Friday, May 17, 2019

Balance and Imbalance in Nature

Here are two examples of insects eating leaves at Herrontown Woods. One is sustaining balance, while the other threatens the survival of beloved native Viburnums. Why is one insect beneficial, and the other highly destructive? The story begins with the sensitive fern, a beautiful native that graces local wetlands and gardens.

Though we tend to think of ferns as delicate, the sensitive fern is a tough, resilient plant in moist ground, sometimes even showing expansionist tendencies in a garden. The "sensitive" in the name refers primarily to its susceptibility to first frost in the fall.

Typically, the aggressiveness of native plants has been countered through the co-evolution over many millenia of other organisms that can eat them. Any plant that becomes super abundant will in turn provide abundant reward for any organism that develops a capacity to eat it, thereby bringing its population back into balance with other species. That co-evolution takes time, given that plants are brilliant chemists, with many chemical and physical defenses that must be overcome by any would-be consumer.

Since deer generally don't eat sensitive fern and our summers are getting wetter, what might keep it in check?

Recently, while weeding the new botanical garden at Herrontown Woods, I found some young sensitive ferns stripped down to their leaf veins. Sensitive ferns, it turns out, are eaten by several kinds of insects, each attacking a different part of the plant.

The culprit here was a little green caterpillar, most likely a sawfly larva.

Presumably, because I haven't heard of any new, introduced insect ravaging ferns, this insect evolved long ago a capacity to digest and detoxify the sensitive fern's chemical defenses. Any predator that consumes all of its prey will not itself survive, so relationships tend to evolve between predator and prey that are mutually sustaining, and therefore promote balance in nature.

The damage inflicted by the caterpillar is therefore reassuring.

By contrast, the insect damage on this leaf, encountered on the red trail leading up to the Veblen Cottage, was not at all reassuring. It is instead evidence of a radical change coming to Princeton's nature preserves that could largely eliminate several important shrub species from our woodlands and gardens. The leaf is of arrowwood Viburnum, one of three Viburnum species that up to now have contributed flowers, berries, and fall foliage to Herrontown Woods' ecological functionality and beauty.

Their continued presence is now threatened by an introduced species, the Viburnum leaf beetle. Past writings about this invasive beetle on this blog can be found at this link. Arrowwood Viburnum tends to be the first to succumb, followed by mapleleaf Viburnum and blackhaw Viburnum. The insect has the ability to completely skeletonize a shrub. Multiple attacks can ultimately exhaust the plant's reserve energy. I saw a skeletonized Viburnum in Pittsburgh some years ago. Its complete stripping of the plant's foliage was in contrast to a native predator that would tend to do only partial damage, leaving most of the plant alone.

Below, from a Cornell University website, is one potential scenario. It suggests that there will be an initial wave of destruction as the Viburnum leaf beetle eats through all the susceptible Viburnums, after which the insect's population will crash, and become a minor pest from thereon, allowing the susceptible species to grow once again. Even if this were to prove true, the introduced pest represents one more shock to the system.
"The viburnum leaf beetle hit us hard in the Rochester area about 15 years ago. During those first few years in which the beetle population peaked most of the susceptible native species like arrowwood, that were growing in wooded areas, were killed. Some landscape plants succumbed to the defoliation then too.

"At that time I would not have recommend planting a susceptible species like the Cranberry bush viburnum. Now however the populations of the beetles are down significantly and it is safe for us to plant species again like cranberry bush and arrowwood viburnums. They’ll get a little bit of damage but nothing lethal.

"Why did the populations go down? It seems with all the very susceptible native plants that were around initially allowed the populations to reach unnaturally high levels and the beetles moved into landscapes annually. With those food sources gone the populations declined. Also, and maybe more importantly, predator insects, and nematodes that affect the larva in the soil have built up and found the Viburnum leaf beetle as a food source!

Monday, April 29, 2019

Nature Walk in Herrontown Woods, Saturday May 4 with John L Clark

Update #2: Great walk, with showy orchids in full bloom. A writeup is on the website. 

Update: The walk will take place as planned. Predicted rain has not materialized.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods will host a nature walk Saturday, May 4 at 9am, co-led by John L. Clark and myself. John is a botanist specializing in the flora of Ecuador. He was an associate professor of botany at the University of Alabama, but family logistics lured him to Princeton, where he joined the faculty of the Lawrenceville School in a long-titled position, the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair. John's also an avid birder, so feel encouraged to bring your binoculars.

Though we've been installing dozens of stepping stones to traverse muddy patches of trail, please wear appropriate shoes.

Meet at the main parking lot, off of Snowden Avenue, across from Smoyer Park. This link takes you to relevant maps.

Some wildflowers recently seen in Herrontown Woods:

Jack in the Pulpit

Spring Beauty

Mayapple--it's flowers are hidden beneath the leaves.

A profusion of skunk cabbage along a stream. When I lived in North Carolina, another species that lined streams and greened up early in the spring, painted buckeye, was reportedly used long ago by pilots to navigate before the trees leafed out.

Trout lily, which was blooming earlier in the spring.

A Slime Mold Imitates an Egg Case

When I saw these lumpy sacks on a tree in Herrontown Woods, I thought some new invasive insect had arrived, and that these sacks would soon burst open, scattering pestilence throughout the woods. That may well happen, sooner rather than later, as a new invasive species, the spotted lanternfly, spreads into New Jersey from Pennsylvania. But an internet search suggests that these unusual growths are not the work of an insect or a fungus, but instead are the work of a slime mold.

Now, slime molds are not something I've spent much time thinking about in life. Somehow, they seldom come up in everyday conversation. But after a brief google search, I'm considering devoting a future life to the study of them. It might even be fun to be one. Apparently, they are single-celled organisms that can live on their own, but sometimes get together and behave in coordinated ways that suggest a collective intelligence. There are some echoes of humanity there.

Wikipedia puts it this way:
"Slime mold or slime mould is an informal name given to several kinds of unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can live freely as single cells, but can aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures."
Here's a promising article with a lovely photo, "Slime Molds Remember, but Do They Learn?", which starts like this:
"Slime molds are among the world’s strangest organisms. Long mistaken for fungi, they are now classed as a type of amoeba. As single-celled organisms, they have neither neurons nor brains. Yet for about a decade, scientists have debated whether slime molds have the capacity to learn about their environments and adjust their behavior accordingly."
The tech world even sees the study of slime mold behavior as having applications for self-driving cars.

Other definitions are less promising. Some mornings, I can relate to this one:
"a simple organism that consists of an acellular mass of creeping gelatinous protoplasm"
There, but for a good cup of coffee, go I.

Wikipedia describes how they can congregate and
"start moving as a single body. In this state they are sensitive to airborne chemicals and can detect food sources. They can readily change the shape and function of parts and may form stalks that produce fruiting bodies, releasing countless spores"
The slime mold spotted on a nearby tree at Herrontown Woods during a walk up to the Veblen Cottage appears to have a name, False Puffball, which is just another way of saying Enteridium lycoperdon.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Saving Bicentennial Dogwoods at Princeton Battlefield

The big Princeton Battlefield/Sierra Club workday earlier this month didn't include attending to dogwoods along the field's edge, but the care we gave them in previous years to liberate them from porcelainberry and other aggressive vines is still serving them well. Some historical research revealed that they were planted by the Dogwood Garden Club for the country's bicentennial celebration 42 years ago.

Back in 1976, before the deer population exploded and aggressive invasive vines spread across the landscape, it was probably much easier to sustain plantings like this. The planting design was logical enough, with daffodils on the ground in front of the dogwoods, and white pine trees forming a nice evergreen backdrop behind.

