Candidates for Baltimore County Council Answer Questions about the Environment

We hope everyone will vote in the Primary Election on July 19.

Last month, GTA emailed all of the candidates for County Council for the Councilmanic Districts around Towson- Districts 2, 3, 5, and 6, inviting them to reply to five questions on environmental issues we consider to be high priority for Baltimore County. We received replies from 5 candidates: Izzy Patoka (D) and Tony Fugett (D) (Dist. 2), and Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D) , Mike Ertel (D), and Tony Campbell (R) (Dist. 6).

The questions are listed below in bold, with the responses we received following the questions.

We encourage members of Green Towson Alliance to consider the candidates’ responses, below, when voting, and to hold the responding candidates who are elected to account.

You may also wish to email candidates who did not reply with questions about their environmental platforms. The email addresses of all the candidates we contacted are listed at the bottom of this document. We have also included a link to a list of questions for the candidates for the 6th Council District that was prepared and published online by the Towson Communities Alliance.

Thank you, as always, for all you do for our natural world.
Green Towson Alliance Executive Committee

Question 1: Several Maryland counties have strengthened their laws regulating how the Maryland Forest Conservation Act of 1991 (FCA) is implemented. Provisions in the FCA were intended as a minimum, with each county responsible for developing implementation laws in their own county. In 2022, the Baltimore County Commission on Environmental Quality (CEQ), at the request of the County Council, created a report including recommendations on strengthening forest conservation in our county, but thus far no changes have been made. The 3-part CEQ report is attached below for your information. Do you favor legislating improvements to implementation the Forest Conservation Act in Baltimore County, and if so, what changes do you support?

Response from Izzy Patoka (D) District 2:

I sponsored Resolution 135-21 that requested that the Baltimore County Advisory Commission on Environmental Quality (the “CEQ”) provide findings and guidance regarding the adequacy of maintenance periods for afforestation and reforestation projects. Currently, the County Code requires maintenance of afforestation and reforestation projects for a period of three years, with the intent of the law being that trees shall be established such that they survive for a longer period so that they replace forests lost to development. So the answer is Yes! At this point I support firm commitments from developers with longer maintenance periods an appropriate
species type planting.

Response from Tony Fugett (D), District 2:

To support resident’s quality of life, the environment must not only be considered, but protected. Therefore, I favor legislation improvements to implementing the Forest Conservation Act in Baltimore County. In addition to the recommended changes by the Baltimore County Commission on Environmental Quality (CEQ) I believe we should also:
● Analyze our existing trees within County easements to determine if they
are failing and need to be replaced.
● Increase replanting efforts of native plant species near riparian buffers and
● Support our natural resources management staff through funding that will
allow the County to extend its maintenance management plans and hold
developers accountable for their disruption of natural resources.
● Require developers to comprehensively analyze development impacts on
natural resources, hydrology, geology, and soils and place a 2:1
requirement on tree placement. So for every tree removed due to
development, the project must replant and maintain two trees.
● Increasing funding to purchase and conserve lands for the enjoyment and
prosperity of the natural environment and our residents.

Response from Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D), District 6:

I do support legislating improvements to implementation of the Forest Conservation Act. I would follow the Commission on Environmental Quality’s recommendations. I would also strengthen the requirements for maintenance. For example, developers should be required to do inspections once a quarter instead of twice a year. I would also add that if any tree dies in that time period of developer responsibility, they must replace the tree. Baltimore County must also increase inspections to match the quarterly rate I suggested.

Response from Mike Ertel (D), District 6:

Yes, I favor legislating improvements to the Forest Conservation Act. I’d like to see the elimination of waivers.

Response from Tony Campbell (R), District 6:

      I agree with the four recommendations offered by the Baltimore Commission on Environmental Quality. Specifically making three changes to current county law:

·         Lowering the Forest Conservation Law from 40,000 to 20,000 SF

·         Revise fee-in-lieu charges as recommended

·         Increasing the maintenance period for developers to 10 years.

Question 2. Implementation of the state’s Roadside Tree Law (COMAR Title 5-401) in Baltimore County has been delegated to the Department of Public Works and Transportation. Currently, roadside trees are removed upon request from property owners for a small fee, and replacement trees are not required to be planted. Do you support reforms to strengthen the way Baltimore County implements the Maryland Roadside Tree Law to protect healthy trees and replace in the same geographic area those trees that must be removed?

Response from Izzy Patoka (D) District 2:

Yes. Tree removal initiatives must be done in a parallel effort with tree planting efforts. There are many organizations to partner with such as Blue Water Baltimore.

Response from Tony Fugett (D), District 2:

Trees contribute in several ways to our environment, from providing oxygen and improving air quality to climate amelioration, conserving water, cooling streets, and conserving energy. I support reforms that strengthen how Baltimore County implements the Maryland Roadside Tree Law to protect healthy trees and replace those that must be removed in the same area. I believe that roadside trees should only be removed is they cause harm or danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicular drivers.

Response from Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D), District 6:

I do support reforms to strengthen Baltimore County implementation of the Maryland Roadside Tree Law. Unless the tree is going to cause bodily harm, extreme building damage, cause major roadside visibility obstruction, the trees should stay on the property. If a property owner wants the tree removed, the fee should be increased and there should be a requirement that they must plant additional trees either on the property or within a county recommended area.

Response from Mike Ertel (D), District 6:

Yes, I’d also like to move not to have the county pay for any healthy trees being cut down that have buckled sidewalks. We need to add more arborists to the county DPW / DEPS staff.

Response from Tony Campbell (R), District 6:

Yes, I support reforms to strengthen Baltimore County DPW’s implementation of the Maryland Roadside Tree Law.  Replacement trees should be planted, and perhaps some tax reduction incentive to homeowners to provide maintenance of the new trees.

Question 3: Currently Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability relies primarily on traditional stormwater management strategies such as large regional ponds and stream restoration projects, both of which cause environmental damage. Industry best practices recommend addressing stormwater runoff close to where the rain falls through bioretention facilities, raingardens, green roofs, bio-swales and other environmental site design techniques, which are less damaging. Do you support a legislative effort to ensure that DEPS follows best practices to address stormwater runoff in the county?

Response from Izzy Patoka (D) District 2:

Yes . We should not settle for anything less than best practices in the industry.

