Friday, April 27, 2012

The Dandelion's Roar

I had strategically allowed dandelions to grow in my front yard all spring, seeking to reassure the community that my lawn is completely free of harmful chemicals. The yellow flowers dotted the lawn pleasantly enough, and there were other things to do.

The tide turned, however, as it always does. The yellow turned to raggedly balls of white seeds on gangly stalks, proclaiming in a gathering roar, "Neglect!".
Hearing the racket, I opened the door to find, much to my annual surprise, hundreds, thousands, or at least more dandelions than I could shake a dull weeding knife at.

If there were just a few, I might be praising dandelions for their casual beauty, their edibility, or the pleasure of blowing their seeds off the stalk. But instead there are many, so many that when they suddenly go from "nice place you got here" ornamental yellow to "hope you don't mind if we take over" gangly white, the lawn appears stricken with a bad hair day.
Other kinds of plants, like lawn grass or periwinkle, which may be present in far greater numbers, don't trigger the same negative response because their multitudes merge into a single neatly composed entity. Being perceived as a single entity can, in the case of periwinkle, allow it to multiply without changing its overall appearance. It also avoids shocking overnight transformations, maintaining a consistent, unobtrusive look while it quietly takes over the yard unnoticed.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are determined nonconformists, refusing to come together as a group in a unified texture, no matter how many are massed together. They sing not in a calming unison but in a cacophany of flowers, seedheads and spent stalks all at the same time.
Wishing for a "quieter" front walk, where soon to arrive guests could approach the house without generating a cloud of seeds in their wake, I went with the stock response, by severing the taproot with the weeding knife, plucking the botanical rioteer from its stronghold, and thereby instantly re-establishing an appearance of calm.

After a bit of hand to root combat, all that was needed was to bring in my upside down helicopter on wheels to groom the yard and quiet the chaos a bit further.

By chance, one of the dinner guests brought a platter bearing an attractive painting of a dandelion. Within a day or two, the yard had once again become a sea of dandelion seedstalks.

Afterthoughts: If dandelions were spreading to natural areas and displacing native species, I might get serious about clearing them from the yard, but their edibility for wildlife makes any invasion of woods and fields unlikely.  They could also be a useful, non-mechanical means of aerating a lawn. When the urge to weed them out strikes, cut them off just below the rosette of leaves, so that the decomposing taproots will serve as channels for rain to percolate into the soil.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

FOPOS Annual Meeting, Sunday, April 29, 3pm

The Friends of Princeton Open Space have a dynamic speaker for their annual meeting this Sunday, April 29 at 3pm. Emile DeVito of the NJ Conservation Foundation is passionate about restoring New Jersey's natural areas. For more info, go to RSVPs are requested.

Creeping Phlox

This is one way to ornament a dividing line between two upscale driveways. This creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) must have taken a few years of tlc to fill out. Though it doesn't look native, this and many other Phlox species show up as native on the USDA plant website.

Back when I was working to save remnant diabase prairies in the North Carolina piedmont, the highest quality sites (with plants adapted to poor soil and periodic fire) had a low-growing phlox (Phlox pilosa), reminiscent of the buffed up creeping phlox found in gardens.

Looking for Lindens on Linden Lane

Sometimes, when walking the tree streets of Princeton, you may actually encounter the kind of tree for which the street was named. I have my doubts about Walnut St, and Chestnut Street's a real long shot, but Linden Lane is lined with lindens, at least the section north of Hamilton Ave. Their flower structures, come to think of it, look a little like skateboards.
Hawthorn St. hosts a tupelo or two, also called black gum, so named for something other than its brilliant red in the fall.
Hawthorn also hosts a red buckeye,
well-placed because they don't get very large and so won't start tangling with the power lines. Red buckeyes are native, but the only place I've ever seen them in the wild is along a road in the coastal plain of North Carolina.
A larger tree, like a maple, may make for an awkward fit under a power line. Hawthorns don't get very large, and could be a good street tree for underneath power lines, if not for their thorns.
Some larger trees manage to gracefully grow past the wires without  triggering catastrophic pruning. The pavement is shaded, the tree's transpiration cools the neighborhood in the summer, and the leaves and trunk catch some of the rain that might otherwise rush into the stormdrains.
But more often, there's a confrontation between trees and power lines. Here's a volunteer Norway Maple that volunteered to tangle with the power lines. I saw the confrontation coming a few years ago, offered to help remove the weedy sapling before the battle began, to no avail. Gardening cultivates the power to see into the future, but not always the power to do anything about it.
One good strategy is to plant trees that grow large and spread out on the side of the street with no wires. That way, most of the pavement will eventually be shaded even if smaller species are planted under the wires on the other side.

