Monday, February 29, 2016

Albino Pumpkin to the Rescue

(Alternative title: "Hubcap Theft Leaves Leaf Corral Topless.)

Princeton, a theft has occurred. Anyone who knows what a "Wishing (the earth) Well" leaf corral should look like will immediately notice that the hubcap that adorned the central cylinder, where the food scraps are placed, is now missing. I mean, what has civilization come to, that stray plastic hubcaps are now being stolen from frontyard leaf corrals in our fair town.

Fortunately, a neighbor around the block had left an albino pumpkin out on the curb, apparently not needing its services any longer but not wishing to consign it to the trashcan. I had passed it by several times, not knowing what possible use an albino plastic pumpkin could be put to in the middle of winter. Finally, an answer came.

My sense is that the pumpkin will not disappear, protected by it's lack of any other apparent use, and also by its albino nature, which like a white buffalo radiates a spirituality sufficient to spook any would-be predator.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Asphalt, Tree Roots, and Leaf Piles

If you encourage people with large wooded lots to simply pile their leaves in the woods, rather than piling them in the street where they become a nuisance, a seemingly simple solution becomes complicated by people's fears that the leaf pile will smother the tree roots beneath it. It does seem logical that a thick layer of matted leaves would prevent water and air from reaching the soil.

But if that's so, then why are tree roots perfectly content to grow underneath bikeways and sidewalks? And why have I found tree roots invading the leaf piles I've made over the years?

There are a number of answers. One is that water in soil doesn't alway obey gravity. It wicks upwards from below, and seeps sideways. And a wet leaf will transfer moisture to the leaf just beneath it, and so on down through the pile. Worms feasting on the leaves will create passages for water to penetrate more quickly. So the ground under a thick leaf pile will be supplied with water from the sides, below, and even from the top. A leaf pile, by this logic, would actually serve as a feeding station for the trees, rather than a threat.

If this makes the survival of tree roots under asphalt and leaf piles more comprehensible, there remains a greater mystery, namely, what impedes the movement of warning signals through the human brain? The asphalt at Pettoranello Gardens has been showing signs of heaving for years, and yet no one thought to cut the roots at the edges, so that they wouldn't continue to push upwards. Incremental, silent change seems to activate the "procrastination ... oops, too late" response. A beautiful path along Pettoranello Pond has been rendered hazardous to the bikes it was built for.

Maybe if people piled their leaves on their own properties, town staff would have more time and funding to maintain our bikeways. Just a thought.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Red Cedar Sculpture

Kurt Tazelaar and I were out exploring a part of Herrontown Woods we hadn't been in before, and found a remarkable bit of sculpture--the still standing legacy of an eastern red cedar.

The shape is likely due to it having once stood out in a field, where its lateral branches would have spread wide, feeding on the strong light coming from all directions.

The cedar's long since been overshadowed by larger, deciduous trees, but its decay resistant wood still testifies to its former dominant standing in the landscape.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Teaching an Old Chicken Old Tricks

After a few years, chickens and ducks stop laying eggs. Our peking duck laid one egg per day like clockwork for several years, but stopped suddenly this past fall, even though she still waddles about the yard as robustly as ever. Our one hen remaining from the first batch, bought about four years ago, also stopped laying around the same time.

There followed then a lull of about a month, when we finally gave in and bought a dozen eggs at the grocery. Strange feeling after several years of home grown. Then, just as days were narrowing down to winter solstice, the three chickens we bought this past May came online, began their tour of beneficence, or however you'd like to describe the remarkable generosity that is a hen's nature. Though all are araucanas, one lays brown eggs, while the others lay variations on green and blue.

Then one day in late December a tiny egg appeared, as if a quail had happened by for a brief visit. Sometimes that can mean a chicken has just started laying. I wanted to believe the older white hen had found new inspiration. Hard to say, but if one looks closely enough at the greenish eggs, one can see three different shades, with one grayer, one bluer, and one just possibly from an old hen made newer.

Araucanas are sometimes called "easter egg" chickens, because of the varied colors of their eggs, and sometimes when the eggs aren't showing up in the usual spot in or near the coop, we do a good imitation of an Easter egg hunt searching for their new nest. I hear that Araucanas are also particularly resilient in cold weather. That will be tested this weekend, when temperatures are predicted to dip nearly to 0.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

When Snow Snazzed Up the Morning

Winter's second snow caught us by surprise. I had just put the shovels away, but they were hardly needed, as this snowstorm snazzed up the landscape without snarling traffic, beautifying the morning before fading away in the afternoon sun. The snow added definition to the landscape, revealing the outline of the ephemeral stream that flows from the neighbor's yard down into ours.

making clear the boundaries between aqueous and terrestrial.

Even in a freeze, the chickens can still find water where our tiny stream, a thin blue line on old maps of Princeton, trickles past the sedges.

The fillable, spillable ponds, fed by snowmelt from the roof, received a cheery rim of snow,

and an idea for leaf corral as scroll-shaped sculpture sprang from a shape unseen until the snow gave it a defining presence.

The snow made this fence into an optical illusion (doesn't it look like the photo isn't quite rectangular?),

and even turned unsplit wood into an artful assemblage. If all unfinished work received such ornament, what a beautiful world it would be.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Princeton Ridge Land Preservation Up for Vote

The Friends of Princeton Open Space, my former employer, has sent out the following call for action. Please send emails to the council members below to express your support for preserving 20 acres along the Princeton Ridge.



The acquisition of 20+ acres on the Princeton Ridge, designated in our Master Plan for decades as a critical area to protect, is threatened with defeat on Monday, February 8th. That is when Council votes on a bond ordinance to finance the purchase, the principal of which will be fully reimbursed from the State/Green Acres, County, and Friends of Princeton Open Space with a small amount of remediation funds from the TRANSCO pipeline. Two members of Council would not vote for the ordinance on January 25th because of the governor’s pocket veto of legislation concerning the division of future Green Acres funds among various purposes – an issue that affects only 9% of the funding(about $400,000). A third member believes Princeton already has “enough” open space.

Princeton citizens voted for a dedicated open space tax that can be used for bond financing costs, and to cover the 9% if need be. But there is every reason to believe that these outlays will be reimbursed by Green Acres, even if on a delayed timetable due to the governor’s action. The funds for future open space purchases were constitutionally dedicated by the voters last November.

This property is a critical link between preserved lands on the Ridge to the west and east. It is mature forest, traversed by a stream, with a large beautiful boulder field. It is immediately adjacent to 35 acres of other preserved public and private open space, and accessible from the Mt. Lucas pedestrian/bike path. It provides habitat for threatened and endangered species, and is part of the beautiful forest corridor by which one enters Princeton from Montgomery. IT DESERVES PROTECTION!

Please contact these Council members and tell them you want them to protect our forests, water, wildlife and quality of life by voting for the bond issue:


For more information, call the FOPOS office at 609-921-2772

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Small Aquatic Invasion in Pettoranello Gardens

Walk along the edge of Pettoranello Pond, over near Mountain Lakes in Princeton, and you'll see a band of green slowly expanding along the banks. Five years ago, when I first noticed it, my immediate thought was that a new invasive species had arrived. Even though there was only one small patch, about a yard across, it was easy to extrapolate from the present into a future where the pond water's pleasing reflections would disappear beneath a dense mat of green.

It had stems, so couldn't be duckweed, and was much too small for water lettuce. Google searches yielded nothing similar, which could at least be taken as reassuring that it isn't a widespread menace. With help from Chris Doyle, via Mike Van Clef, we determined that it was water starwort (Callitriche sp.). Seeds would need to be collected later this year to identify the species. Vernal water starwort (C. palustris) is a native species. Pond water starwort (C. stagnalis) was introduced from its native Europe and Africa back in the 19th century, and has been slowly spreading in the U.S.

Though it hasn't spread aggressively across the pond, here's an example of where it has moved beyond the edge into more open waters.

In this photo, you can see the water starwort and, popping up on dry ground, small roundish leaves of the much more aggressive lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) that has become ubiquitous in Pettoranello Gardens and has spread downstream into Mountain Lakes and beyond.