Friday, March 27, 2009

Princeton--A Town of Idle Mini-Farms

Sometimes, returning home from travels can cause as much culture shock as going abroad. This time around, driving home after ten days in Spain, my neighborhood in Princeton looked suddenly very strange. Why, I wondered, are all the houses separated one from another? I had gotten used to seeing stand-alone houses in Spain only on farms we passed on the highway. In town, all dwellings were apartments or townhomes.

And what is all this vacant land around each house? What is it for? You mean we have to mow the lawns ourselves, with odd-looking, noisy machines? This perception--this "out of culture" experience--lasted only a few minutes before I again donned my cultural blinders and assumed the way we live our lives is normal.

In Spain (these photos are from the Extremadura region, where Pizarro came from), we only saw large expanses of "lawn" out in the country,

and the mowing was conveniently done by horses, sheep and cattle.

As is the case most anywhere, kids love to run out into a field of low cut grass, but in a pasture the grass is also serving to convert solar energy into something useful. Our lawns may look clean and subdued, but they grow nothing more than yardwaste.

So those were the few minutes of insight, gained through ten days of travel, that though Princeton is a town, it can also be seen as a particularly concentrated gathering of farmhouses, each surrounded by a miniature pasture that has long since forgotten its reason for being. With grazing animals long gone, we mow these pastures, not knowing quite why, other than that everyone else does, and it makes the idle land look tidy.

This is written at a time when two movements are pointing out how potentially useful these clusterings of idle mini-farms could be. The Eat Local movement sings the praises of vegetable gardens--in the backyard or right out front. Portions of schoolyards are being converted to vegetable gardens with great success. And environmentalists are encouraging us to convert parts of our lawns to native plant habitat.

Are these movements to be seen as radical change, or simply a means for the American landscape to find its way home after a very long and curious journey?

Exotic Plants and Disconnected Solar Panels

I tried googling exotic plants and disconnected solar panels, but didn't get much, despite the fact that they have a lot in common. Both plants and solar panels convert solar energy into forms that can be used in natural or human economies. A plant, if wildlife finds its leaves edible, transfers that captured solar energy up the food chain, from leaf to butterfly larva to bird. Solar panels transfer captured solar energy into a grid, to feed the machine world.

The leaves of exotic plant species--those that did not evolve in this area--are generally not edible to local wildlife. Many insect species, for instance, have become over countless millenia very specialized in their tastes, and will only eat certain native species. The energy captured in the foliage of most exotic plants, therefore, does not get transferred up the food chain. In that way, planting exotic plants in the yard is much like installing solar panels that remain unplugged.

The question can come up as to why one would want to plant something in the yard that's just going to get devoured by the local insect life, but there seems to be a balance struck. A few leaves are sacrificed, but the general appearance is not affected. I had one swamp milkweed plant stripped by monarch butterfly larvae, but that's been the exception. The response to that serendipitous "problem" was to plant more milkweeds, so there'd be plenty to go around the next year.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Walls Go Green in Madrid

Here's a figure deep in thought on a plaza in the museum district of Madrid, Spain. It's a beautiful spring day. What could he possibly be so perplexed about?

Nearby, there's a garden with many kinds of flowers, some of which look suspiciously like foamflowers native to the U.S.

Some others look like hostas and wild geraniums. Nothing particularly unusual.

But wait a minute! They're growing on a wall! Now that IS something to puzzle over.

From the side of the wall, it looks like the plants are growing in nothing much more than a thin wool-like fabric with small pockets cut into it, and a strong nylon backing. One thing about wall gardens: They're easy to water. Water is released from the top of the wall and trickles down through all the vegetation below. And you get a big effect while using next to no real estate.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Deciding What Nature To Bring Home

It's usually hard to find the silver lining in back pain, but a few days of incapacitation caused me to glance over at the bedside table and notice a book that had been waiting patiently there for nearly a year. Bringing Nature Home, it's called, by an entomologist named Douglass Tallamy, and inside its cover is a more meaningful journey than I had been managing of late with all powers of mobility intact.

What does a scholar of the insect world have to tell us about our own? Take for instance the decisions many homeowners are making this time of year about what new plants to bring into the garden. We usually make these decisions based on what looks pretty, what will grow to the right size, what will provide privacy or hide an unwanted view.

All of these qualities matter, but if one´s seeking meaning in a garden beyond pleasing views, Tallamy provides as good a guide as any to how your garden can either shun the local ecology or become an integral part thereof. In so doing, he provides answers to some basic questions like the difference between native and exotic plants, and the ecological consequences of planting one or the other. Establish enough of these building blocks of understanding in your thinking, and you´ll begin to see how decisions made about backyard plantings will help determine the fate of many species of wildlife that are becoming ever more marginalized. Each of us in our own small way has the power.