Next week: Looking for Franklinias on Franklin Avenue.

Monday, April 23, 2012

For a garden to endure

For a garden to endure, it must grow in someone's heart. Otherwise, no one will think to pay a visit when it looks like this, all disheveled and needy. If I loved this one more, I would have neatened it up earlier in the spring, when this particular agenda item started popping up in my mind, competing with all the others, like an internalized google calendar notification system that I am helpless to disconnect. All gardens depend on that persistent voice, that reminder buoyant enough to keep bubbling up in the mind of someone somewhere, no matter how many times it gets sent back down.

If love fails, or whatever combination of affection, pride, sense of responsibility and nurturing instinct come together to give a thought persistence in the mind, the creeping Charlie would creep unchecked,
the faux Indian strawberries would spread by leaps and bounds.
and the new growth of Joe-Pye-Weed, sedges and switchgrass would grow entangled in the mess of last year's remains.
Some construction workers, sensing neglect, might be even more likely to mistake the garden for a waste area and dump their unused concrete. (On the up side, concrete makes a long-lasting mulch to suppress weeds!)
A downspout that feeds the raingarden might be jarred loose and spill the water instead at the building's foundation.

 But this raingarden's creator, Curtis Helm, must have known my mind has the requisite machinery to eventually prompt action despite formidable powers of procrastination, and so he left the garden in my hands after moving to Philadelphia. Sure enough, I finally pulled up several weeks ago with my version of the landscaper's customary oversized pickup truck and trailer packed with machines.
Last year's spent growth got sheared, the weeds pulled, the downspouts checked, the concrete prodded to no avail, and a stray plastic shopping bag delivered by the wind became a handy container for trash. A half hour of intense labor, and the raingarden was ready for another year of service to Harry's Brook, summer pollinators and passersby.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dig For Victory

A postcard from England, maybe 70 years ago, when growing a vegetable garden was seen as a way to help your country. May it be seen that way again.

The Leo King

Earthday in our neighborhood: Leo, having vanquished the evil Scar, climbs atop Pride Rock to survey his kingdom, as the rains returned that night to heal the land.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Whither Romance? Wisteria Meets Horse Chestnut

 It was just one of those things.
Just one of those crazy flings.
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings.
Just one of those things.

If they'd thought a bit about the end of it,
When they let the wisteria start climbin' round,
They'd have been aware that this love affair
Was too hot not

to fall down. (Stay tuned.)

--Lyrics mostly by Cole Porter

Walks Across Princeton A Big Success

On a glorious day last Saturday, perfectly timed with the emergence of dogwood flowers,
hikers converged on Mountain Lakes House
to partake of good company and food,
as the sounds of clarinet and harp (that's Janet Vertesi on harp, yours truly on licorice stick)
floated out across the water of Mountain Lake.

Sophie Glovier, who conceived the idea of having guided hikes of different lengths all converge at Mountain Lakes at 2pm for a social interlude, thanked everyone for coming. Sophie, the author of a popular guide to Princeton's nature trails, is on the board of Friends of Princeton Open Space, which hosted the event. With 150 people participating, it looks like the beginning of a Princeton tradition.

