Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bidens in Bloom

One of the roadside yellows this time of year, other than goldenrod, is tickseed sunflower (Bidens), so-named because the seeds are dark and--prepare for unflattering comparison-- the size of wood ticks. It's a native annual, though I notice it's considered invasive in Canada by the USDA site. This is an example of an attractive wildflower that in a garden can start to become too much of a good thing, overgrowing everything else in late summer. It's tempting to oblige its exuberance for the big show of color, but with some species of Bidens the "big show" never materializes.
One common Bidens hereabouts, typically called Beggar-Ticks, turn out to be devoid of the colorful ray flowers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rain Barrel + Workshop for $20

(Previously posted at Might still be time to register.)
Princeton Township will be hosting a workshop by Rutgers on rainbarrels. Looks like it's open to all Princeton residents--township and borough. $20 registration fee gets you a 50 gallon rainbarrel, which they'll show you how to assemble. Go to this link and scroll down to the info on the workshop to be held Sept. 29, 9-11am in Princeton.

Some things to keep in mind about rainbarrels: A roof can shed a couple thousand gallons of water in a 1 inch rainstorm, so capturing 50 gallons is a symbolic gesture. Even less will be captured if the rainbarrel still contains water from the previous storm. One approach is to hook the rainbarrel up to a soaker hose so the barrel will consistently empty out inbetween rains, but then you don't have any water available for watering the garden during dry periods. Provision for overflow is important, lest the excess water simply spills out next to the foundation. After experimenting with rainbarrels long ago (with barrels donated by a local CocaCola plant), I ended up foregoing rainbarrels altogether and instead directed water out into areas of the yard where it can soak in and create an underground reservoir to sustain plants through droughts.

Still, they're worth considering. In particular, they serve to make one aware of where water is flowing. It's appealing, also, to fill a watering can with rainwater captured from the sky. The Rutgers link may offer some convincing success stories, and the price is right.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Taste of Taiwan in a Neighbor's Garden

Every now and then, walking the streets of Princeton, one encounters a yard devoted to growing food rather than grass. Many are in keeping with the Italian custom of treating a neighborhood like a matrix of minifarms, often with small fruit trees and handmade arbors growing behind a high fence.

An elegant nearby example with Taiwanese origins often gets worked into the evening walking-of-the-dog. Passing by last week, I introduced myself to the owner and got permission to take some photos. He told me about his lima beans, which he says are the most nutritious kind of bean to be had.

Also hanging down from the well-tended arbors, like Charlie Chaplin's vision of paradise in Modern Times, is something I didn't catch the name of, but may be Chinese melon.
On a small tree grow "Chinese dates", which turn out to be jujube--latin name Ziziphus zizyphus, in the buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae). Usually, the family name Rhamnaceae strikes fear into my heart, having experienced the extraordinary ecological mischief caused by Rhamnus cathartica in the Midwest. Web posts carry warnings that jujube can send up suckers in nearby flower gardens, which may be why this benign-looking tree was growing between a driveway and a mowed lawn. It tastes reminiscent of an apple.

The arbor is made of electrician's piping, galvanized to prevent rust, with some portions connected with metal joints, others hand-tied. Stems of cherry tomatoes too are tethered to these pipes, their growth carefully directed until they can head horizontally, occupying a parallel universe with the beans and squash six feet above the lawn. This double decker yard makes maximum use of space.

Having once again this year let my squash and volunteer gourds run rampant over my visions of backyard order, with regular pilferings by squirrels and catbirds, it's a relief and inspiration to see what a little more planning, vertical training and steady effort could yield. All it takes is a modest bit of ground, sun and water, add equal parts tradition and devotion, and the result can be a dream serene of order and easy pickin's.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Goat Patrol Cleans Up Invasives

Speaking of kudzu and its local imitator (see previous post), I witnessed a novel approach to controlling invasives during a recent visit to Durham, NC. A friend has gone into the goat business, herding them into a small trailer for a ride to clients' backyards and parks beleaguered by an onslaught of invasive plants. Across the street from the baseball stadium made famous by the movie Bull Durham, the city's Central Park has a ravine filled with kudzu.
Installing the temporary fence is the hardest part for these modern day goat herders, and it's sometimes necessary to remove plants that could prove toxic to the goats, such as pokeweed.

The goats cleared this bank the previous day. They do their job well, but now the question is what to plant, and how to keep the kudzu from growing back.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kudzu-Like Vine Surrounding Princeton Battlefield

This is a followup to a previous post about the Princeton Battlefield grounds. The vast mowed lawn gives the impression of order at the battlefield, but along the edges, there's a different story.
In a closeup, it's possible to see the reddening foliage of flowering dogwoods spaced along the woods' edge.

Likely planted many decades back to grace the battlefield's borders, those along the left side are now completely overgrown by vines.

Here, one dogwood branch (slight burgundy color on the right) is all that can be seen reaching out of a stifling blanket of exotic porcelain berry vine. (Porcelain berry is short for Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, a name as sprawling as its growth form.)

In addition to ornament, the dogwoods have traditionally provided abundant berries for migrating birds. Some internet research has yet to reveal whether the porcelain berries provide an adequately timed and nutritious substitute. Lipid (fat) content in the berries is important for sustaining the birds' energy, since lipids provide more energy than an equivalent weight of sugar. The shade of the vines will also limit dogwood blooms next spring (note the flower bud on the left).

