Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The OK Leaf Corral

One way to wrap up the year and leave 2015 behind, as we ride December off into the sunset, is with a cowboy-tinged leaf rap -- an advertisement for the latest
in our ever-expanding line of sustainability products. 
Yee haw!

The OK Leaf Corral

By Stephen Hiltner

Is your lawn
Beneath a sea of leaves?

Is there brown on the ground
That you don’t want around?

Well, resist that urge
To purge the surge.
Them leaves that’s fallin’
Have a higher callin’
Than to fill up the streets
And leave traffic stallin’.

So when you’re feelin’ inundated
And your yard looks second rated,
It’s good to know
That you have a pal
In our OK brand 
Of leaf corral.

Our OK brand 
of leaf corral 
is guaranteed 
to be 

It’s the solution 
to pollution!

No curbside muss or fuss, now. 
No piles in the aisles. 
No cars swervin', 
or curvin' 
'round foliage undeservin' 
of a fate so unnervin'. 

‘Cause our sophisticated 
leaf-sensin' fencin' 
will keep your leafy fleet 
in a discreet 
of the yard. 

The OK Leaf Corral 
is a leaf corral 
you can trust, 
not to rust. 

So keep that leaf, 
(at your feet) 
out of the street! 

Just saddle on up 
in your “green” blue jeans, 
and start cleanin' the scene.

You can mow ‘em,
You can stow ‘em,
You can rake ‘em,
You can shake ‘em,
You can make ‘em into soil.
It don’t take any toil.

Don’t burn,
Don’t burn,
Don’t burn any oil.

All you gotta do is toss em’.
Oh, those leaves 
are simply awesome!

Just rake ‘em on up,
And tow ‘em on down.
Move 'em on back 
To the back of the yard.
To the back of the yard?
To the back of the yard!

Ride herd on them there leaves! 
Giddyap and get 'em on back 
To the OK Leaf Corral. 

Yee haw!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Another Wishing (the earth) Well in the Neighborhood

Posts on a blog and letters to the editor are released into the community to an uncertain fate. Will they lodge in anyone's mind, to any effect? Irrefutable evidence came last weekend when Peter and Suzanne, neighbors around the corner, stopped by to ask about the Wishing (the earth) Well placed in our front yard next to the sidewalk. What to do with the oak leaves, which seem not to decompose at all when left on the ground. I explained the logic of the dual purpose leaf corral--a circle within a circle, with the inner circle being a central, critter-proof cylinder into which food scraps can be put, disguised by the surrounding leaves.

Peter thought about what fencing he had left over from other projects, went to the local hardware to buy stakes, and later the same day sent me a photo of their new leaf corral next to the back fence. Instead of wire fencing for the leaf-containing outer ring, it uses plastic, which is probably cheaper and appears to hold its shape just fine. Given how ideas tend to incubate for long periods, this quick turn around, from idea to reality in a couple hours, was truly refreshing.

Another neat feature in Peter and Suzanne's yard is a mini minipond, fed by sump pump water that is pumped into the small cisterns next to the house, then gravity fed to the little pond. A pink flamingo stands guard, perhaps to intimidate any great blue heron that might stop by. The screens are there to catch any heavy snow we might get this winter, and they may help discourage the raccoons and fox from stealing goldfish.

With the solar panels mounted on their roof, that means they're utilizing the sun that shines on their house, the sump pump water that comes from underground, and the leaves that fall from the trees. It all makes life, and the yard, a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

PawPaw Patches Proliferate in Princeton

My friend Stan, who has a knack for collecting and growing out seed of local fruit trees, gave me about twenty pawpaws (Asimina triloba) he grew from local populations of this remarkable native species. Though adapted to the north, the pawpaw bears a fruit reminiscent of mango. Hard to store and ship, the fruit has proven hard to turn into a cash crop, so it remains at the margins of our diets and awareness.

I delivered three to Mountain Lakes, for planting there, then called up my friend and author-of-note Clifford Zink over at Harrison Street Park, to see about starting a pawpaw patch over there.

Last month, we planted three in a swale that receives water from a nearby parking lot--a good urban version of the floodplains that are the pawpaw's preferred habitat.

Around the same time, Bill Sachs gave me some white cedars and hemlocks he'd grown in his backyard. Bill has been leading efforts in town to bring back the native chestnut and butternut. Since white cedars are adapted to swamps, two of them ended up in the Princeton High School ecolab wetland, thanks to environmental science teacher Tim Anderson and his students.

Most of the pawpaws are being saved for planting a pawpaw patch out at the Veblen House site, part of a PawPaw Patch Planting Party, public invited, tentatively scheduled for the first weekend of the new year, El Nino weather permitting.

(Other pawpaw posts can be found by typing pawpaw into the search box at the top of this website.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Some Local Parks "Leave the Leaves"

According to a report by councilman Patrick Simon at the December Princeton Environmental Commission meeting, the town recreation department (Princeton has no parks department) is changing its management to "leave the leaves" in 8 of 15 parks in town. That means that leaves will be mulch-mowed back into the turf on non-sports fields, and left in back areas under trees. This represents an important step away from the notion that leaves are litter that must be exported from town, and a step towards acknowledging the important ecological role leaves have in the landscape, for nutrient recycling and as habitat that benefits birds and insects like fireflies.

After mulch mowing (most any mower blade will cut leaves into bits as it cuts the grass, and therefore "mulch mow"), the park looks like this.

The decision follows a number of emails I sent to director of recreation, Ben Stentz, requesting that the maintenance crews shift away from the noisy and labor- and fuel-intensive practice of blowing leaves into piles and then hauling them out of town to the composting site.

Because of this new approach, neighbors will no longer need to listen to a morning's worth of leaf blowing each year, rec staff will have more time for other work, and there will be less burning of carbon-based fuels to export nutrients from town parks. This is what they call a win-win-win-win.

The photo shows how the mowed bits of leaves nestle inbetween the leaf blades, and will begin to behave as slow-release fertilizer for the lawn.

In my emails to staff and council members, I had also requested permission to build and fill leaf corrals in a couple local parks, to demonstrate to park users this sustainable and easy approach that, like mulch mowing, helps homeowners "leave the leaves" on their property.

That proposal was not approved, so I'm using my front yard on North Harrison Street to demonstrate the benefits of leaf corrals. As the three leaf corrals of various sizes in the front yard show, they can be proudly displayed out in the open, integrated into perennial borders, or hidden behind shrubs. As the post at this link shows, leaf corrals can be used either to generate high quality compost for the homeowner, or to simply channel nutrients back into the yard.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Big Bird That Got Away

This is one of those old fish crow stories, about hearing a fish crow in the backyard this morning, going "uh uh"..."uh uh", again and again, with that call that sounds like it's contradicting everything you happen to be thinking. "Uh uh. That's a lousy idea," it seems to be saying. "Uh uh. You don't want to do that." And so I go out on the back patio to see what all the "uh uhs" are about, and locate the fish crow, seemingly alone in the top of the silver maple tree, and while I'm looking up, out of the corner of my eye I see a great blue heron lifting itself up out of the shrubbery screening the chicken coop and fly off in its heavy, gangly way, swooping around an evergreen tree to drop back down to the ground a couple doors away. We have no fish, nor any pond this time of year to even offer hope of fish. Was it remembering ponds and goldfish past? Or was it hanging out with the chickens, who also were clustered under the shrubs? Maybe some kind of big bird affinity happening there. And why was the fish crow making that steady, repetitive call, as if monitoring the situation and letting fellow crows know what gives? I went over to my neighbor's. He has a pond with a pump-driven waterfall. The great blue heron was gone.

That was a good photo that got away, and if the neighbor had any fish in his pond, a couple long-necked gulps may have left his pond as empty as the tree in this photo.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Capturing Mountain Lakes in a Camera

The Friends of Princeton Open Space, partnering with REI, held a "Give Thanks for Nature Photo Contest" a week ago. The weather cooperated, and I hear they had a good turnout for this 1st annual event. Since photographers could only submit one photo each, below are some of the photos I took whose compositional potential I didn't really see until after the submission deadline.

Though open space preservation groups have tended to shy away from preserving buildings that come along with open space acquisitions, I find that Mountain Lakes' cultural legacy--the 1950s house and the 1900 dams that were part of an ice harvesting operation--play a complementary rather than antagonistic role in this nature preserve, adding meaning to the landscape and many of the photos thereof.

Reflections on Mountain Lakes House 


Liquid Garland

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral


Nature's Tears


Thursday, December 03, 2015

The "Second Forest" -- Fall Version

The second forest is a term I use to describe the understory layer of exotic invasive shrubs that populate most of our forests. It is essentially a second forest superimposed on the landscape, composed of non-native species that, being largely inedible to wildlife, do not support the local foodchain. You can see it this time of year, when the native species have lost their leaves but the exotic honeysuckle shrubs are still green. Note that the honeysuckle sticks to the higher ground in the distance. The second forest can be attractive, but ecologically it causes problems because the exotics not only stay green later into the fall but also green up early in the spring, shading out our native spring ephemeral wildflowers before they've had a chance to absorb enough solar energy to sustain them through to the next year. The photo is from Princeton's Mountain Lakes Preserve.

As the Emerald Ash Borer begins to kill off the many ash trees in our preserves, the canopy will develop many gaps, allowing more summer sunlight to reach the shrub understory. If that understory is largely exotic invasive species, then all that solar energy will go into generating foliage that is largely inedible to wildlife, and which produces berries of significantly less nutritional value than those of native species. The consequent reduction in functional acreage of open space is why it's so important to be taking action now to shift the understory from exotic to native species, so that our preserves can actually support diverse native plant and animal life.

I made this case as a member of the Princeton Open Space Advisory Committee this year. Hopefully, the committee's report will help town leaders see the strategic importance of habitat restoration, given the dramatic changes coming to Princeton's forests.