Thanks to Ivy de Leon for the photos.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mapleton Preserve Hosts Annual Arbor Day Celebration Saturday, April 21

The preserved Princeton Nursery lands in Kingston continue their steady transformation. Saturday's celebration, 2-4pm, will include a dedication of 6 new interpretive signs, and a guided walk. The signs, which feature the historic and cultural significance of the former Princeton Nurseries buildings and site, were conceived and researched by Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands. There will be an annual tree planting, and free tree seedlings for attendees.

Further information: or 609-683-0483

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Barberry Slaps Bee

A little "man bites dog" journalism here. The barberries are in bloom, which means a bit of fun can be had triggering the slapping reflex in the stamens. Take a blade of grass or something else very narrow and slip it in between the stigma at the middle of the flower and one of the five stamens. If you tickle the bottom of the stamen (at the base of the filament), the stamen will "slap" your blade of grass.

The logic is that a pollinator visiting the flower will cause the stamen to slap the insect, in the process conveying pollen that the insect will then transport to other flowers.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Women and Wildlife Awards Event Today

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation is having its annual awards event today in Stockton, from 2-5pm. My group, the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, will be performing as part of the event. Information about the three women receiving awards for their work to preserve New Jersey's threatened wildlife can be found at

One of the women, Jackie Kashmer, has been doing heroic work to save bats, which are being devastated by White Nose Syndrome. The fungus, which was recently determined to have been introduced some years back from Europe, disturbs the bats' hibernation, causing them to run out of stored energy before spring arrives.

Jackie's 16 hour days devoted to helping bats survive the winter, detailed in a blogpost, are an example of the extraordinary amount of work and devotion required to counteract to any extent the destructive impact of imported organisms.

By coincidence, the NY Times article reporting on the fungus's European origins was accompanied by an article on the reintroduction of the American chestnut in Appalachia. It has taken many decades for breeding programs to develop native chestnut trees resistant to the Asian fungus that began wiping out the American chestnut tree more than a century ago. These are the sorts of quiet, awe-inspiring efforts that seldom make it into the news, but make all the difference in what sort of world we'll have in the future.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trees On the March

Something's going on in the field down next to Faculty Drive, across Washington Road from the boathouse at Carnegie Lake.
The troops are assembled, like high-stepping Clydsdales poised for the Arbor Day parade. Ready, forward, march!

But where to? The man assigned to water these 20 foot tall specimens said they're all headed into the woods to grow in the shadow of their granddad's generation, just across Faculty Drive, where the university is finishing up its stream restoration in the valley next to the new Chemistry building. (To see a history of the project, type "stream" into the search box at the upper left corner of this website). The university had to take down a few big trees last year (some possibly 200 years old) as part of the restoration of the heavily eroded stream corridor, and looks determined to give their replacements a head start.

The stream restoration is extraordinary in terms of how they created a lovely and hopefully durable streambed, but the botanical side of the project would have been more enlightened if it had included rescue of high quality native wildflowers prior to construction, and invasive species removal on the adjacent slopes.

And though they're putting in the same species of trees they took out--tupelo, pin oak and white ash--the chances the white ash in this photo will survive for more than a decade are pretty remote, given the near certain arrival in coming years of the exotic Emerald Ash Borer now spreading eastward through Pennsylvania.

I was craning my neck to see the thick, paired twigs that identify the tree as an ash, when I realized I could just look at the tag.

Monday, April 09, 2012

This Saturday: Clarinet, Harp, and Walks Across Princeton

Those who participate in this Saturday's Walks Across Princeton event may hear some music wafting across the grounds at Mountain Lakes House between 2:15 and 3:15. I'll be playing clarinet, with Janet Vertesi accompanying on harp. While hikers enjoy refreshments, we'll play mostly my own compositions, with some jazz standards with a spring theme thrown in. For more information and to register for the free event, visit

The setting will take me back to the beginnings of my music improvisation, which coincided with botanical studies a few decades ago, playing clarinet outdoors, listening to the echo of notes off a distant hill. Janet's day gig involves managing robotic space missions, which is like leading restless robots on space walks across the solar system.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Native Tuber Harvest

If it's spring, it must be time to do all the things that didn't get done over the winter (or whatever season that was), like harvest the tubers before they all sprout.

