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 cgold@carlgoldlaw.com.

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 nativegardencontest.com.

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 (baltimoretreetrust.org) 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 www.gardenecology.us. This article was published by Ecological Landscape Alliance and reprinted with permission.

Winter is the time to prune trees

Winter is a great, perhaps the best, time to prune your deciduous trees. During the winter, trees are in a dormant stage and nutrients and carbohydrates are stored in the wood and roots. No leaves will be in your way. If you wait till the leaves appear, these food sources will suffer as they have migrated to the leaves. The absence of leaves also helps you to see the tree’s form.

 Pruning trees is both a science and an art. Depending on the tree’s location, use, and type, different pruning approaches will be necessary. Trees grow from the top, not the bottom. A branch at car door or waist level will not get higher as the tree grows, so a street tree (most often referring to a tree planted between the street and the sidewalk in a narrow strip of land) will likely need a different approach than one in your yard. Removal of dead branches keeps trees healthy. In a natural setting this happens on its own as branches fall without doing damage to houses and cars. In a neighborhood setting, be mindful of pedestrians and disabled community members. A tree that impedes access to the sidewalk or hits parked cars is going to suffer from self-help and risk branches that are torn off.

 Too much pruning, however, will kill your trees. Trees need a canopy in the spring and summer to metabolize chlorophyl. Never prune your tree in one year more than 25%. Proper pruning will increase the health and longevity of your tree. It can also save it from destruction by making sure it does not become a hazard to pedestrians, power lines or traffic. If you are pruning evergreens, it is best to wait for late in their dormant season, usually the end of fall, early winter in central Maryland. Evergreens do not lose their needles like deciduous trees lose leaves. Instead, they produce an enzyme that acts like an antifreeze that protects the needles from freezing. Even evergreens can suffer harm if abnormally cold temperatures persist.  If you are cutting greens for the holidays try and use a light touch spread over many trees to avoid harm.

Dead broken or diseased limbs as well as “water spouts” (tree branches that go straight up from the base or limbs) can be removed at any time.  If limbs are crossing each other or rubbing against each other removal will not only open up the canopy but will minimize wind damage by creating better airflow.

Unless you have cars or pedestrian traffic right next to your tree, don’t let it look like a lollipop. It’s best to leave enough lower branches so that the wind can pass through the tree but not be likely to blow the tree over. In the woods and wilderness, trees lose their lower limbs due to competition and natural dying of the lower limbs. You want to imitate Mother Nature. Aim for radial symmetry when you prune. Late November through early March is the best time to prune. If you see eastern tent caterpillars on your trees in the early spring, it is ok to break up their webs without having to cut off their branches. If your trees suffer from fall web worm at the end of the summer, they are less likely to do any damage.

Proper pruning cuts

To avoid leaving gaping wounds or tears on your trees, use what’s known as the three-cut method for pruning. First, locate the collar- where the limb or branch attaches to the central leader or main branch. Make a small cut – a quarter to half way through the limb underneath the limb or branch you wish to remove, an inch or two away from its collar with the tree. Then cut the limb from the top about 2-3 inches away from the underneath cut.  The undercut you just made will protect the limb from tearing off from the trunk as you complete your cut from the top. This avoids exposing it to damage and diseases. Your third cut is close to the collar as you remove the leftover stump where the limb or branch attaches to the trunk or main branch. Over time, this will callous over like a scar and protect the tree from infection or infestation.  No treatment is needed to cover this cut. If you have a tree that needs pruning higher than you can reach, if possible, call a professional. If you keep your feet on the ground, you will keep the rest of you out of the hospital.

Carl R. Gold is a Maryland Master Naturalist, and a Treekeeper and Weed Warrior certified by the Baltimore City Arborist. He can be reached at cgold@carlgoldlaw.com.

Environmental advocates made tree-mendous contributions to Towson communities this year



DEC 29, 2021 AT 5:00 AM

Shannon McDonald, of Knollwood, started participating in environmental organizations when she was in seventh grade (thanks to Earth Science class). She began planting trees with Blue Water Baltimore in 2014 and took part in cleanups when it was the Jones Falls Watershed Association.

McDonald’s commitment to the environment as a whole is remarkable, but what really motivates her is trees. “I have a deep-seated love of trees,” she says. “Seeing huge canopies both with leaves and without brings me peace. If we don’t keep planting trees, eventually those canopies will die out. I want every kid [city, county, country] to grow up feeling the protection of big trees.”

