Sunday, June 20, 2010

Nature's Upside Down Pecking Order

On June 19, the Princeton High School ecolab wetland was one of the stops on the Green Building and Garden Tour, organized by the Princeton Environmental Commission. The intention of this tour stop was to focus on how a retention basin can be converted into wetland habitat, but an airborne drama pulled our attention skywards.
A red-tailed hawk flew over from Westminster campus, chased by a pack of crows.
The scolding and intimidation continued for several minutes, as the crows took turns dive-bombing the hawk. The hawk kept an eye out, but seemed generally unconcerned. They'd all been through this before.

After the crows left, the hawk lay down and draped its wing over the edge of the roof, as if injured, or simply wishing to gather some warmth from the sun.
The crows returned, the hawk flew off, but one of the crows hung around long enough to in turn become the target of intimidation by a still smaller bird with white markings on it tail.
During summer break, it's feistiness rather than size that makes for a schoolyard bully.

Shade Tree Donated For Potts Park

Earlier this month, I received an inquiry through the website, asking if there was a park in Princeton where a couple could plant a tree in honor of their newborn son. I suggested Potts Park, which is right behind my house and is in great need of more shade for the play equipment.

On June 19, with friends and family on hand, Rebecca and Derek planted "Charlie's tree", an October Glory red maple. Borough council member Barbara Trelstad located a suitable tree at a local nursery, and coordinated with borough staff to have a hole dug prior to the ceremony. I'll be doing the watering.

Though the couple doesn't live in town, Rebecca describes herself as "a proud graduate of Princeton public schools and PHS." Her parents still live in Princeton township. Thanks to Rebecca and Derek for this wonderful gesture that will add to the pleasure of the park for decades to come!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What to Do With a Cattail Patch?

This section of the high school wetland was packed with cattails a year ago. Cattails are native, and provide good habitat for redwing blackbirds and other wildlife, but if left unchecked they would soon take over the whole wetland. Their spread, via rhizomes and seed, has added to the maintenance required to sustain a diverse plant community. A combination of repeated cutting and pulling of the cattails freed up this area for less aggressive natives like pickerelweed, arrowhead and wild rice, all of which need consistently wet soil to thrive.
The last stronghold of cattails is this one small corner of the wetland. After talking to Tim, the ecology teacher at the high school who I collaborate with to maintain the wetlands, we decided to cut down this last patch. After I did so one evening, a good friend who knows edible plants happened to be walking by and stopped to say hello. "Why don't you eat them instead of just cutting them down?", he asked, and then went on to explain how to eat them raw. I tried one, and found it to be unexpectedly tasty. An internet search later on yielded info on five ways to eat cattails at different times of the year.

Here, then, is a new approach to maintaining ecological diversity by keeping cattails in check through ongoing harvest. Two dimensions of environmentalism--Eat Local and Habitat Restoration--meet over a helping of cattails.

Tour of HS Ecolab Wetland This Saturday

This Saturday, June 19, a highly bikeable tour of "environmentally smart approaches to building, landscaping, gardening, and managing waste" in Princeton. This event, from 11-3, was organized by the Princeton Environmental Commission. Check out the map and descriptions at, and visit the stops in any order you choose.
Two garden installations that I helped start will be on the tour. I will be at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland from 1-3 to offer plant by plant commentary, and will be putting up interpretive signs there and at the Harrison St. raingarden this week in preparation for the tour. A new raingarden I installed this spring is not on the tour, but can be found in front of the Whole Earth Center on Nassau Street. The extraordinary gardens at Riverside Elementary will also be on display, as well as the fine facilities at D&R Greenway for growing native plants.

Here are some photos from the High School wetland:

The magical mystery sump pump that feeds water from the high school basement into the wetland. It comes on every twenty minutes or so, regardless of weather--a humble but highly beneficial version of Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park.

The cool, clear waters of the sump pump feed a pond--one of three in the wetland-- that teems with crayfish,

which grow to considerable size.

Silky dogwood is one of the shrubs, planted on some of the higher ground in the wetland. Other shrubs include: elderberry, indigo bush, swamp rose, buttonbush, winterberry and red chokeberry. Blackhaw Viburnum, a more upland species, also grows here on relatively high ground.

There's lots of blue flag iris planted here to show off this native that is seldom seen growing in the wild. The yellow flag iris, common in Princeton's wetlands, is an introduced species.

Unexpected Harvest

I am shocked,

shocked! find ripe blueberries in my backyard.

For some fifteen years now, in two yards in two states, I have grown blueberries without any expectation of edible results. Many years, I didn't even bother to check. It was simply assumed that the catbirds and their surrogates, exercising due diligence, would deprive us of any harvest.