Lower left in the photo: Sunchokes (which is short for "SUNflower that's native and grows edible tubers that someone decided to mis-name Jerusalem artiCHOKE") are a wild and crazy plant that grows to ten feet high, has dazzling yellow flowers on top and forms enough tubers underneath to fill your refrigerator.

It's dangerous for heavily distracted people to plant, because one plant will develop a root system ten feet wide, and send up 50 new sprouts the next year if the tubers aren't harvested. Which is why I tried growing it in big black plastic pots last year, to see if its rambunctiousness could be contained. The experiment was a success, with 130 tubers of varying size, weighing about 10 pounds total, harvested from a single pot 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

Now, it's just a matter of getting in the habit of eating them. Peeled (or much more easily not peeled) and eaten raw, they have a nutty flavor about as tame as that of a carrot.

Upper right in the photo are groundnuts (Apios americana), a native legume that produces green beans on top and strings of edible tubers underground. A friend sent me a link to an excellent article on this little known plant in Orion Magazine. It, too, can spread underground, and seemed happy enough to be in a container last year. These experiments are related to the (save the) Veblen House project, which could include a native foods/permaculture dimension.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Fresh Unfoldings

Near where the coconut hens bend their springy necks to eye the ground,
star-shaped leaves of a sweetgum tree fan out to catch the sun,
fresh leaves of a Japanese maple make airborne sculptures with the flowers,
and a dogwood unfolds its elegant offerings to the eye.

The "Second Forest"

This is a good time to see the "second forest"--the layer of exotic shrubs underlying the native tree canopy. Honeysuckle, multiflora rose and privet, having evolved on other continents and under different climate constraints, all leaf out earlier than the native species.

Historically, an eastern forest would have been carpeted with spring ephemeral wildflowers of great variety, flowering and collecting another year's energy stores before the trees leaf out and grab all the sunlight. The exotic shrubs throw a wrench into the works, leafing out early and shading the native wildflowers before they have a chance to store enough solar energy for the next year.

Random Spring Weed Identification

Most gardeners will have encountered a small weed this spring with tiny white flowers that have already bloomed. The thick circle of basal leaves suggests it's the non-native Hairy Bittercress, rather than the native Pennsylvania Bittercress.
The plants produce seeds that will fly up at you as you try to pull the plants out. That's how you know you have, yet again, procrastinated too long before weeding them out of the garden. I was moved to pull many of them from my yard in time this year, but only because I was expecting company. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
Another non-native is Veronica (probably V. persica), which forms low clumps in the lawn with many tiny blue flowers. Lovely flowers when viewed up close. It shows up in lawns, but I haven't seen it being as aggressive as some weeds. Update, spring, 2022: Veronica is spreading like crazy across my lawn. As with so many yard weeds, this is way too much of a good thing.

Japanese knotweed pops up like asparagus from among last year's dried stalks. It is a common non-native invasive along rivers, forming dense, exclusionary clones. This one's part of a patch just upstream of Pettoranello Pond.

An increasingly common weed in lawns and gardens is lesser celandine, mentioned in a previous post.
It spreads quickly to form dense masses that are pretty for a couple weeks but don't leave much room for other wildflowers to grow. If wildlife don't like the taste of it, and as far as I know none of them do, they have to seek food elsewhere. This is a big reason why even a beautiful exotic flower can be a concern, because it doesn't support a foodchain of diverse organisms, i.e.  is slowly making the landscape inedible.

This is an aquatic plant at Pettoranello Gardens that I first noticed showing up last year, most likely called pond water starwort (Callitriche sp.).

From Europe and northern Africa, it's considered an exotic invasive in Connecticut.

It might be mistaken for the native duckweed, but a clump of duckweed consists of thousands of individual plants, each with a pair of leaves.

(Thanks to Chris Doyle for help with identification)