I am thankful for McDonald and other local tree enthusiasts for their efforts in planting 342 trees in 10 Towson communities during six work sessions in November and December. This project began last summer, when Green Towson Alliance volunteers and Green Teams from neighborhood associations went door-to-door to tell people about the opportunity to purchase and have trees planted through Blue Water Baltimore. Homeowners were able to choose what sort of tree they wanted. The native varieties planted this fall include willow oaks, northern red oaks, swamp white oaks, tulip poplars, American elms, bald cypresses, London planetrees, American lindens, riverbirches, black gums, and serviceberries.

volunteers planting trees at Knollwood
The hard-working crew from the Dec. 4 tree planting in Towson. Photo credit: Councilman David Marks

It’s a win-win situation. “Given the fact that a homeowner, business or community association is receiving quality native trees at a discounted rate, delivered and installed for them it’s kind of a no-brainer, once you realize that trees take a long time to grow to the size of the ones that are just now breaking down. For example, the sycamores planted in Stoneleigh that have 1½-foot to 2-foot diameters were planted 100-plus years ago,” says McDonald.

Trees bring tranquillity to our neighborhoods and provide shelter for birds and wildlife. They are a step toward mitigating climate change, keeping neighborhoods cooler in summer months, absorbing carbon and removing pollutants, filtering water, and absorbing ultraviolet radiation. Plus their beauty improves property values and positively impacts the health and well-being of the humans around them.

Darin Crew from Blue Water notes that since 2012, the group’s tree planting program in the Greater Towson and Lutherville area has planted 774 trees in neighborhoods including: Anneslie, Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, West Towson, Southland Hills, Lake Walker, Towson Manor Village, Knollwood, Woodbrook, Lutherville, Idlewylde, Kenilworth, Gaywood, Aigburth Manor, and Wiltondale.

McDonald calls on all of us to get involved and inspire young people to join in. “If the same kids who were raised singing ‘We Are the World’ and ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ participate and encourage their children/neighbors to make small environmental shifts, a large change will occur,” she says. “I encourage everyone reading this article to consistently try one change: remembering to use reusable shopping bags; picking up trash 15 minutes a week; removing ivy choking trees and shrubs; etc. These actions add up. Physical participation is so good for mental health, and if younger community members participate this will become a paradigm shift where they go and grow.”

More than 300 Trees Planted in Towson Neighborhoods this Fall

Volunteers and neighbors pitched in to plant 342 trees in ten Towson communities in November and December. Green Towson Alliance recruited most of the new homes for the trees as part of its Shade Tree Program.  Blue Water then ordered the trees and organized the volunteers to plant them in 6 work sessions in November and December.  The native trees planted this fall include Willow Oaks, Northern Red Oaks, Swamp White Oaks, Tulip poplars, American Elms, Bald Cypress, London Planetrees, American Linden, Riverbirch, Black Gum, Serviceberry, and other native trees, which were chosen for specific types of locations.

Green Towson Alliance volunteers and Green Teams from neighborhood associations went door-to-door last summer to tell people about the opportunity to purchase and have trees planted  through Blue Water Baltimore. Homeowners were able to choose what sort of tree they wanted in their yard.  Many native canopy trees were chosen because of their ability to shade homes in the heat of summer, act as a windbreak from harsh winter winds, and soak up the heavy downpours that have been occurring in the Baltimore region due to climate change.

Neighborhood trees have much to offer these communities.  Besides providing a sense of peace and beauty, they are homes and perches for the songbirds and wildlife that are also our neighbors. In Anneslie, some neighbors also planted street trees in the verge between the sidewalk and the street.  They learned how to install their own root barriers, as required by Baltimore County, in order to protect their sidewalks.

Planting native canopy trees is one of the best steps we can take to mitigate climate change.  Studies have found that a tree canopy can lower neighborhood  temperatures by as much as 10 degrees in the summer. Trees absorb carbon and remove pollutants from the atmosphere. They act as water filters by absorbing excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Trees absorb 96% of ultraviolet radiation, improve property values, and have measurable positive effects on the mental and physical health of the people who live near them.

Dr. Carol Newill, who has led GTA’s efforts to recruit neighborhood environmental advocates to help find homes for the trees, says “I am delighted by the record number of native shade trees that were planted and by the record number of Towson neighborhoods participating in the program this year. These young trees will grow over the coming decades, hopefully for 100 years or more, providing ever greater amounts of shade, storm water absorption, air pollution filtering and noise buffering. They will increase property values, and provide beauty and the gifts of Nature for generations to come.”

Green Towson Alliance will be organizing more tree plantings next year! If you want to plant a tree next year, please contact us at greentowsonalliance@gmail.com .

Volunteers at Towson tree planting
Volunteers and Blue Water Baltimore staff who came to plant native trees in the Knollwood, Stoneleigh, and Wiltondale communities on December 4, 2021.