Winter softly, coldly slinks away

The advent of Spring at the Bluecircle brings its share of surprises, from a (? last) burst of lake-effect snow to an outbreak of small tornadoes and nightly visits from a portly skunk.  Meanwhile, the greening of buds and grasses proceeds.  A new batch of hybrid poplar cuttings rests in the greenhouse and awaits more sun and fewer frigid nights.  The first bare-root trees of the year are planted and today’s soaking rains are just what they needed to settle in their new rows.

The Bluecircle hens have agreed that Winter is over and egg production is back to normal.  They are happy that most of the coop window covers were removed to restore their view of the big world.  Fortunately the red fox of the Woodland Conservancy who brought a feathered chicken dinner home as “take out” last week enjoyed his meal a few hundred feet beyond their coop.   Now the winds of March have scattered the feathers of this unfortunate prey.



Trees of the Bluecircle after Six Summers

dsc00875The months roll by on the Bluecircle and soon the last of the Fall colors will be under the first blanket of lake-effect snow.  Mowing is almost done for this year and both the machine and mower are ready for a break.  The red oak grove and Douglas firs pictured here hide the spruce and pines behind, but the last leaves remaining at the top of the poplars show them towering over the field.  After six years of planting, sun and rain this area of the farm is beginning to mature.

dsc00871North Watervliet Road at the bottom of this hill marks the east edge of the property.  Two-year tulip poplar, maple and oak seedlings here will eventually define a path into the older plantings above.   White plastic “grow tubes” around some of the maples are needed to discourage grazing by the doe and fawns that traverse this entrance to the farm.

dsc00870Looking northwest over a recently cleared and planted area with hybrid poplars and tiny pines in the foreground.  Taller Scotch pines and wind-bent poplars are beginning to hide the storage barns.   Behind this clearing rows of white and blue spruce seedlings will mark a corner of the Bluecircle.

Trees on sunny fields and shady hills

IMG_1643The mowing season is nearly over and as the last weed blossoms fade the dark green of healthy conifers shines through.  Although the volume of rainfall in late summer was less than ideal, seedlings from one and two years ago show substantial growth.   A warm September may have stretched another inch or two of growth in some rows.  The marking flags so critical to locating seedlings in their first year have torn and faded.  Their rusted remnants will be pulled in the Spring.

Two rows of sycamore, a future shady lane,  are rising between hybrid poplars that grow even more rapidly.  Walking/biking trails were not in the original Bluecircle plan but as more and more of the acreage is filled with trees they become a possibility.

Future sycamore lane

Future sycamore lane

Some of the tulip poplar, maple and oak seedlings planted this year have been growing in tree shelters that stand like tall white straws on the downslope to N. Watervliet Rd. This was a pilot project since the shelters cost substantially more than seedlings, but so far survival and growth in the ventilated plastic tubes is encouraging. The shelters should discourage browsing deer as well. IMG_1650

A Bluecircle birthday!

The Bluecircle is now four years old. The “Home Depot” pines and oaks planted in late 2010 are soundly established, or at least the survivors are.  They have much company now since the last two summers have been kind to seedling trees.

IMG_1412 We have transitioned from vacation and weekend visitors to full-time residents but still find there’s more mowing, trimming, planning and planting to do than days in the week allow. Moving from city to farm, from office to the outdoors, the daily variation in weather is still amazing. The right boots and rain gear, good gloves and a sharp knife turn out to be critical.

Seedling oak showing its colors

Seedling oak showing its colors

Each species of our trees has had a different early early childhood. The sycamores have proven very durable.  Several have emerged from the field grass months  after they were reduced to dead branches and given up for lost. Their light green leaves are large and distinctive so they stand out – unless shredded by the dread Japanese beetle in July and August. More than a few oaks have recovered from chewed bark or sad encounters with the bush hog mower, but they lag way behind their more fortunate brethren. The black walnuts and other nut trees grow slowly, but those that survive their first year have made steady progress.

The hybrid poplars have thrived with only occasional mowing between their rows.  Some in the first planting are now more than thirty feet tall and a favored site for groundhog dens.  A leaf or two at the very top branch is the last to fall in October and waves like a triumph flag at the end of another growth year.  In the photo above a rows of poplars tower over the Scotch pines and early lake-effect snow.  The pines have grown more rapidly than anything but weeds and poplars.  Some brown and die for no apparent reason, but most are doing well and will soon become the most abundant conifers.  Short-needled fir and spruce are scattered through the Bluecircle rows – eventually they will add variety to the treeline.

Slowly grows the seedling spruce

Slowly grows the seedling spruce

An expeditionary force of seedling trees suffers heavy losses

A cool rainy day after weeks of heat and drought makes it easier to take stock of what have been difficult months on the Bluecircle.  Recent rains have produced Spring-like greening of grassy areas and a proliferation of giant ragweed and other weeds where trees were planted this year.  Like an ill-prepared and prematurely deployed expeditionary force both short and tall spruce seedlings stand as brittle, naked reminders of the Summer of 2012.  In the graveyard of white spruce it will soon be time to think about tilling and planning for future plantings, but for now a simple mowing and removal of the plastic flags that mark the fallen soldiers will be enough.

Pines planted in 2011 in areas that receive some shade have tolerated the drought, while those in all-day sun have not fared so well.  Long-needled pines were more resilient than the spruce, cedar or firs, but until frosts have eliminated the competing weeds it will be unclear how much damage has been done.   A new well will enable a drip irrigation system next year and we will try to do a better job of matching soil conditions and plantings.

The hybrid poplars from 2011 are already making some shade of their own, but an attempt to introduce tulip poplars failed and only about 20% of this year’s hybrid poplar seedlings successfully rooted and made the transition from nursery to field.   Sunflowers, mostly self-seeded from the 2011 crop, provide the other bright spot amongst the ragweed and thistle.

A beginning with hybrid poplars

A few years ago the view over the crest of the hill on the north side of the farm was blocked by two large featureless storage garages built just across the property line.   This part of the farm was a perfect site for some fast-growing trees.  Cottonwood thrives as a native tree here so the closely-related hybrid poplar seemed like a good choice.  We ordered enough hybrid poplars from the Berrien County Conservation District April tree sale to plant a couple of barrier rows, and on a cold and rainy April morning planted them as quickly as possible.  There was no need to water them in the soggy, freshly tilled ground.

During winter evenings of web reading I had discovered “Forest-in-a-box”, a kit of 100 dormant poplar cuttings advertised ( as a practical way to get started in poplar growing.   When the kit arrived it contained rubber-banded bundles of 2-inch sticks about the size of broken pencils, growing bags, labels, and trays to hold the bags once they were filled with planting soil (fertilizer-free).  Dipping the “hybrid OP367″ cuttings in rooting hormone and planting them was an evenings work, and within a few weeks a leaf or two had sprouted from all but 3 or 4.  In mid-April we moved the trays to a neighbor’s outside porch to harden them against the cold.   Two weekends later each 2-4-inch “tree” was teased from its nursery bag and into a hole created with a planting bar.  The race between the Conservation District poplars and the OP367 cuttings was on.

Regular rains and a few windy storms have made it relatively easy to care for the poplars this first summer.  Although there was nearly a 2 foot difference in height between the bare root and the bag-rooted trees when they were planted by the end of August they were almost indistinguishable.    The tallest poplars are about 5 feet tall, and off to an excellent start.