Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Land

It occurs to me that I have never properly introduced my land. Partly this is because I am only just getting to know it myself. When I bought the land last year, it was suffering from the worst drought ever recorded for central Texas, so few of the trees produced seed. Many of the deciduous trees and shrubs dropped their leaves.

Altamira, where I lived with my daughter for 5 years in the 1990's, is only a couple of miles from here, all uphill. I bought this land after the house I built at Altamira burned down (a Bluebonnet Electric pole fell down on a neighbor's land, and the transformer started the fire -- it was a very dry time of year, and the fire spread to my land). I didn't have time to build another house with my own hands, because I'm working in the city now, and besides, I'm not a very good carpenter. Altamira is not easily accessible from the county road. When I had guests there, I had to meet them at the county road, because everyone who tried to drive up to the house ended up getting stuck in the sand. You had to know exactly where the deep spots were, and drive very fast so the car or truck would sort of float across the sand.

I decided that if I wanted to use Altamira as a weekend home, I would have to make a real road and install some large tanks for storing rainwater. The Wilcox-Carrizo Aquifer is under Altamira, but it's 1100+ feet deep, so it's very expensive to drill a well. Also, the City of San Antonio will soon be piping water from the aquifer. I wouldn't be surprised to see metering of water taken from the aquifer by landowners who, supposedly, purchased water rights along with surface rights. When my daughter and I lived at Altamira, our sole source of water was this pond:

I made a small water treatment plant to flocculate and clarify the silty water. It made decent water for household use, but in drought years the pond would get terrifyingly low. In the drought of 1996, it became a big mud puddle. A Great Blue Heron would stop by every day to eat fish. It could wade all the way across the pond. We had to haul water from our neighbor's well in 55 gallon drums that year.

To build a road and rainwater tanks would cost about the same as buying a smaller tract of land with better access. So I decided to keep Altamira wild and build a house downhill, but close enough to Altamira that it would only take a few minutes to go from one place to the other. There's still a small cabin at Altamira that was upwind from the fire, so the place still feels a bit like home.

The highest land at Altamira is the second highest point in the area, perhaps in the county, being at the top of a sandstone ridge that runs from the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) north of Laredo, northeast to Northern Louisiana, roughly parallel to the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The land there is classified as Post Oak Savannah, though when you are on the land it feels more like a forest because of the dense thickets of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). The canopy consists of post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). I can walk down the hill from Altamira and encounter 3 distinct bioregions within less than a mile. Midway down the hill are trees such as mesquite and hackberry; at the bottom are pecan and live oak.

The Berry Farm consists of 15 acres. It was subdivided from a 54 acre tract, and since the western half of the 54 acre tract was in the flood plain, the owner subdivided the land into long, narrow strips, so every new tract would have some high ground. At the eastern edge of the Berry Farm, the soil is loamy sand, similar to the soil halfway down the hill from Altamira. The floodplain portion of the land is black clay, and there are live oaks and pecans growing there. Altamira is 160 acres, more than ten times the size of the Berry Farm, yet the Berry Farm has an amazingly greater diversity of plant species.

An old-timer who grew up around here told me that the 54 acre tract of land was used for growing cotton. I assume the cotton would have been rotated with milo (grain sorghum) or corn, which is a typical crop rotation in this area. I don't know what grew here before the land was cleared for farming.

Altamira was considered trash land, because of the nutrient-poor sandy soil, and was never used much by humans. There is evidence that people passed through -- stone spear heads from a long time ago, a mound of stones and assorted stuff that I found with a metal detector (barrel hoop, tip of a plow, leg of a metal stove) that mark the location of a small house -- from the piles of clay mixed with the stone, I assume it was an adobe house with a stone fireplace. Old timers told me that the house sat beside a Spanish road from the colonial period. The Spanish mined silver in the sand hills -- Kenny Mitchell, who's probably about my age and grew up here (in fact, he was good friends with the man who owned the 54 acre tract that the Berry Farm was carved out of), told me that when he was a kid, he and his friends found one of the mines and went down into it. Supposedly there was a mine on Altamira, but I never found one. It's possible it was hidden within a very dense thicket that I didn't penetrate.

