Category Archives: Agriculture

Encouraging Fall Flowers and their Insect Visitors on Farms in the Hudson Valley

Flowers are beautiful. Flowers are also necessary to produce many fruits and vegetables we like to eat. For example, there are no tomatoes without tomato flowers and no cherries without cherry blossoms. Additionally, flowers are a crucial resource for many insects, some of which, in turn, are beneficial for agricultural production.

In this blog, we want to share some late season images (most of them taken in late September/early October 2017) from the Hudson Valley, which illustrate different approaches to enhancing flower abundance on farms. While some of these approaches were the result of deliberate management to invite more flowers and beneficial insects onto the farms, others were more incidental. The photos were taken by various members of our team (see photo credits at the bottom) as part of a multi-farm study to compare the distribution of flowers and insects in vegetable fields and surrounding semi-natural areas. The pictures are from Hawthorne Valley Farm, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Ironwood Farm, and Hearty Roots Community Farm.

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Creekhouse Garden

Increased on-farm flowers through adjacent residential landscaping

Our program occupies one of the buildings on the farm, adjacent to a pasture. Since 2010, we have worked slowly, but steadily, to invite more species of native plants into the 1/2 acre yard around the house. The early years of that effort are described on the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program website.

This fall, the rain garden (where we collect the runoff from the parking lot), sported a mix of planted and volunteer native plants, such as New England Aster, Purple-stem Aster, Panicled Aster, Canada and Rough-leaved Goldenrod, Brown-eyed Susan, Obedience Plant, Indian Grass, and Big Bluestem.

View from the rain garden at the Creekhouse towards the barns of Hawthorne Valley Farm (photo by CKV).

The dryer roadside garden has several of the same species (they usually don’t grow as tall, there) in addition to Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint and Wild Bergamot.

A part of the roadside garden at the Creekhouse, featuring (counter-clockwise from bottom left) New England Aster, Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Brown-eyed Susan, Wild Bergamot, Big Bluestem, and Purpletop Grass (photo by CKV).

In the shadier areas, Heart-leaved Aster displays a last hurrah of summer with its dense lavender-colored flowers.

A dense patch of Heart-leaved Aster in a shady part of the Creekhouse Garden (photo by CKV).

Much of the former lawn has slowly been transformed into a native wildflower meadow, where New England Aster and Showy Goldenrod put on a spectacular show of colors in late September.

New England Aster and Showy Goldenrod both propagate readily from seeds collected in the fall and stored in a dry cool place over the winter (photo by CKV).

Migrating Monarch butterflies, of which there were a lot more this year as compared to the last few years, were thankful for the nectar!

Monarch on New England Aster (photo by CKV).

But not only the showy butterflies graced the garden with their presence. Honey bees were busily collecting nectar on the different aster and goldenrod species…

A Honey Bee with its pollen baskets filled to the brim, buzzing among the flower heads of New England Aster (photo by CRV).

… as did the native bumblebees.

A Common Eastern Bumblebee is approaching the flower heads of Panicled Aster (photo by CRV).

The less conspicuous small wasps where everywhere. Many of these smaller cousins of the dreaded Yellow Jackets are important beneficial insects for the farmer. Most of them are parasitoids, which lay their eggs into the larvae of other insects and thereby contribute to the biocontrol of pests.

A probably parasitic small wasp (photo by CRV).

Another group of beneficial insects are the hoverflies. Other than bees and wasps, which they often resemble because of their yellow and black markings, these flies do not sting. The larvae of many species are ferocious predators of other insects and also contribute to biocontrol of pests. The adults feed on nectar and pollen, and serve as pollinators. Here are images of three different species of hoverflies found on asters in the Creekhouse Garden.

Most likely, this hoverfly is Syrphus torvus, a common species whose larvae feed on aphids. This adult is visiting the flower heads of Heart-leaved Aster (photo by CRV).

Toxomerus germinatus, another species of hoverfly, visiting the flower heads of Panicled Aster (photo by CRV).

Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax), an introduced, migratory hoverfly, whose larvae are not predatory, visiting the flower heads of Heath Aster (photo by CRV)

However, not all flower visitors were interested in collecting pollen or nectar, or functioning as pollinators. This katydid was happily munching away on the white petals (ray flowers) of a Calico Aster.

A Katydid eating flower parts (photo by CRV).

Another creature was not interested in the flowers per se, but had set up shop to try and catch one of the abundant flower visitors.

A curiously-shaped orb weaver spider, most likely an Arrow-shaped Micrathena (photo by CRV).


Hawthorne Valley Farm – Hedgerows

Increased flowers by letting natural diversity bloom

Hawthorne Valley Farm has an abundance of hedgerows which separate the various pastures and fields. In the Spring, most flowers in this habitat are borne on the native (and non-native) shrubs that compose the backbone of these hedgerows. Late in the season, asters and goldenrods thrive along the unmowed edges of the hedgerows. Such “soft edges” between different habitat types or landscape features might appear ungroomed, but are very important for insect life. Unmowed riparian corridors and infrequently mowed wetlands can serve a similar purpose.

New England Aster of two varieties (purple and pink flowers) grow along the unmowed edge of a hedgerow at Hawthorne Valley Farm (photo by CKV).

Ironwood Farm – Old Fields Surrounding the Intensively Managed Fields

Increased flowers by allowing some former farmland to remain fallow

Ironwood Farm is a young farm reclaiming former farmland. Currently, the intensively managed vegetable fields are surrounded by old fields that have developed into perennial meadows, composed of varying mixes of native and non-native plants. We have observed an exceptional abundance of native bees in the vegetable fields of this farm and suspect that the surrounding old fields and their flowers may help support these bees, which then serve as pollinators in the vegetables. In addition, the Common Milkweed plants (note the large, oval leaves in the center of the image below) in the old field served as food plants for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, making Ironwood Farm a nursery as well as a stop-over for migrating Monarchs.

A goldenrod and aster dominated old field just outside the deer fence of the vegetable field at Ironwood Farm might contribute to the abundance of native bees we observed in the vegetables (photo by CKV).

In the fall, the flowers of New England Aster contrast beautifully with those of Canada Goldenrod in the old field (photo by CKV).

Earlier in the season, the old fields had many flowers of non-native plants, such as Knapweed, which nonetheless were very attractive to native pollinators.

A native bee nectaring on the flower head of a non-native Knapweed (photo by CRV).

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Corner Garden Cropland

Increased flowers through interspersed in-bed annuals

The Corner Garden near the school parking lot is a small, intensively managed vegetable field. The farmers are experimenting with augmenting the abundance of flowers near the vegetables by interplanting annual wildflowers (such as the pink Cosmos pictured below) within the vegetable beds. While some vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash have to flower before producing the vegetable we eat, others, such as lettuce, carrots, parsnips, chard, beets, fennel, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi don’t get to flower before they are harvested. Occasionally, when feasible within the crop rotation, left-over crops (such as the Fennel pictured below) are allowed to bolt and flower, adding to the abundance and variety of flowers in the garden.

Late season flowers in the Corner Garden are provided by a Cosmos plant which was interplanted with Fennel and the Fennel itself, which is allowed to bloom before the bed is seeded with a cover crop for the winter (photo by CKV).

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Corner Garden Borders

Increased flowers through perennial edge plantings

In addition, we have collaborated with the farmers to bring more flowers into the Corner Garden by establishing small plantings of woody and perennial native plants around the perimeter of the vegetable beds. On the right in the image below is an area that was planted in early summer (with the help of several volunteers) with New England Aster, Showy Goldenrod, Wild Bergamot, Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed, all propagated from seeds collected at the Creekhouse Garden, in addition to some Yarrow and Lemon Balm plants. The abundant flowers of New England Aster (patch of purple flowers in image) became a true insect magnet in the fall, feeding migrating Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies, the Honeybees from the nearby hives, a plethora of native bees, hoverflies, and other beneficials, as well as the not-so-beneficial Cabbage White butterflies.

This planting was recently expanded (again with the help of several tireless volunteers) to incorporate a number of additional native wildflowers grown from seeds by volunteer Betsy Goodman-Smith. The perennial patch now also contains Purple Coneflower, Black- and Brown-eyed Susan, Anise Hyssop, Lance-leaved Coreopsis, Mistflower, Cardinalflower, Partridge Pea, Slender Lespedeza, and Purple Prairie Clover (the seeds for most of these species were donated by the Hudson Valley Farm Hub). We are looking forward to this wildflower patch providing nectar and pollen for insects all through the season, next year…

The expanding perennial native wildflower patch in the Corner Garden (photo by CKV).


Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Vegetable Fields

Increased flowers through bed-scale annual insectaries

In the large vegetable fields at the Farm Hub, the farmers experimented with several annual insectary plantings. The image below shows a section of the garden that had been seeded with Prairie Coreopsis in spring and was allowed to flower for a second time to provide late-season floral resources for insects.

An insectary strip of annual Plains Coreopsis integrated in the vegetable fields at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (photo by CKV).

The Coreopsis insectary became a lunch stop for migrating Monarch butterflies. We estimate that at least 50 Monarchs were nectaring in this patch at a time.

Monarch butterfly on Plains Coreopsis in insectary (photo by DAC).

However, the Monarchs were not the only migratory butterflies who stopped to fuel up on energy-rich nectar. Painted Lady butterflies on their way to Texas and Northern Mexico were even more common than the Monarchs on the Coreopsis flowers.

Painted Lady butterfly on Plains Coreopsis in insectary strip (photo by DAC).

Other visitors to the Coreopsis flowers in the insectary planting included Sulphur butterflies, hover flies, and Honey Bees (all pictured below).

A variety of insects, other than the migratory butterflies, visited the Coreopsis flowers (clockwise from top left): Sulphur butterfly, hover fly (most likely Syrphus torvus), and Honey Bee (photos by DAC).


Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Test Plots

Increased flowers through field-scale planting of perennial native meadows

This spring, we established 4.5 acres of native meadow trial areas in flood-prone fields at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. We are experimenting with two seed mixes (Mix A and Mix B; see below) to compare their success in establishing meadows without the use of herbicides on former corn fields. We also monitor their suitability for erosion control, soil building, and as insect and wildlife habitat. We received invaluable technical support on this project from the Xerces Society, who is collaborating with the USDA/NRCS throughout the US to help make farms more pollinator-friendly.

Seeding the native meadow seed mix into bare ground in mid May 2017 (photo by CKV).

Mix A is rich in wildflowers and might, eventually, be most attractive to pollinators and other beneficial insects. It is also quite expensive.

Mix B is rich in native grasses with some wildflowers added. It is more economical and might, eventually, lead to meadows that attract grassland breeding birds as well as a decent amount of beneficial insects.

By early October, some of the test plots are well on their way to dense and diverse native meadows. The vegetation is relatively low because the test plots had been mowed throughout the summer to discourage the annual weeds.

A native meadow test plot (Seed Mix A) in October of its first year (photo by CKV).

A closer look into this patch of meadow (seeded with Seed Mix A) reveals a mix of blossoms from Mistflower (light blue), Black-eyed Susan (yellow), and Blanketflower (red). The seedlings of about 20 additional native plant species are well established and have spent their first season developing a strong root system. They are expected to begin flowering next year. The seeds of a few species remained dormant for the first season and are expected to germinate next spring.

