Archive for the ‘sustainability’ Category

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist


Hill-Stead Farmer’s Market

July 17, 2010

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, home again, home again jiggedy jig!

I used to think of myself as a farmer’s market connoisseur, since I’ve been a devotee of them long before the “eat local” craze happened. I trolled around markets in Vermont, driving my edible booty home to Connecticut in my back seat. Once on the cutting edge of fashion, now I don’t even have to leave Farmington for my weekly organic kibble. I can just stroll over to Hill-Stead Museum with my reusable sack over my arm. The trend for farmer’s markets is growing fast. There are urban farms, urban markets, country farms and country markets. They are thick on the ground in trendy suburbs. We need many more. It seems evident that an important key to restoring all manner of food integrity is local farming. In a sense, we are harvesting our food tradition to sow a food future. And it’s not just some la-di-dah keeping up with the Jones kind of food trend, either. You could argue that the value of recycling our food culture is fundamental to our long-term well-being, both at the stove and elsewhere, and is reflective of something organic in ourselves.

“Well-being” isn’t what prompts us to visit a farmer’s market. Rather, it is almost as though there is a part of our cultural DNA that has been wanting for decades, to get us back to the activity of “market day”. What would Thomas Hardy be without them? Many a plot is turned in the market square of literature. Think of Jane Austen, George Eliot, The Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell. There are today markets held all over Europe throughout the year, whereas most of ours, for now at least, seem to be summertime phenomena. Why do so many of us get so excited about about a few stands of vegetables and flowers popping up in the same location up every seven days? Why have some cultures never left off doing it?

A farmer’s market provides a “front porch” for a culture that has sadly grown away from such things. We see neighbors, offer tips to strangers about how to use an unfamiliar vegetable, embrace a fondly remembered farmer. Mr. Bingley bows deeply there to Miss Bennet. As so often also happens at the Hill-Stead poetry festival, one hears happy whoops of recognition punctuating the atmosphere as we see old friends. We begin to make new relationships, too. The crowd is heterogeneous, and thus community is made, not just among a few select neighbors, but in a town and region.

A farmer’s market turns us toward one another, emphasizing our fundamental interdependence on the level of comestible and emotional sustenance. There are other organic connections we cannot name. Joining together over food is perhaps the oldest form of community, save for procreation itself. Earthiness is, as it turns out, a great leveler.

Join us this Sunday and every Sunday until October 24, 11am-2pm, rain or shine. Beyond the vegetables, you’ll find quite a lot that is special. Enjoy companionship, hear music, get community information at our tent, pet a farm animal, drink a coffee or simply enjoy the atmosphere. After you’re done with that, take a walk on one of the historic trails. For a small fee, go inside the house and see rare art and glimpse a lost lifestyle.

For more information on our website:

And look for me, I’ll be there. Or, I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Green, not Glam

May 22, 2009

It’s  fashionable to be “green”.  Everyone wants to have a “recession garden”-a new twist on the Victory Garden.  Everyone wants to recycle.  We all want to save energy.  I’m right on board.  In fact, I’m living it.  As a naturalist, I  spend time out on the trails.  But for writing, research and developing curriculum, I can operate to some extent from my home.  So, I am a telecommunter.  Translation:  I make a lot of phone calls. 


Since I work  from my home, I can do laundry at will, water the garden, hang laundry in the sun, grow my own organic vegetables, cook healthy, non-processed dinners for my family, ride my bike for errands and use an eco-friendly, electric lawn mower. 

What that really means is that I always look like something the cat dragged in, since I have just weeded, planted, cooked or sweated my way through errands on my bike.  Don’t ask what my hair looks like after the bike helmet comes off, either.  And given that I work from home, I have no chance and very little reason, save vanity, to take the time to change my clothes.   But I’m organic!

clothes line

Much has been written recently about locavores, organic gardens and trends toward home-grown vegetables. They say people want to control where their food comes from, make sure that it is as healthful, fresh and tasty as possible.  Theodate Pope was the lucky one.  She had 23 gardeners, and a staff of farmers to bring her local produce to the table.  Most of us in the twenty-first century don’t have that luxury.  She had award-winning apples and peaches,  and a special cow, Anesthesia’s Faith, who gave more pounds of milk than any cow around.  If we’re lucky, most of us have a nice tomato patch over which we fight with squirrels, raccons and chipmunks for control.  At my house, I think maybe the chipmunks are winning.

