Showing posts with label landscaping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label landscaping. Show all posts

Thursday, August 19, 2021

My First Public Planting--a Prairie Circle in Ann Arbor, MI

Each time I travel to Ann Arbor, where I lived off and on for 20 years, I make a pilgrimage to several special spots. 

One of them is a small demonstration prairie I planted just a few years before leaving. It was my first public planting and, incredibly, it continues to flourish. I say incredibly because I've seen many idealistic native meadow plantings degrade over time, overrun by any number of aggressive plants, be they trees, shrubs, and native blackberry, or a host of nonnative weeds like mugwort and Canada thistle. 

One reason it has survived is the native plants themselves, growing densely together, leaving no room for incursion. A tallgrass prairie is a robust plant community. In sunny conditions, flowers like rosinweed and purple coneflower can hold their own.
The gray-headed coneflowers--a species much like the cutleaf coneflowers we have in Princeton--have hung in there with the big bluestem and Indian grasses. There are also some wonderful goldenrods--"showy" and "stiff-leaved"--that stay in one place and don't encroach like many other kinds of goldenrod do. Even the nonnative queen Anne's lace, which you'll see taking over along midwestern roadsides, is somehow remaining limited in its aggressiveness. It's possible that a well established planting like this could need little more tending than a late winter mowing to keep the woodies at bay, but there may be some low-key TLC going on to keep things in balance.

I planted it in the early 1990s. The county naturalist at the time, Matt Heumann, helped with seed and design. His successor, Shawn Severance, sent me a very nice note about the prairie:

"That prairie planting has gone on in time to spread seed into the surrounding 4 acres and has enriched the diversity of the park far beyond the original footprint. It’s a continual reminder of the power of small actions. Since you did that planting, we have restored several acres of prairie habitat nearby and so what you set in motion has expanded."

Heartening to think that focusing attention on one small planting could ultimately have a ripple effect on its surroundings. The prairie even made it onto the preserve's map, as the "Prairie Circle." There's another advantage this prairie has. Ann Arbor is a progressive town that has invested in the management of its open space. In addition to the county staff, the city has a Natural Areas Preservation Manager who oversees restoration of diverse habitats, controlling uber-invasives like buckthorn and conducting prescribed burns to bring back bur oak savannas and other historically prevalent habitats.

Having absorbed that culture and brand of wild horticulture, I was able to take what I learned in Ann Arbor and apply it in subsequent migrations to Durham, NC and then here in Princeton. It wasn't a matter of taking favorite plants along on the trip, but rather getting to know the species indigenous to any locale, and finding public places where they could be encountered by people otherwise surrounded by generic, nonnative landscaping. 

There's a bench nearby that faces the Prairie Circle. I don't know who Omry Ronen was, but his loved ones must have thought he'd like an enduring view of tall grasses and wildflowers flowing with the breeze.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

9/11 Memorial Plantings

Stymied from reaching our intended destination of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden by various closed subways on a Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves close by the World Trade Center site, and decided to take a look. The footprints of the twin towers have each been turned into chasms where curtains of water fall from one depth down into a still deeper abyss. The symbolism is powerful--ascension transformed into endless descent. The curtains of water, played with by the wind, can sometimes appear to be pulling apart, as if something were about to be revealed, but the moment passes and the water returns to a uniform downward motion.

There is so much to grieve there, the lives lost on the site and on that day--their names etched into the frame of metal--and all the lives lost in distant lands due to the nation's skewed response in the years that followed. There is so much that I wish I could pull back up from the darkness at the center of the sunken pools.

But this post was to be about the plantings we saw, which were hundreds of swamp white oaks planted in rows. Swamp white oaks can be found occasionally planted along Princeton's streets, and growing naturally in low-lying forests. Strange that a species found naturally in water-logged lowlands would grow well in the dry, compacted soils of city streets, but the tree is adapted to the low oxygen levels that both soils share. Some of the 9/11 trees came from a NJ nursery that specializes in memorial plantings.

Water used to sustain the trees comes from underground cisterns that capture runoff.

Nearby is St. Paul's Cathedral, which improbably survived the crash of the towers. The cemetery behind the church is filled with headstones grown faceless with time.

Along the fringe of the cemetery grows a pure stand of what looks like a native sedge (on the right in the photo)--the sort that gets only a foot or so high and can form expansive, parklike sedge meadows in local woodlands.

NY City now grows many other unexpected echoes of native habitats, the most recent discovery being Brooklyn Bridge Park, where one of the trails runs along a beautifully maintained stream habitat packed with native species.

But that joy of diversity might be out of place at the 9/11 memorial and St. Paul's Cathedral, where the monocultures of swamp white oak and sedge seem intended instead to reinforce a uniform response of grief.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Weeding a Rain Garden in June

The curb at the Westminster Choir College parking lot looks like a serpent, dipping low to allow runoff to enter a constructed raingarden where pollutants and trash are filtered out, and the water feeds the plants. The raingarden does a lot of environmental work, so maybe someone could do some work to take care of it? Care of installed raingardens is not something most landscape companies do, and so the task falls to a local volunteer with the required knowledge, or the raingarden fills with weeds and gets mowed down and becomes yet more boring lawn.

In this scene, blue vervain grows in the spaces left by the expanding redbud and tupelo trees.

Switchgrass makes billowy mounds.

The raingarden is doing better than it was a couple years ago when I adopted it, but there are still weeds to easily undercut with a shovel, like wild lettuce and curly dock.

And bindweed to pull that would otherwise grow over everything.

The mugwort was proactively dug out last year, but a few are still popping up. The pink in the photo is red clover, a non-invasive exotic that gets left in the mix.

A bedstraw species smothered an area ten feet across before being pulled up. This may be the native stickywilly (Galium aparine), but was being way too aggressive for the setting.

Here's the bindweed growing up and over a late-flowering thoroughwort that's worth protecting from aggression for its late summer flowers.

Not shown here is the crown vetch, another aggressive grow-over-everything weed.

White clover and dandelions would require more time to weed than this volunteer has.

One nice discovery, not remembered from previous years, is a swamp milkweed, which would have little chance of growing if the aggressive weeds weren't controlled.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Whither Romance? Wisteria Meets Horse Chestnut

 It was just one of those things.
Just one of those crazy flings.
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings.
Just one of those things.

If they'd thought a bit about the end of it,
When they let the wisteria start climbin' round,
They'd have been aware that this love affair
Was too hot not

to fall down. (Stay tuned.)

--Lyrics mostly by Cole Porter

Friday, March 16, 2012

Planting the Shore

If St. Patrick's Day is the traditional day for planting peas, then March 8th must be the traditional date when rushes are planted next to a pond. The dredging of the upper Mountain Lake in Princeton left the shoreline bare. A fence effectively kept the geese from congregating, but didn't quite do the trick appearance-wise.

FOPOS board member Tim Patrick-Miller at some point realized that the solution was growing just downstream, where thousands of native rushes and sedges had sprouted in the drained lakebed of the lower lake. Clark Lennon and Tim are working with new FOPOS natural resources manager AeLin Compton to transplant the natives along the shoreline.

Soft rush (Juncas effusus) is a very tough native plant whose evergreen stems and vaselike shape give it an ornamental appearance once it's established.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Which Witch Hazel?

A witch hazel of Asian origin (probably a cross between Japanese and Chinese species) has been making its customary pitch on campus over the past couple weeks,
in varying shades of orange and red.
Here's the overall effect.

The native witch hazel, which typically grows on slopes near streams in Herrontown Woods, Mountain Lakes, Woodfield Reservation and elsewhere around Princeton, blooms in the fall. Last year's post on the subject can be found at

Friday, March 09, 2012

No Toil Backyard Composting

These photos are from several weeks ago, when Princeton was in the depths of winter, buried in one inch of snow. The brief episode of winterish weather was useful for visualizing the regular nature walks we take back to ye ol' compost pile,
which happens to be a repurposed rabbit hutch from the 1960s. Our neighbors bring their foodscraps over to add to decompositional festivities.

It's really pretty simple. Toss the vegetable scraps in a pile, allow lots of air in to keep the decomposition anaerobic and therefore odorless, don't bother to stir. A fence along the front keeps the dog out. I haven't seen anything visiting it other than crows now and then. Shrubs planted along the front screen it from view.

The enclosure is wide enough to have two piles--older and newer--so that mature compost can be accessed without having to dig through the undecomposed vegetables.

Great soil, no toil. Ruth Stout, who back in the 1950s wrote one of, or perhaps the, foundational text on minimal work gardening, "How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back", would be pleased.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Woodpile Slumber Party

Sometimes, bringing firewood in can get complicated. Nature has taken what was intended as a simple backyard woodpile and turned it into sleeping quarters and storage barn. This wooly bear caterpillar, having a fine winter's snooze amongst the squirrels' stored acorns, must not have been pleased when I inadvertently liberated its roof to heat our home. Hopefully it liked the alternative accommodations I hastily prepared for it.

The next log removed exposed this tent village of spiders. They too were relocated, log and all, so as not to suffer any further disturbance to their slumbers.

Woodpiles are the highrise apartments of backyard habitat, packed with nooks and crannies to serve a diverse clientele. Looks like the best compromise is to have more woodpiles than one will use in a given winter, so that at least some of the backyard residents will have their sleeping quarters left undisturbed.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Raingarden Installed at Mountain Lakes House

 One project I was able to get implemented at Mountain Lakes House in Princeton is the construction of a raingarden. I designed and located it so that it would capture runoff from the lawn, driveway and a portion of the roof. Township staff did the contouring, and planting was done by Polly Burlingham of Sigmund Garden fame, financed by a private donor.

It was particularly important to redirect runoff from the driveway down this contoured swale to the raingarden. Before, water flowed towards the foundation, which led to flooding in the basement.
Now, the runoff will have a positive effect, helping to keep the raingarden wet. A typical raingarden is designed to collect about 6 inches of water, which then infiltrates into the soil over a day or two, creating an underground reservoir of water that the wildflowers, sedges and shrubs can tap into during droughts.

Since it was installed last fall, it's still awaiting its first growing season. Plants have been labeled (cardinal flower, joe-pye-weed, winterberry, buttonbush, etc). You can reach this site by parking at the Community Park North parking lot off of Mountain Ave at 206, and walking down the long driveway through the woods to Mountain Lakes House. In the distance in the photo is the recently restored upper Mountain Lake.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Integrating Leaves Into the Landscape

There, can't you see it, the massive pile of leaves? One of my cause celebres, in case it wasn't obvious from all the previous leaf-related posts, is to get people to keep their leaves in their yards. Nutrients, reduced runoff, habitat, less dependence on municipal services--what's not to like? Obviously something, since so many people dump their leaves in the street regardless of yard size.

This residence, located out towards Terhune Orchards at the intersection with Cold Soil Road, shows how leaves can easily be integrated into a neatly maintained yard.

Rather than blow the leaves out to where they'll be a hazard next to the road, the owners have a nice cluster of trees halfway between road and house where they pile the leaves. Despite the adding of leaves to the same pile year after year, the pile won't get very high due to decomposition and raiding of nutrients by the tree roots. And anytime the owners want rich compost for the garden, they need only dig into the interior of this pile to find it waiting.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Visit From the Claw

A Visit From The Claw

'Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the town,
The streets were chocked full of great mounds of brown--
Yardwaste and tree limbs, dumped without care,
In hopes that the street crew soon would be there.

The kids, how they wished they could jump in a pile
Of leaves dry and crisp, where they'd linger awhile.
But all dreams were dashed! Their dad called a halt
To such thoughts of venturing near the asphalt.

The streets had become so exceedingly narrow,
That bicyclists mixed with the cars at their peril.
The street drains were clogged, the rains made a river.
I watched this insane spectacle with a shiver.

When just down the way there arose such a clatter.
I sprang to the door to see what was the matter.
From round the next corner at once there appeared
A caravan that was demonstrably weird.

With dump truck and pickup and street crew I saw
A giant contraption with grappling claw
That groaned as it scooped up the leaves in great gobs.
One thing that was clear was they wouldn't lose their jobs.

For no sooner did they the street cleaner make,
Than neighbors dumped even more leaves in their wake.
The mounds they grew higher than ever before.
I guessed that our town had gone nuts at the core.

How could such a state of affairs come to pass?
What sense underlies this self-made morass?
Is decomposition a thing to be purged
From yards prim and proper that so blandly merge?

The leaves, they have value, it's clear, don't you see?
To earthworms and robins and flowers and trees.
Let's make room between the back fenceline and shrubs,
And there place the leaves as good food for the grubs.

Hidden from view they will quietly mellow.
As Jefferson did at beloved Monticello.
To ground they return; no need for more work.
As they flatten and fade, no varmints will lurk.

Let humus and nutrients there feed your soil.
The mulch will kill weeds, and save you some toil.
The leaf-softened ground will soak up the rain
And lessen the floods that now seem to gain.

Or, grind up the leaves as you last mow the grass.
Okay, so it might take just one extra pass.
But saved be our streets from a public display
Of all that in nature is meant to decay.

I know that I'm fighting a dominant force,
That flouts local law as a matter of course.
No bureaucrat dares to deliver a fine,
Risking taxpayer wrath of a virulent kind.

But speak up I must, and speak up I will
As long as the streets continue to fill.
This dumping is wrong. It's an ongoing blight.
To all who love sense: Let's fight the good fight!

Background: Yesterday, a man overheard me talking to a friend at the Arts Council about all the leaves clogging the streets. He came over and said that West Windsor has the same problem, and that their town council had just thrown its hands up in exasperation, for lack of a solution to the annual deluge of leaves. The thought of towns all over New Jersey struggling with the same intractable problem, mixed perhaps with the flush of vitamins from eating swiss chard from the backyard garden, had the unexpected effect of later moving me to verse, which I read yesterday night at the Princeton borough council meeting. When faced with adversity, write a poem. By coincidence, The Claw came by our house as I was writing it. My apologies to Clement Clarke Moore for rerouting his 1822 "A Visit From St. Nicholas" down a very messy street.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Annual Purging of Leaves

One of this blog's "pages" (listed in the right column as Leaves) contains my annual letter to the editor calling for clean streets and backyard composting, and each year the dumping of leaves, dirt, grassclippings, branches and garden trimmings on the pavement becomes more emphatic and non-stop. The power of the pen is overrated.
What does a tidy yard gain the homeowner if the street in front of it is clogged with debris? It's as if we've disowned the public space. Dumping on the streets has become a year-round, essentially unregulated activity.

True, the leaves, etc. eventually end up getting composted outside of town, but collecting leaves is a highly mechanized, gas-gulping process that makes municipal workers unavailable for other tasks.
And leaves the streets strewn with organic debris that then adds a nutrient load to local waterways.
Streets function essentially as ephemeral creeks, connected directly to local streams, so that the dumping of organic matter in the streets is akin to dumping directly into a waterway--an urge society was supposed to have cured itself of decades ago.

There was a time when leaves were appreciated, not only for their rich fertilizer value but for their beauty and the joy a pile of dry, crisp leaves can bring to kids.

Many homeowners have abundant space in back, yet make a point of raking all leaves to the street. Seeking to comprehend, I came up with two new possible reasons this year: 1) the frenetic pace of life has caused people to reject the relatively slow pace of decomposition, and 2) since homeowners often take their cues from neighbors, the highly visible practice of dumping leaves on the streets is more readily imitated than the comparatively hidden practice of piling leaves in a corner of the backyard.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Big Changes Come to a Hidden Valley

 There's a hidden valley in Princeton that everyone drives by but no one sees. Just over this ridge is Washington Rd, with athletic fields beyond. Down to the left is Faculty Road and Carnegie Lake.

Despite being sandwiched between a busy road and Jadwin Gym, the valley's rich soil sustains old oaks, tupelo, beech and ash that reach improbable heights.

This year, big changes have come to this long-hidden valley. Approached from Faculty Road, stacks of boulders and heavy equipment suggest some sort of road construction.

 A pile of stumps looks less than auspicious.

Further up the valley, more boulders, bales of hay, and orange fencing.

Giant trees, some a yard thick, have been cut down. How could this be anything but bad news? But wait, this post is getting depressing, so let's start from the top of the valley and work our way down.

The valley, which is to say the remnant of valley that was never developed as campus, begins at the new bridge over Washington Road. In the distance is the new chemistry building and the football stadium.

Looking downhill from the bridge, a lovely little stream meanders peacefully down the valley.

Starting farther up towards Nassau Street, the stream runs underground through campus, then emerges (or "daylights") from a big pipe just below the bridge.

The water immediately encounters what looks like an olympic luge track, attractively armored with stones.

 Further down, the narrow channel flows through a broad floodplain.

All of this--the pleasing meanders, the floodplain for stormwater to spread out into, the series of riffles and little waterfalls over stones--is manmade.

Why would anyone want to remake a stream? After a hundred or two years of flash floods caused by all the impervious surface on campus, the stream channel had eroded the ground around it, and was threatening to undercut Washington Road (beyond the green fence on the right) if nothing was done.

Here's a portion of the old streambed, broad and ill-defined. More photos of the old streambed can be found in a post one year ago when members of the Princeton Environmental Commission were given a tour of the proposed project.

A group from Rutgers developed the plans. In this photo, you can see the hoses used for pumping water around the section of stream being worked on. The "V" of stones at the left is called a "cross-vein". Water flowing over the rocks converges to scour out a pool just below them. Pools, riffles, and a narrow stream bed to focus flow are all characteristics of a healthy stream.

The stacks of boulders, then, are materials used to direct water in such a way that the streambank will survive the flash flooding coming from the hardened landscape of campus.

Lots of digging is required to form an adequate floodplain to accommodate the massive infusions of water during storms. The disturbed areas will be restocked with native plants, and though they had to take down some large trees, many were spared.

So that gets us back to the downed trees. This section of white ash is 36 inches in diameter. I counted roughly 200 annual rings, which are caused by the alternation of light-colored fast spring growth followed by a darker band of slower growth later in the season. The tree, and others in the valley, standing or cut, could well date back to the Revolutionary War. Visitors to Mount Vernon may remember the giant white ash trees in the circular drive approaching the house.

 About 160 years back, this ash began to grow very slowly, as can be seen from the very narrow rings on the left. Perhaps it was shaded heavily by another tree, which apparently fell 120 years ago when the rings began to spread out again.

It is unsettling that such old trees have been cut down, and all the more remarkable that few even know about it in a town that loves and protects its trees. But there are extenuating circumstances, tradeoffs made, factors that mitigate, at least partially, the loss. Erosion from campus has been undermining some of the majestic trees, and this project is meant to reduce that erosion.

Time will tell if the trees that were saved will survive all the disturbance around them. Tree roots are very sensitive. And the carefully designed channel is not necessarily immune from the powerful erosive forces of repeated floods.

One useful pursuit at this point would be to study the rings of the fallen trees to see what they might tell us of Princeton's past.

I had recommended a pre-construction rescue of rare native plants like horsebalm, but the idea probably got lost in the mix. Not everyone has learned to make a distinction between rare wildflowers that have survived for centuries in a valley, and whatever natives one can buy in pots at a nursery.

I had also encouraged them to remove the Norway Maples (mottled green/yellow in this photo and next) that have invaded the valley, since the invasive maples are competing with the old growth natives, and their dense shade will threaten the newly planted natives over time.

Overall, though, there's reason to believe this stream restoration--rare in New Jersey--will validate its good intentions. The project leader spoke excitedly last year during the tour about how he hopes students will find the valley an attractive place to visit, rather than merely serving as a traditional shortcut for athletes heading to practice.

This long-sheltered space, with so many stories to tell of past centuries, is beginning a new chapter worth reading.