As my back pain (negative but instructive) and the accelerating local initiative to make Princeton more sustainable (highly positive) began mixing with Tallamy´s narrative, I started developing a Unified Theory that would finally explain the hidden connections between nature, local economies, and the ecology of back muscles. All of this may come out in subsequent posts, along with the answer to the question, How is an exotic plant like an unplugged solar panel?

Saturday, March 07, 2009


An important meeting for the environmental future of Princeton is coming up on Wednesday, March 11. The public will get a chance to learn more about and comment on the Sustainable Princeton Plan. This is the document that will guide Princeton's community-wide shift towards greater sustainability. Everyone--residents, schools, businesses, local governments--has both a stake and a hand in this effort. Please come to this event, to learn and give input.

At the March 11th workshop (7 p.m., Suzanne Patterson Center behind Princeton Borough Municipal Building, One Monument Drive), the draft document will be summarized, general comments will be made, and then the participants will break into small working groups to discuss how to carry out specific actions of the plan. Light Refreshments will be available.
For further information, please contact the Princeton Planning Director Lee Solow: 609/924-5366 or

Additional information:

Sustainable Princeton Steering Committee, composed of municipal officials, representatives of Princeton groups and institutions, and local residents invites the public to participate in a Tuesday, March 11th, 7 p.m., workshop at the Suzanne Paterson Center , 1 Monument Drive, Princeton to review and comment upon the Sustainable Princeton Community Plan (SPCP). The draft plan outlines the goals and objectives of the Sustainable Princeton Initiative. The workshop will provide the input needed to finalize the SPCP and to launch the community on a course of achieving – and sustaining - a green and greener Princeton. Copies of the draft are available at the municipal buildings, the public library and online at

The SPCPoutlines goals, identifies the sectors of the communities that would be implementing these goals, and presents action plans for fulfilling the goals, as well as strategies for measuring/tracking progress. The six goals are: green the built environment; improve transit/transportation; build local green economy; protect health and natural resources; curb greenhouse gases; foster community. The sectors - schools, businesses, residents, government - would be tasked with implementing specific action plans.

Sustainable Princeton had its roots within the Princeton Environmental Commission, which asked the municipalities to form a Sustainable Princeton Steering Committee two years ago and to hire New Jersey Sustainable State Institute (NJSSI) to help the municipalities embark upon a cohesive and effective plan to make the Princetons a model of sustainability in New Jersey. With a grant from the Municipal Land Use Center of New Jersey, the municipalities were able to sustain the Sustainable Princeton Initiative and to develop the Sustainable Princeton Community Plan on which the public is being asked to comment.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Case of the Missing Babies

Princeton has quite a few natural areas, but in another way, I would say that we are not providing for the needs of kids for nature. Take for instance the strong need in children to witness the wonder of creation and growth. By this, I mean the birth and growth of baby animals. The breeding of dogs is largely left to professionals. Kittens are scarce, which may be just as well, given the toll stray cats can exact on local birds. Farms open to the public are few and require a drive.

What do we have to fill this void? Some people are lucky to have birds nest close to a window. My daughters have seen Monarch caterpillars grow into butterflies, and seen cicadas emerge from their shells. They were delighted to find baby goldfish in our backyard miniponds, and promptly gave them all names. But really this is slim pickins when compared to all the joy, wonder and learning that could be taking place. 

So, what do I tell my eight year old when she pleas to buy an exotic frog at the local store? We know that the trade in exotic pets, as with the importation of exotic plants, has contributed to the unraveling of our ecosystems, as well-meaning owners release exotic animals into the wild when they can no longer care for them at home. 

This situation is akin to the difficulties gardeners face when they seek out native plants to buy. What we have in both cases is a void in local native offerings that people then seek to fill by importing exotics. There are, fortunately, some steps being taken to supply local native plants to buy. The Friends of Princeton Open Space has held small native plant sales the past two years. Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve sells native plants, and other local organizations like Stonybrook Watershed Association and the Mercer County Master Gardeners have periodic sales. Most promising, in terms of scale and sticking to local genotypes, is D&R Greenway's efforts, which began with a sale this past fall. 

The more difficult problem is how to fill the void in children's lives, when demonstrations of nature's fecundity are so hard to find. I remember as a kid bringing a couple tadpoles home from some nearby pond and watching them grow legs in our aquarium. That's the kind of thing I have in mind. Though nowadays we're discouraged from foraging in the wild, there must be an alternative to teaching kids that nature is something they buy at the local store.