Response from Tony Fugett (D), District 2:

Although buildings have gotten higher, and our cities have gotten smarter, our water infrastructure systems have not changed over hundreds of years, resulting in line failure, water contamination, and adverse environmental impacts. Access to clean water and the ability to treat wastewater are growing concerns, along with managing waste, water loss, flooding, and the impact of climate change and rapid urbanization. I support legislative efforts to ensure that DEPS follows best practices to address stormwater runoff in the County. I would hope to see the following improvements that have been implemented in counties and cities across the nation, such as:
● Improved packaging in grocery and retail markets
● Bag collection fee to promote the use of reusable bags
● Installing smart water and waste management technologies that detect
leakage, provide predictive maintenance, and support just-in-time waste
● Assisting businesses to switch to gray water infrastructure for landscape
● For development, reducing the extent of clearing, grubbing, and paving
● Eliminating the need for stormwater management ponds for development
(i.e. Pembroke Woods LID Subdivision in Frederick County, MD)
● Working with the Planning Department to create realistic parking
allowances for development.

Response from Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D), District 6:

Yes I do support legislative efforts to ensure that DEPS follows the best practices in regards to stormwater runoff. As county residents, we do not hear enough about the best practice recommendations and I believe we need to legislate these efforts to ensure the best environmental practices.

Response from Mike Ertel (D), District 6:

Yes, I’d like DEPS to require stormwater runoff  through bioretention facilities, raingardens, green roofs, bio-swales and other environmental site design techniques.

Response from Tony Campbell (R), District 6:

Yes, I would support a legislative effort to better manage stormwater runoff.

Question 4: Baltimore County’s land development process has long favored the interests of the development community at a significant cost to the environment. The Green Towson Alliance promotes the following changes to the development process:
Strengthen the County’s Adequate Public Facilities Legislation to require fees from developers to fund water and sewer systems, public roads, schools, open space/parks, and other utilities.
Reform the environmental variance process to include a public comment period and tightening of criteria for granting variances.
Limited Exemption & Special Exception reforms, including notification of affected communities, guidance to communities in interpreting plan refinements, and an appeals process for administrative decisions.
Do you support these changes to the county’s land development process?

Response from Izzy Patoka (D) District 2:

Yes. In my first year of Office I supported legislation to create impact fees to offset the negative effects of development. I also support the implementation of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Task Force recommendations.

Response from Tony Fugett (D), District 2:

It is time for Baltimore County to favor its residents and the environment. I support changes to the land development process. I believe in civic engagement and transparency. Residents should know when development is proposed within 600 feet of their residence, so communities can come together to make a collective statement on its impacts.

Response from Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D), District 6:

Yes, I support changes to the county’s land development process. Baltimore County is behind on developer fees so strengthening the County’s Adequate Public Facilities Legislation would help get the county to match other areas. I also believe that the residents should have a say in every decision and support the public comment period for environmental variances. I do need some additional research and conversation (regarding) Limited Exemption & Special Exception reforms. The way it reads to me is that we would be limiting notification of affected communities; and I believe communities should have as much notification and details as possible.

Response from Mike Ertel (D), District 6:

Yes, I support these changes to the county’s land development process.

Response from Tony Campbell (R), District 6:

For too long, developers have had their way in Baltimore County.  The “Pay for Play” system has benefited politicians and developers alike, and the environment and local communities such as Historic East Towson have suffered because of these backroom deals. 

Question 5: As Towson’s central business district is more densely developed, Green Towson Alliance supports the adoption of the urban design standards that were developed in the Walkable Towson Plan in 2010 so that the downtown is safer, more walkable, and more economically vibrant. Do you support the adoption by the County Council of better urban design standards for downtown Towson?

Response from Izzy Patoka (D) District 2:

Yes. Urban design stands are not static. They change with time. We may need to revisit all aspects of design in a post pandemic economy.

Response from Tony Fugett (D), District 2:

I support the adoption by the County Council of better urban design standards for downtown Towson, specifically traffic calming techniques and increasing opportunities and access to non-motorized transportation.

Response from Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D), District 6:

I am a supporter of community plans therefore I support the Walkable Towson Plan from 2010. As stated on the Green Towson Alliance website: “this guidance and these regulations should not be compromised to further developers’ or governmental interests.” I fully support that statement and would like to partner with the Green Towson Alliance to ensure that those goals in the Walkable Towson Plan are being met.

Response from Mike Ertel (D), District 6:

Yes, we need Urban Design Standards for Downtown Towson.

Response from Tony Campbell (R), District 6:

As the former Bike and Pedestrian Program Manager for MDOT-SHA, I was involved with dozens of projects which helped to make communities across the state more walkable, more bicycle friendly, and healthier. Green and Open Space is at a minimum in the greater Towson area.  Trails should be developed between TU and downtown Towson, as well as the “Freedom Trail” linking Historic East Towson to the Hampton Historic Site.   Yes, I support the adoption of better urban design standards for downtown Towson.

Here is a list of the 15 County Council candidates Green Towson Alliance contacted:
District 2: James Amos (R )
Tony Fugett (D)
Izzy Patoka (D)

District 3: Wade Kach (R )
Roberto Zanotta (R )
Paul Henderson (D)

District 5: Philip DePaulo (R )
David Marks (R )
Crystal Francis (D)
Nick Johnson (D)

District 6: Tony Campbell (R )
Mike Ertel (D)
Shafiyq Hinton (D)
Caitlin Klimm-Kellner (D)
Preston Snedegar (D)

You can read the survey of District 6 candidates compiled by the Towson Communities Alliance here.

Lawn to Meadow Season Three

By Leslie Duthie

On Earth Day, I was scrolling through my email and came across a Washington Post article on 10 Ways We Can Reduce Our Carbon Footprint. Some of the things listed in the article I already do (#1 Create Less Food Waste, #5 Protect Our Forests), and some are good suggestions (#4 Shop Less, #6 Trade-In For An All-Electric Car). But right there at #2 is something I have recently been advocating for: Ditch the Lawn.

Ok, I haven’t completely ditched the lawn, but we are mowing less, and I am encouraging the spread of everything from violets to goldenrod into our green space that we call “lawn.”

Americans Love Their Lawn

The Washington Post article reminded me that Americans have a love affair with lawns. They are pristine, weed-free, large expanses of perfect green. And yet, they are essentially biological deserts – partly because of what we do to them and partly because they are a giant monoculture. Here are some of the appalling facts related in the article:

  • Lawn covers 40-50 million acres in the continental United States, almost as much land as in our national parks.
  • Lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water per year
  • 50 million pounds of pesticides per year are applied to lawns which can seep into waterways.
  • Gas-powered lawn and garden equipment used roughly 3 billion gallons of gas last year – equivalent to nearly 6 million passenger cars running for a year. This astronomic number is partly a result of poor efficiency.
  • Lawn care equipment (mowers, blowers) are responsible for 5% of the air pollution in the United States because lawn equipment motors are not regulated by EPA.