The silver mining operations must not have amounted to much, because the land appears to have been pretty much undisturbed by people, unlike the Berry Farm land. I'd guess that the up-hill eastern part was probably Post Oak Savannah, with the flood plain part being Blackland Prairie creek bottom land. However, the banks of Tenney Creek, at the western end of the land, are sandy.

Tenney Creek begins near McMahan, about 5 miles from here, and flows generally south until it reaches, and becomes part of,  Plum Creek. Here are a couple of photos of Plum Creek flowing through blackland prairie, about 3 miles from here.  Tenney Creek is intermittent, depending on the amount of rainfall. It's flowing at the moment, but it was quite dry last summer.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More on Gophers

Here is another article about people studying the ecological benefits of gophers:'

The Nature Conservancy in Washington State is studying Mazama pocket gophers by catching them and inserting electronic tags under the critters' skin (similar to the chips used for pets). This will allow them to learn more about the range of individual gophers.

O.J. Reichman and Eric W. Seabloom have also published an article on the pocket gopher in Ecology and Evolution. (January, 2002) in which they too noted the soil-moving effects of the gopher. They observed that the gopher burrows accelerated erosion on shallow slopes and slowed erosion on steep slopes. I have not noticed increased erosion on my gently sloping land. In fact, the gopher borrows encourage the water to penetrate the soil, rather than running off. The run-off causes erosion. When the water soaks into the soil instead of running off, none of the soil is washed away.

Another article Lisa F. Cantor and Thomas G. Whitham in Ecology discusses the gopher's role in preventing aspen invasion of mountain meadows.

Grasses, incidentally, tend to benefit from root pruning by gophers (I have read this and observed it first-hand), so gopher activity would encourage prairie landscapes in regions that do not provide ideal growing conditions for trees.

This article by Jake Weltzin, Steve Archer, and Rod K. Heitschmidt looks really interesting: "Small Mammal Regulation of Vegetation Structure in a Temperate Savannah," Ecology: Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 751-763. This article focuses on the prairie dog rather than gophers. Since prairie dogs don't live here, I don't have any first-hand knowledge of them, but they apparently eat roots and seeds and live in burrows, so their ecological niche would be similar to that of the gophers.

I think I may have to buy a few of these articles so I can read the entire articles rather than just the abstracts. Here is an excerpt from the abstract of the Weltzin, Archer, and Heitschmidt article:

These data illustrate how transitions from grassland to woodland vegetation can be mediated by a rodent herbivore. They further demonstrate how purposeful or inadvertent removal of native herbivores can have unforeseen effects on plant species composition and landscape physiognomy. Investigations of environmental constraints on vegetation distribution and abundance should take into account the historical role of herbivores in shaping the present system. Inconsistencies among historic accounts of woody plant distribution and abundance in semiarid western North America may be resolved by considering population dynamics of prairie dogs. Widespread eradication of this formerly abundant rodent has eliminated a significant constraint to woody plant establishment on many semiarid grassland and savanna landscapes and has thereby facilitated transitions to shrubland and woodland states. Past land management designed to remove one perceived impediment to livestock production appears to have contributed significantly to development of another management problem that is now a major detriment to sustainable livestock production.

Pocket Gophers

The tops of the fruit trees are not the only parts of the trees that are in cages. I have to plant the trees in wire cages to keep the gopher from eating the roots of young trees down to a nub. By the time the root system is large enough to outgrow the cage, the tree is usually big and strong enough to withstand gopher nibbling.

Some people use traps or poison to kill gophers. For various reasons, I don't want to use poison, and traps seem pointless. If you kill one, another will move in. I find it's best to incorporate gophers into the landscape. Let them aerate and fertilize the soil, and prune the roots; keep them out of places where I really don't want them, such as around the roots of young trees and shrubs.

