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.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Leaf Stacking Tutorial

A seasonal repost from years back. Still fun to watch. Before there were leaf blowers, there were rakes, and before there were rakes, there was leaf stacking. In this video, stack-master Perry Sugg demonstrates the traditional method of leaf stacking passed down through the generations in his home town of Princeton, North Carolina. Stacked leaves can be carried by hand, without the need of implements, tarps, or containers of any kind. In 2008, Perry traveled north to Princeton, New Jersey, to bring hope and empowerment to a people worn down by the drone of leaf blowers. He is ably assisted by Sofia, Maya, Anna, and that spunky cairn-poo Leo.

For those in a hurry, skip to 1:10 in the video for the demonstration.

"Viva la leaf stacker! Down with the leaf blower!"

An internet search for "leaf stacking" yielded this completely different form, a game played by two to build a leaf mountainette one leaf at a time. Poetic and vaguely Bergmanesque.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Cobalt Crust--Unexpected Color in the Woods

It's ridiculously easy to get information on the web now. Type "blue fungus" into a search engine and boom, similar-looking photos pop up with a name--Cobalt Crust, Terana caerulea--and a charming description. It says the fungus grows on the underside of fallen branches, which is why we don't see this brilliant blue during a walk in the woods. This stick must have gotten turned over during our workday yesterday next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot.  

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Deer Hunting Info for Fall, 2017

If you've noticed more deer this year, it's partly due to this past winter's deer hunt not having gone so well. Princeton began hiring professionals to cull the deer herd back in 2000. Though subject to passionate protests at first, the program has proven to be the only way to restore some ecological balance, given that natural deer predators were long ago eliminated from our area. The benefits of the program are described in a 2011 piece I wrote for the Princeton Packet.

Deer greatly reduce homeowners' options for landscaping, but their biggest impact is on nature preserves, where they preferentially consume native plant species. Over time, invasive nonnative plants take over, creating a forest understory largely inedible for deer. Reducing deer numbers reduces the browsing pressure on native plants, allowing them to compete more effectively with the invasives, thereby creating better habitat for all the wildlife that depend on native plants, including deer. A 2012 post on the revival of spicebush in our forests is representative.

Town data maintained by the animal control officer shows the dramatic rise in deer numbers from 1970 to 2000, and how annual professional hunting dramatically reduced deer numbers and related traffic accidents. By keeping the deer herd smaller, the town has actually cut in half the overall number of deer killed each year by hunting and cars. Bow hunting alone is insufficient to control deer numbers, as the town discovered when it tried going without the services of the professional firm, White Buffalo, in 2011. The cost is around $60,000, which begins to sound like a good deal when one considers the reduced auto accidents, potential for reduced incidence of Lyme, and the reduced browsing pressure on nature preserves and homeowners' yards. The venison is delivered to food kitchens.

Annual bow hunting, as the flyer below explains, began October 7 and continues through Feb. 17, 2018. Bow hunting is done by volunteers who, I believe, are vetted and their efforts coordinated. No bow hunting is allowed on Sundays and between 9am and 3pm on Saturdays.

This past winter, professional hunters began culling in mid-February, but unusually warm weather greatly reduced their effectiveness, since the deer were not concentrating the way they do in colder weather. White Buffalo was only able to cull 63 deer--half the number culled the previous year, which in turn was half the number culled in 2015. The hunt was further hampered by the lack of an Animal Control Officer, who would normally assist in various ways.

Thanks to Princeton council member Heather Howard and assistant town manager Jeffrey Grosser for some of the information used here.