Two years ago, when we were encouraged to stay home due to the pandemic, I decided to kill part of my lawn. I wrote the article Lawn Murder describing the process of using cardboard, wood chips and a mix of purchased loam and compost to smother my lawn. It was the easiest garden I have ever started.

I sowed a bunch of seeds but primarily focused on sowing a native annual called partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). I threw out some other seeds I had on hand and planted some small plugs of various meadow plants right through the cardboard.

Once the plants began to grow and the partridge pea began to flower, I did almost no weeding! I removed weeds like pigweed and burdock, but I tried to leave the garden to grow on its own. I did pull some of the partridge peas to give the plugs more light. I was amazed at what I had in mid-summer as the partridge pea – my annual cover crop – matured. The whole patch buzzed with the sounds of all kinds of bees! Some (Agastache, Monarda citriodora) seeds grew and bloomed in summer. Some transplants (Echinacea purpurea) also bloomed, but for year one, the partridge pea was the star of the garden. 

I was so happy with the garden that in the fall, I expanded it towards the back of the property – around the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) connecting to the shade garden along the property line. In the shaded area, I used primarily golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum), ginger (Asarum canadense), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), and a few black cohoshes (Actaea racemosa) that I transplanted from another garden. As the growing season ended, I didn’t cut anything back. I let the partridge pea drop its seed back into the bed and go to sleep.

Year #2 Surprises

Last spring (2021), I removed the old stalks of the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata) as they were pretty tough. Some partridge pea grew from seeds and were scattered through the garden, but it was primarily concentrated in the front edge of the garden where I had planted strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) in mid-summer. The plugs and transplants I put in the first year began to thrive – they had developed good roots, and the tops were ready to grow, ready to out-compete the annual and show their true colors.

First-year a garden of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata).

Surprises? You bet! All of my perennials grew and overtook most of the partridge pea, creating a beautiful meadow of a variety of flowers. The Beebalm (Monarda didyma) bloomed in mid-summer. Despite planting what I thought was the red bee balm, they turned out to be hybrids of M. didyma and M. fistulosa because I had grown them from seed collected in a mixed field. The flowers bloomed lavender, pinkish, and a rosy purple instead of the red I hoped for. The purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia) was abundant as I had both seeded it and planted plugs. I harvested quite a bit for tea and the plants still grew and flowered in late August. I planted a few plants of yellow giant hyssop (Agastache nepetoides), which were 10’ tall! But like the beebalm, several turned out to be hybrids between A. nepetoides and A. foeniculum and had a weird purply-yellow colored flower. This was not what I wanted or expected, so in this case, I pulled the hybrids out and left the three pure yellow-flowered plants. Still, the garden was amazing!

The broad leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) was huge and loaded with flowers attracting many bees and pollinating wasps!  It began encroaching on other plants as it spread quickly from 1” plugs to large 12” clumps! I had flowers on my swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and the self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) was forming a mat at the edge. Goldenrod came up and bloomed this second summer and added yellow to my mix of purples and white. The strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) were struggling under the tall partridge pea, so in late summer, I pulled the partridge pea from the garden so it would not go to seed, allowing the strawberries to spread and cover the soil.

The grasses have been slow. I knew this when I planted them. The little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) was too short and not all visible. In fall, I could see they had grown and formed clumps in various places. The Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) was small and did not thrive; I am not sure it is still there. I added some new plants such as skullcap (Scutellaria incana), sedge (Carex sp.), and catnip (Nepeta cataria). The newer back section of the bed is loaded with violets. They make a nice ground cover, and I added more black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) for some height above the violets. 

Stunning purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), Monarda – it’s actually a hybrid between M. didyma and M. fistulosa), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata) really give this new meadow some pop!

This second year I still did almost no weeding in the meadow. The density of the plants helped keep the weeds at bay. I did find mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), an invasive species, coming up in the meadow. I pulled what I could and then dug it this spring to try to eradicate it before it takes hold. I had some weeds, such as pigweed and wild lettuce, which are easy to remove, and I still pulled some of the partridge pea. I had lots of color and lots of plants! This second year I had a lush garden of flowers. I was extremely pleased with the color and density of the meadow. I probably could let the garden grow on its own now.

Third Spring: From Nothing to Mature Meadow

This is the third spring from nothing to maturing meadow. I used a brush cutter and cut down the remaining upright stems in April. I left most of them on the ground but removed some stiffer things like the giant hyssop (Agastache sp.) and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) stalks. Although I was pleased with the beautiful flower plants of last year’s meadow, I am a gardener, so I am reassessing the mix. I need to make some additions and some changes.

I am removing some of the broad leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) as it overtakes other plants. I will add some true beebalm – the red one while leaving some of the hybrid Monarda already there. I will add some yellows, too – black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and native sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides). I have added some skullcap (Scutellaria incana) and some showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) to add deep purple and pinks to the mix.

Shade meadow garden (meadow) featuring golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum) and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).

Meanwhile, I am thrilled with the garden. The shade plants, particularly the golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum), have taken off. I can’t wait to see the garden in mid-summer. I see seedlings of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) coming up, and I know that they will help fill in any gaps. 

This project has been just amazing! Now, I am looking for new places to kill my lawn and add some new species.

Lawn to Meadow Season Three by Leslie Duthie originally appeared in the
ELA Newsletter, June 2022, and is reprinted with the permission of the author and the Ecological Landscape Alliance.

Towson Native Garden Contest!

Native gardens are blossoming across Towson. We know so because of the Green Towson Alliance’s wildly popular native garden contest. Last year’s first effort drew many entries and connected gardeners across Towson. I had the chance to visit several of the gardens, here, here and here, so much fun and inspiration galore!

A couple of things connected these very different gardens together. Each, whether in the back of row home on a narrower lot or a single family home on a wider lot, had a comfy space for sitting in and amongst the garden. One of the fun things about gardening with native plants is your garden comes more alive the more native plants you add. Having a place to sit and immerse yourself in it is one of the true pleasures of this endeavor.

A plant in common? All grow rudbeckia (Rudbeckia fulgida), the Maryland state flower. Yes, it is common but what a powerhouse! Early to green up, blooms July through September and then, those seed heads feed birds through the winter. It spreads on its own. It really needs no care. Grows in sun or part shade. It’s a great place to start. Why a contest? This was all a seed of an idea by Patty Mochel, a savvy media specialist by profession, and now a Doug Tallamy convert to native plants. Patty has always gardened. In her twenties she grew vegetables. She became a master gardener and added many trees, shrubs and flowers to her garden, always immensely enjoying it.

