Saturday, February 23, 2013

Help Fight Global Warming!

     "Why should I care about global warming?  It doesn't effect me."  This was a question that was recently posed to me by a friend.  Granted, the fact that he is actually acknowledging global warming is a huge step for him, still the question left me sputtering.  "You have a home that you heat and cool, and you own land.  You are trying to grow things on your land.  You eat food and complain about the high prices of food and fuel and yet you don't think that global warming effects you?" was my reply.  This was actually pretty nice and controlled.  I had some much stronger things running around in my head, but they would have offended without getting the point across.  They might have made me feel better but not him.
     Global warming is an all pervasive problem.  It is already effecting the weather both in terms of temperature extremes (higher highs and lower lows) and in precipitation amounts.  Some parts of the world are seeing greater amounts of rain than they have ever experienced and others have had five or more years of deficit - enough to lower their permanent water tables.  If you are trying to grow plants on your land, these things seriously effect you.  If you even remotely care for the wildlife of the world, this translates to animals that cannot get enough food at the right times of the year to survive, exposure to greater temperature extremes the cause greater stress, and exposure to more violent weather that puts them in peril.  Ignoring the problem or waiting for the other guy to solve it is really no longer an option for any of us.  We all have to do our part!
     To that end, there are a couple of things that are currently available to anyone who cares to try them.  Although they are very small in their impact, they are a start and a lot of tiny efforts can easily lead to a noticeable change in the right direction.
     The first thing that you can do is to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.  Although this count is over for this year - it happened last week - it is an ongoing effort.  This count tracks birds throughout the world to get a better idea of the numbers and species of birds inhabiting locations around the world.  It is backyard amateur science with some very real results for the collective world scientific body of knowledge.  It is also easy and fun.  To participate, you simply go to the website: and sign up.  During the appointed week, you take a little bit of time out of your day to record the birds that you see in your location over a specific period of time (in fifteen minute intervals).  Then you post that information on the website.  This does not help reduce global warming, but it does help scientists work to help wildlife through the changes that they will need to make.
     The next thing that you can do will help slow global warming.  You can work to use less energy and to ensure that at least some of the energy you use is renewable.  We all can find ways to save energy, from switching our incandescent light bulbs to less consumptive ones to walking instead of taking short car trips.  Be creative.  To help you in this effort, National Geographic has put together an energy calculator.  This lets you see how you measure up against others in your area and the world.  It's easy and informative.  This can be accessed by going to the following website: and selecting energy.  You will be directed to take the energy challenge.  By the way, I scored in at 65% less than the average energy usage for this area.  It helps to live in a passive solar house!  I challenge you to beat my score.
     Finally, I challenge you to participate in Earth Hour.  This is the World Wildlife effort to make people more aware of their energy use.  This year it will occur on March 23 and as always is only an hour of your day.  For one hour WWF asks people around the world to turn off the lights and electricity and go dark.  This is not such a hard task and it has some real impacts.  For information on this event go to: .
     Global warming is real and it is effecting everyone whether they are willing to admit it or not.  Fight back.  Do your part to help solve the problem.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Early Spring Blooms vs Winter

     I am currently in my office looking out the window as snow falls turning yesterday's spring landscape back into a white winter wonderland.  February is a variable month, especially here in North Carolina.  Yesterday it was sunny and in the sixties.  Daffodils created bright yellow clusters along the edges of flower beds and tree areas, vinca ground cover areas had bright blue spots of five petaled flowers and the camellias had desert plate sized pink and red flowers showing through their shiny dark green leaves.  A friend of mine who runs an urban vegetable farm called about his plum trees that were flowering already.
     All of these things are nice and help lift a late winter mood with the hope of spring.  Unfortunately, they will not be so pretty tomorrow when the snow melts.  The daffodils will most likely be bent or have broken stems and the other flowers will be brown.  Those plum trees will probably not have fruit on them this year.
     I often hear the common complaint about why these plants are blooming so early in the season when the flowers will be damaged.  "Why do the plants not adapt to the environment that they have suddenly found themselves dropped into?"  My friend with the plum trees commented just yesterday that he could not understand why his trees were always blooming early.  "After all," he said, "They have been in the ground for seven years.  That's plenty of time to get used to the season."
     What these people don't understand is that it takes thousands of years for plants to make those kind of adjustments.  A single generation simply does not have the ability to make that kind of change.  If you want a plant that is perfectly adapted to the climate where you are planting it, that plant must have originated from that place.  In fact a good rule of thumb is to not bring in plants that have been grown from further away than a 100 mile radius.
     Obviously that rules out the plants that I named earlier.  Daffodils come from the Amaryllis Family and originated in Europe, North Africa and West Asia.  Vinca also came from there.  Those beautiful Camellia japonicas, as the name implies, came from Japan.  Although there are native plum trees, the kind that produce commercial grade fruit are varieties generally hybridized from European and Japanese stock.  Yes these plants will all grow and even at times thrive here, but they are not genetically adapted to be here.
     I can thrive in all kinds of places, but when the weather turns cold, I need the help of a jacket and gloves.  Polar bears live in the local zoo, but not without some help.  These plants are not really any different.  They will survive, but their flowers have opened too early and will most likely be lost.  In extreme conditions, as has happened periodically in the past, the weather will simply be too cold or below freezing too late in the season or even too hot in the summer for these more sensitive plants from distant lands to survive.
     There are some native plants that are also blooming.  I have see trout lilies blooming in the wet land areas just above the creeks and temporal ponds and red maple blooming in the forests.  These will still be blooming and pretty after this little winter reminder.  Some of the colonies of trout lilies that I look for each year are likely to be several hundred years old.  That's a long time to be living in a single spot - generation after generation.  Red maples have most likely been here growing in a similar form to what we see today here in North Carolina since the last Ice Age.  It stands to reason that these plants are better equipped to handle the changes in weather that Mother Nature throws their way here.  They have had generations to adapt.  Those that could not adapt have most likely died out long ago leaving only the hardy ones behind.
     There is a place and a very real human demand for ornamental plants.  Those plants are often not native or even grown locally.  When planting them, remember that weather is unpredictable and that they will show effects of those changes.  If the results of broken and drooping or brown flowers are a problem for you, than my advise is to switch to natives.  They will be better equipped to handle the local conditions.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Conscience Lighting Decisions