But there is no doubt of the fashion that “being green” connotes.  There is even a TV network, Planet Green, featuring such eco-luminaries as Emeril Lagasse, Ed Begley and Bill Nye the Science Guy.   On their programs, we come to see the error of our power-consuming, trash-creating ways.  And of course, these shows are emphasizing some important points.  But it isn’t as easy as it looks on TV to really live even a “greenish” lifestyle.

At a recent talk by Roger Swain (former host of “Victory Garden” on PBS) he told of the dramatic rise in profit at garden centers, up 20% last year, 30% this year.  50% more people gardening!  A New York Times article recently commented on the phenomenon, too.  They asked people how much time they expected to work in the garden in order to reap a harvest.  Most said about an hour a week.  I hope they like woody radishes (not enough water), weeds, seedy lettuce and tiny wild tomatoes. In order to actually eat what you plant, the time commitment may be up to several  hours a day, depending on the size of the garden.  Mine isn’t big, and I spend at least an hour every day.

The rage is these new lightbulbs-CFL’s.  They last a really long time and don’t use up the same amount of electricity as the old kind.  They cost an arm and a leg.  So, if you are really dedicated you can switch out all your light bulbs, but it will cost you hundreds.  Not many families can make that commitment.

Composting, now, that seems easy.  Just save those little vegetable scraps, (of which you will have many since you are eating less meat thus reducing your carbon footprint), and dump it outside with some leaves and grass clippings.  Nature does the rest.  Not so fast.  It’s a little like taking out the garbage.  No one wants to schlep out to the pile.  And the little caddy on the counter has to be cleaned now and again.  Sometimes they get a little rank.

 The grass clippings, of course, cannot be obtained without mowing the lawn yourself.  If you use a “green” type of mower, you are going to get a maximum cutting swath of about 20 inches.  A flat half acre will take you a good two hours, and you’re going to have to empty the grass catcher about three times.  On the other hand, a gas-powered mulching mower emits as much pollution as seventeen cars.  When I had a lawn service they had about three of those things scooting around the yard all at once.


A new thing I heard not too long ago was that we ought to be unplugging appliances like microwaves, coffee makers, cable boxes, etc. when not in use as they are “phantom” wasters of electricity.  I’m working on this one, but it’s hard to get used to. 

Laundry is a big one.  People with children do loads every day.  The dryer in many houses runs for hours.  Laundry smells great when you hang in on the line, and you can save a pile of money that way.  But a conservative estimate of the time it swallows to do this is about half an hour, counting hanging and collecting. 

It’s hard to sustain an eco-friendly life unless you have one thing:  time.  The average American has less of it all the time.  Most people have good will about taking care of the earth, but realistically it’s a big commitment.  What a choice to make-convenience or planetary ruin!  I feel a crushing sense of responsibility.  When I spend time outside, I recommit. 

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

NOT Wanted: Have You Seen This Plant?

May 15, 2009

Heaven help you if you have it in your yard. If? What am I saying? It’s everywhere! Garlic Mustard, Alliaria Petiolata, looks benign enough.  A member of the brassica family, it has  button-like clusters of small white flowers atop stalks up to 3 1/2 feet tall.  The leaves are nearly heart-shaped, toothed and wrinkly. The ones in my yard seem rather more rounded than heart-shaped, but so it often is with intruders. They come disguised.   But not enough to be obvious that they are out to get you.

garlic m leaves

What could be so bad about a plant that conjures up thoughts of viniagrette and aromatic pairings with onions?  The leaves even faintly smell of garlic when crushed, to my mind a pleasurable reminder of good meals.   Hence the name, garlic mustard, but it’s a menace. Introduced from Europe in the 1800’s, it crowds out native species in a twinkling, creating huge monocultural meadows of nothing but garlic mustard. By reducing biodiversity, the area becomes inhospitable to native plants and animals, eliminating regular foods and shelter areas. Introduction of non-native species is a top cause of habitat destruction and native species extinction.

America has always welcomed immigrants. It’s what we’re all about.  The problem is, new arrivals bring the living genome of the old country right along with them.  It all started with the Pilgrims and probably even before.   From Europe and beyond, bugs, seeds, vertebrates and invertabrates washed up on our shores along with the huddled masses.  And while humans assimilated and made up the crazy quilt of american culture, plants and animals sometimes went rogue.

Many species accidentally introduced to a new habitat don’t make it.  It’s too hot, too cold, the food is all wrong and like a disgruntled tourist they just slope off.  Others, often species that aren’t too choosy, put their feet up and stay awhile.  Alot of those can become  a gentle part of the scenery, like the European Cabbage White Butterfly, the ubiquitous white butterfly found nearly everywhere in the New World, but originally an Old World species.

cabbage white

The third category are the troublemakers.  They thrive anywhere, eat every food, like the heat, the cold, the damp, the dry.  They are like noisy neighbors who plop themselves down in the middle of everything, reproduce like crazy and monopolize the neighborhood.  Nothing bothers them and they never go away. And all their relatives come to stay.

