On February 12, Bethel resident Brett Lehner parked his truck and trekked through the swamp to reach a thick patch of reeds at Blackman Preserve in Newtown. Small plot of land owned by the Newtown Forest Association (NFA) next to the intersection of Blackman and Tunnel Roads.
The sound of traffic driving nearby can be heard, but once it sinks among the 10 to 12 foot tall reeds swaying in the wind, a sense of peace settles in.
Lehner has volunteered with the NFA and the Newtown Land Trust for several years working on various environmental projects at the Holcombe Hill Nature Preserve. He also volunteers at the Bethel Land Trust.
A current initiative he has pioneered over the past four years involves harvesting reeds, specifically phragmites australis.
In a Newtown Land Trust newsletter, Lehner details, “Phragmites australis is a grass now common in New England wetlands, although it has been part of the American landscape for only the last four hundred years, having been introduced in colonial times to it. used in colonial thatched roofs. Prior to the introduction of phragmites australis to the Americas, reed was used for thousands of years in Europe as a roofing material for houses and barns.
After its introduction in the United States, it began to spread throughout wetlands where it overshadowed and outmaneuvered competing native species. As a result, there is a decrease in the biodiversity of plants and animals in the area.
Today, some people remove them using chemical herbicides or lawn mowers, but Lehner has opted to manually remove them and reuse them. The optimal time to access the reeds is when the swamp is completely frozen, so that people can walk on the ice and not sink into the wetland mud.
Lehner admits that it’s been a difficult season to do a lot of harvests because of the warm winter temperatures.
“I can only come out here one day this year. It was a very cold day when the Arctic freeze occurred,” he said. “Last year I had a week-long window, and the year before I felt like I had a two-week window.”
When Lehner was in the wetlands, he cut the reeds with sickles, which are short-handled agricultural implements with semicircular blades. The stalks are dry from last season’s growth and hollow, allowing for a quick harvest.
Lehner shares that the activity is a “stress reliever” for him and one he has also done with his friends in the past.
He explains the process, saying, “We cut it at the root and take the aerial part. Because the root is still intact, it can grow back; but by cutting them off, it allows more light into the wetlands, so other plants that are usually outcompeted – such as cattails – can grow better. Harvesting also provides a better opportunity for birds to enter.”
When Lehner had gathered a bunch of reeds, he used burlap to tie them together, then cut off the thin tops of the reeds. Doing the latter helps limit the seeds from airborne dispersal and spreading non-native reeds.
“I am very grateful to the NFA for allowing us to do this on their land,” said Lehner. “NFA is a leader in conservation and is open to projects like this. They are always open to new, exciting things.”
In recent years, Lehner has used harvested reeds to make the roof of a shed on his grandparents’ Bethel property, where he led small demonstrations using thatch.
She learned this dying art, as well as other natural building techniques, through a special program she joined in 2014. She spent a month in Oxford, Michigan, learning traditional roofing from Deanne Bednar, a teacher of traditional skills at the nonprofit, Strawbale Studio. .
Lehner found that reeds provide “good insulative value” and are a sustainable “green roofing material.”
“For me and my friends, we are very amateur haymakers,” he adds. “There are skill levels. Some people dedicate their entire lives to learning the straw craft.”
This year, the reeds he and his fellow volunteers harvest will be donated to an indigenous nonprofit, the Taino Woods Sanctuary in Harris, New York. The Newtown Land Trust reports that the organization is “working to increase literacy and ecological relationships” and will use the reeds “in the construction of the roofs of traditional prayer huts”.
Lehner noted, “I would work with them to show them how to make hay too.”
Lehner’s volunteerism is not only focused on harvesting Imperata and thatch, but also on advocating for communities to better understand and connect with ecosystems.
“I like working with phragmites, because it’s a slightly tricky plant. I think when people interact with invasive species it can often be very negative and just eliminate them using extreme measures. With phragmites and every other plant, I thought, ‘How can we build a healthy relationship with these plants to bring greater balance to the whole ecosystem?’” said Lehner.
After four years of harvest, the reeds are now less dense in Blackman Preserve than before. More native people grow, and that creates more plant and animal biodiversity for the ecosystem.
As this harvest season has ended, there will be more opportunities in the future to help with this initiative.
“If people want to go out and harvest reeds with us next year, we would love to have volunteers,” said Lehner.
Those interested in volunteering or learning more about hay can email Lehner at [email protected]
Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at [email protected]
Traditional roofing with phragmites australis provides good roof insulation and is a way to take advantage of fast growing invasive reeds, as seen here in a shed built by Brett Lehner. —Brett Lehner’s photo
Brett Lehner of Bethel stands with a bundle of reeds he harvested at Blackman Preserve in Newtown on Sunday February 12. The Newtown Forest Association owns the land, which is next to the intersection of Blackman Road and Tunnel Road. —Bees Photo, Silber
Brett Lehner used his scythe to quickly cut phragmites australis, fast-growing non-native reeds that spread through wetlands and compete with native species. —Bees Photo, Silber
A cut of the australis phragmites reveals the hollow interior of the reed with air. In order to properly harvest Imperata, it must be completely dry from last season’s growth. —Bees Photo, Silber
Brett Lehner used reeds from last year’s harvest at Blackman Preserve to build a roof over his grandparents’ little barn in Bethel. This year, he’s donating reeds to an indigenous nonprofit, the Taino Woods Sanctuary in Harris, New York. —Brett Lehner’s photo