All around the base of the dogwoods, a tangle of vines reach upwards--porcelain berry and oriental bittersweet, along with the native wild grape.

It's easy to liberate a tree from vines. Simply sever the stems of the vines and leave the top portion to die. No need to pull anything down.

Elsewhere at the battlefield, on the south side of Mercer Road, more advanced stands of porcelain berry demonstrate the plant's kudzu-like capacity to overwhelm trees and shrubs.

These three trees and the surrounding landscape behind Clark House have completely disappeared beneath a blanket of porcelain berry. The one native seen was jewelweed, somehow able to poke a few of its orange flowers up through the enveloping vines sprawling across the ground.

Princetonians may want to develop a taste for grand-scale topiary, because the battlefield and the local birds are serving as a seed distribution service for this highly invasive species.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Brushpiles as a Backyard Bonanza

The term "yardwaste" makes little sense, because everything that falls in the yard is useful. Nature has been in the recycling business for a few billion years now, give or take, and has in that time figured out how to convert all its spent products back into the building blocks for new life. But nature goes beyond simply dismantling structures as quickly as possible to make something new. When one of our products, such as a TV, stops functioning, its useful days are considered over. But when a tree limb dies, it becomes a perch where birds can have a commanding view unimpeded by dense leaves. When the limb falls, it becomes cover for animals, a place for a butterfly or firefly to rest. The legacy of a tree, or parts thereof, is not only as food and fertilizer but also the structure it leaves behind.

A naturalist friend of mine, Joshua Rose, who now lives in Amherst, MA, wrote an article last winter about the utility of building a woodpile in the backyard. Though his PhD focused on dragonflies, he has gained in-depth knowledge of plants, birds, herps, and all other manner of life, to the point that he could more appropriately be called a supernaturalist. These supernatural powers allow him to perceive and convey an understanding of how woodpiles benefit the lives of a broad range of creatures, including us. The article can be found at this link:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Face Recognition and Tree Identification

Some faces I have trouble attaching a name to. I know I've seen this face somewhere before. Maybe he's the namesake of Murray Place.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


I suspect most people develop ambivalence towards pokeweed over time. With thick annual stems rising as much as eight feet up from perennial roots each year, pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) can become a striking specimen if given enough room, with flowers and berries that hang like elaborate jewelry from purplish stems. And yet its elegance tends to be ragged around the edges, and its admirable capacity to fill voids in the garden quickly segues into a realization that its many offspring are leaving no room for anything else to grow.

One approach to managing its exuberance is to dig out most of the volunteer pokeweeds each year, leaving one or two in an out of the way spot where they have enough room to reach their full size.
The berries are poisonous for people but not for birds, and were once used for dyeing clothing. The only current application of the berries as a dye that I'm aware of happens accidentally when a robin eats berries from one yard, then dive bombs the neighbor's laundry hung outdoors to dry. A land manager I know relishes telling this story, while asserting that the neighbor could easily avoid the consequences by putting her clothes out closer to midday, after the birds had already processed their early morning feast.

Here's an example, sent by a friend, of the berry's use in colonial days to dye uniforms the color of garnet.

"Check out this interesting use of pokeweed berries, at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia which was founded by the son-in-law of John Witherspoon:"

Sometime I'll find a photo of my daughter standing on the trunk of an ombu tree (Phytolacca dioica), a close relative of pokeweed that grows in the pampas of Argentina. It grows like a tree yet has no wood. The swollen base of the trunk provided gauchos with a shady spot to sit down and play guitar.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Tomato Thieves

A neighbor who lives close to Princeton Shopping Center was erecting a high fence around the attractively designed vegetable garden he planted in his front yard. After several weeks worth of tomatoes kept mysteriously disappearing overnight, he finally spied a deer nibbling away in the wee hours.

Two blocks away, I have no deer to eat tomatoes growing in our fenced in backyard, but the squirrels are happy to oblige. My theory is that the squirrels took to eating tomatoes several years ago during a horrendous drought, and have made it a habit ever since.

A Gentle August, For a Change

It was a gentle August, in contrast to the previous two years, when the month brought torrential flooding. Those who remained in town during this month of traditional exodus have not had to play heroes--rescuing basements from flooding or helping neighbors clear fallen debris--but instead could enjoy relatively cool weather. Cool nights allowed the house to release heat, and shade kept it cool enough during the day to maintain comfort without air conditioning. With the window open at night, I sometimes awoke early enough to hear the neighborhood screech owl's soft trilling call, cast over a creaky bed of crickets and katydids.

Several nights ago, walking the largely abandoned streets, I felt sporadic drops of moisture falling from a clear sky in late evening. Though there are street trees elsewhere in the world whose resident aphids drop honeydew on pedestrians, these drops were falling directly from the sky above. Sweat from migratory birds, migrating dragonfly droppings? I looked up and saw nothing but feint stars peaking through the glow of a Jersey sky. The universe, it seemed, was shedding tears--one for every star blotted out by the manmade haze.

Sassafras Leaves' Three Forms

One day, in a parking lot just up from Princeton University's football stadium, a sassafras tree presented on one branch a nice demonstration of its three kinds of leaves. A close look reveals that some have three lobes, some have two (like a mitten), and some have a simple, unlobed shape. They all, however, smell the same when crumpled up--a hint of root beer.