Please continue reading this article in the Nuts for Natives blog.

Volunteers Cleared Out 4.3 Thousand Pounds of Trash from Towson Streams This Spring

198 volunteers from neighborhoods all over Towson helped to clean up 4,300 pounds of trash from tributaries of the Herring Run stream in March and April. Green Towson Alliance organized the cleanups as part of Project Clean Stream for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

A neighbor cleans trash from the stream at Overlook Park.

Neighbors know first-hand about the trash they see in their neighborhood streams, and many of them volunteered to help clean it up. Some of the trash is accidentally or purposely thrown into stream beds, but much of it is washed from roads or sidewalks into streams during a heavy rain. If it’s not taken out, the trash will make its way down our rivers to the Chesapeake Bay.

Several terrific crews of Towson University students, who were taking part in University’s The Big Event, were bussed by the University to several clean-up sites.

Towson University students joined neighbors to collect trash from the stream in Glendale.

In Radebaugh Park, the students cleaned out trash from the stream and then helped neighbors chop out a wall of invasive ivy from their alley.

A Towson University student loading up a pickup truck with invasive ivy.

In Wiltondale, volunteers picked up trash, and pulled out lots of invasive garlic mustard from the banks surrounding the Herring Run stream.

Wiltondale crew.
Neighbors who helped cleanup Overlook Park.
Volunteers at Loch Raven Library.

In Knollwood as part of a  two-day cleanup of the stream in the proposed Six Bridge Trail project, volunteers worked through a downpour, and some of them wore waders so they could clean the stream completely. Items pulled out of the stream included pipes, wood, and grocery carts.

The team wearing waders in order to thoroughly clean trash out of the stream in Knollwood.

In all, Green Towson Alliance organized twelve stream clean-ups in March and April. Over the past six years, stream cleanups organized by the Green Towson Alliance have removed more than 17 tons of trash from tributaries of the Herring Run.

How to Plant a Tree

By Carl Gold

I am kneeling in the soil using my hands to fill a hole.  I am dirty and my back is stiff. My fingernails are cracked and my hands are callused and rough to the touch. I have not looked at my watch or cell phone for hours. I have spent the morning planting native trees. Planting a tree is like planting oxygen. Replanting trees in urban areas that have been denuded can heal heat islands, clean the air, filter water, reduce asthma, provide habitat and raise property values. Trees shade homes in the summer and serve as windbreaks in the winter. Trees absorb carbon and ultraviolet radiation. They are first line defenders against climate change.

Early spring and early fall are the best times to plant a tree. When a tree is planted it goes into shock- hot summer weather and drought add to this stress and can kill the tree before it has a chance to adapt. Similarly, freezing temperatures prevent root growth and a winter planted tree will struggle. If possible, plant a tree native to our region. Native trees bloom and leaf out timed to match the hatching of certain insects that rely on them for food. If those insects are not around migrating birds that feed on the insects will go elsewhere. A single mature oak tree can host over 500 species of nascent moths and butterflies – more than any other plant or tree. This is a wildlife smorgasbord. An oak may take 40-60 years to mature – but can live for centuries.

The planting hole should be 2-3 times as wide as the root ball. Start by removing any grass. Save it and set it aside. Make the sides of your circular hole perpendicular to the bottom- avoid slanted sides. The bottom of the hole should be flat so that water will not pool under the tree and tilt it. If your soil is severely compacted from development or construction, consider amending it with compost or better soil and increasing the width of the hole to give roots room to grow. Low-cost compost is available from Baltimore City’s Camp Small.

 Cut away any wire and burlap or remove your new tree from the plastic pot. Now you must act ruthlessly and counterintuitively.  If your tree grew in a plastic pot, it is highly likely that the roots are encircling the tree and if not addressed will ultimately girdle and kill the tree. Use a knife or your fingers to release the circling roots- it is ok to cut them to do this. If any of the roots have woody portions that are growing back towards the trunk- cut them off! They will never change direction so they must be removed to protect the tree from itself. Next, find the tree flare or first structural root- this is where the trunk widens at the base of the tree. It is likely to be covered with soil that you will have to remove. Planting depth is crucial. The tree flare must be visible just above the surface once you fill in the hole- it is better to be an inch too high than an inch too low- the tree will settle as you water it.  The easiest way to make sure the depth is correct is to lay your shovel across the hole as you are back filling from the soil you set aside.  The root flare should be level with the bottom of the shovel handle or slightly higher.   If you are working solo, stop and check that the tree is centered and straight. Take the grass you removed, flip it over and create a berm around the tree. Cover with mulch making sure to leave the flare exposed. Think doughnut, not volcano.

From March to October, water your new tree at least weekly the equivalent of one to two inches of rainfall for the first two years. You might want to stake it to protect against lawnmowers and weedwhackers. If deer are a problem, you can wrap inexpensive fencing around the stakes to protect the tree. Depending on how bad the deer problem is you may need to keep the fencing for several years. 

You have now given all of us a gift that will surpass anything you could do in your will.

Carl Gold is a Maryland Master Naturalist and a certified weed warrior and tree keeper. He can be reached at

Opinion: Red Maple Place is Not the Solution to Baltimore County’s Dire Need for Affordable Housing

March 24, 2022

By Nancy R. Goldring, Deborah “Spice” Kleinmann, Beth Miller, Peta N. Richkus and Will Schwarz

Goldring is the president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association. Kleinmann is with the Greater Baltimore Group of the Maryland Sierra Club. Miller is with the Green Towson Alliance. Richkus is with Indivisible Towson. Schwarz is president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.

Many of the facts behind Adria Crutchfield and Tom Coale’s commentary, “Baltimore County Needs Red Maple Place,” Maryland Matters, March 14], are indisputable: Baltimore County’s long and shameful history of explicit and institutional racism; a critical need for affordable housing in locations with easy access to public transportation and services; the county’s failure to make any real progress on its 2016 Voluntary Conciliation Agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and that its overall profile makes it logical that Towson census tracts are among those listed as good candidates for affordable housing units.

Unfortunately, the conclusion that opposition to Red Maple Place is “misguided, racist hostility to low-income families” misses the mark.

Baltimore County could hardly select a worse property to meet the need for affordable housing. The site is located in Historic East Towson, one of the few historically African-American communities still remaining in Baltimore County.

