Squirrels – the scourge of city gardeners

By Len Maniace

We’ve always known that city gardeners need to be tough. There’s concrete-tough soil, too much shade and, if you are working in a public area, unappreciative humans who walk through your planting area, and maybe even make off with your plants.

Squirrel closeup

Sciurus carolinensis, or the eastern gray squirrel, ready for his or her closeup.

But as New York City has become more orderly and open to gardening  and urban farming, another problem is becoming apparent: squirrels. They dig through newly planted areas, methodically nip off buds before they flower, and chew the bark off tree branches eventually girdling and killing them.

This may seem like peanuts to gardeners in the suburbs, where a major industrial-research complex has grown up around the war against deer. It’s not, however – though peanuts maybe part of the problem, as in soft-hearted city dwellers who regularly feed peanuts to squirrels.

Case in point: The gardens in the Queens apartment complex where I live have improved dramatically in recent year – and so too have our problems with the eastern gray squirrel, or Sciurus carolinensis. Perhaps they were always there but, we just didn’t notice. We’ve discussed several measures to control the squirrel population. We nixed the trap-and release squirrels (nearby squirrels would move in,) squirrel birth control (same deal, neighboring squirrels would fill that vacuum;) and poisoning them was ruled out as cruel and dangerous.

Several people suggested that feeding and providing water for squirrels would distract the critters from our plants, until we decided that such a measure would only increase their population making our garden more vulnerable if the free food and water ever stopped.

Squirrel barrier

A squirrel barrier made of pigeon spikes has reduced their numbers in what had been their favorite tree.

So instead of any concerted action by the garden, I’m running a test project that I hope might limit their access to a favorite breeding ground in our garden.  Last year, I counted eight squirrel nests (known as dreys) in a mature sugar maple tree in our largely enclosed courtyard where most of our serious gardening is done.

Not only was the tree serving as a squirrel condominium, judging by the number of small branches dropping beneath the tree, squirrels were methodically gnawing at branches, leaving some larger branches nearly leafless.

Over the winter I considered measures to keep the squirrels out of the tree, including wrapping sheet metal around the trunk to prevent them from getting any footing. But this seemed too ugly.

Instead I bought a box of pigeon spikes designed to keep the bird off buildings. (They consist of a series of three-inch long metal spikes secured plastic base.) I doubled them up to make the barrier more formidable and then wrapped it around the trunk about 10 feet off the ground. It worked initially. I saw squirrels scamper partially up the tree, reach the barrier and then come down. Two weeks later however, a squirrel appeared high in the tree and I noticed that the rodents had opened up a gap in the barrier. Equipped with plastic ties, crushed red pepper and a jar of Vaseline, I repaired the damage and then sought to make the barrier unpleasant, too.

The strengthened barrier seemed to work. A few weeks ago, I spotted a squirrel climbing up the trunk, run into the barrier and then reverse directions. But as I’m writing this, I just spotted a squirrel some 20 feet up in the tree. Can squirrels laugh?

My Garden

One of our gardens in the Greystones in Jackson Heights.

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A bounty of blooms from native plants at Alley’s salt marsh

This story covers our sixth visit to a salt marsh and surroundings at the northern end of Alley Pond Park, where we have been documenting the progression of seasons.


Spartina grasses are in summer form filling much of the Alley Pond Park salt marsh.

Our children are growing up. Well, not literally our children, but the plants that we first glimpsed as they emerged from the ground early this spring.

The growth of those botanical babies has been dramatic. Some wetlands plants, like the common reed or Phragmites australis, are taller than a tall man, though they were only a few inches in late March. The burdock, or Arctium – a plant with mammoth leaves and burrs that inspired the invention of Velcro – is at least six feet.

And many of these plants are in bloom, some spectacular, others subtler, requiring a close-up look to appreciate. Seen together, they are a great advertisement for the beauty of native plants. Of course not many of us have for a garden the varied habitat of an 18-acre wetland, plus surrounding uplands, as is the case in this stretch of Alley Pond Park.