So it took a few moments to digest the meaning of those congregations of blue that caught my eye while passing by.

Some hours later, it occurred to me that my visits to the backyard this spring have not been accompanied by the accustomed complaints of a catbird that in past years had frequented the bushes along the back fence. Those bushes, overgrown, had been given a radical pruning this spring. It's a tenuous cause and effect, to be further contemplated while munching on the fruits of nearly forgotten labors.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Recess Gardening at Little Brook Elementary

Recess gardening could be gardening in small recesses of one's yard, but here it has to do with kids spending their recess doing gardening in the school courtyard. The courtyard is a fine space where plants can grow unfettered by deer, rabbits or groundhogs, and where children are clearly discovering the satisfactions of working with the soil.

In the first photo, the kids are exercising their math skills to space out plantings of the "three sisters"--corn, squash and beans.

Knowing well how reluctant kids can be to eat green vegetables, I was amazed to see the feeding frenzy in the edible pod pea patch. The only sort of encouragement needed was an admonition to leave some for the next class.

My contribution to this science day event was a tree identification table, where kids could match real leaves to color copies with name attached. It was a chance to talk about opposite and alternate, rounded vs. toothed lobes, and simple vs. compound.

In the mid-ground of the photo is a rising mountainette of Jerusalem Artichokes (the native tuberous sunflower), which surround a little pond. We need to remember to harvest the tubers over the winter. Otherwise, they come up much too densely.

In the distance is an herb garden that kids were building a decorative fence around, made of woven wild grape and Virginia creeper vines.

In its third season, the schoolyard garden is thriving, thanks to the many parents and teachers involved, and the energy and interest of the kids.

Flying Squirrels at the Veblen Farmstead

My flash makes this look like a museum exhibit of stuffed mammals, but these are two in a family of flying squirrels that we found a month ago living in the small barn located next to the Veblen cottage. One of the cuter rodents around, they are more common than one might expect. In addition to sightings at the Veblen farmstead, they've been seen in an old birdhouse at Community Park North, and even gliding over the patio behind our house on busy Harrison Street.

Wildflower Moving Day

When the restoration of the Mountain Lakes dams gets underway in early July, this peaceful spot will become a muddy, makeshift road for carrying 100 years of sediment away from the upper lake.

In other words, it's time for any self-respecting wildflower to pick up and run. Several years ago, a number of us planted native wildflowers along this lawn edge, as part of a native plant workshop I was leading at the time. The plants were grown from locally collected seed. We must have been doing something right, because many of them survived.

Over the last few weeks, the wildflowers have been making the journey over a little footbridge to the field visible in the distance, where they'll be safe from all the disturbance the lakes will experience over the next year.

Measuring a Meadow Rue

It's not easy to capture a tall meadow rue's size in a photograph. This native wildflower, found scattered in floodplains in and around Princeton, rockets upward in the spring, growing several inches a day, then sends out laterals to support a diffuse bloom of tiny, star-like white flowers.

The tallest of the tall topped out at 105 inches--about 8.5 feet.

Unclogging a Stream at Mountain Lakes

Clark Lennon, board member with Friends of Princeton Open Space and volunteer extraordinaire, is especially involved with clearing and maintaining trails at Mountain Lakes.

On this day, I talked him into helping expedite not only the flow of hikers and joggers in Mountian Lakes, but also the flow of water down one of the brooks just upstream of the lakes. The fallen trees were obstructing storm flows that could undermine the streambanks over time.
Bill Sachs and I pushed the cut logs up and out of the stream, leaving a clear channel. The little dam in the foreground suggests the spot was once a wading pool for residents of Mountain Lakes House.

The final result: a winding stream that looks like it's been that way for thousands of years. The work of restoring, like they say about good writing, doesn't call attention to itself. Unless, of course, someone brings along a camera.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Weeding With Confidence--Part 1

To weed a garden requires knowing what to weed out. A weed is defined as "a plant out of place," which means that most any plant could be called a weed if it's not growing where you want it to.

In this garden, the preference is for plants that are native to the region, have some attractive attributes, don't grow into trees that will shade everything else, and don't spread aggressively by seed or rhizome.