Its origins date to the 1700s and the slave plantation now known as Hampton National Historic Site. Some of the Ridgely family’s hundreds of manumitted slaves began their own community in the 1850s a few miles away in East Towson. Generations built homes and raised families there. Churches and community life flourished.

Unconscionably, for most of its history, Towson’s Black community has been the dumping ground for things white people didn’t want in their own neighborhoods.

Some examples: A massive BGE power substation relocated to the heart of the neighborhood in 1965, erasing eight homes. In the 1980s, more East Towson homes were lost to the construction of the Towson bypass. Several homes were razed to make way for a Stanley Black and Decker parking lot. The District Courthouse, the Towson library and four affordable housing projects also encroach on land that was originally part of the East Towson community.

Three previous proposals for the property (in 1956, 1960 and 1973 for apartments, offices and condominiums, respectively) failed, indicating enormous challenges for development that made the site unsellable as well. The owner of the property, a well-connected developer, was stuck.

Baltimore County to the rescue: under the previous administration the county brokered a deal between the property owner and Homes for America, thereby solving the developer’s dilemma. Two birds with one stone: the possibility of “movement” on the voluntary conciliation agreement commitments and making an influential developer happy.

Also a matter of record; the relationship between Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, whose executive director and a board member authored the March 14 commentary, and its property partner, Homes for America, the nonprofit housing development corporation which specializes in developing and preserving affordable rental housing and is the developer of Red Maple Place, is a fiduciary one of long-standing.

Now comes Red Maple Place, a fully-formed product with no meaningful flexibility to its size or configuration. It’s disingenuous for the BRHP representatives to gloss over the objections that arose during the process as due to “aesthetics (and) environmental concerns.”

Homes for America and the county acted together to roll over Historic East Towson like a bulldozer.

The county waived one development and environmental standard after another to shoehorn this project into the last remaining green space in Towson. With too much building for the site, design standards, environmental laws and open space public facilities, all provisions put in place to protect the quality of life and health of Baltimore County citizens, were waived to enable this project.

To name the project for a native tree, so many of which will be destroyed by its construction, adds insult to injury.

Alternate, available adjacent sites in East Towson were also suggested which would have helped the county move forward on its voluntary conciliation agreement commitments without the environmental impact of the proposed site. This was rejected.

It is completely accurate to say the objections included “targeting a historically Black community.” As if doing so is acceptable.

The voluntary conciliation agreement stipulates the county is “to avoid clustering families using housing choice vouchers (i.e. subsidized housing) in racially segregated or low-income areas.” The African-American East Towson census tracts are among the poorest in the Towson area.

Clearly, the objections to Red Maple Place were not to affordable housing – a great need in Baltimore County. To charge otherwise undercuts the believability of the proponents’ arguments.

The many organizations and community members that support Historic East Towson will continue to object to locating the proposed project on the Historic East Towson site, as yet one more manifestation of the institutional racism that has systematically worked to destroy this almost 200-year-old African-American community over many decades.

This commentary was published in Maryland Matters.

Green Towson Alliance Announces Its Second Native Garden Contest

Green Towson Alliance is kicking off its 2022 Native Garden Contest, and any gardener who lives in a Towson neighborhood and incorporates native plants, trees and shrubs in their yard is welcome to enter. An entry can be a specific garden bed, or the whole yard. People who have a rain garden designed to reduce lawn runoff, or a garden that features mature or recently planted native trees are encouraged to enter the contest.

Why native plants? Native plants are defined as plants and trees that have been growing in our region since before European colonization.  Research has found that most insects can only ingest  plants they have co-evolved with for thousands of years. Most butterflies and moths can lay  eggs only on  specific  plants that they have co-evolved with. Caterpillars that hatch from those eggs, and other insects, are a vital food for songbirds, especially when they are nesting. Nearly all birds feed insects to their fledglings. No insects, no baby birds!

The Native Garden Contest will celebrate  Towson gardens and yards that  support the health of our local ecosystems. More information on the contest and the importance of growing native trees and plants in your yard can be found at

Start snapping pictures of your garden! Participants will be asked to upload photographs of their garden when the contest opens for entries on June 13th. GTA’s Homegrown National Park Workgroup will visit the entries and announce the finalists on July 16th. The public will be invited to vote online for their favorite garden.

Last year, 27 people entered their gardens, and there were more than 440 votes to choose the winners of the 2021 Native Garden Contest. Last year’s winners were homeowners in the Rodgers Forge, Greenbrier, and Loch Raven Village communities. Burkleigh Square won a special award for its Community Garden.

Green Towson Alliance is a group of Towson area residents who care deeply about our natural world and are working to mitigate the effects of climate change. We have planted hundreds of trees, cleared out tons of trash from local streams, restored woodlands and parks by removing invasive vines that are strangling mature trees, and advocate for good environmental policy in  Baltimore County. This is our seventh year of service to our community and the environment.

The Native Garden Contest was born from the imaginations of members of the GTA Homegrown National Park Workgroup. We are inspired by a national project to restore our ecosystems. The purpose of this contest is to encourage and celebrate Towson gardeners who incorporate native trees, shrubs, and plants in their landscapes. Together, we can do our part to protect and sustain  the natural environment for our children,  grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, and all we love, including the non-human species who share our communities.

Silent Spring – A voice still ringing

by Carey Murphy

“In nature, nothing exists alone” – Rachel Carson

Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson opened her landmark book Silent Spring by imagining what a world without singing birds and chirping insects would be like. Then she warned us we were heading there. This classic exposé on chemical pesticides inspired a new environmental movement that helped to launch the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The book languished on my shelf, unopened for 20 years, likely because I knew it wouldn’t be easy reading. I also assumed it would be a record of what was.

I was surprised that much of the book reads like a journal entry of what still is.

“What the public is asked to accept as ‘safe’ today may turn out tomorrow to be extremely dangerous.” – RC

Carson laid bare just how interconnected life on earth is. In clear yet evocative prose, she describes how efforts to manage unwanted insects and plants with synthetic chemicals lead to unexpected environmental devastation and damage in our human bodies. Ironically, the expensive and deadly programs to combat fire ants, spruce budworms, and weeds in the middle of the 20th century proved ineffective. Today we still generously apply toxic chemicals without registering the consequences. The DDT, dieldrin and other pesticides Carson warns about, which have since been banned, have been replaced by others just as harmful. For instance, neonicotinoids linger inside plants and soil for years continuously poisoning bees and other insects; while pyrethroids frequently used in mosquito sprays are known to severely damage aquatic environments. (Both of these substitutes are suspected of affecting human health as well.) The most widely used herbicide of all, glyphosate, just now faces its day of reckoning, though it’s been on the market since 1974. Another ubiquitous herbicide Carson cautioned about, 2,4 D, is still commonly used by contractors and as part of DIY “weed and feed” combos sold at local hardware stores. (“Pesticides” is an overarching term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, etc.)

