Summer on a Shoestring

Roots, Rhizotrons, and Root Beer by Craig See
June 25, 2011, 10:39 pm
Filed under: Cooking in the white house, Fertilization, Minirhizotrons, Roots

When the last of our plots were fertilized at Hubbard and Jeffer’s Brooks, the shoestring crew let out a great collective sigh of relief.  Everyone was full of the sense of accomplishment that comes only after the most arduous of tasks has been completed. If the shakers of phosphorus had contained parmasian cheese instead, we could easily have coated what is left of Mannattan’s Little Italy.  If the nitrogen prills had been grains of dry sticky rice, we could have gotten most of Chinatown (These are metaphors that come to mind when you’re hungry, and caked in a layer of sweat, DEET, and monosodium phosphate with nothing to look forward to but a soggy PB&J.)  There was a sense that we had done the impossible.  And no one need worry about doing it again for six weeks!

Lin and Amos celbrating the end of fertilization

With fertilization Leviathan vanquished, everyone was looking forward to a few lab days.  The decision to postpone the summer inventory however, quickly turned this into a few weeks.  This year’s summer lab work consists mainly of sorting through root cores pulled from our plots last year.  Each core has been separated by depth (0-10 cm, and 10-30 cm).  It has been the crew’s charge to cleanly remove the tree roots from these piles of sand, rocks and humus, and sort them into two categories based on diameter.  As the vast majority of these roots fall into the “less than one millimeter diameter” class, the job has proved much more tedious than it sounds.  (Think thousands of very small, hair-like, fragile needles in a sometimes sandy, always thoroughly decomposed haystack.)  The blackfly bites on Lin’s arms had hardly finished scabbing over before she was asking about when she could get back out in the field.

Shinjini pickin’ roots

It was at this low point in moral that Neal came through like a glimmering patronus in the night with all seven Harry Potter novels on his computer.  Most of the crew was at least familiar with the storyline from the movies, but like most novels put on the big screen, the Hollywood portrayal is little more than a bastardized version of the real thing.  Harry’s adventures have helped everyone through what would have otherwise been another daunting task.  The sinister doings of Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters have become a frequent topic of dinner conversation (along with nutrient co-limitation and resource optimization theory of course), and many a work day has continued past the normal 4:30 quit time in order to finish a root core (and a chapter).  And so the rest of June has passed with the crew huddled around a table in the lab like a bunch of eager and willing house elves peering over piles of roots on wet paper towels with forceps in hands.  As there is still the better part of a freezer full of root cores left, we have been recently assured that reinforcements will be helping us out from Tim Fahey’s lab at Cornell (similar to the arrival of the Order of the Phoenix swooping in to assist Dumbledore’s army in the Department of Mysteries).


The grad students, while often picking roots, have been struggling though trials and tribulations of their own.  Kikang has been having her own root problems, with the shorting out of her minirhizotron (a camera designed to gauge root growth at different soil depths over time).  The power cord on the camera had to be twisted back and forth with every measurement, until what was going on below ground was eventually illuminated on the laptop screen, and a photo series could be taken.  This could take several minutes, and worsened with each progressing site.  Eventually the poor machine gave out altogether.  She is currently en route to California for rehabilitation (the minirhizotron, not Kikang).  Meanwhile, Shinjini and Craig were trying to sort out inventory files and organize two years of litter collections in the lab, so that the occasional mutterings from behind their computer screens were the only thing punctuating the amazingly versatile voice of Jim Dale (narrator of the Harry Potter series).

The minirhizotron inaction: Lin twists the wire attempting get an image

Mealtimes at the white house have offered well needed and deserved repose from the daily goings on at Bartlett.  With a field crew hailing from places as far as China, Malaysia, Korea, India, and Hawaii, (as well as Oregon, Vermont, New York, and Minnesota), dinner has been a delightful mixture of pan-Asian, and US cuisine, replete with deserts.  Highlights have been some amazing fried rice and stir-fries, seaweed soups, curries, and every form of potatoes imaginable.  Russell, our newest addition from Hawaii, has promised us something with Spam soon, although Craig pointed out that to be fair, Spam is produced by the good people at Hormel located in the beautiful state of Minnesota.  In keeping with the recent theme of belowground biomass, all of the international students recently experienced root beer for the first time (in float form, of course).


In an attempt to cut down on the food budget, and be a little more sustainable, Lin and Craig have planted a small garden inthe back yard, although the only things that seem to be thriving thus far are the radishes.  The point has recently been raised that we still have a half ton of fertilizer on hand in the lab, and maybe we should do our own backyard experiment on nutrient co-limitation in a common root vegetable of the Brassicaceae family.  Unfortunately, our sample size is too small for a full factorial design.

the garden

The past week has included the added stress of handing in proposals for summer projects.  With the Hubbard Brook annual cooperator’s meeting less than two weeks away, projects are on everyone’s mind.  It is common knowledge that Matt Vadeboncoeur is an encyclopedia of all things relating to the Bartlett stands and the Shoestring project as a whole.  Since his arrival 48 hours ago, he has been bombarded with questions about the sites from every direction.  Undoubtedly Microsoft PowerPoint will be open on every laptop in Bartlett over the next week and a half.  Half of the crew will spend Monday through Thursday camping at Sleeper’s River measuring tree DBH’s during the day, and probably making slides while listening to Harry Potter in their tents at night.

Everyone is looking forward to the meeting with anticipation.  When it’s over we will be back in the field for the second fertilization, meticulously shaking out enough sugar to cover every cup coffee being slurped in SoHo, and throwing down enough rock salt to cover every square inch of the wound that is Wall Street.  Plans for a day long near-marathon (25 mile) hike across the peaks of the Presidential range are also in the works.  That’s all for now.


June 14th to June 18th

Early this week Corrie, JiYoung, and Cole roughed it out in C1, doing the seedling/herb inventory in transects and permanent plots (pictured below). Kikang trained Gavin on how to measure soil respiration at the same time.

We have found some some “bear-tivity” in our stands. At C7, they were most interested in our beer cans that top the minirhizotrons. Minirhizotrons are clear tubes we place into the ground to look at roots. Nat Cleavitt, Tim Fahey and others have used them in another study to look at root injury associated with soil freezing in the Hubbard Brook (click here to see their paper published in 2008). The minirhizotrons work in such a way that you insert a camera down the length of the tube to view the roots that come into contact with the side of the tubes. They can viewed over time to see changes underground, or in our case hopefully see new root growth as a response to fertilization treatments. We use soda and beer cans (washed and with the tops are cut off) taped to the top of the tubes so they keep light and water out. So who knew bears preferred Pabst Blue Ribbon? Luckily the tubes are not disturbed more than the cans and foam being ripped out (we put foam insulation inside them to help dissipate heat). Btw, at C1 we also had one laundry basket (used to collect leaf litter) casualty. It was upturned, with some good sized teeth marks. This is why we have replicates within plots! Well not the only reason, but anywho…

This week we also had a stellar leaf litter sorting training sesh with Cindy Wood. She hails from Bethlehem, NH and traveled all the way to Bartlett to teach us how to identify leaf litter that has been sitting in laundry baskets for a field season (it’s much more difficult than fresh litter right off the tree!). We learned that the littler hairs on the back of a yellow birch and white birch can be used to distinguish the two from each other (yellow birch hairs go parallel to the main vein, where white birch they are perpendicular, talk about tedious work). We also learned that the two species can hybridize a lot so if you can tell the species from the shape of the leaf that is the quickest way to ID them. Thanks to her excellent examples, the crew has been sorting up a storm! We are making our way through our litter sorting duties for the summer.

Thursday and Friday the crew spent working at Hubbard Brook, and Jeffers Brook (in Woodsville, NH). We had an ambitious plan to complete the trenching, soil sampling, and seedling/herb inventory at these stands, so of course it rained hard!

This afforded us the chance to spend some time with Nat Cleavitt and the veg crew over in Hubbard Brook sorting litter samples. They even helped us identify our unknown species from our Jeffers Brook veg surveys, those girls know their plants!

Luckily we have a dedicated crew and still finished most of the tasks on our list. Gavin and I finished the last trench at JB. It was interesting that 2 of the 8 trenches at JB we found earthworms (in plots 3 and 4). Plot 3 had the most abundant number of them. Over a dozen in one trench, if I remember right. We find this interesting as ecologists doing a nutrient cycling study because earthworms can greatly influence the physical and chemical soil environment. (Check out this paper by Bohlen and others that describes earthworm impacts on C and N storage in forest soils or  this one by Li and others that describes their impact upon microbes in the forest soil). We also heard some loons and bull frogs calling as we finished our last trench, something we don’t hear often at our stands.

After a long week in the field, on my way back to Bartlett that Friday night I came upon a bad motorcycle accident on the hairpin turn on the Kank. It was bike week in Laconia, so there were lots of bikers out enjoying the beautiful (but sometimes dangerous) seasonal by-ways we have here in NH. Unfortunately with no helmet law, bad accidents can be worse. Thanks to Ruth sending her first aid kits along to the field crew, I had one in the back of my car and was able to help out some of the hurt cyclists. The crew and I talked about safe-driving on these long and winding roads, and we all hope that the injured parties are on their way to a good recovery.

On a lighter note…

Menu Items from the White House

This week we are happy to share with you two recipes that Gavin’s mom was delighted to share with the crew! (In her words, “I can’t believe I’m swapping recipes with Gavin!”. We thank her, because they produced some delicious meals!

Minestrone Soup

Brown 1 lb sausage or hamburger(look for lean), drain and then add two
chopped onions and 2 cloves garlic finely chopped.  Save time and only
brown the meat and add the onions and garlic later.

Add 8 c water, 28 oz can crushed tomatoes, 3 tsp beef bouillon, 1 tsp
Italian seasoning, 1/4 tsp ground pepper, 2 medium carrots sliced and
pared, 2 stalks celery chopped, 2 potatoes chopped.   Bring to a boil
and then reduce heat and cook till veggies are tender.  (15 minutes or
so) Add 15 oz can garbanzo beans(or sometimes called chick peas) 9 oz
can green beans, 1 small can kidney beans, and 4 oz pasta( optional)
and cook till pasta is cooked.

Strawberry Shortcake

6 servings, 4 for dinner servings

2 quarts Strawberries
1/3 to 1/2 c sugar   depending on how sweet you want it.
1/2 pint whipping cream

2 c flour
3 Tablespoons sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/3 c shortening(white crisco)
2/3 to 3/4 c milk

An hour or more before eating, wash berries and shake gently dry.
Remove caps and slice add sugar and stir every once and a while to
bring the juice.   Put in the refrigerator.

Whip cream with electric mixer hand held or stand, and add 1 tsp
vanilla and 1/2 c sugar.  Beat till whipped cream.  The cream should
hold a peak if the beater is removed.   Put in refrigerator.

Mix all dry ingredients, cut in shortening with fork or pastry blender
Mix in milk.  Either put into 8 or 9 inch cake pan, or use 8 inch
square pan.  OR you can roll them out.   Bake at 450 for 12-15
minutes.   You do not want these too brown or raw.  Make these up
fresh just before serving.

To serve cut in 4 pieces, split each piece and fill with strawberries
and cream  OR split whole cake in half horizontally and fill with
cream and strawberries and then put top on and repeat.   I do not do
it this way, because it is not as good soggy as leftovers!