Monday, April 7, 2014

The 8th Grader Saves the Bay...In Luray?

I come from a long line of Conservationists. My grandfather was always trying to teach us the names of plants and trees around us and taught us how to work the land with respect. He was incredibly well versed in the Native American culture and taught us to be at one with our environment, to make decisions that would care for the world around us and preserve it's beauty for the people to come after us. My dad took pruning sheers to the Lake to trim the beach shrubbery and get it healthy again. He would have us pick up trash were ever we went and pounded the mantra of "leave no trace" into us with regard to any natural location. I am personally a big fan of public recycling and composting. I even recycle my computers and I am the reason there is never any space in the grocery store containers for your plastic bags. I am borderline fanatical about recycling plastic bags. 

But I had no idea just how much all of this had filtered down to my children. 

Last year, my then 7th grader took Environmental Science in school. They had several water quality experiments and a great field trip involving wearing hip waders to take water samples out of the middle of a stream. I highly recommend chaperoning a field trip where you get to watch a bunch of 7th graders flopping around in a river wearing hip waders. Very entertaining. My daughter was so captivated by this experience, that she chose to do her research project on water quality and tested the quality of the water in the stream behind our house and helped clean up a few other streams in our area. 

Fast forward a year. The same child gets assigned 5 hours of service to be performed for the cause of her choice. For some reason, I was surprised when she chose the Save the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Sometimes we moms can be a little thick headed.  I was thinking of feeding the homeless or something a little more people oriented. But she was underwhelmed by this. Water quality had become a bit of a personal mission for her. So I told her to go ahead and figure out how to Save the Bay.

About 2 days later she comes in "Mom! Mom! Can we go build a riparian border on the banks of a river this Saturday? It's almost the end of the semester and this is the only activity they have before the service hours are due!" Um...riparian boarder?...what? Because I didn't have anything else going on during soccer season the first weekend of April, right? (And yes, this little shenanigan was part of the reason I ended up postponing my workshop.)

But then I stopped for a second. And thought about all the times I had encouraged her to "find her bliss." Here was my 8th grade daughter doing all the work, sending out all the registration emails, finding an event that she was really interested in to help a cause that she was completely committed to... I figured I could at least look at the info on the promotional page. 

The event was a great time, not an easy date, but do-able if I made some arrangements, and then I looked at the location, Luray, VA. That's about a 1hr and 45 min drive. And the event started at 8:30am. So I would be leaving at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning to drive to a farm to plant trees and shrubs on a stream bed for 5 hours to then drive the almost 2 hours home. I looked up at her, her young eyes glowing and full of enthusiasm and hope. 

I almost said, "No", but then remembered a book I'd read about 5 years ago called Planting Noah's Garden. I had become completely enamored with the idea of making a naturalized garden, but had never had the opportunity to do it. Particularly the chapter on restoring a stream bank. And here was my big chance! 

So I told her to get us all registered. She squealed in the way only 8th grade girls can and ran off to the computer. And I found myself with a little ember of excitement in my own heart. 

Saturday proved to be a glorious day. The weather was clear and cool and we woke early and sped off towards our pending adventure with great anticipation. There is just something magical about going on a road trip. The novelty of it. The sense of adventure. The views as the world goes speeding by. It is just the best.

We made it there in good time. And we didn't even get lost due to good email directions by Robert Jennings, the director of this event and my daughter's newly acquired map reading skills. 

We turned at an event sign in the road, followed a gravel road between to berms 
and pulled up to see this:

Pretty bleak.

It was pretty much devoid of any kind of vegetation. The area around the stream had been used as a feed lot for 200 head of cattle for years and years. Anything green or alive had been eaten or trampled a long time ago. By the time we got there the only thing living on that ground were the starts of native grasses reintroduced by the White House Farm Foundation that had bought the farm in 2012 with the intention of restoring it and using it as a model of sustainable agriculture and ecological practices. 

Here it is in color. And I promise I didn't shoot it in B&W just for dramatic effect, although it is pretty dramatic. I actually couldn't see the photos on my screen because of the angle of the sun and didn't realize I was still in the "Copy" setting until after I took these. 

Here you go, in Technicolor.

You can totally see the potential of the place. The site is so nicely laid out with the berms and the curve of the stream. It could be rather picturesque. But you can also see how lacking it is in vegetation. When the WHFF people bought the property, there was nothing but dirt and exposed bedrock. Everything else had been stripped or eroded. My "before" pictures are after two years' worth of regrading the hills, adding back all the lost topsoil, reseeding the grasses and adding jute netting to prevent all that work from eroding in the rain, wind and snow, and then clearing back any weeds that had sprouted up along the stream banks. Whew! It makes me tired just thinking about it.

Fortunately, they saved all the quick fun, rewarding stuff for us volunteers. We got to plant trees. 

After telling us the nature of the agencies involved (Save the Bay, White House Farm Foundation, and a conservation oriented branch of the USDA) and how all the trees we were planting would effect the water quality and ecosystem of the 2 acre stretch of stream we were repairing, we learned the right way to plant a baby tree. (Robert, if you're reading this, please remind my what this long suffering man's name is and who he represents? I'd love to give everyone credit, but it was pretty early when you all were talking)

Step one: See how deep your hole needs to be. You figure this out by looking at the roots of the sapling. the place where the roots stop and the bark changes and flares a little is the perfect depth.

See that spot where the roots stop growing out and there's a bump and then the bark gets smoother? That's what you are looking for.