Skippers and coneflower in neighborhood pollinator garden
Skippers and coneflower in neighborhood pollinator garden

Carson is pragmatic and she doesn’t argue for the complete stoppage of pesticides. Sometimes targeted treatment is our best course of action to manage insurgent invasive weeds or to protect crops or prevent transmission of disease, but we often use them indiscriminately. And sometimes we are trapped, as in the “pesticide treadmill”of industrial agriculture; we pour more and more chemicals directly on our food crops in an effort to one-up the ever-evolving superweeds.

“Man is more dependent upon these wild pollinators than he usually realizes.” – RC

Monarch caterpillars eating common milkweed. Without this host plant,
there would be no monarchs.

Our overuse of pesticides is implicated as the main driver of insect decline, which is now exacerbated by a changing climate, habitat loss and invasive species. Over the last 50 years, global insect numbers have dropped by an estimated 75 percent with some species faring worse than others. For instance, butterflies and moths have decreased by over 50 percent across the globe. Most of us know the plight of our monarch butterfly; its numbers have plummeted over 80 % since the 1990s.

Because insects are necessary for the food chain, for pollination of natural plants and agricultural crops—well, for life as we know it—it behooves us to start paying attention to their dwindling presence. My best friend in high school had a joke back in the early ’90s that involved bugs landing on her windshield: “I bet he’ll never have the guts to do that again!” It’s probably not something one thinks about much these days, but the windshield phenomenon, as it’s called, is real. I haven’t been able to recycle that joke in a long time, as we are no longer scraping bugs off of our cars.

“Instead of treating the basic condition [of the soil], suburbanites- advised by nurserymen who in turn have been advised by the chemical manufacturers – continue to apply truly astonishing amounts of crabgrass killers to their lawns each year.” – RC

Winter is a time of great hibernation for insects and seeds like crabgrass. But all too soon, the chemicals will again reign supreme, or at least try to. I will get the knocks on my door from the Aptive salesmen who try to peer pressure me into killing all the beneficial spiders around my foundation; they will spout off the neighbors who have already enlisted. The Trugreen guys will wave their magic hoses over the lawns and common areas throughout the neighborhood to kill crabgrass and other “weeds” and the Mosquito-spraying trucks will cruise the streets. The little yellow caution signs will crop up throughout my neighborhood. I will again document dead bees and make sure my windows are closed to the inevitable drift.

Dead bumblebees after recent pesticide applications in the neighborhood in June 2021.

We spend over $10 billion annually on pesticides in the U.S., yet if we factor in the costs to our health and the environment, the tab is actually much higher. Before the advent of manufactured chemicals, cancer wasn’t common. But as Carson discusses in Silent Spring, after the introduction of chemical pesticides in the 1940s, 1 in 4 people were diagnosed with cancer. It had also become the number one disease killing children – which was basically unheard of until then. In the 21st century, our odds are now 50% of developing cancer in our lifetimes. All of us have traces of pesticides in our body mingling among other damaging chemicals like PCBs and PFAS, often times lying in wait in our livers. Pesticides cross the placenta and are common in breast milk affecting the most vulnerable: our developing infants and children. Pesticides show up in our drinking water and in our Cheerios. Not surprisingly, pesticides are associated with asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. The risk to our pets is also high.

“Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his lifetime. For these very reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” – RC

But rarely does this information make it to our inboxes or even mainstream news. And, if it does, we often ignore it like other warnings that seem too far off into the future, such as climate change. So when lawn care companies tell us that pesticides are “non-toxic” and advertisements suggest they are healthy for the earth, we believe them. We look for the simple fix to be compliant with our HOAs and to keep up with our neighbors. Well-meaning folks have told me herbicides are safer than pesticides and that companies wouldn’t dare use anything that would harm the people applying them. Though let’s not forget those occupational hazards that exposed people to asbestos, radium, and now Roundup. In reality, everything with a “cide” in its name is designed to kill.

In an interview (because the book is a whopping $135, I haven’t read it), the editors of Herbicides: Chemistry, Efficacy, Toxicology, and Environmental Impacts (2021) raise some pointed concerns and questions, which should be considered by our decision-makers. This, keep in mind, is 60 years after Rachel Carson sounded alarms:

Another key message is that every herbicide carries risk. Contrary to a widespread assumption, herbicides not only kill weeds but have direct and indirect impacts on a wide variety of non-target organisms and the function of ecosystems. Safe use requires definition of an acceptable level. Weighing the risk-benefit ratio involves toxicological, economic, social, and environmental considerations… As an ecologist working on climate change aspects, I long ignored the issue of herbicides (and pesticides in general). I simply thought that there is not much to research because those substances are rigorously tested before they are released into our environment. Then, after diving into the huge body of literature I realized that many studies lack a holistic perspective, including interactions between species, between different substances applied in the fields, ethical and socioeconomic aspects. Since then I have tried to ask what is behind bold statements about the necessity and harmlessness of pesticides: Is there a possible conflict of interest? Have some aspects been forgotten or ignored? Are alternatives considered at all?

I, too, didn’t learn until recently that pesticide manufacturers conduct their own research to determine “safe” levels and that inert ingredients are “trade secrets” that aren’t required to be tested or included on labels. Yet, in at least one study, researchers concluded that 8 out of 9 formulations of Roundup were “up to one thousand times more toxic” than the main ingredient glyphosate. And this eye-opening Intercept article last summer revealed that many EPA scientists have gone on to work for the pesticide manufacturers. The author writes: “the enormous corporate influence has weakened and, in some cases, shut down the meaningful regulation of pesticides in the U.S. and left the country’s residents exposed to levels of dangerous chemicals not tolerated in many other nations.” Over 70 pesticides still in use in the U.S. today are banned by the EU and other nations.

Some cities and communities across the country are taking a stand where they can. Our next door neighbor, Montgomery County, Maryland, recently banned the use of pesticides for aesthetic purposes for private lawns, playgrounds and other places where children play citing serious health risks. Lawn care companies, as a result, now offer organic land care alternatives. Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring from her home in Montgomery County, would be proud of this evolution—even if decades late.

“…we have at last asserted our ‘right to know’, and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” – RC

A robin’s nest in the author’s front yard.