     I got a call the other day from a guy with whom I occasionally work.  He wanted to know what the regulations were concerning lighting in a parking lot.  I commenced to explain the lumen maximums and the need to hood the fixtures around the edges of the property, and then he let me know that he was actually asking if lighting was required for a parking lot within this jurisdiction.  Although this seems like an odd question because there are many instances where a parking lot would not have use after dark and not need lighting, some jurisdictions do require it.
     More frequently though, I am likely to have a client that demands lighting.  Sometimes this demand is driven by his liability insurance concerns.  More frequently, though, this demand is driven by the perception that adding lighting will make a site safer.
     In a parking lot or on a site where a good deal of nighttime pedestrian traffic is anticipated, this is absolutely correct.  Lighting is needed to allow people to move safely from place to place.  Very few people are adept at walking easily in the total dark and it is undesirable to allow people to be in a basically public area stumbling around in the dark.
     This does not mean that these places have to be lighted as if it were daytime.  You do not need massive amounts of light to move safely around outside after dark.  The human eye is quite capable of adapting to a dimmer light.  In fact, brightly lighting a parking lot or a site actually causes a number of safety problems.
     A brightly lit area in the darkness creates an area of deep contrasts and shadows.  The bright area from lights abruptly ends into darkness which creates a perfect hiding place.  Because the human eye has dilated in response to the light, it is unable to see into the darkness.  This means that a criminal does not even need to really hide.  They can actually stand in the deep shadow in dark clothing just past the pool of light and be completely obscured.  It terms of stopping crime, it is much better to have a dimly lit site that is lit over more of the site than to have a concentrated brightly lit area like a parking lot.
     As it takes some time for the eye to adjust to darkness, a brightly lit area can also lead to a greater likelihood of injury.  Walk out of the bright pool of light and into the unlit area and you are more blinded than if there had been no light on the site at all.  Again, a dimly lit area is a better choice.  The photo to the right illustrates this situation.  The area under the light is very brightly lit, but just beyond the pool of light is complete darkness.  Anyone walking out of the pool of light and into the deep shadow will be completely blind until their eyes have a chance to adjust and even after that point, they will be affected with each glance toward the lighted area.
     Excessive lighting also is a huge waste of energy and money.  Why use excessive energy to create a dangerous situation when you can use considerably less to create a safer one.  Those light fixtures and poles are also costly.  Why not save your budget and create a better situation at the same time.
     The next time you are compelled to light an area, whether it is your driveway and walk or a parking lot, stop and consider the actual need.  The area might need to be lit, but it might not need to be brightly lit.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Native Definition of the Beginning of Spring

     Every year toward the end of January and the beginning of February, I reach that point where I am waiting.  It's winter, a season that I hate but logic keeps telling me that it is necessary.  The cold reduces the bug and pest populations so that they are not a problem in the warmer months, and certain plants need a cold trigger in order to go into their next stage of development - whether that is blooming or putting on new growth buds.  Logically I know that we are about six weeks away from more spring-like weather regardless of what the groundhog sees.
     I am waiting for that first day when I wake up and take a deep breath of outside air to find that it makes me sneeze.  Then I truly know that the spring is soon to follow.  That late winter sneeze is brought to me directly from the myriad of red maple trees that grow in the woods everywhere here in North Carolina.  For weeks the woods are dull gray and dark green - deciduous tree trunks and branches and pine trees.  Then one day there are patches of red.  Nothing showy really.  Red maple flowers are not big.  What you see is that the grey branches look a bit fuzzy and red rather than their usual sharp edges and gray color.
     Usually when that happens, we have already begun to see daffodils blooming.  Some of the early blooming ones will start in January.  Some of the cherry trees will start this early as well.  In fact I noticed some of both blooming earlier today.  Those don't really count.  Daffodils came from Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  They were brought here and have not evolved here.  Their blooming is a function of the variety planted and where its ancestors came from.  The same can be said for trees like cherry trees that bloom early.  The ones blooming now are not the native ones.  Native cherries have the good timing to bloom when their fruit will not be damaged by future frost and cold. 
      No, I am looking for the native plants that tell me that spring is on the way.  I want to see that witch hazel blooming in the dead of winter.  It lifts my gloomy winter mood.  After that I want to see the red maples in bloom.  I know that by the time the seed is mature and ready to be dropped into the wind, spring will have arrived.
     On the ground I am also looking for something.  Once the red maples begin to bloom, I look for the yellow trout lilies and the pink spring beauty to bloom.  They complete my definition of the beginning of spring.  By the time they begin to bloom the spring peepers are kicking up a fuss in the local ephemeral ponds looking for mates.  Their eggs will hatch in the spring and by early summer the tadpoles will have become frogs and be already to venture out of the pond.   
     Spring might be an exciting time defined by wonderful showy blooms in the garden, but to really know that the season is here you need to go out into the woods.  Let the native plants show you the way!