But now, the daffodils are obscured by invasive shrubs and brambles, and the dogwoods find themselves growing in a sea of porcelainberry vine on the ground that, if not controlled, will quickly rise into the dogwoods to smother them. Meanwhile, the pine trees that now loom large behind the dogwoods drop big branches during ice storms. It's a one-two-three punch that takes concerted effort to counteract, and the state agency in charge of maintenance tends only to the lawn, with little or no on-the-ground knowledge of plantings that have any complexity beyond trees and turf. Volunteers can sometimes fill the gap. Last year's workday was particularly spirited. We cut vines and competing woody growth away from fifteen dogwoods, so that they could continue to ornament the Battlefield and feed migratory birds in the fall.

But like Mr. Incredible says when interviewed at the beginning of The Incredibles movie, the world refuses to stay saved. Already, the porcelainberry is sending new shoots up into the dogwoods, and until some animal or disease comes along to limit the vine's rampant growth, people will need to intervene to sustain some sort of balance that allows the dogwoods to grow.

Meanwhile, out in the fields, delays in mowing have made it possible for the cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) to bloom.

Monday, April 22, 2019

On Earthday, 2019, A Dream

This sermonette describing a dream of sustainability was delivered towards the end of our Climate Cabaret show at Fahs Theater in Princeton back on January 18, hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. The performance was on the weekend before MLK Day, and takes inspiration from Martin Luther King's dream. The text is below, but the video can be found at minute 1:19:40 at this link.


Now, briefly, a dream. We should spend more time dreaming, and this is mine.

We celebrate this weekend the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr, and so it is appropriate to articulate a dream. It's always easy to criticize, and, as we've seen tonight, kind of fun. It's harder to dream, because if you express a dream, others will immediately start looking for the flaws in any positive action you suggest taking. They'll say, Oh, we shouldn't do that. We should do this!" But in fact, we have to do it all, and do it now. And implicit in that action is a belief in ourselves and our collective power to do intentional good, rather than the unintentional harm that is built into our daily lives.

In his speech in 1963, King spoke of "the great vaults of opportunity", "the fierce urgency of now." He warned against "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." He said that blacks were living "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," and that "Now is the time to rise ... to the sunlit path."

We live in a time of seeming abundance. But in terms of ethical energy, we too live on a lonely island of poverty, while our world is awash in a vast ocean of solar energy streaming down upon us from the sun. Heeding "the fierce urgency of now" requires that we demand that our culture change, that it work not against our future, but instead help us to liberate ourselves, collectively, from our role as dystopia's lackeys. Imagine harvesting as much energy as we consume. Imagine powering our mobility and comfort while leaving no chemical trace on the planet, but instead merely switching electrons back and forth, like in a digital camera that can collect an endless stream of memories without changing the world around it.

To take action now, not knowing quite how we'll pull it off, is to believe in ourselves, to tap into that great well of resourcefulness and invention within us and our culture, to believe once again in the future.

I will end this sermonette with my favorite words from the song we're about to sing (based on the melody of John Denver's "Country Roads"):

All my travels now are haunted--

Trails of carbon rising up behind me.

All I want is some clean energy

Captured from the sunlight

In my batteries.

There's a road we can take

To the place we belong.

West Virginia, keep your mountains. Let the sun take us home. 

-- S. Hiltner


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Squirrels Mating?

Sitting in bed this morning, I happened to look out the window. New leaves are sprouting on the old silver maple growing at the back of the property. The big knot hole is still there--home one year and maybe others to a screech owl family--something we discovered only when my daughter came across a baby owl in the garden that must have fallen from the nest.

This morning, though, what caught my eye was a tussling of squirrels high up in the canopy. From a distance, there appeared to be two, and they appeared to be mating. It was the most daredevilish style of romance, with a tussle high up, then one squirrel in free fall for ten feet before catching hold and dashing right back up for more. Then both fell, for what looked like twenty feet, miraculously catching their fall on a lower limb and again dashing back up to a higher spot to continue what was either wrestling or mating, or both. Passion and altitude would not seem a good mix, yet the squirrels looked ready to risk all, and in the process demonstrated the depth of their acrobatic brilliance.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Fig Buttercup Alert--Little Flower, Big Problem

Yes, spring can be lovely, with some cheery displays of daffodils, and magnolia trees in their glory. But it's also an all too good time of year to witness with dismay and alarm the ongoing and accelerating invasion of the Princeton area by fig buttercup. Also known as lesser celandine, it's a small spring ephemeral that seduces with its pretty flower, then takes over your yard and garden.

It has already radically changed the spring landscape over in the Pettoranello Gardens and Mountain Avenue area, and I've watched it spreading from yard to yard over the past five years in my neighborhood near Hamilton Ave and Harrison Street.

These photos are from Maple Street just down from Nassau Street, where a still localized infestation is radiating out from one of the yards. A yard will have one or two plants the first year, dozens the next, quickly multiplying to hundreds and thousands. It's pretty easy to see whose yard was first by the density and extent of the invasion.

Across the street, the fig buttercup is taking over the lawn and flower beds.

The next door neighbor has an invasion in its earlier stages.

Why be concerned? There are many degrees and styles of invasiveness. I'll compare fig buttercup with other aggressive plants below, but here are the essentials: Fig buttercup is an introduced species that has escaped any limiting factors that may have been present where it evolved. It's poisonous, so nothing eats it. The seeds and the abundant underground tubers allow it to spread rapidly. It can grow in the sun or shade, garden or nature preserve.

Some gardeners may feel relief that, like other spring ephemerals, it will fade back into the ground after a couple months. But that seems small consolation as it increasingly displaces other plants that might otherwise grow.

By comparison, myrtle is a groundcover that people plant and may later regret as it takes over flower beds. But it doesn't spread down the street to ultimately pave the local watershed. It merely vexes the gardener who planted it.

By the same token, wisteria vine poses a much smaller threat than porcelainberry. Though an abandoned wisteria vine can spread over an acre or more, weakening trees and suppressing all other growth, it doesn't spread by seed, so remains localized. Porcelainberry is a vine that not only smothers all other vegetation, including trees, but also spreads to new locales by seed.

Most pesky weeds of the lawn--wild garlic, dandelion, false strawberry, ground ivy, etc--have not become problems in nature preserves because they are either edible to wildlife or intolerant of shade.

That's what makes invasives like fig buttercup and stiltgrass stand out as major threats. They spread rapidly, tolerate shade and a variety of soils, and nothing eats them. Since fig buttercup dominates in spring, and stiltgrass dominates in summer and fall, they represent a one-two punch that dominates the landscape visually, and leaves little chance for other herbaceous species to prosper. Since both are not eaten, yards and preserves become increasingly inedible for wildlife.

Fig buttercup can be confused with winter aconite, which also blooms early with a similar flower, but the leaves are much different. Though nonnative, I've never seen winter aconite spread beyond the limits of a yard.

This photo shows the native marsh marigold in the foreground, with leaves much larger than fig buttercup's, which is in the background. (For a closeup comparison of the two species, click on this link.) The marsh marigold, by the way, is very rare. I've seen it only a couple times in the wild. I planted the one in the photo, over at Pettoranello Gardens, purchased from Pinelands Nursery many years ago.

Click here for past posts about fig buttercup (lesser celandine), including a letter I wrote to the Town Topics two years ago that struck a nerve.

What to do? If there are just a few plants, you can dig them up and put them in the trash (not the compost), being careful not to leave any small underground tubers behind. But though I've had organic sympathies all my life, and don't like to use herbicides, the easiest way is to use a squirt of 2% glyphosate on the leaves (Roundup is the most common brand, but more generic forms are available), or else some herbicide more specific to broadleaf plants. We take medicines, and when used responsibly in a targeted manner, herbicide can play a similar role in nature.

Environmentalism has been too caught up in good vs. bad, when the biggest threat to nature and ultimately ourselves, whether it be carbon dioxide or a pretty little flower, is too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Ducks Visit the Backyard

A pair of mallards visited our backyard this morning. The male stood in the middle of the lawn while the female strolled down the garden path, presumably in search of a nice pond to call their own. Were they checking out nesting options? If so, I can't imagine they were pleased. The only standing water is the fillable-spillable tub that catches water from the downspout.

The most appealing interpretation of their surprise visit is that one of them might have been born here five years ago, back when through the luck of the draw we ended upt with a pair of mallards among our fine feathered pets in the backyard. Being a male and female, they soon had five ducklings to call their own. As the ducklings grew, the yard seemed to shrink, overfilled as it now was with ducks and chickens. There were times when we'd hear the nasal call of geese flying overhead, or one or another duck would fly in an impressive arc around the boundaries of the yard, and I'd think for sure they would respond to the call of the wild and venture off into the big world beyond our fenceline. But they never did.

The mallard family eventually ended up at a farm outside of town, whose owners were kind enough to take them off our hands. I read that mallards live 5-10 years in the wild. How lovely to think that they might have come back to have a look around at their old haunts.

For some posts about the ducks we had behind our house on busy Harrison Street, type the word "mallard" into the search box for this blog, or follow this link.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Maintaining a Towpath, and a Meadow

Visiting the towpath for the first time in a long time last week, I found a fresh layer of crushed stone being laid down. May this renovation live long and prosper, for we found out back in August of 2011 what massive storms can do to a wonderful facility like the towpath. That devastation lingered for many months, for lack of any funds to repair the damage. Now, apparently, there's been an infusion of funding, at least for the towpath and hopefully for the NJ parks department itself.

Most people go to the towpath to get some exercise and fresh air next to the water. I go to check on a little nature trail loop we created just upstream of the Harrison Street bridge. The first post on this blog, back in 2006, documents that first year's "harvest" of wildflowers after the state parks department reduced the amount of mowing it was doing in the meadow between the towpath and Carnegie Lake.

Thirteen years later, I'm still serving as steward of that meadow, marking elderberry shrubs so that the parks crew will avoid them during the annual early spring mowing of the meadow. Otherwise, the elderberries would have to resprout from their roots each year and never get a chance to bloom.

Along with the native wildflowers that bloom there in mid-summer, there are remnants of non-native ornamentals, like this row of forsythia, left over from when the towpath was planted by the university to ornament the entryway into campus.

Spring is also a good time to inventory what else needs to be done when the parks crew comes to mow. Maintenance, seldom given its due, makes all the difference, whether it be a trail, a meadow or a planet.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Nature Walk Saturday, Daffodil Planting Sunday at Herrontown Woods


Frog eggs in vernal pools, the distant hammerings of pileated woodpeckers, spicebush in flower--these are some of the sights and sounds we'll likely encounter on a nature walk at Herrontown Woods this Saturday, April 6, from 9-11am. The walk will be co-led by Mark Manning and Steve Hiltner. Mark is a highschool teacher in Hopewell who has been walking through Herrontown Woods with his son and documenting the species of frogs and salamanders present. He encourages anyone interested in birds to bring binoculars. Steve is president of Friends of Herrontown Woods and can speak to the plant life and history of the preserve. The walk will end at the Veblen House, with some light refreshments. We'll take one of the drier routes through the preserve, but be prepared in case some portions of trails are wet.

Meet at the main parking lot for Herrontown Woods, across the street and down the hill from the main entrance to Smoyer Park. Maps at this link.


In honor of Elizabeth Veblen, we are recreating the fields of daffodils that graced her Veblen House garden. The photos are from the 1950s.

Bring a bulb planter or shovel if you have them, and good gardening clothes/gloves. We'll also do some general cleanup of the grounds. We'll have a few tools and gloves and a little something to drink and eat.

Meet at the Veblen House, down the gravel driveway at 474 Herrontown Road. (Entrance across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd)

Here's another photo from the 1950s, with Elizabeth Veblen walking the grounds of the cottage. Not surprisingly, the distinctive boulder in the foreground is still there, making this photo very useful for helping recreate the landscape the Veblens enjoyed before they donated their homes and land to the public.

The Green Slime That Ate My Ponds

Not quite in the spring spirit, I was going to write about lawn blotch, but that subject was covered five years ago. Better to launch into something new and (uncomfortably) fresh--

namely, the green slime that has crept across my backyard miniponds over the past six months or so. Gone are the depths of clear water I once pondered. The visual is disturbing, recalling as it does

the images of coral reefs whose brilliant diversity has succumbed to overheating, with algae draping itself over the skeletal remains.

All the more distressing to find algae coating water in a well,

and coloring an ephemeral stream down the slope from the Veblen House.

Is this a new algae, accidentally introduced and proving invasive? Or is there something about the unusually wet weather New Jersey has been having? If this stuff covers over vernal pools, the frogs and salamanders will surely be in trouble.

It would be nice to think that this is merely a temporary aberration that will clear up and not return any time soon. A nutrient imbalance, perhaps.  One source describes how phosphorous can be released from the bottom of a pond if the water runs out of oxygen.

As scientists are wont to say, more research is needed, and please leave a comment or send an email if you've been similarly surprised this spring by similar smotherings.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Prescribed Burns Scent Princeton's Air

This past week, some in Princeton may have detected a feint scent of smoke in the air. As reported in Planet Princeton, the smoke came not from a distant burning house but from the intentional use of fire in habitats at Fort Dix, a half hour south. So-called "prescribed burns" are used to reduce fuel loads in fields and forests, making them less prone to intense, destructive wildfires. Equally beneficial is the impact of these intentional fires (I like to call them "mildfires") on the health of habitats. Many species, particularly in the coastal plain south of Princeton, are adapted to periodic fire that would have occurred in the past, particularly in pre-colonial times when American Indians used fire to manage the landscape. The lack of fire, like the lack of keystone predators, contributes to the unnatural state of our seemingly "natural" areas, and underscores the need for management to better restore healthy ecological functioning in our open spaces.

For some, the idea of intentionally lighting fires runs contrary to environmental goals, since fire releases pollutants and more CO2 into the air, leaves ash on the ground that could be washed into streams during the next rain, and violates the still prevalent notion that we should just stand back and let nature do its thing. On the other hand, periodically burning off accumulated fuels reduces the chance of a much larger conflagration, and the ash can stimulate vigorous new growth that will absorb more CO2 from the air.

The NJ State Forest Service posted information on its prescribed burning, including news of a law passed last year to better promote prescribed burning in NJ.
"Last summer Governor Phil Murphy signed into law “The Prescribed Burn Act,” which preserved landowners’ rights to prescribed burns, strengthened protections for practitioners, and expanded acceptable uses of prescribed fire from reducing traditional hazard fuels to recognizing the benefits of habitat management as well as other forestry and ecological needs."
Back when I lived in Ann Arbor, MI, I helped conduct prescribed burns in prairie habitats in and outside of town. There'd be a fire break around the prairie--usually a 10' wide strip of mowed grass--to reduce the chance of the fire spreading from the intended area. In late winter, a prairie is full of the dead remains of last year's growth. (If you read up on fire ecology, you find out that many species of trees and grasses adapted to fire have evolved to leave behind combustible material that lingers in the landscape to expedite the next fire that comes along. Think of those decay-resistant pine needles, oak leaves, and tall stems of prairie grasses. By contrast, European grasses brought to America tend not to leave much combustible material when they die back in the fall.) We'd begin by having a couple people with drip torches start a strip of fire along the edge of the downwind side. Several of us with garden rakes and broad rubber "flappers" would snuff out any flames headed in the wrong direction. Then, when the fire along the downwind edge of the prairie was going well, the upwind side of the field would be lit on fire. The two fires would burn towards the center of the field. There'd be a dramatic converging of the two fires before they burned themselves out for lack of any more dried grass to burn. It was exciting, efficient, even elegant in the way a field could be cleared of fuel and rendered ready for the new growing season. The layer of ash on the ground looked like the fur of a bison. Freed by the fire from the smothering mulch of last year's growth, new shoots would sprout from the perennial roots, their fresh green a pretty sight against the black of the ash.

The photo above was taken at Schiff Nature Preserve, 30 miles north of Princeton, where they burn their fields and oak woodlands periodically to improve habitat. The state park service does prescribed burns at various places along the DR Canal, though not in Princeton.

It's important to emphasize that prescribed burns require some basic safety precautions, and are only done by professionals after considerable planning.

Are there any habitats in Princeton that could benefit from prescribed burns? One interesting possibility is several detention basins in Princeton's parks that we've converted to native prairie grasses. These acre-sized plantings are surrounded by turf that would serve well as a firebreak.

Similar plantings in a park in Ann Arbor are burned each spring. Families are invited to come to witness the event. First, kids collect seed from the "wet meadows", then everyone steps back to watch last year's stems get consumed by flame. After the fire burns out, the kids scatter the seeds in the ash. Some even bring a picnic lunch to enjoy as part of the event. In the photo, you can see a residential neighborhood in the distance, which is not at all threatened by this elegant horticultural method for managing the lovely grasses and wildflowers that comprise these miniature prairies.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Composting Options: How to Build a "Wishing (the Earth) Well"

This post provides instructions for building a kind of home composter I designed. Called a "Wishing (the Earth) Well," it has a number of nice features, including being reasonably attractive while keeping animals from digging through your food scraps. Follow a few basics, and composting food scraps will be easy, odorless, and satisfying. Most any container on the kitchen counter will do, but we use a stainless steel bucket with lid. Every few days, there's a trip to the composter in the yard. Nature does the rest. 

With the suspension of the curbside collection of organics (food scraps and whatever other compostables would fit in the small rollcarts), about 800 Princeton residents who had discovered the satisfaction of keeping food scraps out of the trash are now wondering what to do.

One option for those with a yard is to compost at home. There are lots of composters out there. Those that you can rotate in order to mix the contents seem like a good idea, but I don't know anyone who has gotten them to work well. I've found that the ones that have direct connection to the ground are the most likely to succeed. Moisture, fungi, earthworms, and other decomposers all migrate upward to work their wonders on the composting material.

If you want to keep wild animals out of the compost (some areas of Princeton have rats), here's a design that keeps the food scraps contained in durable metal screening (hardware cloth), while using leaves to keep the foodscraps insulated from temperature extremes and hidden from view. It's called a Wishing (the Earth) Well because it looks like a wishing well but works in reverse, giving nutrients back to the earth rather than pulling water out. No turning or periodic remixing of contents is necessary.

When it's empty, it looks like this, with a circle 3 feet in diameter of green fencing, and a central cylinder of hardware cloth that holds the food scraps.

When packed with leaves around the outside, it looks like this. The leaves insulate and obscure the inner cylinder of foodscraps.

More often, it looks like this, as the composting leaves and food settle.

To get started, you'll need a roll of wire fencing, 3 feet high. See bottom of post for material details and purchase options.

Measure out 10 feet of the 3 foot high fencing. I use a long board to keep the roll of fencing stretched flat. Cut the stubs flush at each end so you don't have wire tips sticking out. Make a circle of the 10 foot length of fencing, overlap the ends a square or two, and use plastic zip ties to tie the ends together. Four should be sufficient. The corral portion is done.

Now for the inner cylinder where the food scraps go. You can see in the background some chicken wire, which is cheaper but not very strong, and not fine enough mesh to keep rodents out. In the foreground is a cylinder cut from a roll of hardware cloth three feet high and 3.5 feet long. I recommend cutting the ends flush so you don't have a bunch of the little metal stubs sticking out.

Make the shape of the cylinder and have the ends overlap an inch or two, then secure with zip ties (5 or so)

The cylinder should work out to be about a foot in diameter. If you have a particular top in mind, make the cylinder small enough in diameter that the lid will fit well and stay on top. Anything flat or bowl-shaped and sufficiently heavy to deter animals will be sufficient. I've used a piece of leftover bluestone, or an old metal bowl with a hole drilled in the bottom so it doesn't collect water, and weighted down with a brick.