Step 2: Dig your hole. You want to go a bit wider than the tree so you can loosen the soil around the baby tree to make it a bit easier for it to spread out its roots. the organizers had made siting easy for us by previously spray painting orange dots on the ground to mark where the trees should go. 

Step 3: Remove competing vegetation, to give the tree it's best chance at getting water and nutrients. You undercut the grass about an inch and a half to get rid off the roots, then you remove some of the dirt and just flip over the grass chunks, grass side down to replace and keep the ground level around the tree.

Step 4: Place tree in the hole and cover with dirt. it works better if you break up the dirt clods with your hands and make sure that the dirt is packed, but not compacted when you are done. And be sure to keep your tree roots below the ground and the transition line of smoother bark right at the ground level, not too deep, not to shallow.

Step 5: Add protective tubing. This plastic-y tubing protects the tree from being eaten by animals like deer, and also acts as mini greenhouse. You just carefully slide it around the little tree and then push it into the ground. Be sure to put the flared side up and the stake ties facing down stream. If you twist and push about half way down the tube, it goes in the ground "like butta". Well at least it did for us, but it had been raining for a week before the project so the ground was nice and soft.

Step 6: Add a wooden stake to stabilize everything. This is where a sledge hammer or rubber mallet come in handy. You run the wooden stake through the open nylon ties and then hammer it into the ground until it's about 1-2 in higher than the top tie. It is sometimes helpful to hold the tubing away from the stake so you don't smash the tubing. It can take some pretty good whacks to get the stake down as far as you want it to go, even if the ground is soft.

Step 7: Cover the surrounding area with landscape fabric to help keep down the weeds. This ensures the fledgling tree the best shot at all the water and nutrients the ground has to offer. The black fabric shade the ground, helping to prevent weeds that might grow faster than the tree or take away water or minerals away from it. These guys think of everything!

The landscape fabric was cut into 3-4 ft squares with a slit right in the center. Making sure the fabric was shiny side up, you slid the slit over the tube and stake and then pinned the corners down. You rolled the fabric over 2 times to ensure that the staple wouldn't rip through and then pinned the corner with a u-shaped staple that was about 6-8 inches long. Most of the time you could just push them right through the fabric and into the ground, but if there were rocks or the ground was a bit harder, you could step on them or hammer them down.

Step 8:Stand back and admire your tree. If you finish all these steps, you should be pretty proud of yourself. You have just made a major investment in the future. Be ready to do some daily watering, if this is in your yard.

After our little demo, they put us in pairs, handed each team a shovel and a sledge hammer and put us to work. One person dug the hole while the other got the tree and the supplies. They varied the variety of tree you planted so the whole grove will grow up to be completely diversified. 

Shall we see how the 8th grader did planting some trees?

 Orange marks the spot. 
Nice hole depth. Pretty good technique with the grass removal. Not too shabby.
And here is the tree, all nice and tucked into its new little bed.
Action photo as the 8th grader starts laughing because she almost hits herself in the face with the sledge hammer. Easy girl.
 Ooo...Photo Op with Robert Jennings, the director of this project. That sure was a man who loved his job. Always a happy thing.
And now the rolling of the landscape fabric. Where did you put those staples, Mom?

Oh how I love Nancy the Northern Red Oak! Grow big and strong little tree!

The girl and I planted 14 trees and 25 shrubs in the 5 hours we worked. There were about 20 volunteers there, so do the math on that one. I was astonished at how much our little group got done.

Remember where we started? 

Crazy, right?

Here's a few more "afters":

These may not look like much to you, but I see a gorgeous grove of trees in 10 years, shading the water, cleaning the soil, and possibly making this a home for trout and other fish and wild life. I can smell the green when I look at these photos. It just feels like pure optimism to me.

In any case, it was one of my favorite days in a long time. Every so often we'd look at our watches and being amazed how much time had gone by without us knowing it. I just got lost in the work and ground and the air. I felt part of something bigger. And the 8th grader just grinned and grinned. If it makes my daughter happy all the way to her liver like that, I am all for Saving the Planet. One tree at a time.

I'd love to hear about your conservation or service adventures. Leave me a comment.

For more information about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, click here.
For a list of volunteering opportunities in VA/MD click here

To learn about the history of and mission of the White House Farm Foundation, click here.

Talk to you soon,
CM Shaw


  1. Great in-depth description of our riparian buffer planting project on Big Run in Page County, Virginia,Marian! Thank you and Alynne (and all of the folks who pitched in) for making the drive out to help us plant trees on the EMJ Farm. Your daughter's enthusiasm and passion was so contagious. She reminded me of why I entered this line of work right around her age when I chose to volunteer at a local zoo: to affect positive change in our world and to pass this message along to others. She also reminded me of myself at that age. I can only imagine the legacy of beauty and happiness your daughter is going to leave on this one and only Earth we have. With folks like her, it's in good hands. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a great organization to get involved with, I'm genuinely proud to work for them. Since we rely heavily on volunteers to accomplish our mission to Save The Bay (and its watershed, like Big Run), I hope others get inspired to get involved now.

    And the young gentleman who demonstrated how to correctly plant our trees and shrubs is named Alston Horn. He's CBF's Field Technician for the Shenandoah Valley. Alston is an incredibly intelligent man with a lot of practical experience and knowledge that he's always happy to pass along to other folks.

  2. What an incredible experience to sign up for, and way to being so supportive of Alynne's happy and giving spirit! You are both very contagious people :). I loved this inspiring and fascinating post... I had no idea about the proper way to plant a tree! I'll definitely remember this, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's fantastic volunteer opportunities. Thank you!!

  3. And I just love that you're preserving and making our earth green, I so believe in that cause. You girls rock.