A native meadow established from seed at the end of its first season: the most conspicuous wildflowers are Black-eyed Susan (yellow), Mistflower (light blue), and Blanketflower (red) (photo by CKV).

A closer look at the late season flowers in the native meadow trial (photo by CKV).

Bees, wasps, hover flies, moths, and butterflies, including Monarch and Painted Lady, were visiting the flowers in these meadows, but in smaller numbers compared to the Coreopsis insectary, which had a much higher flower density.

Two very different species of hover flies: Drone Fly on Blanketflower (left) and Helophilus fasciatus on Black-eyed Susan (right) (photos by JM).

The Sulphur butterfly is one of the most ubiquitous butterflies on farms. Its larvae feed on clovers and alfalfa, and adults can be found nectaring on a large variety of flowers.

Sulphur butterfly on Black-eyed Susan (photo by JM).

An exciting observation was the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly visiting flowers in the native meadow trial. This is a northern species which, in some years, shows up in our region. This is our first sighting of this species in the Hudson Valley in more than a decade.

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly on Black-eyed Susan (photo by JM).

Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Medicinal Herb Garden

Increased flowers through blossoming herb crops

One of the farmers in training at the Farm Hub chose to experiment with the growing of medicinal herbs, this season. By mid summer, her herb garden was buzzing with bees and hopping with butterflies. The herbs were harvested by the time we took our last round of photos, so here are a couple of images from the herb garden in July.

The medicinal herb garden in July. In full bloom at this time were Toothache Plant (yellow), Calendula (orange), and Blue Vervain (purple) (photo by CKV).

It was particularly impressive, to see the Blue Vervain, a native plant of wet meadows, in a dense bed of obviously very happy plants in full bloom. The insects were all over them in July!

Blue Vervain in the medicinal plant garden (photo by CKV).


Hearty Roots Community Farm – U-Pick Flower Beds

Increased flowers through bee- and butterfly-friendly cut-flower beds

Another type of flower found on several farms this fall were ornamental plants grown for cut flowers. While ornamental flowers often originate from other parts of the world (e.g., Calendula comes from Southern Europe and Strawflower from Australia) and horticultural varieties bred to please the human eye often don’t provide much (if any) nectar and/or pollen for insects, we were happy to observe during our flower watches in the cut-flower beds of Hearty Roots Community Farm, that some species were very popular with the insects.

One of them was Zinnia, an easily grown annual which is represented in many flower gardens and a staple in cut flower arrangements. It is native to the Southwestern US and into South America.

A bed of Zinnia in the cut flower garden at Hearty Roots Community Farm (photo by CKV).

The Monarchs and Painted Ladies might “know” this plant from Mexico and seem to LOVE it! (Of course, the individual butterflies we observed here this fall have not yet been in Mexico, so their “knowledge” of Zinnia–if any–would be at the level of the species which have co-evolved with the nectar plants.)

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia (photo by DAC).

Painted Lady butterfly on Zinnia (photo by DAC).

Globe Amaranth is also often a component of locally grown flower bouquets, but its natural distribution is even more tropical than that of Zinnia, from Central into South America. Its flower heads are reminiscent of clover and seem to be very attractive to a variety of butterflies.

A bed of Globe Amaranth in the ornamental flower garden at Hearty Roots Community Farm (photo by CKV).

It was visited by some butterflies that are common resident species of our area farms, such as the Sulphur and Gray Hairstreak.

Sulphur butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

Gray Hairstreak butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

However, we also observed several butterfly species on the Globe Amaranth, which are resident in the southern US and only sometimes stray as far north as our region. These include the Fiery Skipper, Common Checkered Skipper, and Common Buckeye.

Fiery Skipper butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

Checkered Skipper on Globe Amaranth (photo by CRV).

Buckeye butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).


Fortunately, there are many possibilities to enhance flower abundance and insect life on farms (and in your gardens!), whether it involves adjusting the mowing schedule of natural areas/field edges/surrounding old fields so that the wildflowers can blossom; allowing certain vegetables to bolt and bloom; planting flowering medicinal herbs or pollinator-friendly cut flowers; interplanting annual flowers with vegetables, either as individual plants, or in insectary strips; using flowering cover crops; or establishing perennial wildflower areas at the field or nook & cranny scale. Each of these approaches can help make the farmscape more diverse and alive. They vary in their scale and in the time and money investment they require, so think about what’s the best fit for your situation. Where there are suitable flowers, the pollinators and other beneficial insects will be rewarding you with their beauty and service.

We thank the farmers at Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub for their collaboration with the experimental establishment of native wildflowers. We also thank them, and the farmers at Hearty Roots Community Farm and Ironwood Farm for tolerating our research for the multi-farm comparison of the distribution of insects across on-farm habitats.

Photo credits: Dylan Cipkowski (DAC), Julia Meyer (JM), Conrad Vispo (CRV), and Claudia Knab-Vispo (CKV).

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 17, 2017 in Agriculture, Farmscape Ecology, Nature


In the Asparagus Patch.


An early illustration of Asparagus from Duhamel du Monceau’s Traité des arbres et arbustes, vol. 1: t. 31 (1755); image from Asparagus was among the earliest European vegetables to be brought to the New World.

As a child, the wispy, ferny fronds of wild Asparagus were always rather magical to me. It was as if the staid crop had let its hair down as it roamed the ditches and roadsides. It should not be surprising that Asparagus is widely feral; it has been here for a while. Asparagus has been recognized as a vegetable for millennia and apparently was planted in some of the first new world vegetable gardens, possibly because of its early-season arrival to the table, its hardiness and perennial habit, and its purported medicinal properties. In addition, its original native Western Europe seaside habitat may have preadapted it to road salt.

Asparagus was listed among the vegetables in William Penn’s colony in 1685. By 1747, Peter Kalm found it growing wild in various places, including along the Hudson north of Albany. Jefferson included abundant observations on its planting in his garden notebooks starting in 1767, and it was being sold commercially in New England in the same century. It was widely naturalized in NY by the early 1800s, and, by the mid 1800s, it was being grown extensively, including in 10-20 acre fields on Long Island for sale in NYC.


A late 19th or early 20th century Massachusetts asparagus farm, from Hexamer’s Asparagus : its Culture for Home Use and for Market : a Practical Treatise on the Planting, Cultivation, Harvesting, Marketing, and Preserving of Asparagus. Large asparagus farms served major East Coast cities.

As is often the case with newly introduced plants, for many years Asparagus apparently had few enemies. However, in 1862 New York State Entomologist Asa Fitch began his annual report with this line, “Much the most important entomological event in our State the present year has been the appearance upon the asparagus on Long Island of an insect new to us in this country, and doing great injury to this important crop, threatening even its total destruction.” The Common Asparagus Beetle had arrived.


The illustration that accompanied Asa Fitch’s 1862 description of the Common Asparagus Beetle upon its first recorded arrival to North America, from the 8th Report on the Noxious and Other Insects of the State of New York. Damage was apparently quick and extensive.


The Common Asparagus Beetle in action, as illustrated in Hexamer’s work. The beetles seem to attack the stalk and head while the grubs appear to spend more time eating the leafy fronds.


A sickly, beetle-damaged Asparagus stalk. Adults and grub feed directly on the plant, and extensive egg-insertion may stunt stalk growth.

common 3W5A1048

The Common Asparagus Beetle.

common 3W5A1090

On heavily occupied plants, the activity can be crowded.

common 3W5A3769

Mating Common Asparagus Beetles on Asparagus. The wet-looking scrapes on the Asparagus stalks are from its feeding.

After some research, Fitch concluded that the Common Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris asparagi) had probably landed on these shores some time in 1857 or 1858. He could offer little by way of control except, after dismissing the use of skunks (who did seem to enjoy beetle fare but were “in such bad odor”), the use of free-ranging fowl. For the next two years, growers apparently despaired but then a “small, shining black parasitic fly” appeared as a “deliverer” and the destruction abated somewhat. The mysterious parasite apparently then disappeared, and the beetle continued to spread, probably reaching our area (Columbia County, NY) around the turn of the century. In 1909 (see this paper), the parasite was  finally captured and identified as the small wasp Tetrastichus aparagi. Subsequently, and not surprisingly in retrospect, this wasp was found to be identical to T. coeruleus, a wasp known to parasitize the Common Asparagus Beetle in its native Old World homeland.


A probable Tetrastichus coeruleus, the wasp that saved the Asparagus crop.

The wasp has not disappeared again, and it is apparently crucial to controlling Common Asparagus Beetles. Estimates are that it kills approximately three quarters of the eggs produced by this beetle. Interestingly, American economic entomologists, struggling with the late 19th century rampages of the Asparagus Beetle, seemed somewhat baffled that Europeans could not provide them with any adequate control measures. It now seems likely that, with this little wasp already ‘on the job’, Europeans rarely needed extra measures.

Before describing some of what is known of the life cycles of both wasp and beetle, it’s important to emphasize the fact that Asparagus is a perennial; it may produce a crop for a decade or more. Unlike the case with annual crops, asparagus fields are not being ploughed under and moved every year, and so populations of both pest and parasite can build up over several years.


field 3W5A3698

Asparagus is a perennial crop that may be harvested for up to a dozen years. This allows predator/pest communities to develop over time.

The Common Asparagus Beetle overwinters in the soil as an adult. These beetles then emerge in the Spring and begin to feed on the rapidly growing asparagus shoots. Soon, rows of their tiny, neat eggs begin to appear on asparagus stalks, (The only analogy I can think of for the appearance of the eggs is that of a school of shark fins cutting through an asparagus ocean… OK, that probably doesn’t help.) After a week or so, these hatch into black-headed, grey-bodied grubs who feed avidly for a couple of weeks then pupate in the soil for a dozen days or so, re-emerging as the second generation a bit more than a month after their parents. These beetles go on to produce another generation, and, it is those beetles or their progeny who then overwinter.

grub 3W5A1206

A Common Asparagus Beetle grub together with eggs of the same species.

grub 3W5A1112

Several Common Asparagus Beetle grubs on a young Asparagus frond that they have nearly stripped of its outside layer.

eggs 3W5A1177

A Common Asparagus Beetle among eggs of the same species. I’m guessing the yellowish egg is recently laid, but I may be wrong.

eggs 3W5A1198

Although egg laying on Asparagus should be the norm, this beetle decided to try grass. Since young larvae appear to travel in search of the appropriate Asparagus plant for feeding, perhaps these future hatchlings will make it to a nearby Asparagus stalk.


Common Asparagus Beetles reportedly overwinter as adults in litter, under tree bark, and in the somewhat hollow stems of cut Asparagus such as shown here.

While the adults scar the surface of the large stalks and eat the ‘scales’ of the heads, the grubs seem to favor the finer vegetation of the branching asparagus ‘ferns’, and can quickly girdle and strip smaller plants. The action of the adults, while apparently not as immediately dramatic, can scar and stunt the asparagus shoots growth, sometimes causing the stalk to do a complete loop the loop and rendering them unfit for sale.

