It’s Spring! What a Great Time to Plant Natives!

Spring is such a wonderful time of year! With longer periods of daylight, warmer temperatures, and the return of birds and butterflies, we’re naturally drawn to the outdoors. If you’re also drawn to gardening––either in your yard or in pots on the deck or patio––consider installing native plants when you get ready to plant.


Asclepias tuberosa ~ Butterflyweed

Why natives?

Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. They also are critical sources of nectar, pollen, and seeds that provide food for native butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. In addition, native plants are advantageous, because they:

  • do not require fertilizers and need few if any pesticides,
  • need less water than lawns and help prevent erosion,
  • help reduce air pollution,
  • provide shelter and food for wildlife,
  • promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage, and
  • are beautiful and increase scenic values!

Which native plants are right for your yard or pots?

As with any plant, it’s important to install the right one for your conditions (wet, dry, shade, sun, slope, soil type, etc.). There are great sources of information to learn the right plant for your situation. One of the best is the Plant Nova Natives website:, which provides picture-filled, easy-to-follow information that will help you choose the perfect species for your situation. The website includes a colorful guide to local native species, information on where visit native gardens, and links to organizations that sell native plants and will come to your property and offer customized landscaping recommendations.

Pysostegia virginiana ~ Obedient Plant

Pysostegia virginiana ~ Obedient Plant

Where can you buy native plants?

Now that you know you want to natives, you may find that most regular nurseries do not carry them. No matter! The best selection and prices are often at spring native plant sales all around the area. Here are several in the upcoming weeks and months, so go forth and plant!

City of Alexandria Spring 2016 Native Tree and Shrub Sale—accepting orders online through May 7 at:, or in person at the Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center, 5750 Sanger Ave, Alexandria, VA. All plants are $20. They may be picked up the Ford Nature Center Saturday, May 21 from 10 am – 2 pm. For more information, see RPCA Spring 2016 Native Tree Shrub Sale Flyer  or contact Majd Jarrar at: 703-746-5525 or

Saturday, April 2, 9:30 am – 2 pm, Friends of the National Arboretum Native Plant Sale, US National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave., NE, Washington, DC (open to Lahr Symposium registrants at 8:30 am),

Wednesday, April 6, 10 am – 1 pm (and first Wednesday of each month through October), VNPS First-Wednesday Plant Sales, at VNPS-Potowmack propagation beds behind the Horticulture Center at Green Spring Gardens are open for sales. 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA 22312,

Falls Church City Native Plant Sale run by Girl Scout Troop 1251. Plant listings and form available April 18. Plants are available May 1. E-mail for the form or more information.

Saturday, April 23, 9 am – 3 pm, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Morven Park, 17195 Southern Planter Lane, Leesburg, VA 20176,

Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District’s Native Tree and Shrub Seedling Sale—accepting online orders now. The seedlings will be available for pick up on Friday, April 29, 9 am – 4 pm, or Saturday, April 30, 9 am – 12 pm at the Fred M. Packard Center, 4022 Hummer Road, Annandale, VA. For more information, call 703-324-1460; TTY 711. To view images of the seedlings, learn about these plants, and to place an order, visit the NVSWCD Web site at

Saturday, April 30, 2016, 9 am – 2 pm, Northern Alexandria Native Plant Sale, Church of St. Clement Parking Lot, 1701 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA,

Saturday, April 30, 1 – 4 pm (rain date: May 1, 1 – 4 pm), Long Branch Native Plant Sale, Long Branch Nature Center, 625 S. Carlin Springs Road, Arlington, VA 22204. Pre-order information and other details are at:

Saturday, April 30, 8 – 11 am, Friends of Riverbend Park annual spring native plant sale, at the Great Falls Grange Pavilion, 9818 Georgetown Pike in Great Falls, Va. See: for details.

Sunday, May 1, 2016, 10 am – 2 pm, Earth Sangha Wild Plant Nursery Plant Sale and Open House, Franconia Park, Cloud Drive, Springfield, VA. See for plants and directions.

Saturday, May 7, 9 am – 12 pm, Prince William Wildflower Society Native Plant Sale, Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 8712 Plantation Lane, Manassas, VA 20110 (Contact:

Saturday, May 14, 9 am – 3 pm, Green Spring Garden Day. Sale includes native plant sales from VNPS-Potowmack propagation beds behind the Horticulture Center. There are both native and nonnative plant vendors on the lawn, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA 22312,

2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service Opportunities

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is a nationally recognized day of service. ARMN welcomes members of the public to join master naturalists for a number of earth-friendly projects to honor the spirit of Dr. King. Here is a list of activities both for the weekend prior to MLK Day as well as the official holiday, Monday January 18, 2016. We hope to see you at one or more of these events that will make a significant difference to the health of our local environment.

  • Culpepper Garden Invasive Plant Removal

Join neighbors and ARMN volunteers in bringing the grounds of Culpepper Garden back to a healthy natural state. Culpeper Garden is a model, nonprofit senior residential community in the heart of Arlington.

Times: 9:30 am – 12 pm and/or 12 – 2 pm, Monday, January 18

Location: 4435 North Pershing Drive, Arlington

Contact Pat Findikoglu ( or Caroline Haynes ( if you plan to attend.

  • Arlington Habitat Restoration at Long Branch Nature Center 

Help out LBNC’s old growth forest by removing invasive exotic plants in and around it. The event is open to age 8 and up. No registration is required.

Time: 2 – 4 pm Monday, January 18

Location: Long Branch Nature Center Park, 625 S. Carlin Springs Rd., Arlington (Meet in parking lot.)

Contact Steve Young (, 703-966-2966, or Long Branch Nature Center, 703-228-6535 for information.

  • Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve Invasive Plant Removal

Join the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust and the Friends of Dyke Marsh to help remove invasive plants from beautiful Dyke Marsh.

Time: 10 am – 12:30 pm, Monday, January 18

Location: Meet in the South Parking Lot of the Belle Haven Picnic Area of Dyke Marsh. See the Friends of Dyke Marsh website for more information about the marsh and for directions (

Contact: Daniel Saltzberg (, 703-354-5093 by Monday, January 11.

Notes: Dress in layers and bring water, gloves, and clippers if you have them (if not, they will be provided).

  • Alternative Plant Removal Date for Madison Manor 

See details below for invasive plant pull at Madison Manor Park on Saturday, January 16. In case of inclement weather, the event will take place on January 18.

Can’t volunteer on MLK Day itself? Consider these other service opportunities on Saturday, January 16, of the holiday weekend:

  • Winter Tree ID and RiP Invasive Plant Pull at Tuckahoe Park, January 16 

ARMN member Mary McLean will conduct a winter tree identification and follow it with removal of invasive plants at Tuckahoe Park.

Time: 9 – 9:45 am (tree ID); 10 am – 12 pm (invasives pull), January 16

Location: Tuckahoe Park, 2400 North Sycamore St., Arlington

Contact: Mary McLean (, 703-966-2047

  • Madison Manor Park Invasive Plant Removal, January 16 

Resume work on a beautiful park in need of additional attention.

Time: 2 – 4 pm, January 16

Location: Meet at the Madison Manor sign near 11th Road North, 12th Road North, and Ohio Street

Contact: Jo Allen, (, 703-474-2671

Notes: Some tools will be available, but bring pruners, loppers, and work gloves if you have them. In case of inclement weather (below freezing, heavy rain, dangerous ice), meet instead from 2 – 4 pm. Monday, January 18, at the same intersection.

  • Fraser Preserve Barberry Plant Removal January 16 

Join ARMN volunteer Margaret Chatham who will lead two efforts to remove barberry plants from Fraser Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property in Great Falls.

Time: 12 – 3 pm, January 16.

Location: See details in “Contact,” below.

Contact Margaret Chatham ( both to confirm your place in the day’s crew and where we’ll be meeting that day, which may be either at the entry to the preserve (park at the corner of Allenwood & Springvale Road) or at Camp Fraser (drive all the way to the north end of Springvale: take the hilly gravel portion of the road very slowly!)

Notes: Plan to remove any red berries from the plants (bags provided), then get the crowns out of the ground. Wear heavy leather gloves, in addition to dressing for the weather and being off trail in the woods. Bring a garden fork if you have one, water, and any snacks you’ll need. Work can progress with snow on the ground, but will be canceled if the ground is frozen or the weather is really nasty. If weather is questionable and you are uncertain about a cancellation, please call Margaret Chatham ONLY after 11AM on the day of the event at 703-785-8175. (Phone inoperative at other times.)

Chestnut Planting Update

In December 2013, Arlington County Forester Vincent Verweij supervised the planting of 20 American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) saplings in a number of locations in the county. The saplings, which had been grown at the Earth Sangha nursery in Springfield, were planted in small groups at Benjamin Banneker Park, Bluemont Park, Fort C.F. Smith, Fort Scott, Glencarlyn Park, Gulf Branch and Long Branch Nature Centers, and an experimental site along Route 50. They represented a tangible hope that the iconic American tree might be restored to areas in which it once thrived. (See the February 5, 2014, ARMN in Action post for the original story.)

As the second anniversary of the chestnut planting approached, Verweij checked on all the planting sites to evaluate how they had fared in the past two years. Here are his notes (and photos) from his visits:

Benjamin Banneker: One survivor, doing great!

American Chestnut

Bluemont: One survivor. Got chomped by deer, but still alive.


Fort C.F. Smith: Could not find surviving trees, but it was not an ideal spot for chestnuts. Did find one twig that appeared to be American Chestnut, without life on it.

Fort Scott: Could not find any either.  Also hard to investigate.

Glencarlyn: Found one survivor. Doing well, but heavily foraged. Gives me some hope that some of the insects that coevolved with chestnuts are still around. More heavily foraged than anything around it.

Glencarlyn Forage

Gulf Branch: At least one survivor, doing well.

Gulf Branch

Long Branch: Could not find any surviving trees. Hard to investigate the site.

Route 50: Mowed over, despite putting in stakes. Figured this would happen, but it was worth a shot.

Verweij pointed out that the the discovery of 4 surviving trees out of 20 planted was “about as good/bad as I expected, to be honest.” His findings seem to validate the dispersed-planting strategy that was used back in 2013. Dispersal, apparently, did create a variety of growing conditions that allowed some of the pioneering saplings to be successful.

Fingers (leaves?) crossed for the survivors!

Fall is a Great Time to Plant Trees and Perennials: Especially Natives!

by Kasha Helget

An avid native-plant gardener, ARMN communications chair Kasha Helget points you toward native plants and plant sales for your fall gardening needs.


New England Aster in November

Autumn is one of the best times to install plants. You may ask, “Why? We may be able to enjoy them only for a couple of months, and they may not even bloom before winter.”

The reason is that conditions may be perfect to give a plant its best start so you can enjoy them for years to come. The soil is still warm, so the roots become established before the plant goes dormant. Cooler air temperatures do not stress the parts above the soil, so there is much less plant shock when you install them in your landscape. There are also many plants that bloom in the fall and have great winter interest. Best of all, you and your garden will have a jump on the spring season as the new plants emerge, ready to delight you all year.

Why are natives particularly attractive?

Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. They do not require the fertilizers and pesticides that lawns and many nonnative perennials do, and when installed in the right spot, will need less water and help prevent erosion. And they’re not just pretty; they do double duty as nectar, pollen, and seed sources for native butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. Most nonnatives cannot make that claim.


Goldenrod in September

How can you know the right spot in your yard for plants?

While there always is some trial and error with any gardening, the Plant NoVA Natives website ( has made the process so much easier for everyone. Whether you’re an expert gardener or a beginner, the Plant NoVA Natives site provides detailed information and photos about plants local to Northern Virginia so you can choose native species that are suited to your property. The website includes a colorful guide to local natives, a list of local businesses that supply them, and links to organizations that will come to your property and offer customized landscaping recommendations.


Obedient Plants in September

So, where can you get these great natives?

There a number of fall native plant sales around the area. Here are the dates and locations of those that provide reliable stock, and where you can receive guidance from sellers who know their plants well. Happy planting!

Wednesday, September 2, October 7, and November 4, 2015, 10 am to 1 pm, Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) Potowmack Chapter First Wednesday Sales, Green Spring Gardens Park, propagation beds behind the Horticulture Center, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA.

Saturday, September 12, 2015, 9 am to 3 pm, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Fall Native Plant Sale, Morven Park, 17263 Southern Planter Lane, Leesburg, VA (

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 9 am to 3 pm, Green Spring Fall Garden Day, VNPS-Potowmack propagation beds behind the Horticulture Center, and some native-plant vendors mixed in with the nonnative vendors, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA 22312 (

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 1pm to 4pm, Long Branch Nature Center Native Plant Sale, 625 Carlin Springs Road, Arlington, VA (

Saturday, September 26, 2015, 9am to 2pm, Northern Alexandria Native Plant Sale (formerly Parkfairfax Plant Sale), Church of St. Clement, 1701 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA (

Sunday, September 27, 2015, 10 am to 2 pm, Earth Sangha Open House and Plant Sale, Cloud Drive entrance to Franconia Park, Springfield, VA 22150. See for plants and directions.

Preorder Plants for Pickup at the City of Alexandria Fall 2015 Tree & Shrub Sale. Place orders by September 27th for various native trees and shrubs for pickup on October 3 between 10am and 2pm at the Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center, 5750 Sanger Ave, Alexandria, VA 22311. All plants are $20 each. See Fall2015AlexandriaTreeSale_Final for plant descriptions, ordering information, and contacts.

Application Period Now Open for ARMN Fall 2015 Training Class

Adults, standing in marsh, looking through binoculars at something

Picture yourself here!

Taking the ARMN basic training course changed my life. It opened up so many opportunities to meet great people, get outdoors, and educate the community about nature and its preservation.

                                                                 ~a current ARMN-certified master naturalist

Have a passion for nature? Want to learn how to channel that passion and share it with your community? Apply now to train as a certified master naturalist through ARMN’s 14-week Fall 2015 basic training class. No prior experience is necessary.

ARMN  will be holding daytime basic training beginning September 14 through December 14, 2015. Classes will be held on Mondays from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington, and at other locations around the area. (There will be no class on October 12.) Classroom training generally will be scheduled for the mornings with field training to follow in the afternoons.

Apply by filling out the application available through the Apply tab above and returning it to Long Branch by mail or in person no later than August 17, 2015. Space in this popular course is limited, so act now.

Have a question? Ask it through the Contact Us portal above.

Earth Month 2015: Ways to Show You Care

April is Earth Month, and events to commemorate Earth Day’s 45th anniversary are right around the corner! Here are a number of opportunities––open to all––to participate in cleanups, view gardens with native plants that beautify and support local wildlife, learn how to take care for the environment, and celebrate our home on Earth.

Spring Garden Tour in Arlington Forest, Sunday April 19, 12 – 4 pm

233 N. Galveston St., Arlington VA, and 210 N. Evergreen St., Arlington, VA. Visit two properties in the same neighborhood with different approaches to native-plant gardening. This event is sponsored by the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society and is free and open to the public. No reservations are necessary.

Alexandria Earth Day Celebration!, Saturday, April 25, 10 am – 2 pm

Ben Brenman Park, 4800 Brenman Park Drive [].This free event will include children’s activities, exhibits by community groups, food sales, tree sales, recycling, an Arbor Day tree planting, and a musical performance.

You can also show your concern for Mother Earth by participating in these volunteer opportunities::

Saturday, April 18, 2 – 4 pm, Madison Manor Park,

6225 12th Rd. N., Arlington, VA. Contact: Jo Allen, 703-474-2671,

Saturday, April 18, 10 am – 12 pm, Tuckahoe Park,

2400 N. Sycamore St., Arlington, VA. Contact: Mary McLean, 703-966-2047,

Sunday, April 19, 2 – 5 pm, Long Branch Park,

625 S. Carlin Springs Rd., Arlington, VA. Contact: Steve Young, 571-388-8508,

Saturday, April 25, 10 am – 3 (Lunch included!), Arlington Mill/ Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing site along Four Mile Run, 909 S. Dinwiddie St. (on Columbia Pike), Arlington, VA. Contact: Patricia Findikoglu, 703-975-8292,

Saturday, April 25, 10 am – 12 pm, Benjamin Banneker Park,

6620 N. 18th St., Arlington, VA. Contact: Eric Sword, 571-338-8508,

Sunday, April 26, 10 am – 12 pm, Ft. Bennett Park,

2220 N. Scott St., Arlington, VA. Contact: Mary McCutcheon, 703-217-8850,







Got CabIn Fever? Try the Invasives-Pull Cure!

Barcroft workgroup posed with ARMN banner

Photo by Jim Hurley

Does this grinding winter weather have you feeling cooped up and claustrophobic? Get out and get moving at one of March’s scheduled invasive pulls. Take out your frustrations on plants that don’t belong in our area’s lovely parks. Dress for the weather, wear rugged shoes or boots, and bring your own gloves and drinking water.

The public is welcome to join the efforts of ARMN members and others at any of these events. Those with a * occur regularly. If the weather is iffy, contact the listed organizer for event status.

*First Saturday HOG (Haley Park, Oakridge, Gunston) Pull, March 7

2400 S. Meade St., Arlington, 9 to 11 am                                                                             Contact Marti Klein:

Monticello Park Invasives Pull, March 7 & 8

320 Beverly Drive, Alexandria, 1 to 3 pm Saturday & 2 to 4 pm Sunday                             Contact Phil Klingelhofer:

*Second Sunday Gulf Branch Park Invasives Pull, March 8

3608 Military Rd., Arlington, 2 to 4:30 pm                                                                             Contact Jen Soles:

*Third Saturday Tuckahoe Invasives Pull, March 21

6550 26th St. N., Arlington, 10 am to 12 pm                                                                       Meet at school parking lot.                                                                                                   Contact Mary McLean:

*Third Saturday Madison Manor Park Invasives Pull, March 21

6625 12th Rd. N., Arlington, 2 to 4 pm                                                                                 Contact  Jo Allen:

*Third Sunday Long Branch Park Invasives Pull, March 15

625 S. Carlin Springs Rd., Arlington, 2 to 5 pm                                                                     Contact Steve Young:

*Fourth Sunday Fort Bennett Park Invasives Pull, March 22

2200 N. Scott St., Arlington, 10 am to 12 pm                                                                       Contact Mary McCutcheon:

*Fourth Saturday Benjamin Banneker Park Invasives Pull, March 28

6620 18th St. N., Arlington, 10 am to 12 pm                                                                       Contact Eric Sword:

Powhatan Springs Park Invasives Pull, March 28

6020 Wilson Boulevard, 10 am to 12 pm                                                                          Contact Bill Browning:

Under the Ice

By Cliff Fairweather

Long Branch naturalist Cliff Fairweather reveals the secrets beneath the  surface of winter freeze.




Snapping Turtle under the ice at Poplar Pond, Long Branch NC (Photo by Cliff Fairweather)

In summer, the ponds at Long Branch and Gulf Branch Nature Centers are a lively places. Green Frogs and bullfrogs sit along the edge or float in the water. Turtles bask on logs and rocks. Northern Watersnakes lie in the sun or patrol the water for frogs to eat. Dragonflies and damselflies zip about in aerial duels or in pursuit of prey.  Green Herons silently stalk fish and frogs.

As fall advances and the weather turns colder, this activity slows and finally ceases, at least above the surface. Beneath the surface, though, the ponds are full of life, even when they are covered by ice. One of the many unusual properties of water is that it gets less dense and lighter as it approaches the freezing point.

Like most substances, water becomes denser and heavier as it gets colder. Water, however, does something odd––it starts to get less dense and lighter after it falls below 39o F (3.8o C). As a result, water colder than 39o F rises above the warmer water. At 32o F (0o C) water turns to ice, which floats on top of the slightly warmer water underneath.

If it didn’t, our ponds would freeze from the bottom up and probably remain mostly frozen all year round. Very little, if any, life could survive in that environment. This is especially important for animals that spend the winter underwater.

Bullfrogs and Green Frogs hibernate at the bottom of the ponds, breathing through their skin. Frogs usually lie on the bottom rather than dig into the oxygen-poor mud because they maintain a relatively high (though still pretty slow) metabolism during hibernation. If they burrowed into the mud, they couldn’t get enough oxygen to survive.

Painted, snapping, and other native aquatic turtles also breathe through their skin during hibernation, but maintain a much lower metabolism than frogs. Consequently, they need less oxygen and can afford to bury themselves in the mud.

In more northern latitudes, where ice can cover ponds and lakes for months and oxygen can be depleted, turtles have another trick up their shell. They can switch to anaerobic respiration, meaning respiration without oxygen.

However, this trick can result in a lethal buildup of acid in their bodies. To counter this, turtles can use buffering agents in their bodies, including the calcium in their shells and bones, to neutralize the acid. Turtles can survive for months this way with little or no oxygen!

Both frogs and turtles sometimes become active under the ice and can be seen moving slowly about. You might also get a glimpse of other winter-active pond life, including fish or aquatic insects such as Water Boatmen and Predaceous Diving Beetles. As cold as it is, the water under the ice is still warmer than the often subfreezing temperatures on land.

MLK Day Service Opportunities

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is now nationally recognized as a day of service. On January 19, join ARMN volunteers and other like-minded community members at these earth-friendly projects at the times and locations listed. You can also take advantage of upcoming weekend service opportunities listed here in the spirit of Dr. King. We hope to see you at one or more of these events, which are open to the public.

  • ARMN and APAH Join to Save Trees from English Ivy

ARMN will partner with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to train and lead volunteers in saving trees from the choking hazard of English Ivy at the APAH Columbia Grove property and nearby Bailey’s Branch Park.

Time: Volunteers are needed for both morning and afternoon shifts

Location: Columbia Grove is at 1010 S. Frederick St., Arlington

Contact: Please register with Emily Button ( if you plan to come.

  • Invasive Plant Removal at Gulf Branch Nature Center

Gulf Branch naturalist Jen Soles will lead an invasive plant pull at the park.

Time: 1 – 4 pm

Location: Gulf Branch Nature Center, 3608 Military Rd., Arlington

Contact: Jen Soles (

  • Fraser Preserve Japanese Barberry Removal

ARMN volunteer Margaret Chatham will lead removal of Japanese Barberry from Fraser Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property in Great Falls.

Time: 12 – 4 pm

Location: Meet at corner of Springvale Rd. and Allenwood Lane, Great Falls (street parking)

What to wear/bring: Wear layers, sturdy, waterproof boots, and heavy leather gloves. Bring own water (There are no “facilities,” though.); garden forks and strong hand clippers are optional.

Contact: E-mail Margaret Chatham ( if you plan to come. Call 703.785.8175 after 11 am on MLK Day to check on conditions or if you arrive after the group has gone into the woods. (This number not answered at other times.)

Note: Workday cancelled for frozen ground or heavy precipitation.

Can’t volunteer on MLK Day itself? Consider these two service opportunities on the holiday weekend:

  • Winter Tree ID and RiP Invasive Plant Pull at Tuckahoe Park, January 17

ARMN member Mary McLean will conduct a winter tree identification and follow it with removal of invasive plants at Tuckahoe Park.

Time: 9 – 9:45 am (tree ID); 10 am – 12 pm (invasives pull)

Location: Tuckahoe Park, 2400 North Sycamore St., Arlington

Contact: Mary McLean (

  • Third-Sunday RiP Invasive Pull at Long Branch Park, January 18

ARMN volunteer Steve Young will lead the monthly invasive plant pull at Long Branch Park.

Time: 2 – 4 pm

Location: Long Branch Nature Center Park, 625 S. Carlin Springs Rd., Arlington (Meet in parking lot)

Contact: Steve Young (

Meet the Litter Critters

Cliff Fairweather
Park Naturalist, Long Branch Nature Center

It happens every autumn, the leaves turn color and then drop to the ground. So why don’t the leaves pile up to the branches, along with all the twigs, branch, and logs that fall throughout the year? A vast army of organisms recycles all that organic material back into the soil, releasing nutrients that support new plant growth. This critical task goes on virtually unseen by the most humans.

Fungi and bacteria do the heavy lifting in this world, decomposing of 80 – 90% of forest detritus. But other than mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi, they are mostly visible only under high magnification. More visible, if you know how to see them, are a wide variety of animals that also play an important role in breaking down all that stuff that falls from the trees. Though some of them are microscopic or nearly so, others are visible with the naked eye or with a magnifier.

Collectively, these animals are often called litter critters, since they dwell in the leaf litter covering the forest floor. Perhaps the best know litter critters are earthworms, which emerge from their burrows at night to feed on dead leaves. Another familiar litter critter is the roly-poly or pill bug. Roly-polies are crustacean rather than an insects and breathe through gills. To keep their gills moist, roly-polies usually stay in the moist microclimate under leaves, logs, or other cover.

A pseudoscorpion uncovered during a ARMN litter critter ID  class, October 5, 2014 (Photo by Cliff Fairweather)

Ready for its closeup: A pseudoscorpion uncovered during an ARMN litter critter ID class, October 5, 2014. (Photo by Cliff Fairweather)

Other readily visible litter critters include slugs, snails, millipedes, adult beetles, beetle grubs, and fly larvae. Much smaller, and usually found under logs, termites play a huge role in decomposing fallen branches and logs. This is because they are among the few animals capable of digesting cellulose, the major component of wood. Smaller still are various springtails (of the order Collembola) and mites. These are best appreciated through a hand lens, although you might spot a bright red velvet mite walking across the dead leaves.

Not all litter critters eat leaf litter. Spiders, centipedes, ground beetles and other tiny predators search the forest floor for other litter critters. And the danger isn’t limited to predatory invertebrates. Salamanders, relative giants in this world, feed on predators and detritivores alike. It’s a real jungle down there!

You can get a glimpse of this world by sifting a few handfuls of leaf litter through some hardware cloth onto a white sheet. Watch for tiny creatures moving a few moments after you stop sifting. A small jar or bug box will help you detain some of these critters for a closer look. But be sure to them back in the leaf litter to continue their important work. They might be tiny, but they are essential to the health of the forest.