Friday, May 27, 2016

Acting to Define an Arboreal Future

When it comes to trees in Princeton, there's often a frontyard/backyard dichotomy, exemplified by this yard, across from Potts Park. A corner lot, its quartet of mature pin oaks extend their limbs well out over the pavement, providing shade even though they're on the north side of the street. The combination of their encompassing shade and their transpiration keep the house and street much cooler in the summer, and oaks support a broad diversity of insect species. While many pin and red oaks are losing a battle with bacterial leaf scorch, these appear healthy, perhaps due in part to not being constricted by a sidewalk.

The planting of those four trees, perhaps 60 years ago, was an intentional act, based on the premise that the future would come, and is worth influencing. Whoever planted them would be proud of having left such a legacy.

The back fenceline of the same property, though, tells a different story. As with so many back fencelines in Princeton, the next generation of trees is being decided not by intentional action but by default. In this case, that means Norway maples, which are adapted to grow in the shade and eventually displace the native species. The Norway maples cast a very dense shade that discourages anything from growing underneath them, and their leaves are largely inedible to insects.

Particularly in this time of political paralysis, when our future is being defined by unintended consequences, it can be satisfying to actively manage a yard's arboreal future. If homeowners lack the time or knowledge to act on their own, maybe there should be another class of arborists, armed not with chainsaws and cranes but loppers and handsaws, called in to intervene not when trees are large and failing, but when the next generation is just beginning to take shape along the fenceline.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Leaning Tower of Pizza Crusts

What could cast a shadow like this on the front sidewalk, on the other side of the year from Halloween?

A Wishing (The Earth) Well, of course--encouraging passersby to drop a leaf in and make a wish. It's placed prominently in the front yard not because I think it's so beautiful, but because it's time for solutions to be made as visible as the problems they're meant to solve. Princeton spends an estimated $800,000 per year picking up piles of leaves and brush, some of which lingered on the street for two months this spring, like scabs on wounds that refuse to heal. People imitate what their neighbors do, so the highly visible leaf piles proliferate, with no regard for the town's complicated pickup schedule, making a nearly year-round street mess and increasing municipal expenses. It's nice to think all the collected leaves and brush are nicely composted at the Ecological Center out Princeton Pike, but the operation is energy-intensive and loses money. The less material that has to go there, the better.

Meanwhile, a big part of the solution--piling leaves not on the street but in a corner of the backyard to complete nature's cycling of nutrients back into the soil--is hidden from view and therefore not imitated by neighbors. Besides, it's fun to do something a little different with the front yard to break up the suburban monotony. It will be interesting to see if the nasturtiums, planted in a mix of soil and leaves on top of the leaf pile, find sustenance in last fall's rotting leaves and grow to make a flattering curtain of green and orange over the sides of the corral.

This leaf corral design includes a central cylinder for kitchen scraps, capped with a stray hubcap that washed up on the shores of Harrison Street one day. The leaves and foodscraps decompose aerobically, so there's no odor, and no need to turn the pile. Recently the foodscrap cylinder began to lean a bit. "Some settling of contents will occur." Hard to know whether to push the cylinder back upright or promote it as a tourist attraction: the Leaning Tower of Pizza Crusts.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Bees in Your Backyard--A talk by Olivia Carril

Interesting talk at the Princeton Public Library on bees, by Olivia Carril, co-author of a new book on North American bees called "The Bees in Your Backyard". Most engaging was her clear passion for the subject, which is expansive, given the 4000 species of bees in this part of the world. Each species has its own story, its own special approach to living a bee's life, and new ones are being discovered all the time. Just in the process of doing her doctoral work in Utah, she found 46 new species, and a new species of bee was recently verified in Central Park.

She began with speculation about how bees came into being back in the days of dinosaurs, when primitive magnolia flowers served as the stage where early predatory wasps could evolve into bees that used nectar and pollen for food. Making the transition easier was the similar nutrients content of insects and pollen.

Along with explanations of how to distinguish bees from other insects and from each other, she gave some insights into the myriad lifestyles bees have evolved: where various bees sleep through the night, and the underground preparations for spring.

I asked about how the presence or absence of various species of bees could affect habitat restoration efforts. She said that the first bee species to be lost when habitat is disturbed are the ground-nesting bees and those that are highly specialized and therefore specific about which flowers they pollinate. The specialist pollinators are highly vulnerable when the particular native plant species they've adapted to utilize are lost. Plant species reintroduced to an area after a long absence, and whose specialized pollinators have long since disappeared, will likely still get pollinated, she said, by generalists--bees that pollinate a great variety of flowers.

When asked about what to plant to accommodate the needs of bees, she listed three of the best plant families for attracting bees: sunflower (Composite), mint and pea families. I mentioned the phenomenal insect community (50+ species of insects and spiders) that comes together on our disks of boneset flowers each August, and a woman suggested that narrow-leaved mountain mint, a local wildflower found in meadows, also draws a very diverse insect crowd. Many posts having to do with boneset can be found on this website by typing the word boneset into the search box. Here's an example of the diversity to be found if one looks closely.

Some other notes:
  • More bee diversity in dry climates, due to there being fewer fungi to prey on the bees. Southeast U.S., which has a hot, humid climate, has relatively low numbers of bee species.
  • Carpenter bees use the same galleries year after year, enlarging them each time
  • Bumble bees prefer abandoned rodent holes for building their nests
  • Miner bees dig "gopher" holes in the ground. Most of their lives is spent underground. 
  • Cuckoo bees parasitize miner bees, using a strategy similar to that of cowbirds. 
  • Bee wolves paralyze bees and take them back to their nests for food

Master Gardeners of Mercer County are hosting a June 18 event on bees

Friday, May 20, 2016

Chickens Star at Littlebrook Science Day

Our four chickens emerged from the box yesterday morning with the realization that they weren't in the backyard anymore. This was new territory, the courtyard of Littlebrook Elementary, and they were about to bring the joys of their charismatic chickenhood to a steady stream of 5-12 year olds as part of Science Day. Each year, Littlebrook has parents and others in the community come on Science Day to share their scientific knowledge with the students in 20 minute bursts at stations located all over the school.

On a day graced by gorgeous weather, the kids came to the courtyard to hear the story of how my daughter, a Littlebrook grad years back, had come home one day from middle school wanting to get chickens. Her parents were not exactly thrilled with the idea. My one experience with caring for birds had been an ill-fated attempt, as a kid, to save an injured robin. I had concluded that birds were mysterious creatures whose needs I could never understand nor provide for other than through restoring habitat. My daughter persisted, however, and we finally made a springtime trip out to Rosedale Mills to buy two-week old Araucana chicks.

After graduating from bathtub to backyard and quickly growing to adulthood, they started laying eggs in the fall. Over the ensuing four years, the chickens have proven to be wonderful, healthy, resourceful, even soulful "pets-with-benefits", requiring little more than food, water, and a homemade coop to provide shelter at night. This year, they and the resident duck have been discovered by neighborhood kids, who peer at them through the fence from little Potts Park on Tee-Ar Street just behind our house. The trip to Littlebrook was their first road gig.

After the kids had spent some time following the chickens around the courtyard, we regathered at the table to look at the unusual colors of the Araucana's "Easter Eggs", and see how one can roughly tell the age of an egg. If it drops to the bottom of a pan of water and lays flat, it's fresh. If it stand upright, with one end lighter than the other, then it's been around for awhile. Liquid slowly escapes through the shell over time, to be replaced by air that makes the egg more buoyant. The older eggs are good for hard-boiling, since the air inside makes them easier to peel.

Occasional breaks offered some time to botanize in the well-kept courtyard, which is used for art classes and growing food and native plants. One special native is the native strawberry bush (Euonymus americana), which is so loved by deer it can only grow large and full like this in protected yards in town.

Like the nonnative winged Euonymus, which the deer don't much like and so out-competes the natives in our preserves, the native has barely noticeable flowers. The "strawberries" come later, in the form of bright red, ornamental seeds that give the native shrub the name "hearts a' bustin'". At some point, when nature's checks and balances are restored and our forests come back into more ecological balance, the native Euonymus will thrive once again in our woodlands. Until then, backyards and school courtyards make a fine refuge.

There was considerable uncertainty as to how we'd get the chickens back into the box at the end of the day. When the last class departed, some chicken chasing ensued. One proved very hard to catch, as it would dart away and flap its wings at the very instant we tried to wrap our hands around it. Students watched from their classrooms, highly amused as three of us chased the chicken around the courtyard, clearly outmatched by this speedy descendant of dinosaurs. Good thing that I had planted this patch of raspberries years back as a Littlebrook parent volunteer. We managed to corral the chicken in the raspberry patch, where the foliage was dense enough that the chicken could not see my hands descending from above.

Have to say how good it felt to be back at Littlebrook, where principal Annie Kosek has cultivated over the years a wonderful staff and spirit of learning. Martha Friend, whose depth of caring extends beyond the school and into the community, teaches science, and Jenny Ludmer and all the other Science Day organizers had everything running smoothly. Thanks to Jenny's son, who has chickens at home, for providing critical assistance with the end of the day roundup.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Those Tiny Household Ants

An exterminator stopped by a friend's house while I was there, and identified the tiny ants that occasionally show up in the kitchen and elsewhere as "odorous house ants". He had a couple syringes with gel, applied some in an out of the way place along the ants' pathway, and quickly departed.