Meanwhile, the wasp has been passing winter in the pupae of the eggs it parasitized the previous year. It soon emerges and begins its work. One of the characteristics that apparently makes this wasp so effective in control is that it is not only a parasite, it is also a predator. The adult wasp both consumes and lays its eggs in (that is, ‘oviposits’) the beetle’s eggs.




A sequence of shots showing the parasitic wasp approaching and sensing an egg, inserting its ovipositor in two different locations on the same egg, and apparently eating or at least tasting some of the content. The glistening circles evident on a couple of eggs are the insertion points. The ovipositor comes out of the central ventral portion of the abdomen, not the tip and is visible in a couple of the pictures.

egg 3W5A3749
The somewhat deflated eggs visible in this shot may be the work of a hungry wasp, although I still need to insure that I can tell hatched from consumed eggs.

The wasp’s general behavioral sequence, based on the aforementioned early 20th century observations and a more recent European paper, is that a wasp approaches an egg and ‘sniffs’ or drums it with its antennae. It then makes the choice to eat, oviposit in, or reject the egg. Younger eggs seem to be favored for eating, while older eggs are favored for oviposition, although, on average, most eggs are rejected outright.

Egg consumption is an interesting behavior. Rather than simply walking up to an egg and taking a bite, the wasp seems to macerate the contents through rhythmical insertions of its ovipositor (see this video of the same wasp pictured here) and then lap up the contents. According to the above mentioned papers, actual oviposition involves a more tranquil insertion maintained for “several minutes”.

One last twist involves what happens next: the parasitized beetle egg hatches and the grub develops normally and pupates in the soil. This was clearly a head scratcher for early observers. But patience finally revealed the end result – the pupae never hatch, at least they don’t produce an adult beetle, instead, up to 10 wasp larvae emerge from the hollowed out beetle pupa. The wasp thus appears to practice delayed development, coordinating its own developmental rush to the pupation stage of the beetle. One possible advantage of this is that the young wasps can overwinter as larvae and/or pupae snug within the small underground cell originally created by the parasitized beetle larvae. The adult wasps then emerge in spring to renew the cycle.

The Spotted Asparagus beetle is commonly found with the Common Asparagus Beetle although, aptly enough, it is usually less common. The beetle in the lower image has decided to hang out on an adjacent weed rather than the Asparagus itself.
eggs 3W5A1118
The Spotted Asparagus Beetle usually puts its eggs on the Asparagus flower bud or berry rather than the stalk, so I’m guessing that is who laid these eggs, but I wasn’t present at their arrival.

The Common Asparagus Beetle and the parasitic wasp are not the only visitors to Asparagus. The Spotted Asparagus Beetle (Cioceris duodecimpunctata) arrived somewhat later and has not been as damaging. Its eggs are laid on the Asparagus berries, and its larvae apparently confine their feeding to that part of the plant. While often present, they seem to be generally less abundant than the Common Asparagus Beetle. Another species of wasp is thought to parasitize them. True Bugs sometimes also feed on the eggs, while the maggots of certain flies are known to bore into the Asparagus stems. In addition, passersby regularly alight on the Asparagus stalks, as they would on almost any piece of vegetation. There’s obviously a lot more going on here, but that’s enough for one posting!

Thanks to my colleagues at Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub for tolerating my snooping.

wasp 3W5A1165
This wasp, a different species from the one pictured earlier, spent a while excitedly clambering over a grub-laden Asparagus frond but, in the end, it just flew away.
3W5A3795 fly
This fly was moving up and down an egg-spotted Asparagus stem, apparently cleaning up some of the spilled juices.
fly 3W5A1146
So far as I saw, this fly never did anything but perch. Several fungus-filled fly mummies were found nearby. I don’t know the species of fly, but perhaps these were simply using the Asparagus’ high and handy perches.
bug 3W5A1155
This nymph of a True Bug patrolled some egg rows, apparently (although not definitively) sucking out the contents of some of them… think food-filled balloons.
And, amongst it all, a spider waited patiently; the Asparagus was as good a place as any for some hunting.
This red mite seemed to be sucking on a beetle egg, but perhaps it was only imbibing nearby plant juices.

Early Season Field Weeds

Spring wildflowers are the most prominent feature in our forests at this time of the year, while cold-season weeds are most prominent in the vegetable fields. If you want to see images of the spring wildflowers in the forests of Hawthorne Valley, please go into the archive and find the blog we posted on April 30, 2011.

Today, I am going to share the results of a little inventory of early season weeds found during the last two weeks in the vegetable fields at Hawthorne Valley Farm. (Be assured, the farmers have been very busy discouraging the weeds from completely taking over and replacing them with neat rows of vegetable seedlings…)

Probably the most common and ubiquitous weed of early spring is Common Chickweed (Stellaria media). It is originally from Europe, but now found on all continents, including Antarctica. It was documented in New England as early as 1672. Common Chickweed is very hardy and often stays green under the snow. Its trailing stems can be several feet long. It grows very quickly and is capable of producing seeds five weeks after germination. No wonder, that certain garden beds are all but covered in it!

CARYO Chickweed (Stellaria media) 7931

Common Chickweed is a member of the Pink Family (Caryophyllaceae) and is characterized by small opposite leaves with a pointed tip. The flowers are composed of five deeply cleft petals.

CARYO Chickweed (Stellaria media) 7904

Tender leaves of Common Chickweed can supposedly be eaten raw as an addition to salads or boiled and served as greens. A tea of this herb is traditionally used to relieve coughs and externally for skin diseases and to allay itching. An infusion of Chickweed is also an ingredient in a skin healing salve prepared here in Columbia County on Red Oak Farm.

A close relative is the introduced Mouse-Eared Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum ssp. vulgare). It too has small opposite leaves, but they are hairy and their tip is more rounded.

CARYO Mouse-Eared Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum spp. vulgare) 7902

There are several other early season weeds in the Pink Family, all recognizable by their opposite leaves. My current assessment is that they are the introduced Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris = S. cucubalus), White Campion (Silene latifolia = Lychnis alba), and Ragged-Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).

The following weed, which I tentatively identified as Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris), has very regularly-spaced, extremely smooth, opposite leaves.

CARYO Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) 8007

The weed below, tentatively identified as White Campion (Silene latifolia), has much larger, slightly hairy leaves that emerge closely spaced, almost creating a rosette.

CARYO White Campion (Silene latifolia)

Finally, these very narrow, smooth, and opposite leaves likely belong to Ragged-Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).

CARYOPH Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) 8019

This sums up the prominent opposite-leaved weeds of early spring.

The next group are the weedy members of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae), which also happens to include many of our cultivated plants, such as Arugala, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts, Kohlrabi, Cabbage, and Kale. Many of these weeds start the season as basal rosettes.

Currently the most prominent in the fields around here is Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). This weed comes from southern Europe and was reported in North America prior to 1672. Its basal rosette is slightly reminiscent of Dandelion, but its leaves are more deeply divided and the leaflets of interesting, irregular shapes (and extremely variable from plant to plant). A broken-off leaf does not exude white milk (as it would in Dandelion or Chicory) and, upon closer inspection (hand lens!), Shepherd’s Purse has branched hairs to help with its identification. Sometimes, these plants can’t wait to flower and instead of growing a proper flowering shoot, they produce a few flowers in the center of the rosette.

BRASSICA Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) 7943

Some rosettes have less divided leaves…

BRASSICA Field Pepperweed (Lepidium campestre) 7984

… some more. But like many early season weeds, Shepherd’s Purse always has a long taproot.

BRASSICA Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) 7939

Below is a typical example of a flowering Shepherd’s Purse. The flowering shoot emerges from the center of the rosette and bears only slightly divided or toothed leaves. The flowers are tiny, white and have four petals, like all members of the Mustard Family.

BRASSICA Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) 7936

The young leaves (gathered before the flowers appear) of Shepherd’s Purse can reportedly be used in salads or prepared like spinach. Dried seedpods make a pepperlike seasoning. Traditionally used as a diuretic, to stop bleeding, and during childbirth for its uterine-contracting properties.

Field Penny-Cress (Thlaspi arvense) is another very common early season weed in most vegetable fields at Hawthorne Valley Farm. It originates in the eastern Mediterranean region and was first reported on this continent from Detroit in 1701. As one apprentice observed, it almost looks like Corn Mash. It is considered an edible plant for salads, cooked greens, and seasoning. But it also bears the name “Stinkweed” and supposedly gives meat and milk an unpleasant flavor if animals consume a lot of it.

BRASSICA Field Penny-Cress (Thlaspi arvense) 7901

When Field Penny-Cress is getting ready to flower, its axis begins to elongate, just like in a bolting lettuce and most other rosette forming plants.

BRASSICA Field Penny-Cress 2 (Thlaspi arvense) 7922

An intense peppery taste identifies the following weed as Field Pepperweed (Lepidium campestre). Although it is considered edible, just like its cousins mentioned above, it is a bit strong for my taste. Its leaves are not as deeply divided and as closely hugging the ground as those of Shepherd’s Purse, but they are also not as smooth-margined and organized-looking as those of Field Penny-Cress…

BRASSICA Field Pepperweed (Lepidium campestre) 8016

The following weed, which looks like a hairy Dandelion, is actually also a member of the Mustard Family, most likely a Hedgemustard (Sisymbrium officinale).

BRASSICA prob. Hairy-Pod Hedgemustard (Sisymbrium officinale) 8025

Continuing with variations on the theme of basal rosette, these smooth and very round-lobed leaves belong to Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris). This is another species that basically stays green below the snow. The young leaves are supposedly excellent when picked while the nights are still frosty and can be added to salads or cooked like spinach. With warmer weather, the leaves become very bitter, but the tight clusters of flowerbuds can then be boiled and served like broccoli.

BRASSICA Wintercress 2 (Barbarea vulgaris) 7925

Finally, here is a mustard weed that somewhat breaks the basal rosette stereotype. Its young plants are upright and its leaves entire. However, the branched hairs (a character it shares with the otherwise very different-looking Shepherd’s Purse) make me believe we are looking at Wormseed Mustard (Erysimum cheiranthoides).

BRASSICA Wormseed Mustard (Erysimum cheiranthoides) 8029

Change of gears: let’s look at a couple of weeds with roundish, opposite leaves. Their square stems (amongst many other characteristics) place them in the Mint Family. The first one is Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), a very common weed of lawns, pastures, and obviously also fields. It is a creeping plant which roots at the nodes. Its opposite leaves are born on long stalks. Crushed leaves are aromatic, medicinally-smelling. Traditionally, a leaf tea was used for lung and kidney ailments and as “blood purifier”. Externally, it is a folk remedy for cancer, backaches, bruises, and hemorrhoids. Supposedly, the dried leaves make a fine herbal tea when steeped for 5-10 minutes in hot water.

LAMIA Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) 7907

The other weed species is quite similar and also belongs to the Mint Family. But its shoots are more upright, not rooting at the nodes. Its opposite leaves are stalked in the lower parts of the plant but in the upper part they are sessile, attached directly to the main shoot. This identifies it as the much less common (in our region) Henbit (Lamium amplexicaulum).