So let's look at this photo of plants that popped up this spring. It's a mix of native and non-native species--Virginia creeper, willow herb, wood sorrel, nutsedge, violet, and one seedling of cutleaf coneflower. Since they're in the middle of a garden path, they all came out. Virginia creeper (five leaflets, lower lefthand corner) is a native vine that's fine for untended areas, but much too expansionist for a garden. Nutsedge (grassy looking leaves, light green) is a non-native sedge that pulls up easily but keeps popping up, requiring eternal vigilance. Wood sorrel (clover-like leaves) is a ubiquitous presence in gardens and greenhouses, with a little yellow flower and acid taste. Willow herb (narrow leaves in pairs) is a weedy native that sprouts abundantly from seed. It has a promising form but miniscule flowers. Violets are attractive and tasty, but not in a garden path.

Only one plant was worth potting up for later use--the cutleaf coneflower seedling, its two broad, oddly lobed leaves visible here in a blowup from the original photo. If given a good place to grow, it will become a tall, stately wildflower bedecked with bright yellow flowers. The seedheads in turn attract a second wave of yellow, in the form of goldfinches vying for a snack.

Friday, May 28, 2010

PHS Students Study Fish at Mountain Lakes

Thanks to Tim Anderson, Princeton High School science teacher, who sent me these photos of his May 25 visit to Mountain Lakes with his students to study the lakes before they get drained this July as part of the upcoming dam restoration.

Tim has often used Mountain Lakes as a study area for his classes. This year, they sampled "fish, plankton, etc." In two seines of 80 feet of shoreline, they caught "a 22" large mouth bass (see below), hundreds of bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, one green sunfish, white suckers, golden shiners, and one 14" bullhead catfish."

22 inch largemouth bass. This may be the big one fishermen have told me they've seen in the lower lake.

Determining fish age

My understanding is that the fish will be rescued from the lakes during draining, and transported to Carnegie Lake. Though the lakes will be restocked after the restoration is complete, I've been told that it will take some years for fish populations to recover.

I had wondered whether there might be something genetically special about the fish in the lake, since the dams have effectively isolated them from the rest of the watershed for the past 110 years. But I was unable to find anyone who thought it worth looking into.

In any case, it's good to have some information about what lives in the lakes, before they get remade.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Trail in Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve

Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, and some serendipity, one of the prettiest spots in Princeton's Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve is now accessible by trail. Walk up to the end of the long paved driveway leading from 57 Mountain Avenue to Mountain Lakes House. Just past the house, veer right into the woods on the new trail. It will take you past tall red oaks, then down into a small valley I've started calling Frog Hollow.

On May 23rd, the trail's stream crossing was given an extraordinary facelift by 18 volunteers--8 from the Friends of Princeton Open Space and 10 from the NJ Trail Association. The NJTA group was led by Alan Hershey.

Hikers and joggers in Mountain Lakes will have noticed great improvements in all the preserve's trails over the past couple years. Much of this has come about through the leadership of FOPOS board members Ted Thomas and Clark Lennon, who are out almost daily in the park, working on their own or with additional volunteers on periodic workdays. As can be seen from the size of the rocks used, this is probably the most ambitious and elegant project to date.

The element of serendipity came in the form of the recent windstorm, which blew so many pine trees down across the old trail to Witherspoon Woods that a new one had to be built. The new trail goes through far more interesting terrain.

Awards Given for Bridge Concept and Installation

This from Wendy Mager, president of Friends of Princeton Open Space:

On May 24th, the Princeton Township Committee specially recognized Helmut Schwab, Robert von Zumbusch and the Friends of Princeton Open Space at its meeting for their contributions to the creation of the Stony Brook footbridge near Jasna Polana/the Hun School
, and for developing the concept of a loop trail around Princeton.

Helmut came in for special commendation as the person without whom it would not have ever happened
and for his long years of work on the project, and Robert for his help as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission in working out those aspects of the project.

Robert Kiser, the Township Engineer, received an award from the NJ Engineers
Society for this project. A lot is also owed to Anthony Soriano, another member of the Engineering Department, who starting when he was an intern successfully put together grant applications that provided 80% of the total funding.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Open Space Happenings This Weekend

SUNDAY, MAY 16, 11am to 1pm
Garlic Mustard Pulling at Mountain Lakes
--Recent rains and a sunny forecast will make for a good day to pull this aromatic and edible, but highly invasive species in one of the lovelier spots in Mountain Lakes Preserve. It's shown in the photo growing out of cracks in a patio. Pulling now, before the seedpods open, will make for fewer weeds next year. Kids can help out with this sort of work. Meet at Mountain Lakes House (end of long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave).

The Washington Crossing Audubon Society is sponsoring two walks by Lou Beck and Mark Witmer this Saturday and Sunday at 8am. Rogers Refuge is a prime spot to see migratory warblers. More info at
Directions: From Princeton take Alexander Street toward Route 1. At the bend before the canal turn right on West Drive. Go a short distance on West Drive and park near the entrance to the Rogers Wildlife Refuge.

