can't keep working. They must wait until it warms in the spring to flush the antifreeze and resume normal cellular operations.

Just as the trees spend weeks and months preparing themselves for the coming cold, so must we. We can't prepare overnight for a temperature change of 70º and freezing weather. We must acclimate ourselves to it slowly. We can't pump antifreeze into our blood and cells, but we can insulate our bodies by increasing the number of layers we wear. We can sip warm drinks and funnel heat into our core. We prepare our bodies and homes in different, but similar, ways to the trees. And we do it for the same reasons. Survival. We survive the cold by preparing for the cold in a series of steps. 
What else can we takeaway from the fall trees? The simplest idea might be that even in beauty there is purpose. Fall leaves are pretty, but that is not their primary purpose. Nor is any of the other beauty in nature simply for our benefit. All beauty serves a purpose, whether that beauty is a tree preparing for fall, or melting snow funneling into a cascading waterfall. All of these things are part of the natural process of our environment. Go out and enjoy the beauty. 

As always tune in next week for another amazing article. I hope to continue with the fall theme for a few more weeks.