Friday, June 26, 2015

A Milkweed-Lined Bicycle Ride To DR Greenway

I broke through one of those self-imposed glass ceilings the other day. No broken glass scattered everywhere, just a new feeling of empowerment, in that pedal power conveyed me with surprising ease to a destination I would normally jump in a car to reach. The destination was a reception for a new art exhibit entitled Color in Nature, at DR Greenway out Rosedale Road. The bikeride unexpectedly offered a nice warmup to the theme of the exhibit, with milkweed drawing the camera's eye.

Interesting to see how common milkweed, which normally toughs it out in fields and along road embankments, is being featured in front of a million dollar home on Cleveland Lane, mixing it up with tonier perennials with a well-groomed boxwood hedge as background. Maybe the homeowner is expecting some distinguished guests--royalty perhaps, or a Monarch.

Even without a tailwind, it seemed a breeze to get out to Greenway Meadows, and with a bike one can get off Rosedale early and take the scenic route through the park, with the rec department's pile of mulch standing guard over the vista just beyond.

With cool season grasses maturing in early summer, the milkweed stands out. Monarch butterflies depend on favorable winds to make their cross-continental migrations, but it's the strength and resilience of the common milkweed that has served as a metaphorical and nutritional "wind beneath their wings" through the millenia.

They line the pathway, like cheering crowds.

No monarchs yet, but a beetle or two.

Lower slung and less common is another milkweed, the butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), which has a growth habit akin to orange broccoli.

No habitat restorationist can look at a meadow and not see something that needs tending to, like this incipient presence of porcelainberry, but maybe an annual mowing limits its spread.

And at the destination, art, a cool drink, some familiar faces. Bicycling has a reputation as being secondary in convenience to cars, but sometimes it feels first class.

(Check out another edge-of-town destination this Sunday, June 28 from 1-4pm, as they close off Quaker Road for the annual Ciclovia.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Volcanoes on Harrison Street

The landscape service for the house two doors down gave the street tree maple a little love. Tucked it in like you might tuck a child into bed. All nice and snug with some mulch around its trunk.

Looks so right, and yet everyone knows it's the wrong thing to do--everyone except the workers charged with taking care of people's yards. It just goes to show, once again, how much land is left in the hands of people who don't know anything about plants. Cut the grass, trim the hedge, spread the mulch--what more could there be to know? It's like dispensing with doctors and nurses, and turning the medical profession over to barbers.

Now, I actually feel a lot of sympathy for the guys who are charged with going out there and mowing grass all day. Grass is a hippy after all. It wants to grow its hair long and make love in the sunshine. Keeping all those proclivities in check is a major production. I put in my time, mowing yards as a kid, and then a brief stint as a groundskeeper at a golf course, perched on a tractor, pulling the gang mowers up and down the fairways. I love the smell of fresh-cut grass, and spent much of my youth playing one grass-tread sport or another, or just feeling the joy of running full tilt across a field of green. Summer evenings we'd have pickup games. When it got too dark to see the softball, we'd switch to soccer--the ball being bigger--and play some more, then find our ways home in the pitch black, by distant glimmers of light and instinct, as if navigating across constellations.

But all those memories are far removed from current realities, where so many lawns are neither used nor taken care of by the inhabitants of the house, and essentially serve as obligatory, sterile frames for the buildings they surround, their tidiness enforced by roving crews wielding pesticides, whirling steel, and raucous leaf blowers. So many barren hours spent tending to barren landscapes. At least it's an outdoor activity.

Suburbia tells us we must have yards, but what are they for exactly? It can get pretty existential. Native plants is one answer, for me at least. Give them a place to grow and show off their stuff. And chickens. Chickens know what to do with a yard, examining every little speck to see if it's food. They have no existential quandaries to grapple with.

So, really, I don't get too worked up over mulch volcanoes. It just seems way too easy. True, they are annoying, but they are only the pesky peak perched atop an implacable mountain of convention and indifference. Nature is often counter-intuitive. It takes awhile to get to know. Trees don't like to be hugged by mulch.

In this case, it was easy enough to pull the mulch back from the bark and be on my way. If only the underlying problem were as easy to fix.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Johnny Elderberrystem

When Johnny Elderberrystem had to remove a big pin oak tree in his backyard that was sitting on a drainage tile and shading his neighbor's vegetable garden, one thing he did with all that extra sunlight was, not surprisingly, grow some elderberry bushes. Johnny acquired his love for elderberries way back when, during jaunts with his parents each fall to harvest elderberries along the streams of Wisconsin. All those berries turned into delicious preserves and pies. Decades later, he learned that elderberry bushes, like buttonbush and silky dogwood, could be propagated by cutting a section of dormant stem in late winter and pushing it into the ground. Couldn't be easier. Johnny Elderberrystem was off and running.

And when those now ten foot high shrubs hold forth with disks of white flowers, Johnny knows it's time to venture out and see how all the other elderberries he's planted in Princeton over the years are doing.

This one in the raingarden at Mountain Lakes House probably grew from one of those live stakes he started in the greenhouse.

And this one along the Mountain Lakes driveway is one he planted and actually remembered to water through its first, precarious year. (You've got to wonder what sort of survival rate Johnny Appleseed got, planting apples here and there while he waltzed from county to county, leaving all those seedlings to the whims of the weather.) Other elderberries are living the good life at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland, their thirst well quenched by the sump pump's steady offerings.

This spring, Johnny Elderberrystem remembered to go down to the canal just west of the Harrison Street bridge, to mark elderberries with red tape so that the state parks crew that does the annual mowing of the fields there would mow around them. He missed one, and though new stems are popping up, they won't bloom and thus won't offer wildlife any flowers or berries to feast on. He did manage to mark about ten, though (he lost count at three, being easily distracted from counting) and the crew mowed around them, which means a little more dining pleasure for the pollinators and the birds.

Now, if only the birds could be trained to use the elderberry feast to bomb the visiting coxwains as they bark orders at their crews in ivy league regattas this fall, Johnny might be able to get some funding for all of this proactive stewardship.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Barely A Shadbush Berry to Eat

It's been another bad year for shadbush berries. You know, those tasty red berries borne by our native shrub that blooms when the shad migrate up the mighty Delaware River to spawn? Don't recognize the name "shadbush"? Maybe serviceberry or Amelanchier rings a bell. Oh, well. To not be familiar with shadbush is to be saved the dismay of witnessing the corruption of its bounty by cedar apple rust.

How sweet the memory, though, of going to what was once Kinko's out on Route 1 and finding a shadbush loaded with ripe berries at the front door--a secret feast in plain sight.

That memory seems more like a dream now, as nearly all the shadbush berries I encounter are a study in disfigurement, as if each berry had donned a grotesque Halloween costume. Even the catbird, so grateful for the berry bushes I've planted in the backyard, seems to have lost interest. If the fruit of a shadbush were a drupe, one could say "Berries, berries, everywhere, but not a drupe to eat."

There's a nice grove of shadbush next to Frist Center on campus, where at least a few berries aren't affected.

The name of this fungal disease implies that it alternates most notoriously between apple trees and cedars, which may explain why there were these garish growths on an arborvita two blocks from my house a couple weeks ago.

Some treatment recommendations can be found on the web, such as here and here, and there may be resistant shadbush varieties out there, but half the pleasure of eating them was the serendipity, the surprise gift recognizable to only a few.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere

Water's everywhere in Princeton, but it's not always easy to get it to where it's needed. Take the raised beds at the Princeton High School as a for instance--seventeen beds, installed in a sunny patch behind the school in the fall of 2009 with great spirit and optimism. There must have been thirty of us, kids and adults, cutting, nailing, hauling, filling. Piles of lumber and rich soil, a table with hot cider and chili on a cool autumn morning. It takes a village to make a school garden. And the designers made sure to put the gardens close to a spigot.

Only one problem. No one could get the spigot to work. Facilities staff tried to fix it, but it could only be accessed through some long tunnel deep in the bowels of the building, and somehow the fix never happened. For lack of water, many of the beds went unplanted, students came and went, interest rose but mostly fell, and except for some planting by the horticulture class, most of the beds grew weeds.

Fast forward six years, my younger daughter is a freshman, expresses some interest, and so she and a friend plant one of the beds with native wildflowers. I check the spigot. Still not working. I figure, why not try one more time. So I email facilities staff, and boom. They have a guy, Dan Galatro, crawl into the tunnel. He was apparently unfazed by whatever had proved intimidating before, because a day later, he emails that the spigot's fixed. How great is that? From my experience, once the water's flowing in the right place, all sorts of good things can flow from that.

