Litchfield Hills Audubon – Wigwam Brook

Aerial view showing NRCS Soil types - orchard location in yellow on upper left.

Aerial view showing NRCS Soil types – orchard location in yellow on upper left.

The Wigwam Brook property in Litchfield is located along scenic Route 254 just south of the Lipeika Road intersection. It was purchased by the Litchfield Hills Audubon Society (LHAS) in 2008. The property is bounded to the west by East Chestnut Hill Road, and is intersected by the beautiful Wigwam Brook for which the property is named. Wigwam Brook and its watershed is a Class I waterway and supplies potable water to the City of Waterbury. Roughly one-third of the property is grassland with five beaver ponds and the old beaver meadow. The property was purchased with the aid of a DEP grant, neighbors’ donations and a grant from a community organization in Litchfield – the Seherr-Thoss Foundation. There are 12 animal species of Greatest Conservation Need that have been identified on this property. With almost thirty-six acres and a variety of habitat, LHAS was interested in creating some large tracts of meadow Northern Bobwhite habitat, but they were also looking for ideas for other areas, and the success we’d had creating exclosures that encouraged diverse forbs, their insect pollinators, and the birds that preyed on those insects was of great interest.

one season's growth for a test planting open pollinated American chestnut

one season’s growth for a test planting open pollinated American chestnut

In 2009 members of LHAS and the CT Chapter of TACF (CT-TACF) started an extensive process of looking at a variety of habitat for suitability in growing chestnut. LHAS had contracted with field botanist Bill Moorhead to help define the available resources. Bill was a terrific resource in helping understand how different areas might work for growing the chestnut. Soil samples of several locations provided additional understanding of the local conditions. The combination of attributes – well drained deep soils, large fairly square area (fencing efficiency), accessibility, and meeting the LHA goals for land use started pointing to the conifer plantation (highlighted in yellow on aerial photo above) as the best choice for the research orchard.

The conifer plantation is west of the brook and is comprised of primarily Charlton-Chatfield complex soils of 3% to 15% slope. Test pits showed the soil to be generally very deep with a few rocky outcrops in areas that could be avoided. The entire report can be downloaded but a brief synopsis [click here to see] is that the soils are a common match for eastern forests and growing chestnut.

John Baker (left) and Tom Traver of the Litchfield Hills Audubon during a site layout exercise

John Baker (left) and Tom Traver of the Litchfield Hills Audubon during a site layout exercise

Using an analytical and methodical approach for choosing an orchard site, in additional to the practical test of an actual test planting if warranted, provides great feedback on whether a site is suitable for a back-cross orchard. Besides the physical aspects of the property, a test planting provides good insights into the operational team. Some have thumbs greener than others.

Plans were put in place to secure funding for the orchard and also to test the site to ensure the partnership had a clear understanding of issues associated with growing chestnut on this site. On Saturday, May 23rd, John Baker and Bill Adamsen met to plant a test of 30 pure American chestnuts. John brought the nuts and soil mix, Bill brought the blue-x tree tubes, bamboo stakes and clothes pins to seal the tubes. John had prepared the site in advance including digging the holes and marking them. He then figured out the exact amount of soil mix required. Thus prepared, it took no longer than forty-five minutes to complete the planting. A summer afternoon storm provided the only missing element – water.

test planting browsed to the tube top by deer

test planting browsed to the tube top by deer

The site and managers proved equal to their task and recorded one of the highest one season survival and growth records among test orchards and the test also proved that we would need protection against the deer. The moment the tasty seedlings emerged from the blue-x tubes the deer were there to sample the trees like a tasty salad (see image to left). Clearly some protection against deer and other herbivores would be required.


Plan of the Wigwam Brook Orchard showing fencing and layout of rows

Plan of the Wigwam Brook Orchard showing fencing and layout of rows

Over the next nine months John Baker and Bill Adamsen worked to define the ideal siting at the Wigwam Brook property. John got the contracts in place for land clearing and site preparation and Bill developed a fencing plan designed to protect the young trees from deer and beaver. The fence plan went through numerous iterations as we tried to find a common ground that met the management objectives as well as keeping the price in alignment with expectations. The partnership was very fortunate to be supported in its efforts by a wide range of organizations. Thanks especially to the NRCS who provided consulting and support to ensure that we designed a fence that could meet their expectations for durability. We could not have built the fence currently in place without NRCS assistance.

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Team works to plant the Wigwam Brook Orchard

May 8th, 2010 eighteen volunteers from several organizations descended on the orchard site to plant over 200 fourth generation back-cross (15/16ths American chestnut) chestnut some of which originated from trees identified and pollinated last year in the Litchfield area. Quoted in the Waterbury-Republican LHAS Member John Baker said, “We provide the land, they (The American Chestnut Foundation) provide the seeds and fertilizer.” Waterbury-Republican newspaper article on planting

We’re really proud of the partnership between the CT Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation and the Litchfield Hills Audubon Society. This orchard site and the site managers proved their mettle by recording stupendous growth in their test orchard in 2009. The terrific results convinced us they would be successful growing the valuable back-cross trees. Litchfield Hills Audubon Wigwam Brook Orchard Site as just planted

The site is designed to hold up to four lines of back-cross trees. That could be five-hundred trees or possibly even more. The trees are planted in rows fifteen feet apart – wide enough to allow equipment such as a mower or bucket truck to drive the rows. Within the rows the trees are spaced at seven foot intervals. A clever idea by the Audubon members was to replace some of the trees with Bluebird houses. The site will remain fairly open for several years as the trees are established. The trees and fence provide sites for the birds to perch.

lower fence ablaze in a sea of yellow goldenrod

lower fence ablaze in a sea of yellow goldenrod

In the months both before and after planting, discussions focused on how best to restore the vegetation on the site in a way that would promote the development of a diverse community of both native grasses and forbs that would represent a typical Litchfield County lightly managed meadow site. In particular the questions we had included, “how quickly will the native communities re-establish themselves,” and “will their composition reflect nearby migrations of plant communities without a little help from man?” I think we were all excited to see what communities would develop in the protection from deer pressure, and compare that with growth outside the exclosure where pressure is expected to be great.

 

A wasp gathers pollen from a goldenrod at Wigwam Brook

A wasp gathers pollen from a goldenrod at Wigwam Brook

In other exclosures where the management encouraged diverse native plant growth we saw an incredible diversity of flowers and as a result, incredible diversity of pollinators and their prey .. especially birds. Wigwam rewarded us tremendously. The first year plant diversity was extremely high. Lots of Solidago species, members of the legume family, silky dogwood, asters and grasses. The insect populations too were truly diverse and the ground nesting birds exciting to behold. As I entered the field a red-tailed hawk soared above no doubt seeking an inattentive rodent or song bird.

A Backcross chestnut seedling emerges from its protective tube

A Backcross chestnut seedling emerges from its protective tube

In fact, the success caught us by surprise and we’ve implemented a more rigorous management plan designed to reduce some of the competition for the American chestnut trees. We know the trees grow well on the site, and now we need to determine the best management practice that allows the trees to thrive and yet provides a diverse habitat that encourages the wildlife we so enjoy seeing.

In the photo at right (and below), chestnut material is seen pushing out of their protective tubes. We use the tubes to protect the planted seeds from predation as they germinate and grow especially during the first season and first winter. We plant a variety of chestnut trees .. mostly the seeds of CT American chestnut found locally and pollinated with advanced breeding pollen. These seedlings like the one above right – tend to look very American in character. Trees like the one directly to the right might be an F1 – a cross between a pure American and a Chinese or Japanese chestnut with good resistance – or even a pure Chinese planted as a control. The controls (both non-resistant American seedlings and highly-resistant Chinese) allow us to guage comparative resistance to blight on a tree that is expected to be somewhat resistant. Somewhat resistant describes the best of the back-cross trees we planted. It’s not until the selected intercross generation that one would expect highly resistant American chestnut trees.

A control planting - likely and F1 or Chinese chestnut based on the leaf morphology

A control planting – likely and F1 or Chinese chestnut based on the leaf morphology

If you look closely at the photos to right and above, you can see many morphological attributes that differentiate the American from the Chinese chestnut. Back-cross breeding recovers almost all American characteristics in three back-cross generations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Young conservationist shows off one of our seedlings

Young conservationist shows off one of our seedlings

Late winter on the site presents a very different montage. How different it looks … with the muted browns, gold and greys compared to summer’s splash of green and gold. Buds on the chestnut saplings are just starting to swell and hopefully won’t open too early. Trees are still vulnerable to frost and can’t afford the energy required to rebud and replace leaves damaged by a hard late frost. With the meadow still low after our late season mowing, the neatly lined out tree tubes are clearly visible. Not everything survives are we are constantly teaching ourselves how to better grow better trees. But the site is still wonderful to visit. The overwintering birds raise a chorus to greet us and perch on the fence waiting for the right opportunity to drop down and collect a meal of dropped seeds. It is great time to think of all the things we need to do to make it a better orchard and watch our trees grow.

Looking down the hill just before a late winter sunset.

Looking down the hill just before a late winter sunset.

 

 

We encourage you to visit the Wigwam Brook Chestnut Research Orchard. Witness for yourself the beauty of a protected mixed meadow and chestnut research orchard.