Two years ago, the ants were so numerous in our house that we thought they'd soon take over the whole world. Last year, there were few, requiring little or no action.

A couple previous posts describe the options. After trying borax-based products, we settled on a gel endearingly called Combat Source Kill Max, available at the local hardware store. Only tiny amounts are needed, placed along the path of the ants. They seem to gobble it all up, leaving no residual. Haven't needed to use it this year as yet. Maybe the ants have grown content with the great outdoors.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Misty Walk Through Herrontown Woods

Last Saturday, towards the end of a rainy patch of weather, Herrontown Woods offered a special mix of solitude, surprise, promise and peace. An early surprise along the trail was a native azalea. What might this one solitary azalea, with a grand total of three clusters of flowers, tell of what these woods once held, and could there be others surviving in pockets yet unfound?

Near the parking lot, a vernal pool--one of many generous legacies a fallen tree leaves behind--was alive with the tadpoles of woodfrogs.

While the rainy week was not getting good reviews in town, Herrontown Woods was patiently taking it all in, filling its ground full of water, to be slowly exhaled through a rock-jumbled stream, no rock the same in the patterns of life upon it.

Witch hazels and christmas ferns grow just up-slope of the stream, with vistas lengthened by the habitat restoration work our Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers have done.

Spicebush is growing more common, with leaves that give off a citrusy fragrance.

Now's a good time to see wild geraniums,

and the last of the rue anemone flowers.

Maybe if carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) had a more flattering name, I'd remember it more reliably.

Here are the wings and flowers on winged euonymus, a very numerous nonnative shrub we've been cutting down. In this regard, we play a role complementary to the deer, exerting browsing pressure on the nonnative species the deer won't eat.

In the case of winged euonymus and multiflora rose, the deer then follow up by nibbling the tender sprouts from the stumps we leave behind. With these two shrub species, at least, we can actually partner with the deer to bring the habitat back to greater balance and diversity.

The greatest delight came while crossing a large boulder field near the top of the trail. It's a miniature version of what can be found in the Sourlands, where a stream flows largely hidden, through and under the boulders, making music the way we make music by exhaling into an instrument.

In some places, there was an uncanny stereo effect, with the sound of water coming from multiple directions. Returning three days later, the music was gone, as if the woods' breath were spent until it can be recharged by another week of rain.

Moonseed's a cool little vine that seems only to grow among large boulders along the ridge, at Herrontown Woods and Witherspoon Woods.

A cherry millipede, giving off a maraschino scent when you pick it up, finds a home in the leaf litter.

One of the quiet, distinctive beauties of Herrontown Woods is the showy orchis, growing in only one spot and not found anywhere else along Princeton's ridge. Botanists Henry and Betty Horn tell the story of photographers making a pilgrimage each spring in years back. One thing our Friends of Herrontown Woods group is doing to hopefully allow this small population to grow stronger is removing the nonnative shrubs whose biological clocks, evolved elsewhere, cause them to green up too early in the spring, casting shade before the orchids have had a chance to absorb enough solar energy for the next year.

Far more numerous is Smilacina racemosa, what we used to call "False Solomon's Seal", because it's easily mistaken for Solomon's Seal. Note the terminal flower cluster, which makes Solomon's Plume a useful way to name it for something other than what it is not.

Solomon's Seal is called Polygonatum biflorum because it has a couple flowers at each leaf axil, rather than at the end. Even latin can make sense sometimes.

Other wildflowers peeping up through the leaves are wood anemone and trout lily, their flowers past,


pink wood sorrel,

and jack-in-the-pulpit. Three of these grew near my childhood home, their hoods an object of early fascination.

Maple-leaf Viburnum seedlings and bloodroot rise above the natural mulch of leaves protecting the soil.

There's a heartening diversity of native shrubs in the understory. To the blackhaw Viburnums and spicebush common elsewhere are added the maple-leaf Viburnum,

and occasional blueberries (the Kramer inventory from the 1960s lists four species of Vaccinium).

Among the thousands of nonnative winged euonymus are a grand total of two native Euonymus americana, sometimes called strawberry bush or hearts-a-burstin, that somehow grew tall enough to elude the deer, who seem to prefer munching on this shrub above all others. They keep the rest of this shrub's population in a state of arrested development, several inches high. With some protection, those too could grow to maturity.

Either a new discovery or an old forgotten discovery was a dogwood that doesn't have the cobbled bark. Digging back into the memory banks, I checked the branching--alternate rather than the flowering dogwood's opposite branching. Alternate-leaved dogwood! And not one but two found during the walk. For someone wanting to see Princeton's preserves regain a past diversity, these warmed the heart.

And then a mystery shrub, a Viburnum with reddish tint and red petioles. Also two found, but its name not to be found in any past inventories.

Note: This has been identified as Tea Viburnum.

Other sites seen: a musclewood secure in its height, feeding the deer with its stump sprouts.

We've done enough researching of his papers at the Library of Congress to know that Oswald Veblen, who with his wife Elizabeth donated land for Herrontown Woods in 1957, was not happy about the gas pipeline being built. As you can see, it's become a monocrop of mugwort.

One curious, bristly nonnative is the Japanese angelica, which looks very similar to the native Devil's Walking Stick. We've been "browsing" this one, too, since the deer do not.

Last stop was the Veblen House grounds, where the Friends of Herrontown Woods has planted native hazelnuts, pawpaws, and a few of these butternuts--a tree with edible nuts that we're helping local expert Bill Sachs to reestablish in Princeton's preserves.

More info about Herrontown Woods and the generous legacy left behind by the Veblens can be found at, including a map. Join us on facebook at

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Losing Control of the Lawn

Most everyone has at least a little lawn, pleasant to walk upon, setting off the shrubs, or simply a default means of dealing with that rectangle of nature a homeowner inherits with the house. Collectively, lawns are a show of cultural unity in the form of a vast expression of control and uniformity, with growth kept within strict limits, each grass blade the same height. Oftentimes, the uniformity is enforced by noisy, machine-laden coiffeurs, akin to paramilitary outfits that land and deploy, then hasten away when the mission of growth-control has been achieved.

Early in spring, where chemicals aren't used, there can be small rebellions here and there in the lawn, instigated by the "early risers", e.g. assertive wild garlic, or star-of-bethlehem, forming an effect I call "lawn blotch". When the grass starts to catch up, there's a peaceful week or two of quiet conformity, the green spotted with the pleasant yellow of dandelion blossoms. And then, lulled by spring into reverie, proud of our environmental high road of chemical free lawn care, we wake up to the white, seedy roar of the dandelion, going rogue, letting its freak-flag fly, rocking the sea of green with its passion for propagation.

The photo, taken a week ago, is of my neighbor's lawn, a rental, but mine was "hearing the roar" as well. There may be approaches to organic lawn care that minimize the dandelions, but for most of us who do nothing beyond periodic mowing, the dandelions hold reign for a couple weeks each spring. The sense of losing control, though, is temporary, and though it may add to the number of dandelion seeds parachuting in to other yards, it has no ramifications for natural areas. Maybe the deer eat them, but for whatever reason, dandelions pose no threat to our stream corridors or nature preserves that I've noticed.

This contrasts with an introduced species like lesser celandine, whose rapid spread not only triggers feelings of having lost control of one's yard, but also threatens transformation of nearby preserved lands.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Tree Seedlings Everywhere, But Not a Street Tree To Plant

There's irony to be savored, or puzzled at, while pulling out the hundreds of trees sprouting through the woodchip mulch in my yard. The tradition of Arbor Day, which slipped past this year on April 29, is to encourage people to plant trees. Free trees are distributed, often spruce seedlings--a species more likely to be found growing naturally in cooler latitudes. Planting a tree is often mentioned as a small, partly symbolic but meaningful way to counter global warming. While serving on the Shade Tree Commission, I did some math and figured out that the 50-100 street trees being planted in Princeton were not even coming close to replacing the 250 trees being lost each year. The 2-3" caliper trees deemed most likely to survive and prosper cost $250 each, eating up the budget.

Clearly, there's a perceived and sometimes real need to nurture trees, and there's pleasure in watching a tree, planted in the right spot, grow with deceptive speed towards towering heights. What, then, to make, in meaning and utility, of these hundreds of red oak seedlings rising from the earth each spring?

Or the elm seeds that carpet the patio,

filling the drain,

and making an improbably lightweight but effective dam that needs to be cleared for our low-budget drainage to work. Thousands, perhaps millions, of achenes will soon follow, spinning earthward from the maples--red, silver and sugar--adding another layer of trees-to-be, and trees-to-be-pulled.

Those Arbor Day tree giveaways are a tradition that likely dates back to early in the past century, as fields slowly shifted back to forest. Now, with reforestation long since accomplished, trees in this neighborhood, at least, hardly need our help. When it comes to reproduction, they don't fool around, which is to say, fooling around is what they're doing a whole lot of.

The issue is more a matter of how to get the right tree growing in the right place. There is no lack of gaps in the street canopy to fill, no lack of parking lots where cars bake in the summer sun for lack of shade. And no lack of trees, free for the transplanting. There's also no lack of logistical issues--getting permission to plant them, hemming and hawing about which species would be best, watering the first year and protection for a few years after that, and so forth. Meanwhile, the trees are showing us how its done, on their own. So simple, and yet so much conspires to keep our world just as it is, filled with persistent problems side by side with an abundance of solutions. If future generations can find sustenance in irony, they will surely prosper.