I found a dead one in the orchard today. It's too far decomposed for me to guess how it died. You can see from the photo that it was a cute, furry little thing with delicate hind feet like a rat, but it has large front feet with huge claws. Edward Scissorhands.

Most gopher discussions I've found online focus on killing by one means or another, without even trying to understand how gophers fit into the life cycle of the land as a whole. I found a couple of articles whose authors seek a more elegant and intelligent way of living with gophers.

Ecological Benefits of Pocket Gophers (from Living With Wildlife - Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

A typical pocket gopher can move approximately a ton of soil to the surface each year. This enormous achievement reflects the gopher’s important ecological function.
Their tunnels are built and extended, then gradually fill up with soil as they are abandoned. The old nests, toilets, and partially filled pantries are buried well below the surface where the buried vegetation and droppings become deep fertilization. The soil thus becomes mellow and porous after being penetrated with burrows. Soil that has been compacted by trampling, grazing, and machinery is particularly benefited by the tunneling process.
In mountainous areas, snowmelt and rainfall are temporarily held in gopher burrows instead of running over the surface, where they are likely to cause soil erosion.  [my note: even in non-mountainous areas, gopher burrows help to hold water in the soil and prevent water run-off]
Surface mounds created by gophers also bury vegetation deeper and deeper, increasing soil quality over time. In addition, fresh soil in the mounds provides a fresh seedbed for new plants, which may help to increase the variety of plants on a site.
Many mammals, large birds, and snakes eat gophers and depend on their activities to create suitable living conditions. Salamanders, toads, and other creatures seeking cool, moist conditions take refuge in unoccupied gopher burrows.[my note: I have found a couple of toads lately living in abandoned gopher burrows]  Lizards use abandoned gopher burrows for quick escape cover.

Gabriel J. Miller, Steve A. Johnson, and Lora L. Smith, University of Florida, have published an article titled Ecological Engineers: Southeastern Pocket Gophers Are One of Natures Architects 
The authors discuss the soil mixing benefits of gophers then move on to discuss the effects of the gophers' diet:

Root Herbivory  By feeding on plant roots, Pocket Gophers can drastically affect the local plant community. Some plants can tolerate root herbivory and even flourish, but others are adversely affected. For example, grasses are known for responding favorably to root herbivory, which may be why gophers and grasses coexist together. Little is known about the effects of root herbivory on most plants, but it is likely that the root herbivory of gophers influences plant communities.

It's disheartening to realize that the only advice being given to farmers and gardeners by government supported agricultural extension services, and agricultural universities is grounded in ignorance.  It's true that most people who grow plants in regions where gophers live are very well aware of the effects of gophers on specific plants in the garden. But most people farm and garden in ways that make their plants vulnerable, instead of establishing communities of plants and animals that support and protect each other. I'm close to 100% sure that some things I did with my fruit trees made them attractive to the grasshoppers. I'll write more about that later.  

Caging the Fruit Trees - Update July 16

The Anna apple tree in the garden just south of my trailer, which is also where the chickens spend most of their time, is looking good. After two weeks in the protective cage, it has more leaves than I can easily count. I believe it will make a full recovery, as the fig tree has.

The fig tree has now had its cage removed, and after two weeks, it's untouched by the hoppers. It too is in the garden just south of the house. I don't dare let Anna out of the cage yet, but the hopper population in this area has declined so that I only see one now and then.

Even in the orchard where the chickens don't go often, there are fewer hoppers now. I think the frequent rains we've had have helped to clear them out. They tend to get fungal infections when the weather is damp. I applied Tangle Foot to two of the cages in the orchard, and they are hopper-free this morning. There were no hoppers caught in the Tangle Foot. It looks as though it discourages them from even trying to get in.

I believe I'll lose at least two of the fruit trees, but they were sickly little things to begin with, purchased from Lowe's. It was a mistake to buy trees there. I should have known better. I ordered the other fruit trees from Bay Laurel Nursery . They were in excellent condition when I planted them, and although the grasshopper event certainly has not been good for them, I'm pretty sure they will recover and grow into big, healthy trees. I highly recommend Bay Laurel Nursery.

