Thursday, June 30, 2011

Early Summer Wildflowers

A nice native combination this time of year is black-eyed susan in front of bottlebrush grass. These, along with cutleaf coneflower, tall meadow rue, wild senna and other local natives, I included in a miniature raingarden planting along the sidewalk at Whole Earth Center on Nassau Street.

Some white flowers to keep an eye out for are bottlebrush buckeye (in front of Mountain Lakes House),
buttonbush (along the edge of Carnegie Lake and the canal),
and Lizard's Tail (also found along the edge of Carnegie Lake).

Chicory Time

It's the time of year when blue weedy flowers start popping up along Harrison Street. My interest in wildflowers was first piqued by what grew along roadsides in the midwest--salsify, bouncing bet, wooly mullen, dame's rocket, teasel--nearly all of them non-native. Each had nice details in the flowers when I'd stop to take a look. This one's chicory, whose root was widely used during the Civil War as a coffee substitute.

On Tree Planting, And Believing in the Future

Having followed my kids to many a playground, I've noticed that parks often lack strategically placed shade trees. The result is burning hot play equipment in the summer. You'd think the planting of shade trees would be almost automatic in such situations, given that direct sun can otherwise render the equipment untouchable for hours at a stretch.

But even when I suggest trees be planted, I'm told that big trees are too expensive, and little trees take too long to grow.

This tree in Potts Park, then, is something of a contrary act. Donated by parents who wanted to celebrate their new son's arrival, it was planted with the conviction that time passes, trees grow, and the future will come.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sustainable Jazz Ensemble--Free Performances in July at Labyrinth

My jazz trio will be performing among the subterranean bookshelves of the Labyrinth this month. Press release below. More info about the group, and links to some of the music, can be found at

Sustainable Jazz Ensemble
Stephen Hiltner, Jerry d'Anna, Ron Connor
every other Friday in July starting the 1st:
July 1, 15 & 29,   6:30 to 8PM
Labyrinth Books, 
122 Nassau Street, Princeton, 
Labyrinth is bringing back summertime jazz with 3 more performance by the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble: free and free-range, sustainable jazz. Coffee and tea will be provided; otherwise b.y.o. and join us for an informal evening of outstanding music.

Based in Princeton the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble plays all-original jazz composed using only local, organic ingredients, natural chord progressions and solar-powered imaginations. No virgin timbres are harvested for their performances.The music combines fresh melodies, inventive arrangements and improvisation.

The players: Best known in town for his environmental work, STEVE HILTNER is a longtime jazz saxophonist and composer who in his life-before-Princeton was musical director for an all-originals jazz/latin group in Ann Arbor, called the Lunar Octet. The group played festivals in Michigan and beyond, including three performances at the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival. Steve got his start in jazz in the II-V-I Orchestra, playing gigs with many of the top players on the Detroit jazz scene, including a pre-Miles Kenny Garrett. During that time, he studied sax improvisation with Sam Sanders, an instructor at Oakland University and former student of Detroit jazz legend, Yusef Lateef. JERRY D'ANNA is a versatile freelance bass player, doubling on both electric and acoustic basses. His work with jazz, theater, folk, rock and blues bands has taken him from his native metro New York-Philadelphia environs to tours in Europe and the Caribbean, with such notables as singers Jeanie Bryson, Barbara McNair and Frank D'Rone, trumpeters Michael Mossman and Terence Blanchard, drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonists Sonny Fortune and Pat LaBarbara, and pianists Kenny Barron, Steve Kramer and John Bianculli. Mr. D'Anna received a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Rutgers University, and studied privately with Rick Laird, Larry Ridley, Homer Mensch, Lou Kosma and Lisle Atkinson. Now settled in the Princeton area, he works in the financial services software industry, performing locally with the Midiri Brothers Orchestra and Jerry Rife's Rhythm Kings. Joining on key-boards is pianist and composer RON CONNOR, who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, and has been composing and playing popular, jazz and improvisational music for three decades. A Princeton resident, Ron continues to explore and create music for solo piano, dramatic scores and jazz.

open to the public; wheelchair accessible

Community Park Elementary Gets New Learning Habitat

The science teacher at Community Park school continues to transform the grounds. In the back courtyard area, a wildflower planting now has seating for 20, the better to listen to the garden grow.

And some words by Van Gogh.

