Showing posts with label Princeton nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Princeton nature. Show all posts

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Last Chance to Pull Stiltgrass

This week and maybe next are your last chance this year to pull stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). This mega-invasive is an annual, so the logic of countering its spread is to pull it before it can produce and drop seed. If the seeds haven't loosened yet at the end of the stalk, you can still pull it. Throw it in the trash, or if there's a lot, make a big pile of it so that any seeds that sprout the next year will all be in one place and easily covered or pulled. Definitely don't put it in your compost if its seeds are forming. If stiltgrass is just starting to invade your yard, pulling as completely as possible now will greatly limit its seedbank for next spring. Another strategy for large stands is to let the stiltgrass grow, then just as it begins to flower mow it short and hope its feeble roots don't have enough energy to grow another flowering stalk. 

For those fuzzy on identification, google lots of images, and look for the silver line running down the middle of the leaf. Stiltgrass can grow in the shade or sun, climb up to four feet, or thrive in a miniature state while ducking below your mower in the lawn. It's incredible survival skills include being incredibly inedible for wildlife. Stiltgrass gives nothing back to the habitats it increasingly dominates.

More on Stiltgrass, and a Success Story

Walking in the local woods, you've probably seen this kind of scene--what looks like a grassy meadow extending through the forest. In the filtered light of the understory, its simplicity and lushness may have some visual appeal. And yet, in some ways what you are looking at is the ecological equivalent of an urban food desert. 

Stiltgrass is an introduced plant that could be called a pervasive invasive, able to thrive most anywhere and dominate whole landscapes. Its success has come in part through being inedible. As wildlife selectively eat native vegetation, the stiltgrass expands, preventing the native plants from rebounding.

Unlike another nonnative annual weed that can look similar, crabgrass, stiltgrass becomes ubiquitous because it can thrive in sun or shade. That means the stiltgrass invading your lawn and flower beds can continue spreading ad nauseum into the nearby forest, or vice versa.

We used to call it bamboo grass--something in the shape of the leaves is reminiscent. The stiltgrass name refers to its angular growth, with each segment supporting the next as it climbs up and over fallen logs and other plants. Packing grass is another common name, referring to how it was once used to pack porcelain for shipment. That's probably how it first reached the U.S., in packing crates sent to Tennessee. 

When I first encountered it, growing on the bank of Ellerbe Creek in Durham, NC, I thought it graceful. Then came Hurricane Fran, bringing floods and fallen trees. In the aftermath of that massive disturbance, stiltgrass exploded in the landscape, expanding and ultimately choking forests with its vast, dense stands. New Jersey proved no different. 

Stiltgrass tends to establish itself along roadsides. Here it is growing in a green ribbon along Herrontown Road. Trails, too, provide an avenue for extending its reach, its tiny seeds carried on boots or the hooves of deer.

Though stiltgrass has covered large areas of woodland in the eastern U.S., we have found it worthwhile and even satisfying to counter its relentless incursions. Today in the Barden at Herrontown Woods, some volunteers pulled it out of a patch of native jewelweed along the edge of the parking lot. 

Nearby, on land where we have largely eliminated a massive clone of wisteria, stiltgrass was starting to move into the void. If nothing were done, this open woodland would have become a pasture of stiltgrass. But we have acted early enough to be able to remove all of this year's stiltgrass, dramatically reducing the seeds available for next year's crop. This photo shows the last patch before we pulled it. 

Interestingly, there are native grasses that look a little like stiltgrass, the main one being Virginia cutgrass (white grass), Leersia virginica. It has longer, narrower leaves that lack the silver stripe down the middle. As is a common ecological refrain, the native grasses "play well with others," not forming stiltgrass's massive, exclusionary stands. Some smartweeds like Lady's Thumb can also bear a resemblance. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Obedient Plant: Big Pink in a Season of Yellows

Among sun-loving native flowers of summer, the so-called obedient plant shows up all fresh and fulgent just as the party is starting to wind down. Each year it catches me by surprise with its pink when so many other flowers--sunflowers, cutleaf coneflowers, Silphiums, Heleniums--go with yellow. 

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is also off my radar because it is risky to plant. Its tubular flowers may obediently remain sideways if you push them, but the plant itself spreads aggressively underground. Not surprisingly, it's in the mint family, known for roots that spread hither and yon.

That's why this gardener on Grover Ave was so smart to plant it between a sidewalk and the road, where its capacity to spread is limited.

A similar strategy to curb its spread was used in front of Jay's Bike Shop. 

Obedient plant also pops up in several spots in Herrontown Woods each summer. Hard to say if it was planted or part of the indigenous flora. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to spread much when in an open woodland rather than a garden. Many other species that seem modest, even rare in the wild--various native sunflowers, groundnut, virgin's bower, fringed loosestrife--also turn rampant when planted in the comparatively tame environs of a garden. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Becoming a Tree

A tree was spotted taking a selfie of its shadow with the Veblen House.

Yes, you can become a tree when the angle of the sun is right, and wave to the flowers growing below, and cast your mighty shadow across the expanse, to mingle with the land's many memories of the passing day.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

A Few Spring Surprises

Watch spring unfold for enough years and it can start to get predictable in a Groundhog Day kind of way. One group of bloomers segues into the next, year after year. There's a theater piece I wrote called Spring Training, that imagines how Spring's trainer, charged with getting Spring in shape for the annual run-through, would react if Spring decided to go rogue and change the order of flowers on a whim. That hasn't happened, far as I know, despite all the changes underfoot and overhead due to our chemical tampering with the atmosphere. Still, this spring has offered a collection of surprises.

A big surprise came a couple mornings ago, when I dared to walk out into the garden and search for strawberries. Disappointment had been a predictable result up to now, as catbirds, slugs, and who knows what else would claim our berry harvests before we could. True, our past care of the garden had not been marked by a consistent diligence and vigilance, and maybe that was the difference this year. We've paid the garden more attention, and in return it provided a yield of incredibly unblemished berries.

Daffodils in late May? That's what you get, it turns out, when you plant them in March, rather than the previous fall. These were planted by volunteers who came to a daffodil planting party at Veblen House.

Also at Veblen House, the pawpaws are leapin'. There's a saying about transplanted shrubs and trees. "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and on the third year they leap!" It's been four years since we planted these. Close enough. Periodic attention has had to be paid to protect them until they are beyond the reach of the deer.

That's Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Victoria Floor providing scale.

My friend Steven who has pawpaws in the backyard had to hand pollinate them to get fruit. This wasn't incredibly surprising, though it's always a surprise when something that's supposed to work actually works.

Steven reminded me that years ago I had given him a "live stake" of silky dogwood. It probably looked a lot like this one--a two foot long late-winter cutting that, in this case, was left to sit in a bucket of water until it sprouted leaves on top and roots on the bottom.

He had planted it in his "lower 40", a wet area that receives runoff from the yard and some sun from an opening in the canopy. Since then, it has quietly grown into a shrub more than ten feet high.

A live stake of elderberry performed similarly.

Another surprise came when Architect Kirsten Thoft reminded me recently that I'd given her some plants for her "stormwater planter", which utilizes and filters runoff from the roof before releasing the rest into the yard. This is a good option for downspouts that empty onto pavement. Plants I noticed: Virginia sweetspire, tall meadowrue, and royal fern.

If there's a theme here, it's that plants and nature in general demonstrate an impressive growth force when given a chance, and a little dose of tending through the years. That's a realization that never loses its sense of pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

DR Canal Nature Loop in Winter

The DR Canal State Park crew hasn't yet done its annual mowing of our little nature trail, next to the towpath just upstream of the Harrison Street bridge. That means we can do a little virtual February nature walk. (Summer tour at this link.) Some background info: The land here, bounded by the Washington Rd and Harrison Street bridges, the canal and Carnegie Lake, is owned by Princeton University but maintained by the DR Canal State Park. Back around 2006, having seen native wildflowers getting mowed down, I convinced them to shift from weekly to annual mowings of the areas away from the towpath. The annual mowings keep the meadows from growing up with trees. They then created this nature loop through the open woodland with sunny patches of wildflowers and views of Carnegie Lake.

It starts with a nice sign and box for pamphlets that I need to refill.

On your right is a stand of switch grass--one of the grasses of midwestern and plain state prairies that also grows in the east. Switch grass is one of the native grasses that grows erect enough to fit in as an ornamental in people's gardens. It got its two seconds of fame in a president's 2006 State of the Union address, as a potential source of ethanol.

Left of the path are the remains of an evening primrose's seedheads, held high.

A short way down the trail is a cluster of red oak leaves. Follow the branch back to the trunk of the tree,

and you can see that the beavers have been busy.

A little farther is a bench looking north across Lake Carnegie.

A closer look at what's growing there along the shore shows the remains of last summers native hibiscus blooms (Hibiscus moscheutos). Kayakers heading upstream on the Millstone River from Carnegie Lake in midsummer will encounter this showy wildflower lining the banks in some sections, its feet in the water.

The bench, by the way, was donated in memory of Anuita Margolis Blanc. An internet source says she founded the Nassau Cooperative Nursery School, was president of the Princeton Assn. for Human Rights, president of the Princeton Study Center, and founder and partner of Princeton Crossroads Realty.

Here and there you'll see the seedheads of ironweed, a tall reddish native floodplain wildflower that blooms in later summer.

Also on the left are some clones of Indian hemp, related to milkweed.

Pin oak has narrower, more deeply lobed leaves than red oak. There are lots of different oaks along the pathway, including a bur oak, which is more of a midwestern species--evidence that at one point the university planted this area to ornament the entry into campus from Route 1.

Broomsedge, actually a bluestem grass, grows along the right edge of the trail. A field of broomsedge can be a beautiful sight in winter, except to farmers who view its presence as evidence of poor soil.

You'll see lots of this--Japanese honeysuckle. Though it's one of the first invasive species I learned about, it cannot compete with the smothering power of porcelainberry, which is now dominating farther down the trail in sunnier areas.

Where the trail turns left and heads towards the towpath before bending back around, there are expanding groupings of Joe-Pye-Weed--one of the native summer wildflowers that has responded well to the annual mowing management.

Look on the ground around there and you're likely to see a "gum ball"--the many-capsuled fruit of the sweetgum tree.

Look up and you'll see many of the gum balls still on the tree.

Goldenrods are thriving. The floodplain species of goldenrod tend to spread underground via rhizomes and tend to dominate over time.

Some trees are "self pruning", but pin oaks tend to hold their lower branches, which bend down in a characteristic way.

Beech trees are related to oaks, and show the similar habit of holding onto their leaves far into winter.

Beyond this bench is a tree that's lost some of its lower bark.

More evidence of beavers.

Here's one of the shrubs left over from the 1960s era plantings by the university--a row of fragrant honeysuckle that sometimes gets on lists of invasive species, though I've never seen it spread. It has small but very fragrant white flowers in late winter. Lonicera fragrantissima is the latin name.

The remains of a pokeweed bloom.

That gets you about halfway down the path. It circles back over to the towpath. The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park has programming during the year.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When a Coop Flew the Coop

The time came last week to move the chicken coop to the back of the property so that we could start beautifying the patio next to the house. The move came after months of careful planning and procrastination. The project was a good opportunity to use some of that used lumber scavenged from the local curbside kmart over the years. The chickens came over to check on progress, and to look for any grubs my large mammal activity might have stirred up.

Fortunately, the former owners had fashioned a platform of concrete blocks, used 50 years ago for a rabbit hutch.  We are simply carrying on an agrarian and can-do/do-it-yourself tradition established by the original owners. With serendipity as my co-pilot, I found that the pieces of the old coop could easily be unscrewed from each other and fit very well in the new location.

Even with serendipity, it took a couple days to make all the old coop parts fit together in a new configuration. It helped that the repurposed skylights didn't fall over and break, despite multiple close calls. Natural light is important in a coop, especially during winter when the chickens tend to stop laying if daylight isn't sufficient.

With most projects like this, there's a magical moment when the new space becomes real, when the end comes suddenly into sight, and all the hours spent feel worthwhile. Now all it needs is a few boards screwed over the openings, to keep any night predators out. With some interior decorating, what fowl could resist?

Well, the chickens and ducks were so habituated to the old coop that we had to carry them over to the new one each evening. After the third or fourth night, they finally bonded with the new coop and made the journey themselves. There's been a call for a coat of paint, though the weathered look has its charms.

Now, if we could only convince Buttons to lay in the coop, rather than hiding her eggs behind the hay pile. Sometimes we think one or another fowl has stopped laying, only to find a surprise somewhere in the yard after several weeks.