The photo was shot from the top, looking down on the new leaves.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Walking By Starlight

I just got back from a night walk; though I am back in my little travel trailer, the most passionate part of my mind is still out there on the road that curves through the woods.

I have to walk south, downhill from my place, to get away from urban life. I have neighbors here, who have installed pinkish sodium vapor lights high up on poles. These people moved here from the city and tried to bring the city with them. I hate those lights.

I walk about a quarter of a mile, to where the gravel road curves west, and the dense trees obscure all traces of electric light of any kind. It's 12:30 a.m. The moon has already disappeared below the horizon. The only light I can see is starlight.

My husband wrote a book called Reading By Starlight, a scholarly work about postmodern science fiction. I love the title of that book and think about it now, walking down the pale gravel road. Even though I know how bright starlight is, and expect it, I am always surprised at how well I can see. There's my shadow, surrounding my feet like a small puddle.

I stop, listen, sniff the air. I smell water and animal-scent that is not mine or my dog's -- deer maybe? I'm not sure. The night is far from quiet -- I think of when I was a little kid and my dad and I would listen to music together, and he would say: "Listen. Can you hear the violins? Can you hear the oboe?" Now, in the woods, I try to pay attention to each sound in turn. There's the constant pulse of crickets and six other insects I don't know. I wonder if anyone knows. Since they only perform their concerts at night, and since, from the sound of it, they are high up in the trees, it would be difficult to catch them at it. Two kinds of owl calls -- a great horned owl and, I think, a screech owl. And then the frogs start up. I am filled with joy. If I were a child again, I would fling out my arms and run, as I used to do. But I'm old, and my knees are shot, so I do the next best thing. So help me, I can't resist - I howl. A fairly soft, polite little howl that sets off my dog. I've trained him to do duets with me. When we pause, I find, to my delight, that a coyote has joined in. Or maybe two or three. It's hard to tell with coyotes. One of them can sing several parts and fool you into thinking there's a whole pack. Then someone else howls, a longer, deeper howl than the coyote's -- a dog? A wolf? A coyote wolf hybrid? I feel a little prickle of fear, just a tiny jolt of adrenaline like a refreshing drink of cold water.

I wish I could sleep directly under the stars tonight, in a hammock strung between two trees. But I have to work tomorrow, so I head back to my den.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Caging the Fruit Trees Update

I noticed last week that grasshoppers were forcing themselves between the tops and sides of the screen cages to get at the fruit trees. I immediately ordered some Tangle Foot to coat the cages at the vulnerable points and used duct tape as a temporary measure. We had quite a bit of rain during the week, and the tape came off most of the cages. In the two cages on which the tape held, the little trees are beginning to sprout leaves.

The Tangle Foot arrived in today's mail, so I can paint it on the cages this coming weekend.

One plant the hoppers don't like much is the bull nettle, though I've seen them eating the flowers (in fact, I posted a photo of one doing that, not too long ago, in this blog). Most of the native plants that manage to survive here are early spring annuals; and trees, shrubs and perennials the hoppers don't much like: juniper, camphor weed, prickly ash ... bull nettles. I think the large grasshopper population may be due, in part, to the way the land has been used. It was a cotton farm for many years, then left fallow for several years. I need to learn more about grasshoppers, to see if I can figure out a way to limit their numbers.

When I lived at Altamira, up the hill from where I am now, I didn't have grasshoppers, but there were plenty of leaf cutting ants -- they created huge ant cities that covered up to a tenth of an acre and went down 6 feet or more --  the ants could defoliate a fruit tree overnight. I began studying the ants, because I wanted to learn how to kill them. But I ended up getting interested in them and becoming ... well, ... fond of them in a way. My father told me about Tangle Foot, which has apparently been around since the 1800's. I painted the tree trunks with it to keep the ants off. This won't work for grasshoppers, of course, since they can fly right up into the tree canopies.