Which brings us to garlic mustard.  Plant bulletins describe it as an invasive exotic, an invader of woodland habitats, a threat to spring ephemeral wildflowers like spring beauty, trillium and trout lilies.  Research points out damage to biodiversity (it kills everything else around it) and forest health.  It is thought to be one of the most potententially harmful and difficult to control invasives anywhere.  Studies show it actually changes the health of soil where it grows, poisoning it from supporting any other life.  It’s like science fiction!  But it’s real. 

What to do?  Pull it up by the root!  Have a pulling party!  Haul it out of the ground by the fistful and add it to the garbage, or burn it the next time you have a barbecue.  Whatever you do, don’t add it to the compost pile.  The seeds will wind up in your garden and you will spend the rest of your life trying to eradicate them.

There isn’t any way to stop organisms from traveling from place to place. The Pilgrims brought them in with grain seeds, and on their shoes. Freighters bring them in their balast, airplanes in their wheel wells.  This happened with the Brown Treesnake, introduced to Guam during World War ll by military transport. The snake extirpated most of the birds on the island, and is now working its way through the populations of small mammals. Frightening but true.

Do we have Garlic Mustard at Hill-Stead? Absolutely. We are no different than any other outdoor area. Invasives are everywhere. Science is making advances toward learning how to rebalance things. Meantime, familiarize yourself with the look of the plant, and yank it up any time you see it. I promise not to scold you for picking the wildflowers.

garlic mustard

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Earth Day

April 17, 2009

Theodate and Anesthesia's "Faith"

I guess it would be wrong not to do an Earth Day entry on a nature blog! But I must say, the Pope/Riddle families could never have imagined a holiday celebrating sustainable behavior, recycling and saving the Earth.

Theodate Pope dreamed of owning a farm, and ten local farms were purchased and consolidated to realize that dream. But it’s not as if they bought up the farms to put up a strip mall. The land was always farmed, and was renowned for its apples, peaches, sheep and cows.

At the time Hill-Stead was built, 98% of the population lived or worked on a farm of some kind. Only slightly more than a century later, the equation is completely inverted. Today only 2% of our population lives or works on a farm. The message is clear: we’ve gotten away from something fundamental. The origin of our food is unknown to most of us, assuming we ever think about the subject at all.

I used to do farm programs for school children. If I got lucky, a hen would produce a nice, fresh egg right around the time the group got to the chicken coop. Sliding the egg from under the chicken and holding it, still warm, to a child’s cheek I’d ask where eggs come from. All too often the answer came back, “Stop and Shop”.

Were it not for Miss Pope’s appreciation of the land, things at 35 Mountain Road, Farmington, Connecticut would be awfully different now. For starters, those ten farms that the Popes bought would have gone the way of millions of family farms. They’d be housing developments. Theodate would be chastened to realize that although her will called for Hill-Stead to become a museum it left little money to make that happen. Even to begin carrying out her wishes, much of the original land had to be sold, which accounts for the unfortunate encroachment of development near the property today. But who could have forseen how culture would change? How could anyone even think that we could NEED an “Earth Day”?

Still, over 150 acres of land remain. The property is noted for natural diversity by the Connecticut DEP, one of only a handful of such properties in Farmington or the entire state. Though in her wildest dreams Miss Pope could not have imagined our present need for land conservation, she would have liked being the cause of habitat preservation on any scale.

It is forty years since the first Earth Day, sixty-three since Theodate’s death. Only twenty-some years intervened between her demise and the days of Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring. It seems as though things went downhill quickly. How nice it might be to repair things as fast, but as every farmer knows poor earth takes time to remediate. Repairs to the environment go slowly.

Around here we’re doing some new things. We are trying to protect our pond, and have pulled out invasive plants and planted natives.  Proper mowing encourages grassland birds and other declining species. We look for ways big and small to preserve and improve the land, and to show people why this is all worth saving and celebrating.

Starting July 12, Hill-Stead will host a Farmer’s Market, showcasing locally grown and organic foods. Theodate would be delighted. I think she’d like our other outdoor programs, too. Although she had a large staff of gardeners charged with keeping the lawns exactly three inches high and hand-digging the dandelions, had she lived today I think she’d have been a big “greenie”. I bet those dandelions would have made fine salads for the household to enjoy. No doubt the gardeners would have been charged with other tasks to sustain the much-loved Hill-Stead earth.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist