Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween's Rodartistry

In a world where deer provide free landscaping services, squirrels offer creative pumpkin carvings (this one appears to be a scary cyclops), and google and facebook send machine-generated photo collages and anniversary greetings, it's time to contemplate a spooky future in which some facsimile of civilization could continue without us.

If both google and squirrels outlive the human race, I'd like to offer any present or future squirrels reading this blog a couple craft tips. The whole cyclops thing is great, and it's good to see that you don't let the pumpkin seeds go to waste. You really are leaders in the eat local movement! But why not give two eyes a try, and lots of teeth?

Also, when chewing monkey faces into walnuts, why not take it one step further and make a guitar pick? Nice way to remember those primates that once ruled the earth.

(Thanks to Thea and Dan for their carvings. The squirrel wished to remain anonymous.)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Roadside Nature

Naturalists, at least this one, spend a lot of time on town streets. Other than trees, the streetscapes are dominated by lawns and yardwaste--not the most thrilling experience of nature. Every now and then, though, there's an exception, a point of interest worth taking note of. On busy streets particularly, people intent on reaching their destination tend to keep their gaze straight ahead, so that the houses and yards most frequently passed in a town are also the least noticed.

Only a brilliant cloud of pink made me notice this garden on Wiggins, currently showing off a native called purple muhly grass. If you can't say Muhlenbergia capillaris, just substitute the word "gorgeous." I've only seen it growing wild in a small roadside prairie remnant in North Carolina, and in a cultivated form in a couple gardens in Princeton. This particular garden also has rattlesnake master, another native species rarely encountered in the wild.

Meanwhile, along Nassau Street, what's unusual about this scene? Check out the little tree corral there on the left, made visible by strips of yellow warning tape. It looks like it's missing its tree,

but there at the bottom of the corral is a tiny red oak. Some business owner, perhaps, has enough imagination, optimism, and patience to have planted this tiny tree. Princeton is losing lots of street trees to disease, insects, and storms, and doesn't have the budget to adequately replant with large saplings for hundreds of dollars a pop. When I was on the shade tree commission, I suggested doing much as this person has done--plant many, many small trees, 2-4 feet tall, protect them well, and let time be on our side. The idea remains just that, but it's good to know there's at least one kindred spirit out there.

Here's some nature that's not only beside the road but on the pavement as well, the pods of a lonely honey locust tree standing near the back entrance to McCaffery's at the Princeton Shopping Center.

A 2015 post describes its edibility, flavor, and missing herbivores. The giant herbivores that used to eat the honey locust and its fruit went extinct 15,000 years ago. Now it's a real nowhere tree, making all its nowhere seeds for nobody.

Down Harrison Street from the Shopping Center is another sort of fenced enclosure, our roadside leaf corral, the Wishing (the earth) Well. Late in the summer, a melon plant appeared.

The melon plant sprouted from the central cylinder of food scraps, which gets surrounded and hidden by leaves later in the fall, and was able to produce a small melon during those days when summer spends its last heat.

In a more premeditated fashion, my sister-in-law in Wisconsin grows potatoes in her leaf pile. The garden writer Ruth Stout would grow her potatoes by laying them on the ground and throwing some straw on top. The potato plants would push up through the straw, and potatoes would form under the hay but on top of the ground. Easier to harvest, easier to clean. Same concept as growing them in a leaf pile.

Edna's neighbor's contribution to roadside nature in their neighborhood is some potted herbs from which any neighbor is welcome and encouraged to take a few leaves to cook with.

Finally, an observation about a lowly rollcart used for holding foodwaste. Most are 32 gallon sized, but this one is 64 gallons, big enough to hold the equivalent of two yardwaste bags' worth of leaves or other organic matter, along with the foodwaste. Princeton's foodwaste program is struggling. Last I heard, the foodwaste is going to a waste-to-energy plant a half hour away, which might actually be better carbon-wise than driving it twice as far into Pennsylvania to get composted.

I celebrate the larger rollcart size primarily because it means Princeton could eventually adopt an efficient system that has worked well out on the west coast and in treeful Ann Arbor, MI, where there's a requirement that all yardwaste be containerized, and food scraps can be tossed in with the yardwaste. A particularly welcome result is clean streets that send less nutrient pollution into local streams.

Even a 96 gallon sized rollcart, like this one in California, is easily maneuvered, and emptied into trucks using a small "tipper hook" installed on the back of a regular garbage truck. The composting program in Ann Arbor, on land just outside of town rather than an hour's drive away, requires no special, expensive machinery. The windrows contain mostly yardwaste, and whatever food scraps people throw in benefit the composting process. I'd guess that contamination with non-compostables, which has imperiled the current program, is much less of a problem when foodwaste is incorporated into the overall yardwaste composting program.

Our relationship to nature is defined not only by what we grow or protect, but how we deal with the "spent nature" in yard and kitchen. This, too, is part of the daily experience of roadside nature.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Encounters with Lion's Mane and Other Fall Mushroom

It's remarkably easy for a novice to identify some of the more distinctive mushrooms online, or at least make an educated guess. Please don't eat these photos, or the mushrooms in them, based on these likely identities. No expertise is claimed here, or knowledge of their edibility, just a pleasure at so easily finding lookalikes on the web.

Yesterday, we were out at Herrontown Woods, searching for the old telephone poles that lead from Herrontown Road to the Veblen Cottage, when I spotted this fungus on a tree. Its form looked like stalactites, so I later googled "stalactite mushroom" and up popped a lookalike: the lion's mane, or Hericium erinaceus for long. The mushroom is white at first, then turns yellow with time.

It's also called the pom pom mushroom, here growing on a red maple that's still alive but has a bit of serendipitous rot here and there. Mushrooms teach us that a little rot can be a good thing, especially out in the woods.

Another mushroom encountered in Herrontown Woods looks a lot like Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) which interestingly is native to both Asia and North America. Again, this identification is going on superficial appearance only, so please don't eat this image. You'd almost certainly eat your cell phone or computer screen in the process, and they can contain components that are indigestible or even toxic, and often carry spam messages that have been known to spread viruses.

More fairy rings have been popping up around town, whether in Herrontown Woods or in the expansive lawn in front of Westminster Choir College. If you look closely, you can see the other mushrooms that roughly describe a circle in the photo.

This mushroom at Linden and Hamilton brought to mind the word "chanterelle", which it is not, but googling what it is not led to what it is. A search for "chanterelle", then a click on "images", brought forth a photo that looked similar, and a post that distinguished chanterelles from Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms.

Unlike chanterelles, which grow in the forest, Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) grow in bunches in suburban lawns, often near stumps.

The ease with which these likely mycological identities were found is a reminder that we live in a golden age of information. A few words rattling around the brain (chanterelle, stalactite, hen of the woods) was all that was needed to conjure a potpourri of possible lookalikes.

That fallacies prosper in the political world when truth is a click or two away reminds me of what happened to steam locomotives, or what will happen to internal combustion engines when electric cars take over. Technologies reach their zenith just before their demise, and perhaps the same will hold for information. By the time the world in its wondrous beauty and complexity has been fully captured on the internet in easily searchable form, humanity will have been drawn away by fabulous fabrications that cater to resentment rather than wonder. May these words prove more edible than the photos.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Early Autumn Vignettes

Nature can sometimes come in close in the fall. This wooly creature, the caterpillar of a great leopard moth, not to be confused with a wooly bear, showed up on the floor in a corner of our bathroom.

Perhaps it came in with some firewood stacked in the sunroom next to the bathroom. I meant to take the caterpillar outside, but got distracted, and found it the next day in the hallway beyond the family room. At that point, it was given transport out to the back corner of our yard, where it will presumably find some cover for the winter.

Bumble bees can get soporific in the fall, dozing on a flower as if they've forgotten their reason for being, which all but the queens may well have. This one landed on my hand while sitting outside a cafe on Nassau Street. Its curiosity seemed harmless enough.

Another surprise came while walking home on Moore Street. Pokeweed (inkberry) is a large, fleshy plant that often looks rank and weedy, but every now and then, it grows in a place that reveals an elegance and beauty. Its perennial root sends up a new stem each year, unlike its close relative in Argentina, the ombu, which has a tree-like perennial top but lacks a real tree's xylem.

A subtle surprise of the ornamental seed variety came during a recent walk at Herrontown Woods, where the path intersects with one of only three hearts a' bustin' shrubs (Euonymus americanus) as yet to be found growing wild in Princeton. These three somehow grew tall enough to elude the deer, whose appetite for the plant has kept all other specimens in the woods only a few inches tall.

Also coming as a recent surprise is the University's native prairie planting next to the Firestone Library. It's off to a good start, with the classic eastern grassland species.

This ambitious planting comes after another attempt at a native grassland a few years back, at the psychology building, was mowed down after mugwort, Canada thistle and other weeds were allowed to invade until they became unmanageable. It's good to see the University didn't give up on the concept. This latest planting next to Nassau Street is higher visibility, which could prioritize its maintenance. If there's someone on staff who can provide the early, skilled intervention to keep the weeds out of this complex plant community, it should become a low-maintenance planting whose rich diversity echoes the book collections stored below.

A Mexican milkweed growing next to our carport turned into a miniature monarch butterfly nursery this summer. The monarchs are unpredictable as to which milkweeds they'll actually lay eggs on, but this one plant finally played host to some caterpillars late in the season.

Even harder to predict, oftentimes, is where the fully grown caterpillars will go to make their crysalises,  but these were easy to find underneath the shingles of the house. This particular one did not mature into a butterfly,

but a few others did, the evidence being the wispy remains of the chyrsalises coinciding with sightings of a couple monarchs whose flight looked tentative in the way one would expect first flight to be. Reports on fall migration back to Mexico have been promising thus far, though the next post on Monarch Watch should speak to any impact from the hurricanes.

(Note: The Journey North site has more frequent updates, and for NJ, check out the Monarch Monitoring Project in Cape May )

Fall is also a time for biking down to university soccer games, in the process crossing the pedestrian bridge, where the native persimmon trees planted there have finally risen high enough

to push their fruits close against the wire mesh. Not quite ripe when this photo was taken, but there are two home games to go. Catching them when they're ripe would be a fine surprise.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Thinking (and Action) Behind a Successful Raingarden

In this post, we explore the thinking behind a successful raingarden. Thought has power, in that it sometimes turns into action, and so we will explore the thought behind the action that has made this large native planting thus far succeed.

In this case, it is a detention basin in Smoyer Park that was converted from turf grass into a wet meadow dominated by native prairie grasses with some wildflowers mixed in. Planted by Partners for Fish and Wildlife, this large-scale raingarden appeared sparse its first couple years, but has now grown thick and subtly colorful with time and attention.

Thick, that is, with intended plants, which is not a given when a raingarden is planted. How many gardens of all sorts, no matter how lovely the vision that brought them into being, have been taken over by mugwort, Canada thistle, and other invasive weeds? Having been this raingarden's volunteer caretaker for its first three seasons, as part of my work for Friends of Herrontown Woods, I visited it recently to see what needed to be weeded, and found nearly nothing requiring my attention. For a gardener, this state of affairs is almost unimaginable.

How could this be? Well, it helps to have planted a strong backbone of tall native grasses:

Indian grass

and big bluestem, to claim the space.

The caretaker's job then becomes a matter of influencing what other species come up in the spaces unclaimed by the grasses. Given limited time, a caretaker must learn to recognize each species and know from experience what to weed out and what to leave. Balance, beauty, and diversity are the goals. Some weeds like mugwort, Canada thistle, and crown vetch are notorious for taking over, and so were weeded out early in the game, before they could become too numerous and ruin any chance for diversity and beauty.

Others, like this fluffy-seeded, native but weedy pilewort that is growing lustily around the edge of the meadow, are judgement calls. I left it in, hoping it will behave like lambsquarters--another annual that makes a powerful showing one year but largely disappears the next.

(An example in this raingarden of a species that was numerous one year, gone the next, is black-eyed susan, which was in the original seed mix and generated lots of color before disappearing this year.)

There are a few native perennial wildflowers that have moved in on their own. At this stage, they are relatively few, and add spots of color and late-season nectar. But I don't entirely trust that they will continue to "play well with others." These include late-flowering thoroughwort,

a goldenrod species with narrow leaves,

and frost aster.

Providing bright color earlier in the season was one large specimen of false sunflower (Helianthus helianthoides)--commonly found in seed mixes for wet meadows. In another raingarden some years back I found it to be overly aggressive, but how it will behave here is yet to be seen.

A native annual I wish would spread around more is jewelweed, whose tubular orange flowers serve hummingbirds all summer long, and whose explosive seedpods delight anyone who takes one in their palm and touches it. Usually, the plant is rambunctious enough to survive the insistent browsing of deer, but for now it's huddling against the concrete outlet, chewed down before it can flower.

A "seed bombing" conducted by a girl scout troop in late spring may have been the origin of these young rose-mallow hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos),

and some ironweeds. These are local wildflowers we added to get more color and cater to the pollinators. Both of these can get tall, but may end up being kept low by deer browsing.

One of the pleasures in this wet meadow thus far, surely unnoticed by passersby and hard to photograph, is the clarity, by which I mean one can see inbetween plants all the way to the ground. Low-growing weeds like stiltgrass, carpgrass, ground ivy, and many others tend to muddle the planting, obscuring the ground. This clogged condition, the visual equivalent of listening to a scratchy record, has ecological as well as visual impacts. If the spaces between the bunch grasses are clogged with weeds, ground feeding birds have a harder time navigating, and can become more susceptible to disease from rubbing up against wet foliage.

An encounter with a garden that needs no weeding brings, for an experienced gardener, a mixture of feelings. There's surprise, some quiet pride and elation (that past interventions could have had such a positive effect), and a sense of foreboding. Surely I was missing something.

As it turned out, there was good reason for the foreboding. Getting ready to leave, I spotted a small patch of stiltgrass invading along one edge. Unlike lambsquarters or blackeyed susan, which can be prominent one year, gone the next, stiltgrass is one of the uber-invasives, an annual that grows ever more numerous with time, producing billions of seeds each year. Inedible to wildlife, it creates a stifling appearance, making a planting or whole woodland appear to be blanketed with green cobwebs.

Since its seeds were not yet ripe, I pulled as much as I could find out of the ground, then collected them all and threw them in a nearby woods where stiltgrass had already invaded. The source of the stiltgrass was actually the mowed lawn that surrounds our wet meadow. Given that stiltgrass can grow and seed even though only a few inches tall, the lawn is likely to remain a source of invasion for the foreseeable future. Since the weed prefers moist conditions, the more frequent and heavier rains we are experiencing due to global warming will only make it more aggressive. There continues to be hope that something--a fungus, an insect--will figure out how to consume it and thereby begin to bring stiltgrass into ecological balance, but that wait could be long.

These, then, are the thoughts that fill a wild gardener's mind when visiting a raingarden. Because the aggressive weeds were caught early--nipped in the bud, so to speak--the visits need only come once or twice a month for an hour, even for a wet meadow nearly an acre in size. Knowledge and experience make for strategic, efficient interventions. There's time left over to appreciate the bright flowers of partridge pea and the growing diversity. And it's satisfying to know that in a landscape dedicated to ballfields, a lowly bumblebee or the occasional monarch butterfly will still find some sustaining habitat when visiting Smoyer Park.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Fairy Ring Mushrooms

Princeton's mushroom community has responded well to recent rains. This one's looking like a Lepiota, a poisonous mushroom that can form rings in lawns as the mycelium radiates outward from its beginnings years back.

This one is growing in a remarkably straight line, which somewhat plausibly could be a remnant of a very large circle,

while this grouping is shaped in a half circle. According to this link, the darker grass at the leading edge of the circle is due to the grass's utilizing nitrogen made available by the fungi. Grass on the inside of the circle can be stunted.