FRIDAY, MAY 14, 3-6, SATURDAY, 2-5
Native plant sale at D&R Greenway
. Lots of native species to buy, most of which have been grown from locally collected seeds. Drive out Rosedale Rd to the headquarters at Preservation Place. -- A writeup on the recent American Chestnut talk hosted by Friends of Princeton Open Space, and a post on sedges (sedges have edges).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Native Plant Sale at D&R Greenway

Friday, May 14, 3-6 and and Saturday 2-5, D&R Greenway will have a native plant sale. Most of the plants are grown from seed collected from local natural populations of the species. For more information, including a plant list, go to

Among other sources of native plants, Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve (, just across the Delaware River, has a long-standing tradition, and Pinelands Nursery down in Columbus, NJ has both wholesale and retail components. Both of these have plants available throughout the season. Check the websites for details.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fringed Sedge

I'm not one to cultivate obscure tastes, but an interest in plants has led, after a few decades, to sedges, which most people have never heard of. A sedge can easily be dismissed as a green blob, vaguely grasslike--some sort of rank growth where the mowing crews haven't reached. But taking a closer look can be rewarding.

What sedge flowers lack in color they make up for in architecture. Sedges have edges, which is to say that if you follow a stem down to its base, you will find that it is triangular, in the same way a mint's stem is square, or a rush's stem is round.

Here's some of the architecture of one of my favorites, fringed sedge (Carex crinita), whose seeds are assembled in finger-like rows hanging gracefully from the tip of the stems. Like most sedges, this one likes wet ground, and if there's some sun, all the better. While having some grace and beauty, fringed sedge is also a very tough plant, and is often used to advantage in wetland restorations.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Notes from Chestnut Talk at Mountain Lakes

Sandy Anaganostakis of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station came to town with 20 American chestnut trees with bred resistance to the devastating disease, chestnut blight. The trees have since been planted by volunteers, led by Bill Sachs, in local parks and preserves. For those who missed the talk Sandy gave at Mountain Lakes House during her visit, here are some notes:

Sandy has been studying American chestnut blight since 1968--a passion that shows no sign of flagging. While devoting her life to bringing back the American chestnut as a timber tree, she loves all types of chestnuts--American, Japanese, Chinese, European, and the closely related chinquapins.

She began by taking us back 13,000 years, to the end of the last ice age, when the American chestnut was likely limited to a small area in what is now Tennessee. As the glaciers receded, the chestnut spread across the east.

American chestnut was the perfect timber tree. It grew straight and tall, and was highly resistant to rot. It was the main wood used for telephone poles and fencing in the east. Chestnut was the quickest to regrow after a virgin forest was cut down. Shading out other species, it became the dominant tree in second growth forests.

The first imported disease affecting American chestnuts was not chestnut blight but something called Ink disease, which hitchhiked over from Portugal on cork trees around 1824. It's a deadly disease, but can't survive the colder winters of the northern U.S.

Chestnut blight likely came to this continent around 1876, when Japanese chestnuts began being imported. It spread quickly through the eastern U.S. In Connecticut, Sandy's home state, it spread statewide in just four years, from 1908 to 1912. The blight essentially stripped American forests of the chestnut tree, but did not kill the roots. The species literally "went underground", sending up shoots that would grow for some years before being infected by the fungus. One can still find this sort of sprouting in the woods.

The disease later spread to Europe, arriving in Italy in 1938. In 1951, a European scientist discovered that some chestnuts in Italy were showing a different reaction to fungus, exhibiting swollen cankers. Trees with this sort of canker were able to grow despite the presence of the blight.

When Sandy heard about this less virulent strain in 1973, she contacted the scientist and helped identify the virus that was causing the reduced virulence. This was a particularly important discovery because the virus can be applied to American chestnuts to reduce the impact of the blight fungus.

Sandy's approach to reintroducing the American chestnut is not to plant whole forests with resistant varieties, but instead to preserve the genetic diversity by planting a few specimens with bred resistance into an area where there are remnant populations of the pure native species. By treating the non-resistant pure natives with the virus that reduces the disease's virulence, a mix of bred and pure species can survive and cross-pollinate.

I asked about the potential for identifying the gene in asian chestnut species that makes them resistant to the fungus, and then inserting that gene into American chestnuts. She said researchers have found three genes associated with resistance, which makes genetic modification more difficult. It's her experience that the traditional method of breeding resistance is actually faster than doing genetic modification in the lab, and will yield better results. The added benefit is that she gets to work outside, rather than in a lab.