LAMIA Henbit (Lamium amplexicaulum) 7923

Ground Ivy flowers are bluish-purple, while Henbit flowers are pink.

LAMIA Henbit (Lamium amplexicaulum) 7924

Another pretty early flower is produced by Bird-Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica), a member of the closely Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae). Its toothed leaves are opposite along the base of the shoot, but near the flowers they become alternate.

SCROPH Bird-Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica) 7955

The sky blue flowers with their prominent dark blue “landing strips” that guide bees to the nectar, are presented on relatively long stalks.

SPROPH Bird-Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica) 7952

The Corn Speedwell (Veronica arvensis) looks very similar, but tends to have smaller leaves and its tiny blue flowers have no or only very short stalks.

SCROPH Corn Speedwell (Veronica arvensis) 8017

We will close with a few “oddballs”. Here are the three-foliate, Strawberry-like leaves of Rough Cinquefoil (Potentilla norvegica), a member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae) that will soon be producing little yellow flowers. Rough Cinquefoil is considered native to this continent and one of the few native plants that readily associate with cultivated soil.

ROSA Rough Cinquefoil (Potentilla norvegica) 8009

Somewhat similar in appearance are the palmate (“hand-like”) leaves of a member in the Geranium Family, possibly Carolina Geranium (Geranium carolinianum).

GERANIA possibl. Caronlina Geranium (Geranium carolinianum) 8012

Finally, there is a little violet, aptly named Field Violet (Viola arvensis) that can become very prevalent in some vegetable fields. It has toothed, long-stalked leaves of variable shape …

VIOLA Field Violet (Viola arvensis) 7911

and flowers very early in the season.

VIOLA Field Violet (Viola arvensis) 7949

The information about the date when an introduced weed species was first documented on this continent was gleaned from “Weeds of Canada and the Northern United States” by France Royer & Richard Dickinson. I consulted the Peterson Field Guides on “Edible Wild Plants” by Lee Allen Peterson and “Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants” by Steven Foster and James Duke about culinary and medicinal uses of the weeds. Weed identification was facilitated by “Weeds of the Northeast” by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso, and the “Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada” by Gleason & Cronquist.

As I indicated in the text, some of the identifications are tentative, because they are based on sterile specimens. Please do let me know if you detect any obvious errors in my best guesses. Thanks!


Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Agriculture, Nature


Native Bees

This is a green Sweat Bee, possibly Augochlora pura, a species which nests in rotting wood.

As Spring arrives, so do the flowers and the bees. Honey Bees, our most familiar bee, sally forth from their hives; gathering pollen and nectar for their young and their colony and, almost incidentally, pollinating many of the flowers they visit. Most ‘bee keepers’ in this part of the World are keepers of Honey Bees. This is understandable given the honey this species produces. However, we are all ‘bee keepers’ of another sort. Aside from the European Honey Bee, which probably arrived here in the 1600s, there are around 475 species of native bees in New York State, and we’ve documented at least 120 from Columbia County. These species survive (or not) in the house that we all keep: our countryside. Not all of our local bees are currently flying – some bees only emerge later in the season, however, there is already a nice variety out and about.

I disturbed this lethargic Augochlora last October while looking for beetles in a rotten log.

[First a word of warning and gratitude: I am hardly a native bee expert. I’ve gotten some friendly input from the folks at Bugguide (John Ascher of AMNH specifically) and have made some risky guesses on others. Martin Holdrege and now Sara Powell have been working through IDs with us; in part, I’ll try to summarize some of their work. For more on Martin’s work looking at the native bees in the County, see this page of our web site.]

Before delving further into our native bees, we should take at least one good look at the imported, but now naturalized, Honey Bee. Honey Bees are larger than many (but certainly not all) of our native bees. One characteristic that distinguishes them from almost all of our native bees is, however, their hairy eyes. Notice how the Dandelion pollen has gotten stuck in the hairs which extend between the cells of this Honey Bee’s eyes; one can only imagine what the view from the inside was like.

Bumblebees are perhaps our most familiar native bees. This one (possibly Bombus impatiens, the Common Eastern Bumblebee) is sharing this Redbud branch with a smaller native bee that is flying past below. Our smallest native bees are about 1/4-1/2 the length of the lower bee. Stake out a flowering tree or patch and watch it for a while. Many (but not all) of the fly-sized insects you’ll see zooming about are actually those smaller native bees.

We have around 14 species of Bumblebees in the State. Many of these nest underground (in such places as old groundhog or mouse burrows); others nest on the ground surface or in cavities in wood, rocks or structures. Each year, the fertilized queen raises a new colony. The old queen and all offspring, except next year’s prospective queens, will die by the end of the season; only those young queens survive the winter and found a new colony the following spring. Bumblebees are especially important pollinators at cooler times of the year; as this BBC video illustrates, they can use their unhitched flight muscles to generate the body heat that they need in order to fly. Their relatively large size and fuzzy coat presumably help maintain that heat.

The ability to cope with cool weather means that Bumblebees can be the pollinators of many of our early spring flowers, such as this Dutchman’s Britches. The spring ephemeral flowers of our rich bottomlands can provide important food resources for early Spring bees.

Here’s another fuzzy native bee, but this is not a Bumblebee. Slightly smaller than most of our Bumblebees and somewhat redder, this may be, according to John Ascher, Andrena dunningi. Note the mouth parts; many bees have an extendable mouth with which they can probe flowers. The mouth of this bee is apparently retracted, more on bee mouths later.

Andrena dunningi is an example of one group of Spring bees. You will only find this species in flight during early spring (perhaps April – May in our area). These are gregarious but solitary ground nesters. What that means is that each female makes her own hole in a sand/clay bank. However, either because of an urge to hang out together or because of similar nesting site preferences, many individuals will often make their holes in a relatively small piece of ground. As the one above is doing, the females gather pollen. They then craft a pollen ball which they deposit, together with an egg, in discrete chambers of their nest holes. Holes may be 8″ or deeper and lead to 10 or more egg-containing chambers.

Here’s a similar species emerging from a hole in early April; the fresh earth around this hole suggests this might be a female at her recently excavated nest.

Apparently, males often emerge from their natal holes first. They then wait eagerly for the emergence of females. This is probably a mating ball – a cluster of males attempting to mate with a newly emerged female.

In this video, which I took in late April a couple of years ago, you can see a female of another species of what I’m guessing is also Andrea. She is digging her nest into a bank along Kinderhook Creek; don’t ask me why she seems to eventually dump her pollen load. Maybe an interloper (me?) buried her burrow entrance, and she hadn’t planned on having to dig with her load. Numerous others of her kind (plus a few with different intentions, see below) were flying about.

Other native bees nest in the hollows of bark-encased rotting twigs, hollow reeds or other narrow, tube-like locations. See “Strumelia’s” comments at the end of this blog, they show some good footage of the nest she set up for Mason bees on her back porch.

This wasp-like bee, probably Nomada imbricata, is apparently a cleptoparasite of Andrena species such as the one mentioned earlier.

All is not sweet flowers and sunshine in the world of spring bees. The species pictured above takes advantage of the pollen collection done by bees like the aforementioned Andrena. This (despite my initial error) is a bee, but note that it is lacking the hairy, pollen-holding legs of the bee in the previous picture. This species does feed pollen to its young, but yet doesn’t gather pollen from flowers. How does it manage? It searches out the well-stocked nursuries of other species and lays its eggs therein. Its larvae then develop, probably kill the young of the other species, and feast upon the pollen cache…

These little black bees are the bane of novice bee taxonomists like ourselves. Many are in the genus Lasioglossum; there are nearly 70 species of this genus in NY.

This is a bee in the genus Halictus, a genus in the same family as Lasioglossum. It’s reaching into the purse-like cup that shields the Redbud flower’s anthers and styles.

Lasioglossum and Halictus are largely ground nesters. Some are social and live in small colonies with a single queen, although, like the Bumblebee, it seems that it is the queens rather than the colonies that overwinter. As one might expect given the time needed to establish a colony, some of these species have fairly long flight periods. They fly, for example, for substantially longer than Redbud flowers. As a result, if one wants to encourage native bees in one’s garden, one often needs to ensure that a stream of different plant species is in flower across the season. This is also a reason why we should maintain a diversity of natural habitats in our landscape: the flowers of floodplains, wetlands, and dry fields, for examples, tend to bloom during different seasons and thus by maintaining a diverse landscape, one can provide a season-long source of food for long-flying native bee species.

The same Halictus showing a snapshot of its tongue.

Another aspect of supporting bees is ensuring that you have a variety of flower types. For example, one web document suggested that Redbud is primarily fertilized by “long-tongued” bees (apparently because the nectaries take a bit of dipping to reach). Another site categorized Halictus as a short-tongued bee. So, why these Halictus on Redbud? One answer might be that, despite appearing to have a short tongue in a picture like this, at least some Halictus have a much longer reach. Pictures and video viewable at Bugguide may help explain the paradox.

Some bees are specialists. This photograph, taken by Martin Holdrege, shows a cluster of Squash Bees, aka Peponapis, huddled in the center of a squash flower. These bees are squash pollinators around the world (although, like squash, their original homeland was the Americas). They are effective pollinators, often rendering Honey Bee pollination unnecessary. To see them, gently pry open squash flowers in the early morning. Needless to say, while our spring is advanced this year, Martin did not take this photo in April.

Some native bees, like the Peponapis above, are plant specialists. Their behavior and morphology is adapted to the flowering patterns and flower structures of cucurbids. There are also bees in our fauna who specialize on willows, composits, and Pickerel Weed.

By the time I first got around to doing this blog, temperatures had dropped, and the Carpenter Bees, which had been swirling around some of our eaves, had hunkered down. Their 1/3-1/2″ diameter holes were however still evident, complete with what appear to be scrapped off pollen traces.


However, things eventually warmed up; this is a male Eastern Carpenter Bee photographed while patrolling his territory. He’s Bumblebee sized but note the shiny (not fuzzy), black abdomen and the white face (only on the guys).

Carpenter Bees are another group of native bees; we have one species in our area. These bees can be effective pollinators, but have had bad PR. First, they do not eat wood. Instead, like ground nesting bees, they are trying to make holes to house their young. To do so, they excavate into the wood, creating small drillings. However, the young do not feed on their house, instead, like most other bees, the mother supplies with a mix of pollen and nectar. Most Carpenter Bee damage is thus cosmetic. Second, adult Carpenter Bees are large and, aside from their largely hairless abdomens, resemble Bumblebees. Males are territorial and can be conspicuous around buildings where they occasionally zoom out to alarm passing humans. However, they have no stinger and so are harmless. Females, which could sting, are apparently much more laid back and rarely approach people.

A fly rests on a Dandelion.

At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that many of the little, fly-like organisms flying around flowers are actually native bees. Some, such as the one picture above, are… flies. Flies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all have only two wings (vs. the bee’s four), and they usually have round, eye-dominated faces sprouting stubby antennae. Flies can also be important pollinators; indeed, some flowers seem to raise a stink that is specifically intended to attract flies rather than bees.

Some ants are also nectar and possibly pollen consumers; they may account for some pollination but, in most cases, are probably not particularly important in this sense.