Our guide last week is the always-informative Aline Euler, the curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center. Euler is a good advertisement for the nonprofit center, whose mission is to provide educational programs about the salt marsh and vicinity for children and adults.

Pink Asclepias

The native butterfly weed, Asclepias incarnata, in full bloom.


Cattails, Typha latifolia, are a distinctive sight near marshes.

Called Inkberry, Pokeberry, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad, this native’s scientific name is Phytolacca americana.

Inkberry, Pokeberry, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad – it’s officially Phytolacca americana.


One of the first plants we come across is Phytolacca americana, also known as Inkberry, Pokeberry and especially in the South, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad. The plants are three to four feet tall, have striking purplish-pink stems and white flowers clustered somewhat like a bunch of grapes. Though most of the plant is considered toxic, it’s been used as a folk remedy and as a food – but only after processing, which can involve its repeated boiling and the disposal of the remaining liquid each time. Sounds like a lot of work when escarole or collards would work just fine.

Heading out through the wetlands, Euler is thrilled to see the thriving Spartina alterniflora, a marsh grass important to many wetlands’ species. The grass seemed off to a slow start in May and early June, far behind the taller and faster growing Phragmites. Much of the Spartina we see – along with many of the native species in sight – were planted a few years ago in a project that doubled the wetlands’ size from nine to 18 acres. “I am shocked to see that it has come back so well. It’s beautiful,” Euler said.

jewel weed

Jewelweed. or Impatiens capensis, is a relative of impatiens.


Thistles, including Cirsium vulgare, are bee-friendly plants.

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is a relative of the carrot.

Many of the native plants now in bloom are notable favorites of pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Among them are coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea; butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias incarnata; and a variety of thistles, including Cirsium vulgare. That insect-friendly reputation is confirmed as we watch insects repeatedly visit these plants. Incidentally the most prominent of the thistle varieties we see is  common thistle, though it’s not a boring plant. The flower that bursts from a spiky globe is a deep purplish pink and the plant’s stem and dark-green leaves equipped with daunting sharp protuberances.

Queen Anne’s Lace, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is in bloom. Queen Anne’s Lace is also known as wild carrot and when broken, its tap roots smells like the typical carrot. Though this European native is considered invasive in parts of the country, it’s not a problem in the park – especially when compared to the porcelain berry, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, which is sprawling over more plants as the summer continues. Euler rarely fails to mention the porcelain berry’s damaging nature, nor a chance to yank the offending vine off shrubs and perennials.

Early July is still too soon to see some perennials in bloom. We find only a scattered handful of flowers on the jewelweed or Impatiens capensis, which seems to grow naturally in beds, much like its garden relative the ever-popular impatiens. The plant’s orange blossom is the only native orange flower in the park, Euler noted. We have another reason for a return visit in August: the rose mallow/rose swamp mallow, or Hibiscus moscheutos. Judging from the many buds on these plants, it should be worth the wait. Though its huge blossoms, up to 10 inches across, look tropical, the rose mallow is native to the region. It’s an increasingly popular plant; varieties of rose mallow are available in local nurseries.

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Support for climate-change action from an unlikely source

Climate change

Scientists say climate change is producing more severe storms and raising sea levels, putting more human settlements in danger. Photo credit: The Risky Business Project

Some prominent Republicans are raising an alarm bell over global warming. And for a change, they are saying the threat is serious and humans largely responsible for it.

On Saturday former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. compared the lack of action on climate change to the nation’s failure to address financial issues that led to the 2009 stock-market collapse. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, Paulson provided a glimpse at a climate change report released this week by a bipartisan panel that includes Republican former Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State George Schultz.

Paulson, who served under President George W. Bush, called for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions – the leading greenhouse gas. He described the tax as “a fundamentally conservative” approach. Paulson’s description is probably an attempt to sweeten this bitter medicine for fellow Republicans, many of whom consider any tax increase anathema. In contrast, many environmentalists have backed a carbon tax for decades.

What makes a carbon tax so effective is that it forces consumers and businesses to automatically consider the damaging environmental effects of carbon dioxide in each economic transaction. A carbon tax bakes this into a process that people use every day: deciding if a price is reasonable in comparison to the expected benefits.

While taxing carbon-dioxide emissions may seem liberal to some, it works by tapping into a fundamental of the market system, the laws of supply and demand. In this case, it’s the idea that demand for a product drops as its price increases. Higher prices for climate-disrupting carbon fuels also make clean fuels such as wind and solar power more attractive economically.

For average folks, a carbon tax means they may decide to walk or bicycle instead of taking the car for some trips, or to buy a more fuel-efficient car, or to live in an area better served by transit – in order to reduce energy costs. Among the decisions businesses would be forced to consider: whether it makes sense economically to use a polluting fuel or switch to a cleaner energy, and even whether to locate operations in cities and compact suburbs to attract employees who would want to walk, bike or use transit to get to work – instead of setting up shop in auto-dependant hinterlands.

Taxing things that are damaging to us is not exactly a revolutionary concept; alcohol and tobacco carry higher taxes than other products. In fact, higher cigarette taxes are often cited as a major reason why smokers quit.

It’s not clear how much influence this new push on climate change will have on the Republican Party as a whole. The Republicans speaking out on the issue are moderates in an increasingly conservative party. Still it’s hypothetically possible that this effort might bear fruit, if enough moderate Republicans team up with Democrats.  As with the case of Nixon going to China, it may take Republican action on climate change to get us on the right track. Of course, it would have been better in both cases, had Republicans not previously whipped up public opposition to relations with China and action on climate-change.

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A June blizzard and other surprises at an NYC salt marsh

This is a report on our fifth visit to a salt marsh and surroundings at the northern end of Alley Pond Park where we are documenting the progress of spring. 


Cotton-like strands, which help disperse cottonwood seeds, piling up.


By Len Maniace

A blizzard of white puffs blew through the park Monday, piling up on paths and grass, and even coating ponds. They are cottony strands that hold seeds, which until recently were growing inside the seed pods of the eastern cottonwood tree.

In the last few days the pods have burst open, allowing the seeds of Populus deltoids to take flight in the breeze and disperse through the park’s salt marsh and surroundings.  A walk on the boardwalk to the salt marsh at the northern end of Alley Pond Park shows just how effective this means of dispersion is. A scattering of fast-growing, young cottonwoods poke through lower growth.

cottonwood trees

Young cottonwoods sprouted far from parent trees after seeds were dispersed by wind.

Though the cottonwood puffs are a highlight – young students on nature walks repeatedly ask about them – there are other changes in the three weeks-plus since our last visit. Trees have leafed out in abundance, so that some views once-filled with blue sky are blocked by a thick green canopy. Even a black walnut tree (Juglans nigra) has finally leafed out, though it looks stunted compared to nearby oaks, red maples, weeping willows, and cottonwood trees which responded to spring sooner. This native is prized for its nuts and especially by furniture makers for its hardwood.

As usual on these visits, we set out for the salt marsh. We’re accompanied by our usual guide, Aline Euler, curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center. Housed in the Alley Pond Park just off Northern Boulevard, the center provides educational programs about the salt marsh and vicinity for children and adults.

No sooner than we leave the center, we spot a wild rose (Rosa multiflora) packed with small white roses, and in front of that, the mammoth leaves of burdoch (Arctium.) We’ve seen both plants before, but the wild rose was just leafing out and burdoch was much smaller. The latter is reminiscent of rhubarb with it huge leaves and an edible stem. Burdoch is considered a medicinal and is sometimes part of macrobiotic diets. Its burrs were the inspiration for Velcro; its flowers, which begin in July, that resemble those of the thistle.

roses and burdoch

Rosa multiflora in bloom behind mammoth burdoch leaves.

Soon we came across a sun-bathed, foot-tall plant with many yellow blooms; Euler identifies it as a wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis.) The plant originated in the Mediterranean and then spread through much of the temperate zone. The greens of the mustard are edible when the plant is young and the seeds can be used to produce the condiment of the same name, though there are several species that are more commonly used to produce mustard.

We see plenty of birds, including the red-winged blackbirds which began arriving from the south shortly before we began our visits in late March. We spot a pair of snowy egrets flying low over Alley Creek, the waterway that flows north through the park before emptying in Little Neck Bay.

Next, it’s a pair of ducks, whose species stumps us. They are both brown and about the same size, so we rule out mallards and wood ducks. After checking Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, I  speculate they are black ducks, which despite their name are brown. Unlike many other ducks, male and female black ducks are similar looking. Though black ducks have a blue patches on each wing, they’re not always visible as the birds swim and from a distance. Finally, I spot one of the few wild mammals we’ve seen on these visits, a rabbit – variety unidentified – that darts into the brush.

Dame's rocket

Dame’s rocket – a popular wildflower that’s included in some seed packets – in the wild.

We’ve discussed the problem of invasive, non-natives plants in our reports of earlier visits, but on this trip their potential for damage is clear. Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), a fast-growing vine, is already climbing and completely covering some shrubs and small trees. By late summer the vines will be so thick they will block out much light, interfering with photosynthesis and severely weakening their hosts. Nearby common cord grass (Phragmites australis) is already seven-feet tall and is crowding out some the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a plant that blooms with light pink flowers in August. “These plants have so much to overcome,” Euler said.

And yes, the marsh mallow is the basis of the candy marshmallow, though the plant’s sap is no longer used in making that concoction.


Horsetails look like young pine trees, but they are an ancient and very different plant.

In the woodlands, we spot some plants for the first time. The purple-flowering Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) originated in Eurasia, but the plant is now widespread in this country. So widespread that Dame’s rocket is considered an invasive weed in some places – though not in New York.

Dame’s rocket resembles wild phlox, but there are a few differences. Dame’s rocket is already in bloom, while wild phlox won’t begin blooming until later this summer. Also, the flower of a Dame’s rocket have four petals and their leaves alternate, while phlox has five petals and its leaves are opposite each other.

We come across something that is truly striking; an area that appears to be covered with six-inch-tall evergreens.  They are horsetails (Equisetum,) an ancient plant that dates back to the days of the dinosaurs, when their early relatives grew 90 feet tall. Some varieties are called scouring-rush and were widely used to clean pots and other cookware.

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Reported: Compost collection coming to some NYC homes

composting bins

New York City is distributing bins for its curbside composting pickup program.

New Yorkers, are you ready for your brown plastic bin for the city’s curbside-pickup composting program? Well, not all of you; the city is expanding its composting test project to 70,000 new homes in Queens and Brooklyn. It’s already  in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood and Staten Island’s Westerleigh.

Today’s New York Times has a story on the program, which the city hopes can divert much of the 3.2 million tons of food waste that costs $300 million to ship to landfills. That would be a tidy savings. And unlike most cmopost, which is used to boost the quality of soil, this compost would be used to produce methane gas that would be burned for energy.

- Len Maniace



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Snapshot: Majestic trees at the mercy of tiny fungus

London Planes

The London Plane in the foreground has barely leafed out, while two across the street are faring slightly better.

By Len Maniace

The London Plane tree in front of my house doesn’t look good at all – and the two across the street, only slightly better. My tree, which was planted about three years ago, has just a few small leaves. The trees across the street have many branches that have not leafed out.

The cause appears to be anthracnose, an infectious fungal disease that causes young leaves to wilt and die. Usually the tree will leaf out a second time and by mid-summer the tree may look normal, though some twigs may die back eight to 10 inches. Repeated infections however can weaken the trees and kill them. With three successive infections, each worse than its predecessor, the tree in front of my house may have gone beyond the point of no return. And if that’s the case, are the  neighboring trees far behind.

It’s a shame, and not just because these trees are on my block.
The London Plane (Platanus acerifolia,) may be the most majestic tree to make its home in New York City. They can grow huge, and their peeling, mottled bark can have shades of beige, avocado and grayish-brown. They look great in parks and as street trees.

Anthracnose infections can be treated with chemical sprays, but in heavily populated that’s not practical because they can be  hazardous. The weather can affect anthracnose; cool damp springs can worsen infections.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is planting anthracnose-resistant varieties of London Planes. That was not enough to protect the recently planted trees on my block, which belonged to one such variety, Bloodgood.  But as one park staffer told me last year, anthracnose-resistant does not mean anthracnose-proof.

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To salt or not to salt? Weighing the evidence to set policy

By Len Maniace

First some fun facts on sodium in our diet:
* Experts estimate that Americans on average consume more than three times the sodium than was typical of prehistoric humans.
* Only about 5 percent of the sodium consumed by the average American is shaken on; almost all the rest comes in foods processed to tempt our taste buds.
* In Finland, highly salted foods contain a health warning.


Crystalline beauty, and dangerous in at least some people’s diet. (Photo by Nicholas Noyes)

For some four decades we’ve been advised to watch our sodium intake in the hope of reducing our chances of death from cardiovascular disease. A forum by the New York City Food Policy Center this morning looked at the underpinnings of that policy and asked how much evidence is needed before public officials issue health warnings.

No one called anyone a nanny statist or a shill for the salt lobby – and, yes, there is such a thing. That’s because the speakers were respected health experts who attempted to get to the truth of the issue rather than rack up debate points. The discussion won’t make it onto tabloid television, but the talk was instructive because it showed how public-health science works – or least is supposed to.


Former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas A. Farley

Dr. Thomas A. Farley, New York City Health Commissioner in the Bloomberg administration, made a compelling case that sodium in our diet poses a serious hazard. He pointed to studies showing that high-sodium diets are linked to high-blood pressure and that high-blood pressure is connected to cardiovascular disease and death.  Still other studies have shown that people from societies that consume much less sodium see their blood pressure rise when they move to nations with high-salt diet. Meanwhile, decreases in cardiovascular disease have accompanied campaigns to reduce sodium intake in Japan, Finland and the United Kingdom.

Farley was quick to point out that such studies are not proof on their own, because many other factors can also be at play, but that they do buttress other studies.

Scientifically, the best way to determine the risk from sodium would be a massive project in which a study group is divided with one half eating a high-sodium diet and the other, one that’s low in sodium. Besides serious issues of whether the test subjects will stick to their diets, Farley said the study would not be ethical.  “To take least 14,000 people and tell them, ‘No, you are are going to stay on a high-sodium diet for the next five years to see if your heart-disease rate gets really high.’  So, such a trial is never going to happen.”

Current guidelines call for the general population to limit sodium consumption to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. Those in high risk groups – people with high-blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, blacks, and anyone over 51 – should keep daily consumption to no more than 1,500 mg.


Dr. Sandro Galea, physician and epidemiologist

Dr. Sandro Galea, a physician and epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, however, raised questions about the evidence. First, he said that while 60 percent of the studies show a connection between high sodium diets and cardiovascular disease, 40 percent failed to find the connection.

Unlike trumped-up television debates, however, Galea was quick to highlight the areas where he agreed with concern over dietary sodium. “There is no space between Dr. Farley and myself on salt reduction  in particular subgroups, or the fact that salt consumption in particular subgroups leads to hypertension. There’s no debate over that, let’s not even waste time discussing it.”

Rather, he said, the question is whether reducing salt consumption in the overall population will reduce the death. Galea said he believed that since the evidence was not conclusive, public health science put its credibility at risk by taking too strong a stand. Furthermore, he said, there were significant and more definite hazards where the public-health community should weigh in, such as the need for adult motorcyclists to wear helmets, and guns.

Not necessarily an unreasonable position, though if one is picking ones’ battles, Galea’s prescription would run into a lobbying group with considerable more power than the salt industry – the National Rifle Association.

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