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Volunteer Harvests Reeds For Roof Thatching At Blackman Preserve



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On February 12, Bethel resident Brett Lehner parked his truck and trekked through marsh to get to a dense patch of reeds at Blackman Preserve in Newtown. The small plot of land is owned by Newtown Forest Association (NFA) next to the intersection of Blackman and Tunnel Roads.

The sound of traffic traveling nearby could be heard, but once immersed among the 10- to 12-feet tall reeds swaying in the breeze, a peaceful atmosphere prevailed.

Lehner has been volunteering with NFA and the Newtown Land Trust for several years doing various environmental projects at Holcombe Hill Nature Preserve. He also volunteers with the Bethel Land Trust.

The current initiative he has been spearheading over the last four years involves harvesting reeds, specifically phragmites australis.

In a Newtown Land Trust newsletter, Lehner detailed, “Phragmites australis is a now common grass in the New England wetlands, although it has been part of the American landscape for only the past four hundred years, having been introduced in the colonial period for its use in colonial roof thatching. Prior to the introduction of phragmites australis into the Americas, the reed was used for thousands of years in Europe as a roofing material for homes and barns.”

After it was introduced in the United States it began spreading throughout wetlands where it shaded and out-competed native species. As a result, it decreased both plant and animal biodiversity in those areas.

Today, some people remove it by means of chemical herbicides or mowing machinery, but Lehner has chosen to manually remove it and repurpose it. The optimal time to access the reeds is when the marsh is completely frozen over, so that people can walk on the ice and not sink into the wetland sludge.

Lehner admits that this season has been tricky to do much harvesting due to such warm winter temperatures.

“I was only able to get out here one day this year. It was on a really bitter cold day when the arctic freeze came through,” he said. “Last year I had a week-long window, and the year before that I feel like I had a two-week window.”

When Lehner is in the wetlands, he cuts the reeds with a sickle, which is a short-handled farming tool with a semicircular blade. The stalks are dry from last season’s growth and are hollow, allowing for a quick harvesting process.

Lehner shares that the activity is “a stress reliever” for him and one that he has also been able to do alongside friends in the past.

He explained the process, saying, “We cut it above the roots and take the aerial parts. Since the roots are intact, it can grow back; but by cutting it, it does allow more light into the wetlands, so other plants that it typically outcompetes — like cattails — can grow better. Harvesting also provides better opportunities for birds to come in.”

When Lehner has accumulated a bundle of reeds, he uses a jute string to tie them together, then cuts the wispy tops off the reeds. Doing the latter helps limit the seeds from dispersing into the air and spreading the non-native reed.

“I’m super grateful to the NFA for letting us do this on their land,” Lehner said. “The NFA is a leader in conservation and open to projects such as this. They are always open to new, exciting stuff.”

Traditional Thatching

In past years, Lehner has used the harvested reeds to create roofing for a shed on his grandparents’ property in Bethel, where he has led small thatching demonstrations.

He learned this dying art, as well as other natural building techniques, through a special program he attended in 2014. He spent a month in Oxford, Michigan, learning traditional roof thatching from Deanne Bednar, a traditional skills teacher at the nonprofit, Strawbale Studio.

Lehner finds that the reeds provide “good insulative value” and are a sustainable “green roofing material.”

“For me and my friends, we are very much amateur thatchers,” he added. “There are levels of craftsmanship. Some people dedicate their whole lives to learning the craft of thatching.”

This year, the reeds that he harvested with fellow volunteers will be donated to an indigenous nonprofit, Taino Woods Sanctuary in Harris, New York. Newtown Land Trust reports the organization is “working to improve ecological literacy and relationships” and will use the reeds “in the construction of the roof of a traditional prayer lodge.”

Lehner noted, “I’ll work with them to show them how to do some thatching, too.”

‘Greater Balance’

Lehner’s volunteerism is not just focused on harvesting the reeds and thatching, but also about advocating for people to better understand and connect with the ecosystem.

“I like working with the phragmites, because it is a plant that is a little bit complicated. I think when people interact with invasive species it can often be very negative and just remove it using extreme measures. With phragmites and every other plant, I think, ‘How can we build a healthy relationship with this plant to bring it into greater balance for the whole ecosystem?’” Lehner said.

After four years of harvesting, the reeds are now less dense at Blackman Preserve than they were before. More natives are growing, and it is creating more plant and animal biodiversity for the ecosystem.

While this harvesting season has ended, there will be more opportunities in the future to help this initiative.

“If people want to come out and harvest reeds with us next year, we’d be more than happy to have volunteers,” Lehner said.

Those who are interested in volunteering or learning more about thatching can e-mail Lehner at bclehner1@gmail.com.

Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at alissa@thebee.com.

Traditional roof thatching with phragmites australis provides good roof insulation and is a way to utilize the fast-growing invasive reed, as seen here on a shed that Brett Lehner helped build. —Brett Lehner photo
Brett Lehner of Bethel stands with a bundle of reeds he harvested at Blackman Preserve in Newtown on Sunday February 12. Newtown Forest Association owns the land, which is located next to the intersection of Blackman Road and Tunnel Road. —Bee Photo, Silber
Brett Lehner uses a sickle to swiftly cut phragmites australis, a fast-growing non-native reed that spreads through wetlands and out-competes native species. —Bee Photo, Silber
Cutting phragmites australis reveals the inside of the reed is hollow with air. To properly harvest the reeds, they must be completely dried out from last season’s growth. —Bee Photo, Silber
Brett Lehner used the bundles of reeds from last year’s harvest at Blackman Preserve to create a roof atop a small shed at his grandparents’ property in Bethel. This year, he is donating the reeds to an indigenous nonprofit, Taino Woods Sanctuary in Harris, New York. —Brett Lehner photo
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