Maybe 2022 will be the year we heed the message from Silent Spring and ditch the chemicals we do not need. We could recognize instead that healthy soils help prevent unwanted plants. Maybe we could allow—like in times past—the clover and violets to grow a bit here and there. These “weeds” would certainly provide a much-needed food source for pollinators and allow butterflies like the great spangled fritillary to produce another generation. We could stop dousing the sides of our highways with chemicals and let meadow plants regain their foothold. We could certainly skip the irrigation systems that spray for mosquitos on a timer. We could support our local farmers, especially those who practice sustainable agriculture. We could increase biodiversity, decrease greenhouse gas emissions (it takes a lot of energy to create synthetic pesticides and fertilizers), and minimize flooding. If we use regenerative practices on our turf lawns, we could even draw down 20 times more carbon in the soil than a typically managed one.

We could let nature get back to the business of balancing itself.

This past year while serving on the Grounds Committee in my neighborhood, I have often

raised concerns regarding the routine use of pesticides. On much of our common spaces and townhome properties, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers are applied throughout the year, and sometimes without proper notice to residents. Now available on our HOA network are the Safety Data Sheets of the herbicides used—all of which have a warning, including: “known carcinogen” or “suspected of causing cancer,” or “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure” or “very toxic to aquatic life”. I’m grateful that our Committee and Board agreed recently to allow townhome properties to opt-out of the chemical treatments and to explore options for organic turf management on our common HOA property, including the fields where children frequently play.

Solutions do exist!

To aid in the transition away from harmful lawn chemicals, Green Team Urbana has developed a presentation on the basics of providing a healthy yard for families, pets and wildlife. We discuss how to build healthy soils, care for grass organically, and create new opportunities for wildlife as a result of Maryland’s new low-impact landscaping law. It is possible to have a nice lawn without the use of pesticides.


Beyond Pesticides has been protecting health and the environment with science, policy and action for 40 years.

Non Toxic Communities includes links to advocacy training and how to start a pesticides awareness campaign.

The Environmental Working Group aims to empower consumers with breakthrough research to make informed choices and live a healthy life in a healthy environment.

Visit their website and check out their consumer guides, including: Dirty Dozen, Skin Deep and Tap Water Database.

Best practices for an organic lawn: Paul Tukey on Saving the Earth, One Lawn at a Timecourtesy of Interfaith Partners of the Chesapeake.

How to Avoid Greenwashing and Harmful Chemicals in Lawn Care includes tips on how to read a Safety Data Sheet and how to research lawncare companies.

Attack of the Superweeds by H. Clair Brown in The New York Times (8/18/21)

EPA Plans to Clean Up Troubled Chemical and Pesticide Programs by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept. A follow-up to her series: EPA Exposed. (10/14/21)

This article was originally published by Green Team Urbana, a volunteer environmental group in Frederick County, and reprinted here with their permission. You can find the original article here.

How to kill weeds

by Carl Gold

There is an old guy in the woods. Gray turning to white whiskers. A broad brimmed hat with a wild turkey feather in the band. A well-worn barn coat hangs loosely on uneven shoulders. He wears thick sallow colored gloves. Perhaps alarmingly to the casual observer, two sheaths hang from his right hip. The first is 15 inches long containing a wickedly sharp curved tooth saw. The second has a six-inch blade, serrated on one side and razor sharp on the other. The blade is complemented by a well-oiled, but old, pair of secateurs.

Is he a postmodern survivalist? A hunter come to harvest his kill? A supplicant preparing for an ancient ritual?

Nope. It’s a modern day Weed Warrior, certified by the Baltimore City Arborist. It’s me. I’m doing battle against nonnative invasive vines that are girdling and killing trees and grasses and shrubs that destroy native biodiversity.

Removing invasive vines from trees
Volunteers cut down invasive vines that are choking mature trees.

Woodlands, roadsides and lawns in Maryland are under siege from these invaders. They are not native, so nothing eats them. They crowd out everything, from spring ephemerals to understory trees. They are favorite hosts for deer ticks and are a big reason Lyme disease is so prevalent. They include ground covers, like Japanese stilt grass; shrubs, like Japanese barberry; and robust vines like Asian Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, English ivy and Morrow’s honeysuckle. Many spread when birds eat the berries, and others multiply via windborne seeds.

Perhaps the fiercest invasive is multiflora rose, first brought to this country in 1866 as hardy rootstock for ornamental roses. It was also used as a living fence to hem in livestock and is still being used in some states on highway median strips to reduce headlight glare. Like a drunken guest who refuses to leave once he outstays his welcome, it fights back. It has hooked shaped thorns that not only penetrate unprotected skin, but lodge in — hence the barn coat, with its tight weave, and thick leather gloves. The safest approach is to remove all the pendulous branches from one side with secateurs and create a vertical plane. Then, step on the trimmed side and push it down, using the sharp saw to cut as close to its base as possible. Japanese barberry (imported in 1875 as an ornamental) has to be treated the same way, as it, too, is covered with dense spiny thorns.

More intimidating looking from a distance, but far easier to fight, is Asian Bittersweet vine. It also was imported in the 1860s as an ornamental plant. The vine can reach 6 inches or more in diameter and crawl up to the top of the forest canopy. It creates dense shade that weakens its unwilling hosts and ultimately becomes so heavy that it can uproot a tree. As it wraps around the trunk, it chokes the tree’s respiratory system. Despite its thickness and height, it yields easily to a sharp saw. Rather than try to pull it off the tree, the best practice is to cut a foot long window separating the vine from its roots. The upper portion will dry out and fall on its own. Similar treatment will save a tree from English ivy. Still widely sold as a trouble-free ground cover, it loves to leap up tree sides. As it flourishes it impedes photosynthesis and harbors pathogens deadly to native trees. Carefully use a knife to remove the vine from the bark and then treat it the same as bittersweet.

a tree before it's freed from invasive vines, and after
Mature tree before and after invasive vines are removed.

Perhaps the most prevalent invasive in the metropolitan area is Japanese stilt grass. It most likely came to the United States as packing material for Japanese porcelain in the early 1900s. Since nothing eats it, it crowds out native wildflowers. Since it is shallow rooted, it increases erosion. It flourishes in sun, shade, wet or dry conditions. Each plant can produce up to 1,000 seeds. The best approach is to pull it up or mow it down before it goes to seed.

Want to help? Want to learn more? Baltimore City offers free training by certified arborists. Just contact the Urban Forestry Division of Baltimore City Parks and Recreation Department (410-396-6109) or TreeBaltimore ( to find out when the next class starts.