I visited Altamira over the weekend and stopped by the largest ant city, to see how everyone was doing. Their population seems to have been diminished by last year's severe drought, along with the population of blackjack oak and post oak and even a few junipers. There are many, many dead trees, but I was pleased to see young ones sprouting up to take the places of the deceased. When I lived at Altamira, I used a wood fire to heat my house. There were always plenty of dead oak branches lying around. I never had to cut a living tree for fire wood.

I went searching for bull nettle seeds Sunday and found some ripe ones in an area where the air was fragrant with their flowers. The seed pods shatter explosively when the seeds are completely ripe, flinging the seeds many feet from the parent plant. So to harvest the seeds, one must take them when they're almost ripe, but not quite ripe. The photo shows an almost-ripe seed pod and a seed -- they come 4 seeds to a pod. The seeds have crunchy coats and soft, very tasty insides, sort of like M&M candies without the chocolate.

Ripe seed pods are ivory-white. Almost-ripe seeds still have some of the hairy outer covering, as in the photo. A pair of leather gloves is a must for picking bull nettle seeds. I leave them in a container (covered by a cloth to keep the seeds in) until they shatter. I can see I should have included a coin or some other object of known size in the photo to show the size of the seed. That's a demitasse saucer the seed and pod are sitting on. The pod is a little less than an inch long.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Caging the Fruit Trees

My land has a new name: The Berry Farm. Not really new for the land, but new for me. I was recently talking to the woman from whom I bought the land, and she said she called it the Berry Farm, because there were so many berries growing wild there. I was going to call it The Junipers because of the large old juniper trees growing around the old farm house, but my husband thought that sounded pretentious. I suppose it might, a little, even though it's an accurate description. But the Berry Farm sounds very wholesome.

My husband has never seen the Berry Farm and never wants to. He is, he says, a creature of the city. Still, I value his opinion, and after all the land is half his under the Texas community property law.

So ... back to the saga of the Lone Woman against the Voracious Grasshoppers

I couldn't bear the thought of letting all the fruit trees be killed by grasshoppers without at least making an effort. About 6 weeks ago, I made a screen cage to fit over a young fig tree that had been completely defoliated by the hoppers, its stem eaten down to a nub. Here's what it looks like now:

The screen cage was such a huge success, it seemed worth trying on the other fruit trees. So I made cages for all the apple, pear, and peach trees.  Here's a poor little apple tree, with the girdled branches and top removed:

The poultry wire frame was already in place. After I shot the photo, I wrapped the wire frame with aluminum screen (fiberglass would have been easier to work with, but the f---kers would chew right through it. I had some clothes hanging to dry the other day the other day, and found a hopper eating a hole in a silk shirt.)

Here's a photo of some of the young trees in their protective cages:

The trees are placed so that there will be a little space in between the crowns when they're mature (if the poor little things live to grow up).  The soil is loamy sand that drains quickly. I don't want the trees competing too viciously with each other for water, so I've planted them a bit farther apart than one might place trees in a standard orchard. The cylindrical sliver object in the mid-foreground is an upside down garbage can I was using as a portable table for my supplies.

I've been living the lawyer part of my life in San Antonio since Tuesday. I'm eager but also a little scared to go to the Berry Farm tomorrow. Will there be new leaves? Or will the hoppers have found a way in to continue their destructive work?

Just for fun ...

Here's the view from my shady chair where I sit and eat watermelon and toss the rinds for the hens to gobble down:

See? There are still some pretty spots here and there that the hoppers have not destroyed. They don't like impatiens and vinca. They'll nibble on the hoja santa and datura but don't eat them all up. They don't like castor bean at all. Maybe it's as poisonous to insects as it is to mammals. Some people say that if you plant stuff the hoppers hate, they'll leave your other stuff alone, but I have not found that to be true. There was a little pear tree planted close to a castor bean tree. The latter is now lush and beautiful, while the pear tree has been stripped bare and many of its branches girdled.

And, as an antidote to a horrible video I watched last week about factory-farm hens kept in cages so small they can't even stand up ... here's one of the Berry Farm hens going about her business.