These Soldier Beetles were common in and about flowers both in our little orchard and amongst the Spring ephemerals of the floodplain. Apparently, they are both pollen feeders and predators on flower visitors.

Bottoms up. Our native Spotted Lady Beetle is a pollen feeder, but both larvae and adults can be important pest predators in gardens.

Finally, even as sketchy an account of flower visitors as this one should not overlook the butterflies. We caught this medium-sized, greyish butterfly flitting through spring emphemerals in the floodplain at the bottom of Phudd Hill. It was new to me, and I initially misidentified it. However, inspection of the photos left little doubt it was a new record for the County – a White M Hairstreak.

The White M Hairstreak (see the “M” just below the orange dot?) seems to be a butterfly on the move. It has been spreading north, probably in response to climate warming. We are currently on the northern frontier of its range, but that frontier has been continuously shifting north in recent years. The White M’s caterpillars feed on oak, and thus it probably spends much of its time in the canopy; this one had probably descended to forage for nectar amongst the ground-level wild flowers. For more on this species, see Sharon Stichter’s description of the White M in Massachusetts. While there, check out all the other interesting butterfly info. at her site.


Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Agriculture, Nature


A Day in the Life of the Dairy Herd

After last week’s introduction to the variety of farm animals, this posting is intended to give you an understanding of the daily rhythms and movements of the dairy herd during the winter. The entire rhythm will change sometime in late April/beginning of May, when the cows start grazing on the pastures, again. Until then, the milking cows basically repeat the same cycle twice each day and we might just start with their march into the milking barn to get -guess what?- milked… They march into the barn around 5:00am and then again at 2:30pm (it’s pretty obvious, when I was there to take this picture…)

But before the milking, the cows receive a treat in form of a little grain meal of milled barley, that is milled right here on the farm. 

In the old-fashioned dairy barn, each cow has her accustomed stanchion and their heads get locked in so they remain in place and each is assured her ration of grain. They all get different rations based on the point they are in their lactation. Those in their peak get 1/2 a scoop, while those who are towards the end only receive 1/4 or none at all.

Here you see Emma enjoying her barley meal.

The milking happens with four to six portable milking machines that attach to the udder and get hooked into the stainless steel pipeline leading to the bulk tank in the dairy. The cow being milked in the following picture is Sorrel.

The hip bar does not hurt the cows as long as they stand calmly. It gets put on for the milking to prevent attempts at kicking the milking machine (or the farmer/apprentice). Once the milking is completed, the bar gets removed and often the cows lie down for a nice rest and some chewing of cud.

Once the last of the ~55 cows is done milking (it takes +/- 2 hours), the entire herd moves from the old dairy barn (on the right) to the new loafing barn (on the left). That happens at around 8:00am and again at 5:30pm.

Here, a long row of delicious hay is waiting to be eaten.

Again, the cows’ heads are locked into place to assure that each has access to hay and can eat calmly without worrying about being bullied around by higher-ranking individuals. This arrangement also assures that the hay stays clean and does not get trampled and mixed with manure.

After about three hours (at around 11am and again at 8:30pm), the locks get released and the cows are free to move around within the loafing barn or to wander into the barn yard.

By 11am, there will have been a few minutes of impatient mooing from the group of small calves, who are now released and free to go find their mothers.

Barley and her steer calf Bar.

Cinnamon and her steer calf Cin surrounded by the dairy herd.

After they have drunk their fill, the calves gang up in small groups of similar age and go exploring on their own.

The three steer calves Equ (of Equinox), Cin (of Cinnamon), and Bar (of Barley).

During the period from 11am to 2:30pm, as well as all through the night, the milking cows can freely move between the barn yard and the barn…

The animal standing on the right is Easy, the bull who is currently the sire of the dairy herd. Next to him is Nimbus, who was in heat on the day the picture was taken.

Nimbus is going for a stroll in the barn yard.

By 2:30pm, the calves are sent back into their pen.

Little Nettle has watched her mom Noodle go into the dairy barn and calmly walks back to her own pen.

And the cows return to the dairy barn for a second serving of barley meal and the afternoon milking.

After the milking, around 5:30pm, the herd returns into the loafing barn for a big dinner of hay.

In the meantime, the pigeons line up on the roof of the loafing barn.

While the cows are having their dinner, it gets dark and the barn becomes a bright beacon in the early night. (In case you wonder how this image below came to be: Conrad did a very long exposure without the use of flash)

At around 8:30pm, the cows are released and free to move around for the night.

While some choose to stay behind, most cows move out into the barn yard for some fresh air and a drought of water.

The lights in the barn remain on for a few more moments, while the farmers ready everything for the night.

And then it is “lights off”, even for the cows…

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Agriculture


Farm Animals

In winter, things seem quiet on the farm. The grass did finally turn tan-colored, the ground and streams are frozen. This seemed a good time of the year to invite you to a tour of the “animal facilities” and to introduce the different groups of farm animals…

Approaching the farm from the north-west (i.e., Creekhouse), we see a variety of structures that all have to do with the farm animals. From left to right, there are the old milking barn, the new loafing barn, the manure shed, the hay-storage “bubble” and the animal “bubble”. 

The round bales in the foreground are bedding hay.

The image below shows the barn yard with the animal and hay-storage “bubbles” and the west end of the brand-new loafing barn.

The animal “bubble” houses several animal species and sex/age groups.

These are the bull and heifer calves less than 4 months old, who still get to spend part of the day with their mothers and to nurse from them. They are in the “bubble” for the night and during milking and feeding time of the dairy herd. In the summer, calves of this age group follow their mothers out onto the day pasture and spend 6-7 hours a day with the herd. In the winter, time with mom is reduced to 3-4 hours during mid day.

In the pen next to the small calves are the older heifer (female) calves that have been weaned and are anywhere between 4 months to more than a year old. The Farm & Arts Program is working with the 4th graders at Hawthorne Valley School to allow the children to spend time with the calves of the dairy herd.

The “boys” of that same age group are in the next pen. They include the bulls Max and Bullwinkle (the black one on the right) who are raised as future sires of the dairy herd and the heifers (first time moms). In this pen are also two oxen (one of them is on the left of this group) who are in training as draft animals.

Three sheep live in the pen across the “hallway”. These sheep belong to the Farm & Arts Program at Hawthorne Valley Farm and play a central role in the on-farm experiences offered for children and families. They arrived here last spring as lambs, have been bottle-raised, and during the summer spend their days in a pasture next to the corner garden. They are very socialized, and like to be walked on leashes for daily exercise in the wintertime. The sheep will be shorn in the spring, and their fleece will become an integral part of the fiber arts work in the Farm & Arts Program.This is Stella… and this is Luna. The third one is Lila, whose name means “nightfall” in Hebrew.

Next to the sheep lives the small flock of Farm & Arts chickens in their chicken house that was built last year by the 3rd grade of Hawthorne Valley School.

These chickens have been raised from eggs last spring. One batch hatched in the 3rd grade classroom and the other in the Learning Center and have been loved, held and cared for by many many children. The activity was so successful that it looks as though it might become an annual tradition for the 3rd grades.Our hens are a variety of breeds that give us a variety of delicious eggs. On a really cold and windy day, you’ll see them all huddled together next to the hay bales (and the heated waterer).

At the west end of the animal “bubble” are the pig pens, one for each of the three sows and one for the larger piglets (feeder pigs).

The guy with the white belly and legs is Percy. He is the boar, who was born and raised right here on the farm. He is currently on honeymoon with Bettie.

Next door, Spot has made herself a nest in the hay.

“Do you really need to take a picture of me, right now???”

Marge has currently the youngest piglets. They are about six weeks old.

And they really know how to stay warm in a good nest of hay…

or huddled closely together with mummy and the siblings.

The last pig pen holds the older piglets, the “feeder pigs” who really seem to be eating most of the time…

The pigs are fed whey that is a by-product of cheese-making, as well as an assortment of left-overs from around the farm and store.

Across the barn yard is the large new loafing barn, which houses three groups of cows and two bulls.

These are the older heifers and some steers, who are around 1 1/2 years old. These heifers are not quite old enough to be bred. They have a section of the loafing barn where they can freely move around under the roof and even go out into a fenced-in section of the barn yard to catch some sunshine.

Another section of the loafing barn houses the older heifers (close to 2 years old and old enough to be bred), their bull, and the dry cows (which are dairy cows who are currently not being milked because they are close enough to calving that all their energy is allowed to go towards the developing calf).

During the time when the dairy herd is confined for milking or feeding, the heifers and dry cows get a chance for a stroll in the large barn yard.

But when they get hungry or cold, they’ll come back under the roof and to the nice clean hay offered in the barn.

The animal in the center (below) is Midget, the bull who fathers the heifers.

The young bull Midget comes from Oakwood Farm and is of mixed breed (mostly Red Devon and Jersey).

On the other side of the loafing barn is the section where the cows in the dairy herd do most of their eating in winter. Locking their heads in during feeding time allows each cow, independent of its status within the herd hierarchy, to have access to adequate amounts of hay.

But there is plenty of time during the winter’s days and nights, when the cows can walk around freely within and outside the barn or just rest and ruminate on a thick layer of bedding.

The animal standing on the right is the bull Easy, the current sire of the dairy herd.

Stay tuned for the next blog on “A Day in the Life of the Dairy Herd” to learn more about the rhythms and movements that rule the winter days for the dairy cows and the farmers and apprentices who take care of them.

Finally, somewhat separated from the bulk of the farm animals, are the three horses of the Visiting Students Program, which play a center piece in the farm experience of school classes spending a week at Hawthorne Valley Farm. The children get to feed, groom, and ride the horses and help with the mucking out of their little stable and corral.The Visiting Students Program also is in charge of a large flock of laying hens, which are housed separately.

This is Brownie, the oldest of the three horses, more than 30 years old and now retired from riding.

And these are Spot (on the left) who is also close to 30 years old, but still strong, and eleven-year old Mickey (on the right) who considers herself the boss of the little herd.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Agriculture


Local Literati and Landscape Change

Local Literati and Landscape Change, Part 2.

Phudd Hill from the east side on a November evening.

“This neighborhood of ours holds about a hundred and twenty-five acres… Within this area it has something of the diversity of a macrocosm. A part of our neighborhood, the greater part, is wooded hills, long-lying, gently rounded hills, the tipmost top of the highest part being a thousand feet or so above sea level. There is plenty of acreage of hemlock-dense woodedness to afford good sheltering place for white-tailed deer and good prowling place sometimes for a bobcat neighbor. Then the hills, as they slope downward, change from woodedness to sunny, open uplands and then change again to forty acres of bottom-land through which about a half-mile of brook runs crookedly. It was all a farmstead once upon a time, but not in many years…”

– Alan Devoe and Mary Berry Devoe, Our Animal Neighbors, pp. 2-3.

