Monday, June 26, 2017

Creating Charging Stations for Pollinators

Gratifying to see the Smoyer Park detention basin growing into its new persona as a native meadow.

Last year's conversion from turf to native grasses and wildflowers came in pretty sparse after the initial seeding in May,

and deer munched on the few flowers that grew to maturity.

This year, the deer's appetite was overwhelmed by black-eyed susans and daisies.

The gaps in the original seeding left room for some of us local wild gardeners to add additional species. Some volunteers with Friends of Herrontown Woods, which has offered to give this wet meadow the tlc it needs to prosper, scattered and raked in wildflower seed from local populations, and planted some live stakes of buttonbush, bareroot transplants of Hibiscus, cutleaf coneflower, and others. Much of it seems to get pulled up, most likely by deer, but even if only a few specimens of these additional species survive, they'll produce their own seed and form viable populations. So many local wildflower species are barely hanging on, essentially isolated genetically. Establishing new populations will make these species more secure and functional--genetically and ecologically. One project underway since about 2006 has been to spread the floodplain species found along the canal into other wet areas of Princeton, be they detention basins, backyards,

or the little raingarden in front of the Whole Earth Center on Nassau Street, which is fed by water from the roof and sidewalk. Think of these wet, sunny spots as charging stations for pollinators during summer months when the local woodlands offer little in the form of pollen.

In the photo is a nursery-grown oak-leafed hydrangia on the right, but the cutleaf coneflowers rising towards bloom on the left are from seeds harvested originally along the towpath.

These elderberries blooming at the Princeton High School wetland, tucked away on the Walnut Street side of the school, began as 2' stem cuttings from along the canal, then pushed into the basin's mud years ago to sprout leaves and roots.

Here's a photo only a botanist could love, of an area of the high school wetland cleared by environmental science students of too-aggressive cattails so the fringed sedges and Hibiscus could thrive. In July and August, this same spot will be in full flower.

The Smoyer Park and Princeton High School detention basins, along with another at Farmview Fields were converted to natives with the help of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife--part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's a good example of how a little input from "big government" can kickstart local initiatives that then can thrive with a few strategic workdays a year.

Common milkweed blew in on its own, a bit of serendipity to augment human intention. We'll see if the monarchs show up.

It can't be emphasized enough that wet, sunny locations are the easiest sort for wild gardening. The soil tends to be soft, making weeding much easier, there are lots of vigorous native species that prosper if the most aggressive species are proactively controlled, and watering tends to take care of itself after the plants have established. It doesn't seem to matter if the soil has much in the way of nutrients. In fact, poor soil can help limit rambunctious weeds, and it's better if the water running through these basins doesn't pick up nutrients that then would end up downstream in Carnegie Lake.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hands-On Learning About Invasiveness in Plants

Environmental science teacher Jim Smirk brought his kids outdoors this spring to do some hands-on learning at the Princeton High School's very own ecolab wetland. Most people would call it a detention basin, but we planted it long ago with native wetland species that thrive on the beneficent, dependable offerings of the high school's sump pump. Yes, a lowly sump pump provides the consistent water flow that drives this lush community of plants. Without it, most of the plant species, along with the frogs and crayfish, would die out the next time a long drought came along.

Jim enlisted me to provide some history on the planting to three of his classes, and also to explain why this manmade detention basin does such a good job of hosting wetland plants and animals. Like any garden, even a fairly wild one, it still needs intervention to maintain balance, since some of the native species tend to take over. Cattails, lizard's tail, and the native sunflowers spread aggressively underground, while the willows pop up in new places and quickly grow, hogging the sunlight.

Some of the more adventurous students donned waders and began digging up short- and broadleafed cattails so that some of the less aggressive sedges and wildflowers wouldn't be overwhelmed.

Others cut back willow, and removed a non-native plant called starwort that gained a foothold a couple years ago.

The students showed a lot of spirit, and were surprised that working in the mud could actually be fun.

