Mulching Do’s and Dont's

Mulching around trees and flower beds offers several benefits, such as soil moisture retention, reduced weeding, and keeping yard equipment a safe distance away from plants. Shredded bark is a popular mulch to use, which requires periodic touch up as it gradually decomposes. However, I have seen landscapes where a lot of mulch was routinely added every year whether it was needed or not, creating an overly thick layer of mulch that can injure or even kill the plants you are trying to benefit.

Dandelion, a Wildflower You Know

By: Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Park

Everyone knows the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), which is usually found somewhere in your lawn unless herbicides are heavily used. This European import is probably enemy number one on the lawn weed list, but it is still an interesting study, being both an edible and a medicinal.

The Freeze in the Trees

We had a hard freeze recently at a bad time for some trees, with many just putting out those very succulent and tender new leaves. A number of trees and shrubs got hammered in my yard, totally wiping out all of the leaves, and many forest trees took the same hit. If your trees were impacted too, you may be wondering what all this means in terms of tree health and fruit/nut production.

The red-tail: King of the hawks

Photo by Harold Jerrell

Photo by Harold Jerrell

While several hawk species spend time in East Tennessee, the red-tailed hawk stays around all year and is the most common one seen.
They prefer to hang out in open fields near woodland edges. Seeing a red tail gliding across the sky and hearing their high-pitched cry gives one a pleasing dose of wildness.
The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) has a body around two feet long with wide wings that span around 4 four feet, making it the largest hawk we have. The female is a third larger than the male.

Planting By Nature

Photo By Steve Roark

By: Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Our forefathers paid a lot more attention to natural events than we do now. They had no radio, TV, or newspaper to provide weather trends, so they looked to nature to tell them when to plant beans or when to strip hickory bark for chair bottoms. They didn’t know it but they were practicing phenology: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate, plant, and animal life.

Roadside Forests

It’s a given that in our mountainous terrain you’re going to see trees while driving down the road. Most of them are growing in natural forests with good soil that supports a wide variety of species. But some trees you see especially close to the roadside are not growing in natural conditions, but on road cuts. These are places where soil and rock were removed to make way for the highway and are plentiful in hilly terrain. Conditions at these sites are harsh for growing things, and yet certain tree species and plants are able to make a go of it.

Speaking Mountain

If you read my stuff much, you know that I am unabashedly proud to be mountain bred. I love our southern Appalachians mountains. The terrain, the climate, the plants and animals, the culture and history, all blend together to form a unique place to live.

Redbud: Spring calling card

Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
One of the more popular trees in the spring is the eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis), which blesses us with a beautiful bloom of purple pea-like flowers that pop out on the trunk and large branches as well as on twigs. Another common name for redbud is Judas tree, which comes from the belief that Judas hung himself from a Middle Eastern redbud after betraying Christ.

The Singing of the Frogs

Spring can be pretty noisy around ponds, lakes, water holes, and other moist areas. Male frogs and toads are the minstrels of warm weather, calling out in loud, pleading voices to woo females. Pause and listen to them, for what you are hearing is a love song.

Arbor Days

The first Friday in March is when Tennessee celebrates Arbor Day, while Kentucky, Virginia, and the nation designate Arbor Day as the last Friday in April. The dictionary defines a tree as "a woody perennial plant having a distinct trunk with branches and foliage at some distance above the ground". This simple description falls short of what a tree is to humans and other life forms. What is a tree? Let me count the ways:

Snow Colors Beyond Yellow

Snow is normally a dazzling, at times blinding white and we all enjoy the good snow that sticks to all the trees and is a thing of beauty. Snow strangely enough can be other colors at times, the most common being yellow where a dog peed on a tree or a juvenile male human peed his initials in the back yard. There are still other colors of snow that occur on the planet and so here is a rundown of some of them.

Winter Survival With Evergreens

Evergreen trees are more prominent in the winter in our area, being the only bright color seen among the bleak, bare hardwood trees. Besides their visual appeal, evergreens provide important food and shelter for many wildlife species. Common evergreen trees in our area include several species of pine, cedar, and hemlock.

Life Listing, a Natural Hobby

Life lists are written documentations of things seen and identified. If you’re a birder you keep a list of birds you’ve personally seen. If you’re a railroad enthusiast, you keep up with what trains companies you’ve seen going down the tracks. In England they even have clubs for airplane watchers. These folks gather up around airports and watch planes with binoculars, making security people very nervous.

The Local Underworld

The geology of our area is unique in that it creates two worlds: a surface world and an underworld of caves, water, and stone. The type of terrain we live on is called "karst" and is characterized by rocky ground, caves, and sinkholes, underground streams, and areas where surface streams disappear into the ground. This type of terrain is the result of the eroding effects of underground water on limestone.

Squirrels practice art of forestry

An ecologist named Joseph Grinnell way back in 1936 once asked how it was that oak trees could colonize the tops of hills and ridges. Acorns are too heavy for wind to disperse them, and gravity tends to make them travel downhill rather than up. He concluded that animals must be responsible for getting acorns to high places.
Many animals use acorns as a valuable winter food source. Deer, turkey, wild pigs, and bears are heavy users, but an eaten acorn cannot germinate and make a tree.

The Purpose of Beauty

Photo by Steve Roark: White Branch Lower Falls

With all the worrisome events that have happened recently, I would ask that you pause and think about something. When you think of beauty, I assume that like me you envision things like a colorful sunrise, waterfalls, snow draped trees, and such. But I am sitting here having a tough time verbally defining it. It's an odd thing really. It does not produce any tangible product. It can't be bought or sold, and yet all humans value it and are drawn to natural beauty. Why?

Winter, A Time for Reflection

By: Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

There are two mind-sets when it comes to winter: those who love it and those who do not, and I’m one of the former. When it is cold you can always dress up and be comfortable, but in summer you can go buck naked and still be uncomfortably hot. Really cold weather gives you a survival feeling, you against the elements, something lacking in these soft modern times. “If you can see your breath, you know you’re alive” is a quote that reflects that feeling about cold weather.

Thy Rod and Thy Staff

If you trail hike much, perhaps you used a walking stick to lean on for balance or help support a sore knee joint. This simple tool goes back a long way and was used for more than just walking. The Bible refers to them as a rod or staff, and both have strong symbolic meanings.