Shortly after John Cowper Powys (he of our 27 April 2011 blog) moved out of Phudd Bottom in 1934, Alan and Mary Devoe moved in. Later, they moved to the house on Hickory Hill Road which is now owned by the Dufaults. They lived there until Alan Devoe’s death in 1955. Although relatively little read today, Devoe’s books were an important contribution to mid-20th century American naturalist writing. His works often explicitly juxtaposed peace and death in nature with the contemporary tragedy of WWII. While some of his essays described Northeast wildlife with little reference to place, some of his books however, most notably Phudd Hill (1937; written at Phudd Bottom) and Our Animal Neighbors (1953; written at the Hickory Hill Rd house) provide specific snapshots of life on and around Phudd Hill during that era. John Cowper Powys and Arthur Davison Ficke (a local poet, see earlier blog) provided flattering fly-leaf snippets for Phudd Hill.

[Update Dec 2015: In October of 2015, former Hillsdale Town Historian Jay Rohrlich published a front-page article about Alan Devoe in the Columbia Paper; this interesting article, aside from providing excerpts of Devoe’s writing, places him in the context of preceding and contemporary nature writers.)

Alan Devoe, possibly on a bridge across the creek paralleling Hickory Hill Road.

ACT I: Maps & Figures (and a couple of photos)

(WARNING: There now follow a series of maps and tables, but there is a set of forest photos after these… please bear with me, just trying to set the stage.)

Devoe’s writings, like Powys’, give a us chance to ‘taste’ landscape change. In Devoe’s time, Phudd Hill and much of the County was reforesting after a wave of agricultural abandonment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By 1950, “improved farmland” (a census term generally connoting worked, open farmland) in Columbia County was only half of what it had been at the peak of agriculture some 70 years before. Today, we have about one third of the peak farmland. Devoe’s landscape was largely one of young forests, shrubland and old field. We can illustrate the extent of that evolution by looking more closely at landscape change on Phudd Hill.

Percent of Columbia County in “Improved” Farmland (yellow); in Forest (green line); and as Shrubland (brown line).

This map, with Hawthorne Valley Farm represented by the red circle in the middle, illustrates how forest extent has changed over time in and around Hawthorne Valley. The purplish shading indicates the approximate extent of forest in the late 1920s; it is based on the forest delimitation indicated on a topo map of Kinderhook published in 1933 (and available on-line). The green shading indicates more or less the modern extent of forest based on the most recent topo map of the region. Notice how forest has expanded out from its early 20th century cores. Click on image to enlarge it.

At the simplest level, one can perhaps say that the composition of a given forest is determined by two main factors: the physical setting (that is, soils, climate, exposure, topography) and history. Considering the limitations or opportunities provided by physical setting, one can perhaps say that Phudd Hill harbors five types of forest niches: rich bottomlands; steep, thin-soiled hillsides; level uplands on medium deep soils; dry, rocky hilltops; and moist, perched pockets. These locales grade into each other, and do share some tree species, but, at the same time, their dominant species are largely distinct. The table and mas below start to paint part (and only part) of the picture.

These are tree maps we made several years ago from the north end of Phudd Hill; this is the opposite end from the Devoe house, but the general distribution of tree types is similar. The black lines are topo lines climbing to the top of Phudd Hill which is just out of the lower righthand corner of the image. The dotted yellow line illustrates the extent of our tree surveys. The trees pictured here are primarily the trees of the moistest portions of the hill – the floodplains along the creek and the small-scale hillside valleys. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Red Oak and Sugar Maple are two of the most common trees on Phudd Hill, yet they have relatively little ecological overlap – Sugar Maple likes the richer soils (notice how its distribution somewhat follows those of the trees pictured in the previous map), while Red Oak searches out drier land. White Pine is scattered in these plots, which included no old, upland fields. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Here are the thin-soil, steep-slope specialists: Chestnut Oak and Hemlock. Chestnut Oak especially seems to be most common on the rocky hillsides, while Hemlock spreads a bit further onto flattish terrain, although it does not enter the wetter spots that Red Maple accommodates. Red Maple has one of the largest ecological ranges of any of our trees – from wet pools to dry hillsides. (Click on image to enlarge.)

These are the odds ‘n ends in some ways, but notice how even amongst these rare trees ecological partitioning is apparent. Bitternut Hickory, White Oak and Beech tend to stay on the deeper, flatter soils. Most of the other species seem to range more broadly. Black Birch’s distribution is interesting to note – I consider it a ‘middle of the road’ (or, rather, hill) tree: it tends to be found on neither the deepest, moistest soils nor the driest sections. Sorry about the White Pine repeat – it seems just as widely scattered as in the first map! (Click on image to enlarge.)

These maps illustrate how physical location can effect tree distribution. For the most part, the hillside shown above has experienced very limited clearing (albeit there is evidence of historical, perhaps woodland, grazing). However, to a large degree, the determinant of forests in our region is land use history. The age of the forest not only determines tree size, but also which tree species are present – some trees grow best in open sunlight and die out as they are shaded out by their elders; some trees grow best in shade and gradually take the place of the early colonizers. Furthermore, how a field was used and abandoned can also affect subsequent forest development. A pasture which was gradually abandoned over several years sports a different initial forest cover from a ploughed field which was abruptly abandoned. (Those of you who enjoy exploring forest history ‘on the hoof’ will like Tom Wessel’s book entitled, Forest Forensics.)

If this field were to be abandoned at this point, it seems likely that the White Pine towering in the background and beginning to sprout in the foreground would become dominant (photographed in Canaan).

This Hawthorne Valley pasture, on the other hand, is now dominated by the pokey likes of Red Cedar, Common Juniper, and Multiflora Rose. The first can develop into a low forest tree. The Rose clumps can go on to become nursery sites for other tree species which grow up within the sheltering thorns.

ACT II: Forest Photos (and a trio of maps)

On Thanksgiving Day and the following, we walked along the hill behind the former Devoe and current Dufault house. Both landscape position and landscape history influenced the forests we walked through. At the risk of scaring the reader off with more maps, I present three more – these are aerial photographs of the same patch of land: the hill behind the house. The first image provides one with an idea of the ‘lay of the land’ – one can look at this and, based on the earlier tree distribution maps, make some guesses about what trees would naturally occur where.

The last two aerials illustrate our walk. The first labelled picture is from 1952, the second from 2010. I have indicated on both maps the location of some of the photos we took during our walks. At each photograph site, I’ll try to briefly describe which trees were present and, in a crude way, make some guesses as to why those particular species were around. Interspersed with my verbal and locomotory ramblings are extracts from Devoe’s writing. Even if I’m not 100% sure of the location he was referring to, they give you another way of seeing the landscape he was living in.

This is a dense topo-line diagram of the southern end of Phudd Hill, the Devoe/Dufault house is indicated by the purple star.

Our walk overlaid on the 1952 aerial of the same portion of South Phudd. Those black dots invading the fields are predominantly White Pine.

The same area in 2010. Notice how fields that were just speckled with Pines are now Pine forests. Below, we show photos of those forests and some of the other sylvan new arrivals. The labels are in the same locations on each photo and so can serve as landmarks helping you compare the photos. You might want to open up another copy of this blog in a second tab so that, as we go through the following photos, you can quickly refer back to these maps.

“It will be best, perhaps, to explore first the hedgerows and thicketed places. These low-growing tangles are the favored sites of many birds, affording thick-foliaged shelter from sun and rain and being not readily penetrable by enemies. So set forth and investigate the old quince hedges that grow along tumble-down stone walls; look into the hawthorn bushes that dot old hillside pastures; see what the brambly patches of wild blackberry may hold. In a close-growing thicket of young maple saplings you may find, with luck, a wood thrush nest in progress…Investigate meadowsweet and smoke bushes; have a look into the tangles of wild grape.You may often find the nest of field sparrows in the meadow sweet, or in the smoke bush you may come across a vesper sparrow’s home…In the wild grape, or in a thorny jungle of blackberry, you may discover nests of catbird and brown thrasher, song sparrow and Maryland yellow throat… There is not space to mention all the nests which, by a little perseverance, you can find in the spring in bushes and low-growing thickets.Certainly you will find the cup, lined with horse-hair, which the chipping sparrow builds; you may find the stick nest of a shrike, felted over with bark strips and mosses; you will almost surely find a bluejay’s nest, built a little higher than your head and made coarsely and bulkily like a crow’s.”

– Alan Devoe, Down to Earth, pp. 122-125.

Photo Location A: This small field was apparently one of the last to return to forest, perhaps in the 1970s. This is not surprising given its proximity to house and barn. Relative to most of the other spots that we visited, the land here is flatter and the soil probably deeper. Its topography and vegetation suggested that it went from cultivated field to forest. It is now dominated by Sugar Maple saplings.

A stand of wrist-thick or smaller Sugar Maples dominates this flattish ground.

In case you’re uncertain of your winter tree identification, just look down. Sugar Maple leaves make up much of the leaf litter. Some care needs to be taken in deriving forest composition from leaf litter composition – Sugar Maple leaves, for example, decompose much quicker than oak leaves.

This is the wall that separates the B field (to the left) from the A field. Notice how the older trees along the wall tend to have the most branches on the right side of their trunk; this imbalance suggests that, when they grew up, the field to the right was still open while the field to their left was already growing up in woodland.

Photo Location B: As we walked up the ravine’s east side, we entered what used to be the west end of a larger field. In 1952, this appeared to be clean land, but by the late 1950s extensive invasion of woody plants is evident.

The same wall but now focussing on the terrain of the B field. Notice how there appears to be a ridge running parallel to the wall (most evident at the base of the large tree). This may be the remains of a plow terrace of sorts – farmers ploughed from hill top to hill bottom, folding the soil downhill as they went. When they reached the bottom, the mound beside the last furrow was left in place. Over years, it formed a ridge of sorts like what is shown here.

The trees in the B section are older and more diverse. One is still finding Sugar Maple, but there is also more White Pine, Black Birch, Ash, and, ….

especially along its margin with the ravine, Red Oak. Looks as if the Turkeys have passed this way searching for acorns.

Photo Location C: The Ravine. As far as we can tell, this ravine may never have been completely cleared. Doubtless, wood was cut from it and cattle may have strayed into it. Its Sugar Maple/Hemlock combo is interesting and may reflect a slope with patches of deeper soil and/or selective forestry that favored Sugar Maples (for their sap production).

“Behind our house an old wood road climbs the hill. It goes beside the glen or ravine I spoke about a while ago and it leads through maple woods, hemlock woods, and at last the hill’s open summit which is a birch-thicketed place where the deer are fond of bedding… We have a kind of lookout place, up where the ravine becomes very deep and great oak trees tower in a throng.”

-Alan Devoe, Our Animal Neighbors, p,34

The old woods road approaches a stand of Hemlock, the ravine is to the left; field B to the right.

The ravine or gully drops away to our left. Its steep sides are home to both Hemlock (left) and Sugar Maple (right) , together with Black Birch and Shagbark Hickory. These are large, old trees; the slope was too steep to farm, and even logging may have been tricky. The apparent whitewash on the Sugar Maple helps tell you that it is indeed a Sugar Maple – the white comes from a species of crustose lichen found mainly on this tree species.

Those are big, old Sugar Maple. Here, Otter is standing beside one that grows on the west bank of the ravine.