So, the moral of that story is that good things can happen when people forget to be discouraged.

Meanwhile, there's the water situation at Potts Park, the little pocket park on Tee-Ar Place.

(I google "T R Potts princeton", thinking Tee-Ar Place and Potts Park are named after the developer of the neighborhood, who I'm guessing had daughters named Dorothy and Ann, because there's also a street called Dorann Avenue, and up pops a page from an ebook entitled "The Ancestry, Life, and Times of Hon. Henry Hastings Sibley", by Nathaniel West. It appears to say that T.R. Potts was brother of a director of the Princeton Theological Seminary, Rev. George Potts, a man of "majestic presence" and "universal esteem". The wife of the Dr. T.R. Potts in the book was named Abbie Ann.) 

Note, 9.9.2018: Just researched this further. There's a Dorothy Ann Potts living in Florida who appears to be related to Dorothea S. Potts and Theodore R. Potts, and lived in Princeton at one time. Theodore's development firm built the shopping center in 1954, and was called Clearview Associates, which explains the street named "Clearview," which may well have had a clear view southward across Princeton back in the 1950s when it was built. ("Relict" means widow.)

But I was writing about the drinking water issue at Potts Park, where children love to put sand from the sandbox into the bowl of the drinking fountain, thereby gumming up, or sanding up, the works and causing the parks dept. to turn off the water and leave an "out of order" sign posted nearby.

This has been going on for years, so my idea is, buy a drinking fountain that doesn't have a bowl, but instead drains to a raingarden. Here's one that drains down a ramp where kids presumably can put sand and see the water flow through it. Here's one that flows first to where dogs can take a sip, before draining into the ground.

The fountain will cost more, but maintenance will be less, kids will be able to play with sand and water in a positive way, and everyone will see how drainage can be used to grow native wildflowers. Call me an armchair optimist on a lazy Sunday morning, but I'm cooling down that bottle of "Wyn, Wyn, Wyn" champaign, and preparing a toast to working with gravity, nature, and children's nature, rather than struggling against them.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Needed: Used Flower Pots

Calling all plastic planting containers!

I'm potting up extra native plants from my backyard for a fundraiser, and am running out of pots. All sizes needed. Even large plastic pots may prove useful, for growing trees at the town's tree nursery.

If you have some used plastic pots laying around that you don't need, please drop them off at my doorstep at 137-139 N. Harrison St. in Princeton. We have a parking spot in front of the house where you can pull in.

Thanks in advance!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mulberry Lament

Make one perfect berry, and you will be treasured for your rareness. Make a multitude, and you will be cursed for your messy opulence. Only a few will gaze upwards from the stained sidewalks, see beyond your suspicious generosity, your high altitude pick-me-if-you-can teasing ways, and gorge with gratitude.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Engaging Bamboo at Princeton Battlefield, Part 2

The Princeton Battlefield Society has an issue with the bamboo that was planted long ago near Clark House. It's expanded to the point that it's starting to block pathways. Responding with a workday in the spring, the volunteers had a big above-ground impact, reducing the forest of bamboo to long piles of thick stems. I made the case that, despite that great accomplishment, it was not time to declare victory. A month later, the bamboo would quietly send up a new forest of shoots from energy reserves in its massive root system, and restore its strength over the long summer.

From high atop my horse, or at least my horticultural soapbox, I offered a plan to outsmart a grass species long schooled in the art of survival. We'd wait until its new stems are ten feet tall, then seize the day, along with some loppers, and cut them all down. That's just what board members Kip and Marc did this past weekend, with an admirable sense of thoroughness. Now it's the bamboo's move. Having spent all that root energy for no return, it may abandon ambitions of tall stems for the time being and merely send up short, shrubby sprigs dense with leaves. If these, too, get cut down, then the bamboo's roots will be well along the way to being exhausted.

We found a few natives growing in the void left by removing the bamboo: spicebush, blackberry, black raspberry, jewelweed, and white snakeroot. Their presence is heartening, and though we discussed encouraging them it's too early to think about nurturing the peace. The bamboo is not yet quelled, and porcelainberry vines are creeping in from the sides, ready to outcompete the relatively tame natives.

We then headed across the backyard of the Clark House to check out another clone blocking another trail. We tasted a young bamboo shoot or two. Not bad, even raw. Maybe what we have here is a failure to utilize. If only Princeton had a ravishing hunger for locally grown bamboo shoots, the clones would be held nicely in check.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Mercer Street, the dogwood trees lining the field are growing new leaves that can actually get sunlight, now that they've been liberated from suffocating vines.

All of this speaks to the progress that can be made in local parks by a few people with some plant knowledge, some strategy, a few spare hours, and some loppers.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Turtle Rescue at NJ MVC

Why was a turtle heading towards the Motor Vehicles Commission offices? Had its shell registration expired? I had just renewed mine, and couldn't really just leave the turtle there.

On the way in, I had stopped for a family of geese crossing the road. Three had crossed but one young one had stayed behind. I was about to continue on my way when its mother suddenly appeared in front of my car, raised her wings and glared at me like a crossing guard until the straggler had joined them.

A turtle has no such option, and retreating into its shell was not going to work for long on that busy street.

So I carried it back to the wooded side of the road, told it to leave the annoyance of vehicle registration to humans, then watched with satisfaction as it quickly disappeared into the thicket.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

More on Emerald Ash Borer

While in Chicago recently for a family reunion, I stepped out on the back patio of my niece's apartment in Hyde Park, looked up, and saw that a neighbor's tree was dying. The thick, opposite twigs suggested ash, and the loss of most of the crown, with only a few lower branches still green, suggested that Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) has made it to Chicago.

In a nearby Chicago park, I found the characteristic D-shaped exit hole (the native ash borers make a round exit hole).

New Jersey had been exceptional in being free of emerald ash borer, until last year when it was spotted in Somerset, then later in Mercer County. This year, at the May meeting of the Princeton Shade Tree Commission, council member Bernie Miller sounded reasonably sure he had seen one in his yard.

Our town arborist, Lorraine Konopka, has placed two traps on the east and west side of town--one at Valley Road, the other at Marquand Park. The traps contain a pheromone that will attract the insect if it happens to be nearby. Whether or not the traps catch any insects, it's best to assume that EAB has made its way to Princeton, and begin considering which ash trees to treat. It would be nice to think that some ash trees will resist attack on their own, but that hasn't been the experience elsewhere, as far as I know.

Below is info on treatment options from a previous post, along with some related links:

It's important for those who have ash trees in their yards to know that those trees can be protected with systemic pesticides. Not all the available pesticides are equally effective, however. Though imidicloprid is being frequently recommended locally, the experts in other states that I've spoken to have all recommended emamectin benzoate (brand name Tree-Age, or Arbor-Mectin). 
Page 15 of this document is very informative, and says the emamectin is the most effective and longer lasting, while warning against use of imidicloprid on larger trees. Dave says that the EAB expert Deborah McCullough recommends emamectin, which is supported by this article about communities in Minnesota. The article is very optimistic about saving some ash trees, and offers this interesting approach:
"Burnsville is so sold on that idea of saving trees, rather than cutting them down, that it plans to encourage residents to treat their trees by extending to them the rates the city receives for pesticide injection. " 
Curtis Helm, a former Princetonian and currently an urban forester in Philadelphia's Parks and Rec department, advises against using imidicloprid on trees larger than 16" diameter. He says Philadelphia is treating 1000 ash with Tree-Age. 
In a previous post on the subject, I included notes from an extended conversation with Donald A. Eggen, Division Chief of Forest Pest Management Division of Pennsylvania. He, too, strongly recommended Tree-Age rather than products that use imidicloprid.
The emamectin benzoate, last time I checked, was more expensive, which may explain the local preference for imidicloprid, but that cost differential is reduced when the frequency of application is considered. 
Note: The Arbor-Mectin formulation is said to be absorbed into the tree more quickly than Tree-age, and therefore can be less expensive to apply. Both use the same active ingredient. 

Links to news stories about emerald ash borer being found in Mercer County are here and here.

There's also evidence from Yellow Springs, Ohio, that another native related to ash trees, the fringe tree, can be attacked by emerald ash borers. I've only seen fringe tree once in the wild, in a nature preserve I helped create in Durham, NC, though it is becoming more common as a beautiful ornamental shrub/tree.