Thanks to Mr. Smirk and his environmental science students for helping keep this wetland thriving right next to Princeton High School.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

When Regulation Simplifies Our Lives

Many reflexively contend that regulation makes life harder, more complicated and constricting, and less convenient. And yet, here, in a packed room of people who wanted to learn more about invasive species, was ample evidence of how complicated an unregulated world becomes. Though many imported plant and animal species do not become invasive, the ones that do become a problem that each individual is then left to contend with. Uncontrolled transport of wood for packing crates coming from Asia, for instance, allowed the emerald ash borer to take hold in Michigan, and spread across the eastern U.S., causing millions of homeowners inconvenience and expense as the ash trees in our yards succumb. 

The same holds true for recycling. Because manufacturers can package their products in an endless variety of plastics, metals and papers, each one of us is then imposed upon to compare each piece of empty packaging to a long list of do's and don't's--a daunting project for even the passionate recycler. Packaging is geared towards maximizing purchase and convenience of consumption, leaving in its wake a hugely complex post-consumer dilemma that complicates our lives and fills our landfills and oceans with trash. Why not, instead, require all packaging be widely, easily, and demonstrably recycled, and expect manufacturers to use their ingenuity to figure out how to comply?

These are the sorts of quandaries that pack the community room at the library. If there were no food safety standards, we'd probably be cramming into the library to find out how to identify diseased beef at the unregulated supermarket, just as we'll each be seeking help to deal with the complicating, destabilizing consequences of climate change.

Regulations, if done well, can greatly simplify our lives. That truth needs to be repeated on a regular basis.

A previous post dealt with some aspects of invasive species in Princeton. 

Friday, June 09, 2017

Garlic Mustard Pulling Party--Sunday, 10am

Join us this Sunday, June 11 at 10am, before the day heats up, to pull garlic mustard before its seedpods have a chance to burst. We'll have some refreshments on hand, the better to socialize while snipping off the seedpods. Veblen House is up the gravel driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the main Herrontown Woods parking lot off of Snowden (map here).

We should be able to get all the remaining garlic mustards--half having been pulled last week by volunteers. Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning it bears seeds the second year and then dies. If we bag up all the seeds each year, the population will fade away, which is good news for native wildflowers we want to reestablish here next to Veblen House.

The first year, garlic mustard looks like this, gathering energy for the seedhead that it sends up the second year. The species was brought to America by European settlers wanting to have something green to eat in early spring, after the long winter. Unfortunately, the plant has very aggressively spread into nature preserves, crowding out native species. Even after several centuries, the wildlife still don't eat it enough to keep it in check.

Another invasive we'll cut back is wisteria. We have almost vanquished an acre-sized, kudzu-like clone of wisteria that just last year was smothering much of the garden and weakening trees. This year's mild followup is really important to starve the roots of any chance to rebound.

Bring hand-pruners and loppers, if you have them, gloves and work shoes. We'll also provide some tools.

Here's a weed we'll allow to grow: moth mullein, a few of which have popped up in the horse run next to the house.

Other projects of the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) to promote sustainable landscaping include caring for a detention basin at nearby Smoyer Park. The basin was converted from turfgrass to native grasses and wildflowers. FOHW is proactively removing highly aggressive weeds like Canada thistle and crown vetch before they can get established, and adding local native wildflowers like this Hibiscus moscheutos to increase diversity and color.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Using Flowers To Read a Landscape

Flowers, like fall colors, create a color-coded landscape that can provide a snapshot of trends in plant populations. Blooms have seemed especially abundant this spring, with native dogwoods and Rhododendrons laden with flowers, and now the elderberries, Korean dogwoods and catalpas showing profusion. Catalpas have a knack for sprouting along edges, then spreading their branches of elephant ear leaves (front right in photo), tubular flowers and long seed pods up and over everything else. The branches take interesting, gnarly shapes. When catalpas are in flower, it's easy to notice how they have gained dominance in that prime front-row seating along the edge of this clearing, on waste ground near the Princeton Shopping Center. The opening itself is being taken over by Chinese bushclover, which also tends towards exclusionary dominance.