For the bottom of the cylinder, cut a square of hardware cloth slightly larger than the circle and bend the corners down. Use a few plastic zip ties to keep it on. It will be pressing against the ground, so just a few zip ties should be sufficient.

The wire components should look like this when done, with whatever critter-proof top you want to use. (Note: In the photo, the top is an old aluminum bowl I happened to have around. It's slightly larger than the hardware cloth cylinder, so stays on top. I drilled a hole in the bottom of the bowl so water doesn't accumulate, and put a brick in it to discourage raccoons from lifting it off. Another top consists of a square piece of hardware cloth large enough to completely cover the top of the food scrap cylinder, upon which is placed a flat stone, e.g. a paver or small bluestone.)

All that's needed beyond this are 4-foot long stakes--one for the inner cylinder to keep it upright, and a minimum of two for the outer ring.

A hubcap can be put on top, looking surprisingly classy, like a symbol of the sun. It can serve as the top if you don't have animals trying to get in, or can perch atop any other, heavier top you use.

Wire fencing, plastic coated or galvanized, runs $30-40 for 50 feet.

Here are some possibilities:

The 3 foot high hardware cloth is also available in rolls.

The best prices for fencing and hardware cloth require buying more than you need. It's best, though, to have more than one Wishing (the Earth) Well, to provide more capacity in case the food scraps fill up the inner cylinder in the winter when not much composting and settling is going on. You can also prepare one for harvesting by letting its contents rot down into compost while adding the latest organics to the other composter.

Each fall, before accepting a new crop of autumn leaves, the Wishing (the earth) Well yields a wheel barrow full of rich compost, to be spread on the vegetable garden.

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. This outer crust of leaves disguises the rich compost underneath that is ready for use. The left tub shows the leaf mold; the right is decomposed kitchen scraps. The fall harvest of compost is ready to spread on the garden beds.

Here you can see that the rodents were not able to get into the foodscraps. 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.

 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. In a house, we have discrete containers for trash in nearly every room. Why not have similar convenience in the yard?

Here's a closeup of the compost, soft and spongy, dark and rich. Ah, the rewards of all that non-labor and non-burning of fossil fuels.

One novel way to insure that all the leaves in the leaf corral are moist enough to decompose is to use one of those root feeder rods to poke holes in the pile so the rain can seep in. Better yet, connect a hose to the root feeder and use it to inject some water into the pile.

Leaf corrals can be easily hidden in a backyard corner, but if integrated into the front yard landscaping, they show neighbors and the community that leaves should be treated as a gift to our yards, and not something to be hauled away.

Some tips for using the Wishing (the Earth) Well:
  • One thing to keep in mind is that animals such as raccoons may climb up the fencing to try to get to the inner column of food scraps. Though they don't succeed, they bend the wire fencing. More stakes would help, but stiff, springy wire woven around the top of the fencing is working well thus far. (Note: the wire I'm using is some leftover electric deer fencing wire a friend gave me.) Our composter in the front yard doesn't have this problem.
  • As mentioned above, make sure the leaves are moist enough to decompose.
  • Tree roots will invade from the bottom if the leaf corral is never emptied, which is fine, but if you want to use the compost elsewhere, remove the fencing some day in the fall, rake away the layer of leaves and shovel out the rich inner core of compost created over the summer. Put the fencing back in place and the corral is ready for a new fall harvest of leaves.
  • The outer ring of leaves will keep reducing in size. This is good--it shows that the leaves are decomposing--but it also means the inner column of foodwaste will become exposed if one doesn't keep adding leaves or garden clippings to the outer ring. 

A white plastic pumpkin found on the curb during a dogwalk served as substitute for the hubcap.

A larger corral, six feet wide and called the OK Leaf Corral, yielded five big tubs of compost ready for incorporation into the garden beds.

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.

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.

On of the signs on the leaf corral 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.