Out in front, off Witherspoon, changes are harder to notice. New trees are popping up in the lawn, giving a hint of habitat to come.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

FOPOS Trail Committee Installs Corduroy To Enjoy

Mud makes many a Princeton trail problematic in the spring. Fortunately, the Friends of Princeton Open Space has a spirited volunteer trail committee that has been making great strides for hikers in recent years, building boardwalks over muddy stretches.
Their most recent project was to roll out the "wood carpet" on a trail heading to Witherspoon Woods from the Mountain Lakes driveway. Called "corduroy", the process involves fitting short sections of log crosswise along the trail.
On the job this particular day are FOPOS board members Ted Thomas, Van Williams, Nick Wilson, Clark Lennon and Eric Tazelaar (behind the camera).
If you want to experience the committee's good works for yourself, walk up the Mountain Lakes driveway to the kiosk, turn right down the trail, then head north towards Witherspoon Woods, keeping the meadows of Tusculum to your right.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Walk At Mountain Lakes

Recent walks through Mountain Lakes led us down paths paved with path rush, a short, dark-green grass-like plant that survives foot traffic better than other plants.
Close up, it has this squashed, angular look.

Usually, stopping to smell the roses proves to be a forgettable experience, given that fragrance has been bred out of most roses. But the swamp rose has escaped the breeders and rewards anyone who wanders into the low, wet, sunny places where it grows.
Common milkweed is another wildflower that survives where trees have not claimed all the sunlight.
We also found a fox grape (Vitis labrusca), that had some very promising-looking berries developing. For identification, it helps to look at the underside of the leaf, which is white/tan instead of green. Concord grapes are bred from fox grape.
We also saw a hazelnut shrub that is kindly donating a portion of its leaves to the food chain.
Part of gaining some woods savvy is learning to recognize poison ivy in all its forms. Here, it has grown up the side of a pear tree next to the creek. The poison ivy "trunk" is hairy, which rhymes with scary, while the horizontal rows of holes on the trunk of the pear tree speak to past visits by sapsuckers. I'm not actually touching the poison ivy, but if I did I'd rinse my hand off in the creek within twenty minutes or so, to avoid getting a rash.
Head downstream from Mountain Lakes and you eventually reach the long boardwalk to the Great Road, where a smaller kind of grape framed a view of Coventry Farm.
Where the lower dam is being rebuilt, we were hoping to see the old ramp, recently discovered, upon which the big blocks of ice were hauled up into the barns in the early 1900s (see earlier post), but the artifact has been covered with a tarp, in preparation for reburial. The best way to preserve it, reportedly, is to cover it up again with muck and lake water.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nature Walk This Sunday at Mountain Lakes, June 19, 2pm

After quality time with Dad, a nature walk this Sunday, June 19 around the back side of Mountain Lakes, with a look at progress on the lower dam restoration, including the recently unearthed ramp from the 1900 ice business, if they haven't covered it back up yet (see post earlier today). I'll be doing some plant inventorying along the way. All welcome.

Meet at Community Park North parking lot, on Mountain Avenue just off 206. Check this website for any last minute cancellation due to weather.

Native American Chestnut in Princeton

It's been a long time since healthy leaves of an American chestnut were last seen in Princeton. True, there are a few remnant specimens of the species still sprouting from ancient roots, and these new ones are actually 1/16 asian, to confer resistance to the blight that devastated the American chestnut more than 100 years ago, but they're about as native as we're likely to get with the blight still around.
Nut tree expert Bill Sachs obtained the seedlings last year from an associate in Connecticut, planted them, and served as one man bucket brigade during the two month long drought last summer. His reward: the trees are flourishing this year, with one at Mountain Lakes having grown three feet this spring.

A Manmade Wildlife Sanctuary on Walnut Street

 One of my favorite spots to stop on a summer evening is the ecolab wetland at Princeton High School. Most detention basins are mowed, making for curious grass pits of little use for wildlife, but this one we managed to transform into a glorious display of native plants, teaming with frogs, crayfish and birds.

The basin was designed to receive water from the highschool's roofs and a parking lot or two, but the unusual plant diversity is sustained by the high school's sump pump. "Old Faithful", I call it, because it pumps water from the basement year round, every fifteen minutes or so.
The biggest threat to the wetland, other than loss of that wonderfully consistent water source, may come as a surprise. The weeded out plant debris in the foreground of the photo is cattail, which is the native plant people most commonly associate with wetlands. Yet, it is so aggressive that, if we were to allow it to grow here, it would soon dominate to the exclusion of 20 or 30 other native species.

