Notes on stewardship and nature – Elkin Jonesville Tribune


Winter is a time that most of us retreat inside from the wet, cold weather that normally sets in during the month of January. However, the colder months can present themselves with unique opportunities to experience nature and work on outdoor projects. As the garden rests, vegetation dies back, leaves cover the ground and grass stops growing, we enter the outdoors with a different eye on nature as we explore the winter views.
In some years, gardens could still contain some greens and root vegetables, but this December’s historic cold snap has all but put an end to over-wintered crops left from the fall. Still, the resting garden has a purpose and tilling too early for spring will leave soil bare, allowing precious nitrogen to escape and topsoil to be lost. It is still important to keep cover on your garden or farm field with either existing vegetation or cover crops. If your garden is messy or overgrown, birds and small mammals can benefit. Seeds left in the garden can provide a natural source of food for birds in a time when other food sources are scarce. Vegetation can also provide burrows and cover for small mammals. One of the most important reasons for leaving your garden covered is to reduce erosion. Bare gardens erode all winter from precipitation because there are no roots to hold the soil in place or slow the water down as it moves down slopes from winter rains.
If gardens or farm fields are cleaned up in the fall or winter for spring planting, it is important to use winter cover crops in order to hold the soil in place. An advantage of cover crops is that they can improve soil fertility and increase organic matter. Some examples of fall planted cover crops are winter rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter pea. These fall plants will live through the winter and can be incorporated into the soil or used as soil stabilizer for larger scale no-till corn or soybeans. Winter rye also makes good hay or grazing fields for livestock.
Winter is also a good time to remove invasive species from your property. An invasive species is a non-native plant that has become naturalized and outcompetes native plants, often throwing the local ecosystem out of balance. Most invasives can still be identified because of growing habits and their noteworthy features. Invasive plants were often brought to this area decades ago to create hedgerows between fields or create ground cover. Chinese Privet, Multiflora Rose, and Mimosa trees grow at the edge of the woodlands and spread quickly each year. The best way to control them is to cut them low to the ground and then paint the stump with glyphosate or seasonally mow the border in order keep them from re-emerging in the spring and summer. Invasives like privet bear hundreds of seeds with each bush so it is important to move them to a mowed area to burn or remove from the property.
The deep winter of January is also a great time to observe wildlife like large mammals like beavers and deer, as well as numerous birds that make our region home in the winter months. Large mammals such as beavers, which are the largest rodents in North America, can reach a weight of over 70 lbs. In North Carolina they don’t hibernate and instead they stock pile trees and limbs in the winter to build homes. Although native and very good stewards of wetland habitat, they can do damage quickly to your stream bank vegetation if populations aren’t kept in check. When summer and fall vegetation dies back in the winter, it is a good time to view activity along streams. Beavers can quickly flood crop land and reduce stream bank trees to the point that banks become unstable. It is legal to trap beavers at any time in North Carolina on your own property as long as it is not for commercial activity. Conibear traps are best set and checked often. Waiting to see beavers come out of the water can be difficult because they are nocturnal.
Reduced vegetation also presents a great opportunity for bird watching in the Blue Ridge foothills. Many people enjoy feeding birds with feeders and this is a great way for some to passively enjoy observing nature. However, well-meaning bird feeders should be careful about overdoing it, which can lead to dependence, spread of disease, and attraction of other wildlife like raccoons and bears.
Just remember to bundle up and get outside however you can to experience your property, local trails, and our parks as much as you can. Despite colder, gray weather, winter offers unique ways to support and enjoy wildlife and the beauty of our region.
For more information about Watershed Education and Environmental Stewardship please follow Watershed Now on Facebook and Instagram and check watershednownc.com for updates.
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