In the meantime, I’ll see you in the woods.

Can the Soil Seed Bank Save Us?

By Nathan Lamb

Imagine two woodlands. Both have deciduous, fire-adapted trees overhead (mostly oaks and hickories). One has widely spaced trees, and sunlight reaches a diverse community of grasses, sedges, and forbs. The other has a dense thicket of shrubs (primarily introduced buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica) that makes walking difficult and shades out all but the earliest spring ephemerals. Now imagine you want to turn the shrubby woodland into a sunny one. If you remove the shrubs, will the light that reaches the bare soil trigger a profusion of native plants, restoring the diverse community that lived there hundreds of years ago? 

There are occasional, exciting success stories, and the appeal of the soil seed bank regenerating the landscape is understandable. If restoration practitioners and ecological gardeners can count on the soil seed bank, they can spend less time collecting and sowing seeds. There’s also a desire for authenticity and continuity. If the soil does contain species that were present before Europeans stopped millennia of indigenous stewardship, then the restored community will be much more resilient and appropriate to the site. Another philosophical question hovers around the edges: does nature function best when people clean up their messes and get out of the way, or when they take a more active role?

Harms Woods is a restored woodland in Glenview, IL.
Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) in an unrestored patch of Chipilly Woods, Northbrook, IL.

Planning for Success

The problem is that it’s hard to guarantee success when relying on soil seed banks. How can we know that the plant community that germinates after we remove a buckthorn tangle will be one that we want, not just more buckthorn or garlic mustard or another headache? Research suggests this technique can help restore wetlands because those plants evolved with scouring floods, and the longevity of buried seeds is crucial. It doesn’t generally work for prairies, partly because plowing and other disruptions introduced by European settlers have depleted soil seed banks and partly due to the nature of prairie plant communities. Prairies go through successional stages as they develop, and the weedier plants of the earliest stages are the most likely to survive in the soil and recolonize after a disturbance. Whether the soil seed bank can help restore deciduous woodlands is less understood.

In 2016 I was a graduate student at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where, with scientists and staff, I studied woodland soil seed banks to help practitioners make difficult restoration decisions. In the Chicago region, volunteer land stewards with groups like the North Branch Restoration Project have spent countless hours over the last 40 years restoring oak woodlands and spearheading much of what we know about ecological restoration in the Midwest. The preserves they care for are beautiful and serve as essential habitats in an urban area. In and around the city, these woodlands have a history of fragmentation and fire suppression that has encouraged the proliferation of woody shrubs like buckthorn. The still unrestored sites are a good stand-in for suburban, fragmented woodlands throughout eastern North America, which are prime targets for restoration.

Testing Results 

We wanted to answer the question: what would happen if we removed buckthorn and other introduced shrubs and allowed the soil seed bank to germinate without sowing additional seeds? We wanted to characterize the plant community that would show up in the crucial early years of restoration. To begin, we paired unrestored woodlands (no history of shrub removal, seeding, or prescribed burning) with restored woodlands (more than ten years of shrub removal, seeding, and periodic burning). Ideally, we would have used a reference community (an ecosystem that’s remained relatively unchanged since before the European invasion) instead of a restored woodland, but land management changes are so widespread in this region that there are few unaltered woodlands left. We surveyed nine unrestored and nine restored woodland plant communities within the Forest Preserves of Cook County. From each, we took two soil seed bank samples that we germinated back at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Soil seed bank samples germinating at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Our germination protocols were low-tech and could be replicated with nursery flats and some seed starting mix:

  1. Clear leaf litter from a 20cm x 20cm patch and bag it to sieve for seeds later, then collect soil to a depth of 5cm (seeds buried deeper are unlikely to reach the surface during restoration, and seed survival declines with depth).
  2. Sieve samples using fine mesh soil sieves or a colander, saving any large seeds that you see. Collect the soil and seeds that fall through and dispose of woody debris and plant matter that remains.
  3. Mix each sample with water to form a slurry and pour into 40 cm x 20 cm trays on top of 4 cm of seed starting mix.
  4. Spread a thin layer of vermiculite over each to encourage the germination of seeds that may have floated to the surface but require darkness to germinate.
  5. Include “control” trays containing only seed starting mix to measure any wind-borne seeds that disperse into the nearby trays.
  6. Water regularly using a mist nozzle to avoid disturbing seeds or young seedlings.
  7. Record and remove seedlings as soon as they can be identified. Difficult-to-identify seedlings can be potted up to encourage growth and flowering. The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification is a good resource, and your local natural heritage program or botanic garden may be able to provide additional assistance.
Seedlings potted up to encourage growth and flowering that will facilitate identification.

By every metric we tested, unrestored soil seed banks were far less diverse and bore little resemblance to the aboveground plant communities of restored woodlands. This means it’s unlikely that a soil seed bank would produce the diverse plant community that is the target of a restoration project. Unless a germination test indicates otherwise, supplemental seeding is probably necessary to achieve restoration goals. In our tests, the most abundant species of unrestored soil seed banks were buckthorn and early successional species like Juncus tenuis (path rush), Potentilla simplex (common cinquefoil), and Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod). Species in restored soil seed banks were more likely to have a high coefficient of conservatism, a measure of habitat specificity and sensitivity to disturbance, and included woodland grasses (Cinna arundinaceaBrachyelytrum erectum), sedges (Carex hirsutellaCarex squarrosa), and forbs (Symphyotrichum drummondiiSolidago flexicaulis).

Evaluating Results

Interestingly, there was no difference in the number of non-native seeds between restored and unrestored soil seed banks, but restored soil seed banks had nearly three times as many native seeds. This means there is not a disproportionate number of non-native seeds waiting to take over, but there is a lack of native seeds available to compete. The long history of grazing and plowing these spaces may have eliminated the soil seed banks of native plant communities, leaving an open niche that was filled by buckthorn when the land was abandoned by farmers. Returning seeds to the soil through active stewardship is, in effect, rebuilding the land’s resilience.

Late season Symphyotrichum shortii, Symphyotrichum lateriflorum, and Solidago ulmifolia blooming in a restored section of Somme Woods, Northbrook, IL.

About the Author

Nathan Lamb is an ecological garden designer and consultant living in southern Rhode Island. He worked in stream and wetland restoration, field conservation, and public horticulture before getting an MS in Plant Biology and working as Assistant Director of Heronswood Garden in Washington. Now he helps people grow resilient gardens that support wildlife, require fewer inputs, and evoke the beauty of wild nature. He can be reached through This article was published by Ecological Landscape Alliance and reprinted with permission.