Liking cattails, we allow them to grow in one corner,
and also planted a less aggressive species of cattail--narrow-leaved cattail, which is also native but rarely encountered in the wild.

Stop by sometime when you're on Walnut Street, on the back side of the school. It can be fun to watch the goldfinches and sparrows bomb around, ducking into the cover of a willow, eating seeds, feeding their fledglings and singing their proud songs atop last year's dried stalks of hibiscus.

Historic Ice Ramp Discovered at Mountain Lakes

The draining of the lower Mountain Lake, while work  is done to restore and enlarge the lower dam, has led to some interesting discoveries in the 100 years accumulation of sediment. Various rusty saws and pry bars were found, harkening back to the early 1900s when the ice was harvested for Princeton's iceboxes.
And just this past week workers came upon an old ramp used to transport the big blocks of ice from the lake and lift them up into three story barns just down from the dam. The dams, insulated with hay between double walls, could reportedly store ice for up to two years.
I hear that the plan is to rebury the wooden and steel ramp, in place, since the wood would rapidly decay if not buried in the ooze. Archeologists carefully uncovered, measured and photographed the remnant--a snapshot from a bygone and more earth-friendly era, when refrigeration was imperfect but left little or no carbon footprint.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mysterious Ant Behavior Underfoot

When I was a kid, as part of my rigorous early training as a naturalist, I used to put black ants and red ants in a bottle and watch them fight. The black ants were bigger, but the red ants were more energetic.

One day, I came across a major battle being waged by the red and black ant kingdoms in the backyard. Being partial to black ants, I quickly stomped out all the red ones, only to realize that it would have been much more interesting to have watched the battle unfold.

Recently, on the way home from the Princeton Shopping Center, I noticed a similar "Where's Waldo" spectacle at the edge of the sidewalk. This time, I got down and took a closer look. On top of the pile was a frenzy of movement, but the ants near the bottom were nearly motionless.
Many of them were paired off, in some sort of mandible to mandible gridlock. The tiny ants all looked like the same kind, but there were also a few dead bodies being dragged off the field of mysterious endeavor. It was either war or some wild and crazy cultural tradition.

Below is a video that may help get a sense of the multilayered dimension.

(Note: As noted in the video and the comment, these are pavement ants, introduced from Europe. The similarly small ants that show up in people's houses during the summer tend to be odorous house ants, which according to Wikipedia are native.)

Unsentimental About Sediment

One thing gardening teaches is to extrapolate from the present what the future will likely bring. A gardener looks at a 3 inch tomato seedling and sees the mature bountiful plant it will become. A gardener, too, pulls a weed before it goes to seed, happy to be spared all the future weeds those seeds would bring.

Look at Pettoranello Pond, and it's clear that a plume of sediment is growing at the inlet, where the incoming water slows and drops whatever dirt it's carrying from upstream. If one digs this sediment out periodically, the sediment won't spread to the rest of the pond, and an expensive dredging operation can be avoided. I've mentioned this to the township, but the response seems to be that the state Dept. of Environmental Protection imposes regulatory barriers to this sort of proactive pond maintenance.

Farming Princeton

The gradual conversion of Princeton's lawns to food production continues.

Community Park Elementary just got a new fence, paid for by the school district, to expand its school garden project and outdoor classroom. In the background, Dorothy Mullen, best known for her garden project at Riverside Elementary, is teaching a class.
Long in the making, the fence expansion provides more space for raised beds and a small orchard.
Meanwhile, passing by an Italian neighbor's sideyard farmlet on the other side of town, I noticed a strange-looking green and purple flower. He emerged from his productive jungle of vegetables and fruit trees to tell me it's a persimmon tree he started growing twenty five years ago. Over the years, he said, they've grown taller, and he's grown shorter.

Gravity Plus Rainwater= Backyard Waterfall

Garrison Keillor  made a disparaging remark about drainage during his show at McCarter Theater this past winter, but for many Princetonians, what seems like a mundane subject can raise considerable passion, particularly when the runoff is coming from the neighbor just up the hill, or results in basement flooding.