Photo Location D: Coming back out of the ravine we arrived to field D. the southwestern corner of this area had puzzled us in the old aerials, but apparently it is spot which, because it is the steepest part of this field, reverted to forest earlier. Even in the aerials from the 1940s, this corner is invaded by shrubs if not saplings. Its botanical trajectory is a mystery but it is now, in part, a stand of Big Tooth Aspen, an aspen species that tends to favor somewhat drier soils than Trembling (aka Quaking) Aspen.

Admittedly, the Big Tooth Aspen trunks do not stand out in this photograph. The bark of older trees tends to get dark and furrowed, losing the lighter, dusted green that characterizes the bark of many aspen. White Birch is however evident as are the White Pine. All are “early successional trees” and mark this forest as one that came in after the land was opened.

Their bark may not stand out in my photos, but there is no mistaking Big Tooth Aspen’s oval, coarsely toothed leaves, scattered on the ground amongst the Red Oak leaves.

Venturing farther into D, the White Pine are evidently older. The field may have not reverted to forest in abrupt entirety, and these trees may have been the earlier invaders. Note how many of these are multi-trunked. While such trunks would suggest logging in some, stump-sprouting species, these are actually low splits in the trunk rather than multiple stems. Apparently, this might be the damage of White Pine Weevil – a native insects that kills the leaders of open-growing White Pines. When the leader dies, side branches take over the upward growth and, when more than one side branch heads skyward, multiple trunks can result. The abundance of multiple trunked White Pine here suggests that these trees grew up in an open field.

Some parts of the forests of D section, and the adjacent parcels to the north, showed evidence of a reversion to forest from grazing: this is barberry and this ….

is a Multiflora Rose tangle. The presence of such thorny shrubs together with Red Cedar (not shown here) suggest that woody plants initially were entering a field with active grazers. Grazers tend to avoid such spiney fare and so give such plants footholds in the early forest.

This ground shot hints at another fact about this part of the forest: it had wet spots and even patches of standing water. Red Maple leaves are common in this image and, while this species occupies a broad ecological range, it is often found in wooded wetlands.

Photo Location E: What these woods used to look like – open field. These may have been the better soiled or logistically more favorable fields, and so were kept open. In part however their continued openness also reflects ownership patterns – these fields were part of Nat Snare’s Kamefield Farm, an active farm in Devoe’s time. During the rest of our jaunt, we had stayed in the well-storied, little-worked Devoe property.

This field has probably been through cultivation, pasturing and, now at least, haying. We are looking west.

“As I sit facing the open side to the east, I can see a dozen farms and far away to a low lying ridge of wooded hills. It is a panorama of rolling pasture land, dotted with darker green patches that are orchards and checkered by the boundary lines of ancient stone walls. The sunlight lies upon it all, burnishing the shocks of new-cut rye, sweetening the heavy-hanging apples on a thousand trees, distilling the smell of dew-wet meadows.”

-Alan Devoe, Phudd Hill, pp. 75-76.

Walking back west from the field, a look down suggests a new character has entered our play – those deeply incised oak leaves look a lot like the leaves of Scarlet Oak.

We now cross to the west side of the ravine. At this point, the ravine’s creek is a gentle meander out of a small wetland.

Photo Location G: The Phudd Hill erratic (star of a previous blog). Devoe knew of this rock, and, apparently, in his day it was still in an old pasture opening.

“On the summit of a mountain [Phudd], in an open clearing which was once pasture land for sheep, there is a great rock…Generations of farmers have made efforts to blast the rock, but have succeeded only hollowing holes and cavities in it. It is these recesses, some of them more than a yard deep, where the drill went in to make a dynamiting place, which are the homesites of the [Screech] owls. In late April and early May they make their nests, lining the rock cavities with dried grass and soft feathers and bits of straw.”

– Alan Devoe, Down to Earth, pp. 120-121.

Otter looks down from the top of this 15′ high boulder. In the cleft at the picture center is a cavity that may have once held an owl nest.

The forest around the erratic is a thicket of White Pine and, suggestive of past grazing, Red Cedar (the first trunk in from the right-hand margin)

Another hint of a pastured past is this spreading tree along the fence row – it clearly was allowed to grow up in a wide-open situation. One reason farmers allowed such trees to persist was because they provided shade and shelter to the livestock. As pointed out in that earlier blog, this tree might have a lightening scar… one hopes nothing was sheltered below it at the time.

Photo Location H: If you look at the aerial images that lead off this section, the presence of White Pine at point H should come as no surprise. This field did not come back to a uniform stand, rather it is a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees. Perhaps a particular “mother” pine was scattering its seeds over a limited shadow, and other species sent in their colonizers as well. This field was beginning to shrink by 1960, and the White Pines here may date from that period.

This wall may have delimited a pasture, especially if it were topped by wooden rails. Wire fencing is scattered in this forest as well.

The dry soil on this hillside invited in a new forest tree for our walk – those elongate leaves with the rounded teeth are Chestnut Oak. As the scarcity of their leaves suggests, they weren’t the dominant tree of the unpined sections of field H; Red Oak was much more common.

Time waits for no wall or tree. This wall is slowly shrugging to the ground, but it’s also worth noting the evidence of biological decay – the fallen limbs and standing dead saplings. The forest as a whole is not necessarily ailing but one generation – that of the early successional trees which first colonized the open land – is giving way to another kind of forest. That transition involves the death and gradual replacement of the original first comers. If most of these trees germinated at around the same time (likely if the field were suddenly abandoned), then most are now of the same age and will tend to begin senescing somewhat simultaneously.

Photo Location I: The very south end of Phudd Hill – a dry, rocky plateau laced with determined stonewalls. This appears to be the oldest ‘new’ forest of our circuit. It already seems to be at least shrubbed over in our earliest (1948) aerial photograph, although the 1933 map suggests it was more field than forest at that time. This is dry, thin soil with abundant rock outcrops. Despite its relatively long history of reforestation, it was however probably notably more open in Devoe’s time.

Moss, grass and few trees suggest bedrock near the surface. Perhaps the millenia after glaciation built enough soil to allow for eventual forestation of this spot. However, the subsequent clearing and pasturing (accompanied by erosion, soil compaction and nutrient removal) may have stymied that progress.

“Cottontails make their nests in all sorts of places. Most often, we have found them in our open fields or meadows, frequently in the thin-soiled rocky fields on the slope of the hill…the one that we were able to watch most closely…was on the abrupt slope, overgrown with maple saplings and briers, that rises back of our old house beyond the edge of the garden…I climb this back-of-the-garden hill a good deal just to sit in the hot sun and smell the sun-baked leaves and earth and stare out over the Catskills… Our valley lies winding away below me – old farmhouses and red barns, checkered hayfields and cornlots and rolling pasture, the shining line of the brook as it twists its down the valley with willows along its borders.”

– Alan Devoe and Mary Berry Devoe, Our Animal Neighbors. pp181-182.

The silver snake of creek winding through the distance is still visible from the hilltop, even if the forest is now thicker.

On our way back to the house a few steps takes one across boundaries that mark not only new soils but new histories. We are now looking back at our starting point, the young and Sugar Maplely A field.

And finally, midst the large trees that mark the edge of the steeper ravine, the rising wood smoke of the Devoe/Dufault home.

“I am not a person who likes large views; my preference is for little ones. I am never so much awed by tremendous panoramas of earth and water and sky as I am, for instance, by a luna moth cocoon, jigging and rattling on its walnut twig in the bitter January wind, or by a solitary red-tailed hawk, sailing on rigid wings over the hemlocks behind my house, or by the slow and sinuous progress of a garter snake along the sun-warmed rocks of our old stone wall. That is the kind of view that I like. That is the kind of view I can look at by the hour, and never be tired of. And that, I suppose, is why I live at the bottom of a hill instead of on top of it….”

– Alan Devoe, Down to Earth, p. 139.


Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature


Sowing the Future and Fall Colors!

The third annual Sowing the Future event took place Saturday, October 1st at Hawthorne Valley Farm.  This year, a Leaf close-upgroup of volunteers hand-sowed Young’s Field (off of Harlemville Road) with rye.  Meanwhile, as if overnight, the fall colors emerged brilliantly over the Columbus Day weekend at Hawthorne Valley.  Below you’ll find scenes from Sowing the Future, as well as some glimpses of fall colors on the  farm.

What’s it all about?  Sowing the Future…

Steffen welcoming people to Sowing the Future

Steffen, the Farm Manager at Hawthorne Valley, leads the way carrying buckets of grain to Young's Field (right) and welcomes sowers to the field as he shows them how to cast the grain (above).

By hand-sowing a field of grain each fall at the farm we are participating in a larger Sowing the Future movement that started in Switzerland in 2006 as a way to raise awareness about the issue of genetically modified crops while inviting people to reconnect with farms and community through the act of sowing seeds together.  In the last five years, Sowing the Future has spread well beyond that first farm in Switzerland, and is now taking place in more than 10 countries and involving thousands of people at around 100 different sowing events.  To learn more about this movement, you can check out the official Sowing the Future website, and look at other sowing events around the world:

After gathering to talk about the purpose and context of Sowing the Future, sowers head to the field (above). Below, the sowers fill their hats with grain. As one sower commented, how often, in this mechanized age, does one get to hold handfuls of grain?

Below are some pictures from this year’s Sowing the Future event at Hawthorne Valley Farm:

The red Sowing the Future hats and t-shirts you see in these pictures were provided by the Sowing the Future organization in Switzerland.


This year Hawthorne Valley planted 2 acres of rye and 4 acres of wheat – all designated for human consumption through the Hawthorne Valley bakery and store.  This represents a large expansion over last year’s acre or so of wheat!  Due to the wet conditions, the sowers only seeded rye, while the wheat and remaining rye was seeded by a drill a week or so later when better conditions prevailed.

Starting to sow the fieldSowing the field

Sowing the field

2011 Sowing the Future Group

2011 Sowing the Future Group at Hawthorne Valley


One of the aspects of grain that makes it so useful for food production, is that a single grain when sown can multiply many times over.  This year at Hawthorne Valley a total of 950 pounds of wheat and rye were sown, and we can hope for a harvest of as much as 26,000 pounds (or close to 2 tons/acre) next July, though anything over 1 ton/acre would be very acceptable.  So what does that mean in terms of the goal of supplying Hawthorne Valley flour to the Hawthorne Valley Bakery?  The bakery currently buys in around 60 tons of grain a year, which means that under the best of conditions (with yields of 2 tons/acre), Hawthorne Valley would need to have around 30 acres of grain land to meet that need.  Hawthorne Valley is hoping to continue to expand grain production in the coming years to around 10-15 acres, with hopes of ultimately growing 30-40 acres of grain to supply the grain needs of the bakery.  For more on growing grain at Hawthorne Valley, visit the Hawthorne Valley Farm website:

Rye shoots


The rye and wheat seeds that were sown are germinating right now.  As you can see above, little green shoots are starting to emerge, and within two weeks Young’s Field should be covered in green.  Feel free to visit Young’s Field (down County Route 21C off of Harlemville Road) to check it out.  Meanwhile the wheat that was sown last fall was harvested this past July (see below) and is now available in the bulk bin at the store.  It will also soon by featured in whole wheat muffins made by the bakery.

