Spartina, Sumac, and Kid Power!

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HarborLAB partnered with Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman for a company day of “Celebration and Service” at the Hunters Point Community Middle School. Volunteers partnered with science teacher Mary Mathai for hands-on education about shoreline habitat restoration. HarborLAB has a longstanding relationship with the school, conducting seed gathering field trips, providing lectures about water quality, and other services. Special thanks to HarborLAB volunteer Diana Szatkowski for making this newest activity a success!

Our first focus was Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass. HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard gave a brief presentation on this saltwater marsh species, which is a bedrock of our coastal ecosystem. We discussed how landfill, runoff pollution, invasive species introduced humans, and other modern impacts have reduced acreage in New York City to less than 10% of historic coverage. Invertebrates shelter within the grass, feeding herons and other shore birds. The complex root systems of spartina marshes anchor sand and mud, stabilizing shorelines. Dense foliage reduces wave and wakes, protecting property and lives. This nearly eliminated grass uniquely sustains a butterfly species, the Saffron skipper.

To restore spartina to HarborLAB’s shore on the Newtown Creek, we’re creating pods made from burlap bags supplied by MAST Brothers Chocolate. Students learned about how burlap is made of fibers drawn from jute, another marsh plant in South Asia, and how generations ago the fibers were softened with whale oil (and now vegetable oils and sometimes mineral oil). We filled the burlap bags with sand, bundled them, and later we’ll slice holes in the tops. Then we’ll place plugs of spartina seedlings in the holes. Our seedlings are provided by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a facility operated by the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Those seedlings will be ready in June.

Students and volunteers then made seed balls from cocoa husks, natural red clay, a bit of sand, and velvety red staghorn sumac seeds. Sumac is another important species for our region’s shorelines. It grows with very little water and produces berry-like drupes that sustain many birds. Seedballs replicate endozoochory, or seed dispersal by animal droppings.

The Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman were vital to the program because it’s otherwise difficult to have adequate volunteer staffing on a weekday. The students benefited from the greater adult-to-minor ratio in safety, attention ,and encouragement.

 

WPIX and NY1 Coverage of “Cocoa Coast”

 

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HarborLAB is grateful to Greg Mocker of WPIX and Tanya Kilch of NY1 News for sharing our “Cocoa Coast” work with fellow New Yorkers. You can click through to read and view NY1 story, “Student’s and Volunteers Use Cocoa Beans to Restore Queens’ Shorelines.” Gallery below by Erik Baard.

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Both reporters did a great job of showing HarbotLAB, MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers, and Hunters Point Community Middle School are combining environmental service with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning. HarborLAB will be conducting classroom activities to build upon this field experience in late winter and early spring. The method we chose to generate soil in situ is called “lasagna composting.”

 

 

 

 

Goldenrod to Close a Golden Year

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Hunters Point Community Middle School students gathering goldenrod seeds with HarborLAB, helping the environment in view of the United Nations. Photo by Erik Baard. 

HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful day gathering seeds in Hunters Point South Park with a Hunters Point Community Middle School science class. We conceived and operate our seed program as a means of restoring and strengthening estuary habitat. We’re advised by local conservation groups and agencies, and in our field work we partner with school groups, corporate volunteer teams, and residents.

We’ve partnered with HPCMS since before it even opened its doors. The school has an ecological focus and serves special needs students, like our seed gathering partners, along with those in the mainstream. The student population is very diverse and most come from lower-income families.

Mary Mathai’s students met us in the park across from the school on a mild and partly sunny December afternoon. The weather has been so warm that many flowers have yet to slip into seed-heavy dormancy. We focused on a thicket of seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) which fortunately had largely turned over to fuzzy seed. We’ll return to the school to make seed balls with our day’s collection, and plant them along shorelines throughout our estuary as we paddle in 2016.

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HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard talks about beach rose to Hunters Point Community Middle School kids. Photo by Patricia Erickson.

On the way to our goldenrod quarry we visited beach rose, pitch pine, and what are commonly called North American asters. Beach rose (Rosa ragusa) isn’t native, and is categorized as invasive along much of the East Coast. But in Hunters Point South it’s decoratively planted. The rose hips provided a great chance to talk about nutrition (especially vitamin C) and seed distribution by endozoochory (dispersal by animal ingestion and defecation). Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a tough native tree with twisting branches. It grows in poor soil and forms the core of the famed New Jersey Pine Barrens. This species allowed us to talk about forest regeneration through fire because this tree tenaciously regrows after damage and its cones pop open to released winged seeds after being exposed to high heat. Because of our region’s record high temperatures this autumn, many flowers were North American asters were determined in 1994 to not be true asters at all, but  were instead categorized under the genus SymphyotrichumThe new genus is still under a family named for the asters, Asteraceae, along with daisies, sunflowers, and many other important flowers.

Many thanks to volunteers Patricia Erickson, Diana Szatkowski, and Erik Baard. Deep gratitude also to Hunters Point Community Middle School science teacher Mary Mathai and Principal Sarah Goodman, and to NYC Department of Parks and Recreation western Queens park manager Norman Chan for access and to the Natural Resources Group of the department for guidance.

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Goldenrod in flower and seed. Hunters Point Community Middle School student outing with HarborLAB. Photo by Erik Baard.

Count goldenrod among the Asteraceae too! Goldenrod has long been recognized as a medicinal plant and recently urban planners have appreciated its ability to stabilize shorelines and dunes. Goldenrod is important to many animals. It feeds butterflies and bees, and hosts host the Goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia), which can change color to camouflage itself against its insect prey. Goldenrod also shelters the nests of black skimmers, one of our region’s most fascinatingly adapted shorebirds. The kids quickly grasped how the puffy seed heads acted as parachutes or sails to help carry the plants’ next generation far away. No need to worry about this goldenrod stand being diminished — these are perennials  and we left many seeds at the site to boot.

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Hunters Point Community Middle School students with the seeds they gathered. Photo by Erik Baard.

 

Hunters Point Eco-Day Memories

Seedball making team ! Questus at Hunters Point Community Middle School with HarborLAB.

HarborLAB and friends from new sponsor Questus shared a wonderful day improving the ecology of Hunters Point and enhancing the environmental science programs of Hunters Point Community Middle School. The students made the day even sunnier, and we got so much done!

We started the day by continuing HarborLAB’s work to turn our launch on the Newtown Creek Superfund site into a green and welcoming habitat area and orchard. We planted more shadbush and tended to our orchard trees, built up fresh and composting soil cover on our sloping bank, cleaned the shore, and gathered pokeberries for our seeding program. Questus Co-Founder Jeff Rosenblum joined HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson in revamping our water access, preserving our dock and replacing — and better securing — our ladder. They did a stellar job!

The rest of us headed over to Hunters Point Community Middle School with a wheelbarrow of supplies to make seed balls! Our partners were Mary Mathai’s special needs science students and the school’s Eco Club. The students were delightful, and Ms. Mathai, other faculty members, and Principal Sarah Goodman have been amazing partners with HarborLAB since before the school even opened!

Seedballs are an efficient way to distribute seeds with a nutritive soil head start, whether for agriculture or habitat strengthening. HarborLAB got its start through lessons provided by the NYC Seedball community. We make our seedballs from powdered red clay, compost, cocoa shells, a pinch of sand, and seeds gathered from indigenous shoreline plants. Our Hunters Point Eco-Day seeds were seaside goldenrod gathered by Hunters Point Community Middle School students last year. Goldenrod is a vital part of our estuary, sustaining butterflies and other beneficial insects and sheltering the nests of black skimmers, one of our most unusual shorebirds. The HarborLAB and Questus team worked with the students in two sessions, with two or three adults to a table. The group effort produced thousands of seedballs and the kids will use up leftover material next week.

This activity and our illustrated presentation reinforce curricular lessons about the purposes of flowers, fruits, and seeds, and how seeds are distributed in nature. Seedballs replicate frugivorous endozoochory, or how animals spread seeds, packaged in dense nutrition, through their droppings after eating fruits. When students gather seeds with us, they learn how to identify plant species and about how plants support other species and stabilize shorelines. We also discuss, of course, how plants can remove CO2 from our air to reduce climate chaos and ocean acidification. All spring and summer, HarborLAB volunteers and students distribute seedballs as we paddle shore to shore, under the direction of conservation groups and park and preserve authorities.

The Questus team also enjoyed peer bonding, diving into a delicious lunch provided by COFFEED LIC Landing in Hunters Point South Park and canoeing from the HarborLAB GreenLaunch to the mouth of the Newtown Creek on the East River. In both cases they were exhilarated by Manhattan skyline views.

We’re deeply grateful to Questus’ team for their support and camaraderie, and to the students and faculty of Hunters Point Community Middle School for their spirited engagement in education to meet our world’s ecological challenges.

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Questus afloat with HarborLAB!

Seed Gathering Day!

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Mark Christie, HarborLAB volunteer and Vice President of Hunters Point Parks Conservancy, with bouquets of goldenrod seeds. Hunters Point Community Middle School student in the background. (Photo by Erik Baard)

HarborLAB had a fantastic winter day of gathering goldenrod and beach rose seeds with Hunters Point Community Middle School students! Many thanks to biology teacher Mary Matthai and Principle Sarah Goodman, and to the students! Thanks also to Vice President Mark Christie of the Hunters Point Parks Conservancy and to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Through this exercise the students learned about bioremediation, shore ecology, evolved means of seed propagation, combined sewer overflows, and genetic diversity. We asked that the school choose only five students for each round of work to avoid trampling habitats.

HarborLAB is creating a marine-to-uplands habitat restoration on the Newtown Creek. We call this project the “GreenLaunch.” Citizens Committee for NYC gave us funds for initial work, which HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson oversees. We’ve applied to the Hudson River Foundation for a larger Newtown Creek Fund grant. We hope our City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Assembly Representative Catherine Nolan will also partner with us as a wonderful (and only) Queens environmental group based on the creek, and support our work.

Central to the GreenLaunch, conceived by HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard, is a living shoreline stabilized using methods recommended by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. We’re applying for fresh earth from the NYC Soil Bank. Roots from native, saltwater tolerant plantings will hold soil down. We’re gathering seeds from milkweed, pokeberry, goldenrod, beach plums, and beach rose to start. We have MillionTreesNYC shadbush (service berry), hackberry, sassafras, and other native saplings to further strengthen this slope. Milkweed and goldenrod sustain endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Our berry bushes and trees, and rose hips, have deep root systems and feed birds. Below this slope, in the intertidal zone, we’ll grow cordgrass and mussels.