My advice is to give the water a good ride through the yard. Don't spurn it, or consign it to underground pipes. Water can be mischievous, but its obedience to gravity is absolute. Herded away from the foundation, it can flow on the surface to make attractive ephemeral streams and waterfalls, and feed plantings.

There's no reason, for instance, why water must fall from roof gutters in the obscure confines of a downspout. In this project, water emerges from a gutter (obscured by the shrub) in a small waterfall that is carried away from the house on a rockstrewn "streambed" underlain by black plastic.
The roof runoff flows down the rocks some 20 feet into a small raingarden (not in photo), where it collects and seeps into the ground, feeding nearby trees and any roots that reach it from the vegetable garden. In a deluge, the raingarden in turn overflows onto the lawn, where the water continues downhill as sheetflow. Whatever doesn't get absorbed eventually flows between the two neighboring houses down the slope and into a storm drain.

Maintaining Meadows at Tusculum

Drive up Cherry Hill Road from 206 and you'll see on your left the picturesque meadows of historic Tusculum, where John Witherspoon once lived. The landscape was preserved through the work of FOPOS, DR Greenway, Princeton Township and others. Some is still privately owned and managed for hay. 
The rest is publicly owned and is supposed to be mowed annually to maintain the meadows. But wet conditions and staff shortages over the past two years have made it hard for the township to do the mowing. Exotic invasive species like multiflora rose (the white bloom in the photo) and autumn olive have spread. If they spread into the adjoining hayfield, the quality of the hay harvest will be diminished.

An effort is underway to better manage the field for the prairie grasses and wildflowers that could be prospering there.

To access the trails through Tusculum from Cherry Hill Road, walk downhill to the end of the white fence and follow the trail along the edge of the field. The meadows can also be accessed from Mountain Lakes and Community Park North (see map).

White On Green

 White must be a cheap and easy color for nature to produce, because there are so many white-flowered shrubs and trees this time of year. Among the natives, elderberry and silky dogwood have been blooming lately, having followed the Viburnums and flowering dogwoods that got the white theme going earlier in the spring.

Most thoroughly white is the Korean dogwood (Cornus kousa), which two weeks back was at its peak.
It blooms later than the native Cornus florida (florida as in florid), and this year was so prolific that the blooms completely obscured the green leaves underneath.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prescribed Burning in NJ

Drive 30 miles north on Route 206 to Schiff Nature Preserve, and you will be greeted by a kid looking at you through a very bug-eyed pair of binoculars.
Inside, watch your step, lest you bump into the resident box turtle out for a stroll.
I was there for a management planning workshop that included a walk through their fields and woods, both of which, by the way, are managed with prescribed fire. Historically, fire was a natural and largely beneficial form of disturbance throughout North America.

Here, in a photo supplied by the Schiff preserve manager, is what the meadow looked like on March 21, when professional fire crews conducted the prescribed burn.
Unmentioned in nearly all media coverage is that destructive forest fires often follow decades of fire suppression, during which fuels accumulate to dangerous levels. As you can see on the back of this forest service truck, Smokey the Bear approved of this intentional and carefully planned burn.

Periodic, low-level fires help keep fuel levels low, recycle nutrients, and aid seed germination by exposing mineral soil. Prairie grasses promote fire by leaving considerable dead foliage standing from the previous year. If the grassland isn't burned or mowed, those dead stems can have a suffocating effect, shading out new growth.

In a woodland, low-level fires are aided by the persistent leaves of oaks, which have also adapted to fire by evolving thick fire-resistant bark. This picture shows how elegant fire can be as a management tool when carefully applied. Native species are sprouting amidst the dead stems of exotic invasive shrubs.
It may seem shocking at first that fire would be allowed so close to a building, but the crew knew what they were doing. You can see how low the flames are, as they burn through leaf litter from the year before.
The result over time is the park-like landscape early western explorers of North America told of, with broad expanses of Pennsylvania sedge and wildflowers like black cohosh.

You'd think the neighbors living in expensive homes just down the hill from this woods would have raised concerns about danger and smoke, but the spring burns are a tradition at Schiff. Information is distributed beforehand to all neighbors, and the burns are conducted by trained forest service crews, with the local fire department standing by.

As one who has participated in prescribed prairie burns in Michigan and North Carolina, I was glad to see fire being used to good effect in New Jersey as well.