Harvesting Wheat

Harvesting wheat at Hawthorne Valley Farm, July, 2011


The fall colors came swiftly this past week, so Claudia and I set out to capture a few of the colors around the farm before they were gone.

Hawthorne Valley

The view from Indian Lookout on Phudd Hill

Virginia Creeper on a pasture fence post

Cow path

A colorful fringe to the cow path

West Hill

A rim of colors on West Hill. Note the prominent "browse line" where the trees meet the pasture.

1 Comment

Posted by on October 17, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature


Farm Creek Corridor

This posting was prepared before “Irene” came through and I am sending it off from our vacation spot in Canada. Anna, who is holding the FEP fort in Harlemville, assured us that, although there was flooding at Hawthorne Valley, it was not as extensive as two years ago and has all receded by now. Sorry, no pictures from the flood, because we were not there to witness it. However, this blog is about the corridor along the farm creek: For at least six years now, the corridor along the farm creek from the pump house to the cattle crossing has not been grazed. The cows were fenced out and the vegetation was left to develop for a while, to see what would come up. The invasive multiflora rose got a bit more common than desired and removal of this aggressive species in the creek corridor has begun last year. A few other invasive species are present in smaller amounts and might need to get discouraged in the future. Other than that, we are pleased to see many native shrubs and wildflower species thriving along the creek, creating a structurally and botanically diverse habitat that attracts a lot of insects and birds, protects the creek from surface runoff, and begins to shade sections of the creek. Here is a mid-summer inventory (pictures mostly by Lauren McDonald) of the  colorful and vibrant habitat that we now find along the creek.

A view from the edge of the water with the native Agrimony, Goldenrod and Boneset flowering on the shore in the bottom left corner, the native Tussock Sedge growing along both shores, the invasive Purple Loosestrife flowering in the center, surrounded by the native Joe-Pye-Weed, Coneflower and more Boneset.

A view from the “outside” of the corridor. Amongst the woody plants in the background (near the stream) are native Willows and Sumach, and the invasive Multiflora Rose which is overgrown by the white-flowering native Virgin’s Bower.

Virgin’s Bower also takes advantage of the deer fence surrounding the vegetables in the “main field” just west of the creek.

Some sections are overgrown by this orange, spaghetti-like plant called Dodder. Dodder is a native, parasitic plant that does not bother to grow leaves or any other green tissue and can not photosynthesize. It steals nutrients from other plants by tapping into their roots. It thrives in many wetlands throughout Columbia County.

Another type of climbing plants (though not parasites) in the farm creek corridor are the two species of Tear-thumb. You’ll know them when you touch them, as the recurved hooks along their stalks (which come in handy when they try to get a grip on other plants) do just what their name suggests: tear thumbs… The picture above shows the more common Arrow-leaved Tear-thumb, and the picture below the rarer Halbert-leaved Tear-thumb.

Both Tear-thumbs are members of the buckwheat family (which also includes knotweeds and smartweeds) and are characterized by clusters of tiny, orchid-like flowers in shades of white to pink.

Bittersweet Nightshade is a non-native climber related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. It thrives in many of our wetlands and also can become a weed in vegetable gardens.

One of the most conspicuous insects along the farm creek is the Ebony Jewelwing, a damselfly. Its larvae are aquatic, like those of many other insects, and the adults are often seen hunting for flying insects along creeks.

Spiders also know where there is an abundance of insects. Did this spider build its web in a thorny Multiflora Rose on purpose? Many birds like to nest within the protective thorns of the rose…

We don’t know if this little sparrow actually had a nest in the farm creek corridor or was just visiting to check out the food situation.

Swamp Milkweed (big pink flower clusters) is an important nectar plant and also host to the caterpillars of monarch butterflies. Here it grows intermingled with Spotted Jewelweed (orange flowers) and Dock-leaved Smartweed (white flower clusters). All three of these wildflowers are native to Columbia County.

We did not spot any Monarch caterpillars along the farm creek. They are generally not very common this year. But we do have this one munching on one of our Swamp Milkweeds in the roadside garden in front of the Creekhouse.

Less conspicuous, but pretty ubiquitous, is this Willow-herb. Its tiny pinkish-white flowers develop into plenty of feathery seeds which will fly off in great numbers in the fall.

Another rather inconspicuous plant along the creek is Wild Mint, which we often first notice by the delicious smell it exudes when stepped upon.

Monkeyflower, a native relative of the Snapdragons of our gardens, adds some blue to the flower landscape and likes to grow right next to the water.

Blue Vervain is another native wetland plant that thrives in the farm creek corridor. It is related to Lemon Verbena, and I often get asked if it is also a medicinal plant. According to Peterson’s Medicinal Plant Field Guide, native Americans have used the leaf tea as a “female tonic”. It was also used for colds, coughs, fevers, bowel complaints, dysentery, and stomach cramps. It large doses it is reported to be an emetic (induces vomiting). Modern herbal uses include headache and rheumatism relief and tranquilizer. The Peterson Edible Wild Plants guide reports that its tiny seeds can be made into a somewhat bitter flour.

Blue Vervain has a cousin, the White Vervain, which tends to be more of an upland species, but is common along the higher shore of the farm creek. It’s tiny white flowers (which individually look basically the same as those of the Blue Vervain, just paler) are arranged much more loosely along the spreading inflorescence spikes.

The picture above shows the sprawling White Vervain.

An exciting find along the farm creek this year was the frequent occurrence of an otherwise rare hybrid Vervain (Verbena x engelmannii), which is intermediate between Blue and White Vervain with its lavender-colored flowers that are not as tightly packed along the inflorescence spikes as in Blue Vervain, but also not as loosely arranged as in White Vervain…

In the foreground, an example of a Hybrid Vervain (tiny, lavender-colored flowers on long spikes), surrounded by Green-headed Coneflower (yellow flowers) and Joe-Pye-Weed (whitish to pink).

1 Comment

Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature


[This week’s blog is written by our departing interns Lauren McDonald and Emily Reiss; not only have they been helping us here at the Farmscape Ecology Program, but they have also been spending long hours helping out on the Farm itself. This blog describes a bit about what they have seen on the Farm of late.]

Just as in the natural areas we explore in Columbia County, the farm itself constantly changes with new and exciting happenings every week as different crops are planted, harvested, and turned under; the insects pollinating them arrive, mate and lay eggs; and new weeds sprout, flower and go to seed. When living and working on the farm, these natural cycles and the changing of seasons become integrated into the forefront of our consciousness and planning, not just the backdrop to a daily routine.

Right now we’re in full-on summer mode with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, green beans, cucumbers, and zucchini all coming in along with lettuce, chard, beets, carrots, kale, fennel, cauliflower, and more. Between the cultivated and non-cultivated plants, insects, birds and other animals on the farm, the fields are diverse, dynamic places to explore. Here are some pictures of what’s growing on the farm (both what was planted and not) and some of the animals who have made their homes in the vegetable gardens.

It’s especially interesting to compare some of the cultivated varieties to their related, non-domesticated weedy competitors.

For example, horse nettle (Solanum carolinense var. carolinense), a member of the nightshade family of plants, is quite prolific in parts of the Corner Garden. However it does seem to be popular with both bees (can you see the bumblebee in the picture?) and flea beetles, so it is useful to have around for attracting pollinators and keeping flea beetles from eating holes in the eggplant and brassica leaves. Thank goodness none of the delicious cultivated nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant have the vicious spines of horse nettle!

Here is the horse nettle flower,

and a tomato flower (& 'fruit')….

an eggplant flower (& 'fruit')…

…and a pepper flower (& 'fruit').

Similarly, bittersweet or climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara var. dulcamara) grows along the farm creek, and you can see from the poisonous fruits why Europeans were originally wary of tomatoes and other nightshades brought over from the New World.

They say that carrots love tomatoes, so the Corner Garden is experimenting with companion planting of the two.

This red/purple amaranth is a weed in the Corner Garden, but ...

its relative in the Amaranthaceae family, Swiss chard, is one of the most popular greens on the farm.

Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), Fennel, and Carrots of the Apiaceae family all grow in the gardens as well.

This is the Corner Garden fennel.

You can see the similar umbellate inflorescence of these wild carrots on the edge of the field.

And this is an impressive head of green oakleaf lettuce that bolted, or started to prepare to flower and go to seed.

The plywood greenhouse with the next successions of basil, lettuce, kale, and more.

Here are the beds of Siberian Kale in the Main Field.

Then zooming in, here are the eggs of a cabbage butterfly on the underside of a kale leaf.

In this winter squash flower you can see a striped cucumber beetle, a spotted cucumber beetle, and likely a Peponapis bee. The bees in the Peponapis genus are North American natives that specialize on the Cucurbitaceae family (squash, melons, gourds etc.). They originated near Mexico with their squash hosts, and have followed the movement of squash plants north with indigenous and later European cultivation. They are by far the most important pollinator for squash plants, but you’ll also find other bees and pollinators getting in on the action too. Unlike the honey bee and other social bees, Peponapis are solitary bees and dig holes (easily a foot deep) in the ground to lay eggs and raise young.

Thanks to the efforts of this Honey Bee and others, we’re starting to see...

small watermelons in the Corner Garden.

Bumble Bees are not as discriminating as Peponapis in their floral selection. They are well known for their tomato and other nightshade pollinating (remember the bumble bee on the horse nettle earlier), but can also be found enjoying red clovers, ...

and helping out the Peponapis (though they probably don’t need it) on Cucurbitaceae (melons, squashes, cucumbers and the like).

Joe Pye Weed planted in the Corner Garden. It grows along streambeds and in wet areas throughout Columbia County and is also quite popular with the bees.

Both native and non-native ladybugs are quite common in the gardens, and are incredibly valuable in eating aphids off the plants. This one is native,

but this one, which you might be more used to seeing, originally came from Asia.

Both can feast on these aphids though, shown on a chard leaf.

The Japanese beetles have done a bit of damage to basil, but thankfully not too much else. They can devour entire leaves except the veins and completely destroy plants.

Here is a head of red cabbage that can be harvested soon.

The Meadow Fritillary is a native butterfly that not surprisingly prefers meadows and other open areas for the abundance of their host plants, violets. The initial colonial clearing of land was a boon to the Meadow Fritillary, but once tilling and crop cultivation became more common, the important violets were not as available. The Meadow Fritillary is now gone from eastern Massachusetts, though it remains in the western part of the state. Although this butterfly was found in the vegetable gardens, most of the open land surrounding the vegetable fields is either cut for hay, or used for cow pasture, practices which might maintain the low-growing violet population for the Meadow Fritillary.

Birds on the farm are a great assets especially when they eat pests. When they (mostly crows) start going for the tomatoes though, it’s less ideal. These pie tins on the stakes in Main Field reflect light and make noise in the wind to scare the birds away.

These two killdeer are probably protecting one of their small, unassuming nests laid on open ground, often right in the fields. If you get too close, the male will shriek and the female will pretend to have a broken wing to sacrifice herself for their young. These are some of the grassland breeding birds that can use farm fields as analogies to their original coastal, wet meadow or prairie-like habitats.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature