Saturday, December 30, 2017

'Tis the Season for Winter's Artistry

The unwrapped fig trees may be toast, or froast, after a frigid night, but the backyard "artist in residence" has been busy, transforming the rainwater in a 35 gallon tub that sits under a downspout. Putting the word "ice" in the search box for this blog brings up what could be an art exhibition of Winter's past work, e.g. I Like Ice, and Patterns in Carnegie Ice, 2015.

An effervescent toast to readers of Princeton Nature Notes, and may all the joys of nature be yours in the new year.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Couple Closeups of Backyard Birds from 2017

The hummingbirds like the mix of woodies and wildflowers in our backyard, using the trees to perch and the jewelweed and beebalm to feed.

The cutleaf coneflowers extend the yellow of their flowers by attracting goldfinches, who seem to know no other mode than "enthused", as they acrobatically pluck unripe seeds from the bending stems, then fly off in small flocks or gangs, all a-chatter.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice, and a Farewell to Fall Color

This being the winter equinox, one last tip of the camera to autumn, and a couple species that are particularly dynamic in the evolution of their fall color. Oak-leafed hydrangea has a broad color pallet in fall, from bright orange to this mottling of burgundy and something akin to purple.

Showy stonecrop (Sedum spectabile), not native but not invasive either, evolves in the fall from green to pink to burgundy to chocolate. Extending its ornament into winter, its upright disks of flowers become hooded with snow. This year, they didn't make it to the chocolate stage, instead turning a rich bronze with contrasting yellow leaves below.

By chance, we planted the oak-leafed hydrangeas and Sedums with Virginia sweetspire, a native that also has a very rich and complementary fall color. All three of these are easy to propagate, in order to gradually expand on an initial planting.

(Photos taken Dec. 4)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Aesthetics of Seed Collection

Leaving seedheads to stand in the garden through the winter can bring unexpected pleasure, like these snow-capped purple coneflowers. Any seeds not eaten by the goldfinches eventually fall to the ground and make new plants for transplanting elsewhere.

This year, though, I've been more organized about harvesting seed, the aim being to scatter it at a detention basin in Smoyer Park converted two years ago to a meadow, and at the "fallen pine forest" near the parking lot at Herrontown Woods, which Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers have been clearing of invasives so sunlight can reach sun-loving species like this ironweed.

Seeds of rose mallow hibiscus are very conveniently and aesthetically packaged for easy plucking.

The utilitarian act of collection can bring unexpected moments of beauty in plants that a more intense management approach might have already cut down as part of fall cleanup. The cottony seedheads of hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weed down along the canal take on different looks when backlit

or directly lit by resiny late afternoon sun.

Seed collecting continues even after arriving home, picking the tick trefoil seeds off denim pants.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

A Deer's Landscape Services

Funny. I didn't remember requesting landscape services. Deer hadn't shown up in our backyard since around 2005, when the birth control experiment was still underway and the females were looking elegant and very Princetonian with those identification cards hanging from their ears. Maybe it was taking refuge from hunters, or had had enough of rutting season.

Deer are expert landscapers, trained from birth in the art of pruning. They wouldn't think of driving around town in those giant fossil fuel-consuming trucks that deploy gangs of mowers to quash nature's vertical ambitions.

Deer are too considerate to make a racket with leaf blowers. And instead of releasing a cloud of fumes to sting your nose, they leave behind discrete contributions of fertilizer. They do the landscaping for free, but have a strong independent streak, refusing to adjust their methods to an owner's wishes.

Deer are very sensitive. Even though I stood ten feet back from my bay window, I still had to freeze several times so as not to spook my subject. It's impressive how they are so observant and "in the moment"--a state of mind we too might more easily attain if we were further down the food chain.

When I stepped outside to shoo it away, it didn't flee back over the fence but instead ducked behind some shrubbery in a back corner, waiting for my next move.

Once it realized I was not a threat, but instead just another among Princeton's backyard paparazzi, it regarded me with what appeared to be disdain.

No longer feared, I went back inside without finding out from where it came into the yard.

It was interesting, though, to watch it at work, browsing maybe ten leaves of our oak-leafed hydrangia before moving on to munch some grass. Though I've heard stories of deer wiping out a gardener's favorite plants overnight, my experience is that animals generally lack a thoroughness, whether it be browsers or predators.

My theory with deer is that their alertness to the potential for attack makes a patient devouring of one shrub less adaptive than a few nibbles here and there. And if much of what they eat has some level of toxicity, browsing can help reduce the risk of consuming too much of any particular toxin at any one time. Light browsing also promotes quick recover by the plants, as long as there aren't too many deer visiting the same plant. This suggests that deer could actually be good stewards, if their population was in balance with the landscape.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Fall in Fall Color

Some trees didn't know how to react to the unusually warm weather in October, which averaged about 6 degrees warmer than normal, or whatever passes for normal these days. It was the third warmest October ever recorded in NJ, according to the state climatologist's site, and leaf fall was running two weeks behind.

Pawpaws normally turn yellow in fall, but this one went from green to brown.

Same with a redbud in the backyard,

and this catalpa.

