January 20, 2018

Monarch Magic At Wolgast Tree Farm

We’ve been seeing Monarch butterflies flying among our Christmas trees here at Wolgast Tree Farm.  The Christmas trees probably aren’t of much interest to the Monarchs, but what we have growing in between the rows of trees is: Common Milkweed.

A Monarch butterfly goes through four life stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.  Monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed because when the eggs hatch that’s what Monarch caterpillars will feed on.  Special chemicals in milkweed are absorbed by the caterpillar when  it eats the leaves which makes the Monarch poisonous or taste very bad to birds and mammals.  It is thought that the bright orange color of Monarch butterflies serves as a warning to predators that they are poisonous and taste bad, and that it would probably be a good idea to find their next meal elsewhere.

Milkweeds are a key feature of Monarch butterfly habitat, so we like to do our part to help make our farm a place that Monarchs would like to visit as part of our wildlife-friendly, sustainable farming practices.

Earlier this spring we marked the locations of milkweed plants with bamboo stakes and flagging so we wouldn’t accidentally cut them down when we mowed between our trees. 

It’s definitely less convenient to mow around milkweed, but we enjoy the trade-off.  Having Monarch caterpillars and butterflies be part of Wolgast Tree Farm’s wildlife menagerie is one of the things that makes our farm special and we’re very proud of that fact.

On The Grow at Wolgast Tree Farm

It’s been a banner growing season so far this year here at Wolgast Tree Farm.  All the rain we’ve had coupled with just enough sun has really helped to bolster the growth of the 800 seedlings we planted this past spring. 

Usually during the first year after a seedling is planted, most of its energies are directed towards establishing a strong root system with very little growth in the branches.  But this year has been different.  We’ve noticed lots of new growth along the branches, which means that the seedlings not only have strong root systems, but that they have extra energy to devote to green growth as well.  This bodes well for seedling vigor in future years.   Here, Len is admiring all the new, light green growth on a Canaan fir that was planted this past April. 

We grow nine species of Christmas trees and each one has special needs in order for it to grow healthy.  Some seedlings, like white pines, can grow well on wet sites.  Others need to be on a site that is high and dry.  We plant each individual seedling according to the microsite conditions where it will grow best.  Healthy seedlings are better able to fight off insect pests and other environmental stresses (like drought), which is part of our Intergrated Pest Management program (IPM).   

We can’t predict what the future holds, but if we continue to have favorable weather during the growing seasons, coupled with being on the proper soil site, this Canaan fir seedling could be ready to be someone’s special Christmas tree in six or seven years.  Things are really “On The Grow” at Wolgast Tree Farm!

Brookdale Environmental Science Lab Visits Wolgast Tree farm

Students taking the summer session Environmental Science Lab at Brookdale Community College went on a farm tour of Wolgast Tree Farm this past week to learn about wildlife on our farm, River-Friendly farming practices, beekeeping, Integrated Pest Management and how we grow Christmas trees.

One of the things we talked about was the different types of manmade nesting structures that certain kinds of wildlife will use. To the left of Len on the ground is a roofed nesting platform that can be used by Eastern Phoebes, American Robins and Barn Swallows (far left), and a larger nest box for American Kestrels, which  can also be used by Eastern Screech Owls, Gray Squirrels or Flying Squirrels, depending on the habitat where it is placed. 

Of course, no farm tour at Wolgast Tree Farm would be complete without mentioning one of our favorite cavity nesters, the Eastern Bluebird. 

A few minutes before the class arrived, Len checked a nearby nest box to make sure the fledglings that were inside weren’t old enough to be flushed from the nest box.  Confident that the nestlings would stay put if students took a peek, he placed the roof back in place, but accidentally left behind the screwdriver that he used to open the top.  It certainly didn’t keep the adults away as they returned with food to offer the nestlings.

When the class arrived and it was time to look at the nest box everyone was instructed to quietly walk up to the box and take a quick look at the nestlings.  Many of the students had never seen an Eastern Bluebird before, let alone young bluebirds still in the nest.  It felt good to be able to provide a new experience with nature in this way. 

The same thing goes for tree farming.  Many people aren’t aware of what goes into producing a Christmas tree so we provided an overview of some of the things that must be done, including shearing.  We had finished shearing our pines a week before the class visited, but we saved two so we could demonstrate how our shearing machine works.  Here Len shows how he uses a SAJE shearing machine to trim back extra growth and produce that perfect “Christmas tree shape”.  The backpack that he’s wearing has a motor with a flexible drive shaft that comes around the front and plugs into two 8-foot long blades that are sandwiched together and move back and forth to cut excess growth.  It must have made an impression since several students took out their phones and recorded his demonstration.

Said one student when Len had finished shearing, “There’s a lot that goes into growing Christmas trees.”

Indeed, there is!

Pollinators On Parade At Wolgast Tree Farm

In honor of National Pollinator Week, we’d like to show a tiny portion of the many pollinators that make Wolgast Tree Farm their home.  

Pollinators are creatures (bees, butterflies, birds, etc,) that move pollen around either within flowers or carry pollen from one flower to another.  This causes fertilization which leads to the creation of seeds and fruit.  Producing seeds and fruits is how a plant reproduces, and without pollination the plants would not be able to reproduce as well or provide the seeds, fruits and other products that we depend on.  Around the world, about 1000 plants are grown for food, fiber, medicines, spices and beverages, that need pollination in order to produce those goods.  Many popular foods that need to be pollinated include apples, strawberries, peaches, blueberries, coffee, chocolate, almonds, pumkins, tequila, vanilla and many others. 

Having a wide variety of pollinators is needed for a healthy ecosystem, too.  

Unfortunately, it seems pollinators of all kinds are declining for a variety of reasons. 

Here on the farm we try to help pollinators in a number of ways.  We allow a variety of flowering plants that provide pollinators with nectar to grow among our Christmas trees, in our our River-Friendly stream buffers and in our hedgerows.  We also made brush piles to provide various native bees with nesting sites.  We never mow the whole farm all at once, but rather do small sections at a time so pollinators have a better place to hide from predators, forage for food and reproduce. 

All of these farm practices not only benefit a wide variety of native pollinators, but benefit our own honeybees, as well.

Everyone can help create a better environment for pollinators.  Visit Pollinator Partnership at www.pollinator.org to learn about the many ways you can help reverse this trend to help these important and interesting creatures.

The Bluebird Bonanza at Wolgast Tree Farm

Among our most favorite species of birds seen here at Wolgast Tree Farm are Eastern Bluebirds.  Their gentleness, heavenly color and soothing song guarantees a smile.

It’s been a banner year for nesting bluebirds on the farm.  We’ve seen bluebirds foraging around our Christmas trees that have fledged this spring, and have at least two other nest boxes with nestling bluebirds that are getting close to fledging.  Just yesterday we saw another female bluebird bring nesting materials into another nest box.  Bluebirds usually produce two broods of young, though sometimes they’ll produce as many as three in a nesting season.

Although a variety of bird species will build nests tucked in the branches of our Christmas trees, bluebirds are one species that doesn’t.  They are known as cavity nesters and build their nest in an enclosed structure like a wooden fence post or tree with a hole that had been excavated by another bird species (like woodpeckers), or in nestboxes created by people.   We’ve put up at least ten bluebird nest boxes on the farm like this one.  They are used by bluebirds, as well as American tree swallows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, and house wrens. 

Bluebirds usually build their nests by weaving together grasses or pine needles.  Most of the bluebird nests on the farm are made with needles from the white pines that we grow.   It feels good to not only give bluebirds housing by putting up nestboxes, but to provide the “furnishings” by growing Christmas trees.

Here’s a look inside one of the bluebird nest boxes that we put up on our Christmas tree farm.  Because the birds are snuggled close together in the nest it may be hard to count, but there are four nestlings in this box.  These birds will fledge in less than two weeks, and then spend the rest of the summer flying among our Christmas trees, eating insects and berries, and charming us with their sweet song.

PS. Learn more about Eastern bluebirds by visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory#top .

Wolgast Tree Farm is a River-Friendly Farm

Wolgast Tree Farm, a family-owned Christmas tree farm in Somerset, New Jersey, has just passed it’s 2-year check-up as a certified River-Friendly Farm.

Wolgast Tree Farm is a River-Friendly FarmBeing River-Friendly means we’re helping to protect the water supply, protect soil and enhance habitat for wildlife while we grow Christmas trees. 

Our farm was evaluated on a number of criteria including the ways we keep soil from running off into waterways, minimizing our use of irrigation water and fertilizers, and how we maintain vegetative barriers at the edges of our fields to protect streams from any run-off that we might accidentally generate.

All these farm practices add up to having a healthier watershed for us and the community, as well as a healthy tree farm with lots of wildlife to boot!