Other species--oaks, hickories, beeches--have behaved more normally.

The fall has been very comfortable for humans, but if there were an article called "What good is cold?", vivid leaf color would be on the list.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Nature Walk Sunday, 2pm, Nov. 29, Herrontown Woods

I've sent email notice out about this Thanksgiving weekend walk, but forgot to post here. Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot.

Sunday, Nov. 29, 2pm

Friday, November 24, 2017

Giving Thanks To Decomposition

Thanksgiving, a time to give thanks to, among other things, the miracle of decomposition, preferably not my own. It's harvest time for this Wishing (the Earth) Well, a leaf corral that includes a critter-proof central cylinder for food scraps. Yes, I walk out my front door with the compost bucket from the kitchen, and deposit the trimmings, the back-of-the-frig science experiments, even tissues, into a front yard composter on a busy street. There's no odor and I think it looks attractive enough, disguised by a column of leaves.

The sign says "Add a leaf and make a wish." I treasure the times I've happened to glance out the window and seen someone stop, read the sign, pick up a nearby leaf and drop it in, then walk off with a new sense of satisfaction. Maybe their wish was personal, or global, or maybe they just simply wished the earth well. We have taken so much from the earth. This leaf corral is a quiet way of saying it can feel really good to start giving back, in small and very large and steady ways.

Though the leaf portion of the corral was topped off many times with additional leaves, all has decomposed down to what looks like 6 inches of leaves at the bottom. Underneath these outer leaves is a rich compost ready for use. The left tub shows the leaf mold; the right is decomposed kitchen scraps.

The central cylinder for kitchen scraps has hardware cloth across the bottom, to prevent rodents from digging up from below. Annual emptying is necessary so that tree roots don't have time to invade.

Reassemble and fill with this year's leaves that in turn will be effortlessly composted by next fall. The leaves nicely disguise the inner cylinder of food scraps.

The fall harvest of compost is ready to spread on the garden beds. It truly is a miracle. Imagine our old TV sets or automobiles automatically decomposing down to their original materials, ready for reassembly into any and all things new. Nature leaves us in the dust when it comes to reuse, reuse, recycle.

The Wishing (the Earth) Well is useful, but most of the yard's leaves are either mowed back into the grass or put in a larger, 6 foot diameter leaf corral disguised by plantings. It's so convenient to have leaf corrals discretely integrated into the landscaping here and there, so that leaves don't have to be hauled or blown long distances.

You can see that some leaves, like oaks, resist decay more than the silver maples that begin breaking down very quickly. But none of them can resist the decomposing power of a leaf corral.

Some people say leaves won't decompose if the leafpile is too dry, so I use a rod to poke holes in the pile so the rain can penetrate. Best is one of those tree fertilizing rods that shoots water out the bottom, so it can inject water into the interior of the leaf pile. But even if one doesn't get around to that, there's usually enough rain coming in from above, and also moisture rising, wicked up by the absorbent leaves from the ground below.

Work with nature, and nature will do most of the work. That's my wish, that more people would discover what a great partner nature can be.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Cleaning Yards AND the Street

What to do with the leaves? For years I've been encouraging people, with everything but bribes, to compost their leaves rather than dump them in the street. The Princeton Environmental Commission has long been advocating a "leave the leaves" approach. I'd like to think that people are listening, and telling their landscapers they don't want a mess on the street in front of their houses. But one can still get the feeling of Groundhog Day when walking down the street, with big pillowy piles of leaves rising in the same places year after year, forcing cars and bikes, and sometimes pedestrians, out into the middle of the road.

For some, loose leaf collection is a sign that their tax dollars are being spent on services. For me, it's a classic example of how a private problem is unnecessarily dumped into the public's domain. An example with more global consequence is what happens every time we drive, and every time the furnace kicks on. We as private citizens get the benefits, while the atmosphere and future people get the burden. I can't capture and reuse the CO2 slipping out of tailpipe and chimney, but I can easily compost leaves in a back corner. The pillowy massiveness of leaf piles is deceptive, easily tamed and compacted by the weight of rain and snow.

Recently while walking the dog, I happened to encounter three kindred spirits--formerly unknown neighbors who take pride in the look of the street in front of their homes. This woman on Stanley rakes up the leaves and adds them to a leafpile in a back corner. The leaf pile doesn't get oversized because the previous year's leaves have already returned to the soil.

By contrast, and much to her annoyance, a landscaper for a neighbor across and up the street dumps leaves, sticks, soil, whatever, next to her property, oblivious to regulations and scheduled pickups. It's essentially a compost pile in the street.

Another landscaper for a neighbor of her's, facing Hamilton Ave, decided one day to do a leaf drive across the road, blocking Hamilton when I happened to be driving by.

These folks have plenty of room in their yards for a leaf pile, but the landscapers instead direct the leaves into the street for the same reason so many other problematic things happen, because they can.

Here's another neighbor who extends his sense of aesthetics and responsibility to the curb. He was raking even though his doctor recommended against it. That shows how strong the urge can be.

And just up the street, another neighbor who rakes leaves out of the curb and puts them on a leaf pile in the back.

His pet peeve is all the leaves that blow into his yard from the big leaf piles nearby neighbors put out on the street.

Interestingly, two of these neighbors have foreign accents, suggesting they have brought with them an ethic of stewardship for public space that isn't as strong in the U.S.

Sometimes, leaf piles constrict the road in areas where visibility is limited, such as at Van Dyke and Grover.

And this is what bicyclists face, losing their bike lanes for much of the fall.

Using leaf bags, available free at Ace Hardware, can help.

Here's the classic problem in the downtown area, where leafpiles occupy parking spaces, and people are tempted to park on top of the leaves, with the risk that a hot catalytic converter could start a fire underneath the car.

It's estimated that leaf and brush collection costs the town somewhere between $500,000 and a million dollars per year. One way to shift towards more efficient, containerized collection and backyard composting would be to provide yardwaste carts to interested homeowners who live on busy streets, or where parking is important. These would augment the yardwaste bag collection, with more capacity and ease of use. The approach is spelled out at this link.  If given some incentive, homeowners who live where piling in the street is particularly inconvenient or perilous might gain the same ethic that my three neighbors have shown, and begin taking pride not only in their yards but their curbs as well.

In my own yard, I use several Wishing the Earth Wells, a homegrown invention that looks like a wishing well but composts leaves, with a critter-proof cylinder in the middle for food scraps. Add a leaf and make a wish. Some leaves remain on the ground in the flower beds, protecting the soil and providing cover for pollinating insects to overwinter. Nature works in cycles, and working with nature to maintain those cyclings of nutrients just happens to reduce my need for town services.

Once the urge to utilize rather than expel kicks in, all of this becomes second nature, a pleasure rather than a burden. It was heartening to meet kindred spirits in the neighborhood, people who are hardwired to value the public space in front of their homes, and not reject nature's gift of leaves.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Stone Sculpture Earthworks by Susan Hoenig

Earlier in the fall, when the spicebush was still thick with green, artist Susan Hoenig invited me to join one of several walks she led through Graeber Woods in nearby Franklin Township.

There she has fashioned an Ecological Sculpture Project, making rock sculptures patterned after the leaves of the tree that towers over each sculpture.

Photos on the project's facebook page show how the sculptures are dynamic, changing with the seasons as snow falls, or leaves and fruit gather between the rocks.

The sculptures become a way of focusing attention in the landscape, a frame that lends additional meaning to its contents, as Susan plucked a wild grape leaf from among the rocks and pointed out the pattern a leaf miner had made through its tissues.

Graeber Woods lends itself well to the project, with tree species seeming to cluster--a grove of tulip poplars here, a gathering of black walnuts there. Beneath much of it is a lush growth of spicebush, with leaves that give off a citrony smell when crushed.

Susan Hoenig's website describes her many works, in lands near and far, and in various media. I think of her work as exploring the connections between inner and outer nature. She describes her process this way:

"In my paintings I explore the union between my inner self and the birds that I observe. I feel the fragility and plight of a bird’s life that is so vulnerable, so exquisitely beautiful. In nature I study theirprofile, the shape of the head, the bill and markings. I become one with the bird, then I paint their portrait."

For me, understanding nature involves an integration of science and art, for nature is the ultimate artist, with each day bringing new creations in infinite shape and mood, from microscopic to universal in scale. We are forever nature's apprentice, seeking to emulate, work with, understand, and to some degree restore, given how nature's endless generosity has been exploited and abused.


Below is info on the Bunker Hill Natural Area and its Environmental Education Center. I was told that the education center has been dormant since the Franklin Township Public Schools had to make some funding cuts, but there's still contact info on the school website. There's also a frisbee golf course there, which appears functional, and a caretaker's residence.

The entrance to Graeber Woods is at 287 Bunker Hill Rd.

Frisbee golf!

Caretaker's residence.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Autumn Color in Herrontown Woods

Autumn color this year has come not as a resounding chorus but as solo voices scattered through the woods. Here are hickory leaves, golden against the sun,

a particularly rich burgundy in a mapleleaf Viburnum,

big plates of yellow-green in a basswood tree. Tilia americanas tend to be loners in the woods. On a walk, one may see hundreds of beech or oak, but only two or three basswoods.

A beech with leaves as bronze as its buds.

An elm, growing in a wet drainage, has what looks and functions like a buttress on a cathedral

Someone could do a study of the physics of rock walls in Herrontown Woods, to determine what stacking techniques endure longer than others.

Call this a puzzle rock, because it looks to be assembled like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This rock wall extending through the woods looks more like a series of interesting specimens lined up, rather than a real wall.

Tree roots develop an intimacy with boulders, and sometimes take them along for the ride when the tree topples.

Looks like a small woodpecker, maybe a downy, got ambushed. (Thanks to Fairfax for help with ID.)

Trees tell a long story of life that only gets more interesting after they've died. People can be like that, too.

Humans tend to flatten the world, but in Herrontown Woods, diversity prospers on the native unevenness of ground. Lacking a probe, it was hard to tell if these mounds of moss, like islands in a sea of leaves, are perched on stumps or boulders.

A clustering of turkey tail mushrooms in the shape of New Jersey.