As if the introduced diseases were not enough of a handicap on the American chestnut, someone smuggled plant material into the U.S. in 1974 that included an exotic insect called the chestnut gall wasp. The wasp spread through Georgia, got accidentally transported to Cleveland, Ohio, and is now heading towards the northeast from those two directions. Though there are parasites that prey on the wasp, Sandy is worried about its potential impact on efforts to restore the American chestnut to the eastern forest.

The fungus that causes chestnut blight infects oaks and eucalyptus as well.

Bill Sachs tells me the chestnuts we can buy for eating come mostly from Italy. The American chestnut is smaller but sweeter. Sandy mentioned the "Sleeping Giant" variety that makes particularly good nuts for eating, and is partly American.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Stony Brook Garden Club Chestnut Project

Here's another project in Princeton to bring back the American Chestnut. Thanks to Debra Costa for the information.

From Debra:
"I am heading our Stony Brook Garden Club project in our effort to help with restoring the American chestnut tree. All GCA clubs have an initiative to do some kind of civic tree project as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Garden Club of America - for 2013. We planted about 50 seeds on Sunday in Greenway Meadows Park.

The seeds were provided by Sara Fitzsimmons from Penn State University. She is involved in their research project of backcrossing toward the goal of a disease resistant tree. They are in their 6th generation of backcrossing. She heads and visits volunteer orchards connected with the project at Penn State.

At Sara's recommendation, we planted pure American seeds (not blight resistant) because of the need to maintain/provide a biodiverse germ pool of seeds for their back-crossing project. In time, with success of this "orchard" we can transition to blight resistant trees as they become more available."

Monday, May 03, 2010

American Chestnut Talk this Thursday, 7pm

A reminder about the talk this coming Thursday, hosted by Friends of Princeton Open Space at Mountain Lakes House, about efforts to bring back the great American Chestnut tree. The talk is free, and refreshments will be served beginning at 6:30.

Below is some detailed background information, provided by Bill Sachs, who lives in Princeton and edits the Northern Nutgrowers Association newsletter.

Abstract. Native chestnut trees have suffered from two
disastrous imported diseases and are now threatened by an
imported insect pest. The Agricultural Experiment Station in
Connecticut has been working on these problems since they were
first discovered, using biological control measures and breeding
trees for resistance. Breeding and selection of resistant timber
trees is a long process, but significant progress has been made.
Hybrid trees are being planted in the forests of Connecticut, with
biocontrol used to keep native trees alive. The next generation of
trees will have all the local adaptability of the native population
with resistance genes from our timber hybrids.

Sandra Anaganostakis is an Agricultural Scientist in the
Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology at The Connecticut
Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Connecticut.
She received her Bachelor’s degree in 1961 from the University
of California at Riverside, and her Master’s degree in botany
from the University of Texas at Austin. She joined the staff of The Connecticut Agricultural
Experiment Station in the Department of Genetics in 1966, and later completed her Doctor of
Agronomy degree at Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, West Germany in 1985.
Sandra has worked on the genetics of various fungi, including those that cause corn smut
disease and Dutch elm disease. She has been working on chestnut blight disease (caused by
Cryphonectria parasitica) since 1968. After completing basic studies with the fungus she
imported Hypovirulent (virus containing) strains from France (1972) and demonstrated that they could be used in the United States for biological control of the disease. She has worked on the ecology of the blight fungus and its control by hypovirulence, and studies of virulence in the
fungus and resistance in the trees. She continues the Experiment Station project on chestnut tree breeding to produce better timber and orchard trees, and is the International Registrar for cultivars of Castanea for the International Society of Horticultural Science. Her current research has expanded to include canker diseases of butternut trees in Connecticut.

Directions. The Mountain Lakes House is located in the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve at the
end of a half-mile driveway at 57 Mountain Avenue in Princeton Township. For detailed travel
directions, please consult

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Welcoming Tree

Kid's are naturally drawn to trees, but most adults worry when a kid actually climbs one. There's a danger of slipping, losing grip, falling. Maybe the wear and tear on the bark will hurt the tree. And besides, trees look neater if they're trimmed up. So even trees that once were climbable end up responding to a child's yearning with a haughty stare.

One day a few weeks ago, we happened upon an exception, at Princeton University housing off of 206, and my daughter instantly responded to the call of all those wonderful low, welcoming limbs.

This white pine is like no other I've ever seen, dwarfing the two story house behind it, too big to squeeze into a photo from 100 paces.

Its nine trunks rise in parallel, each one big enough to be an impressive tree in its own right. This tree is not so much climbed as entered--so as to find oneself surrounded by a forest of one tree's making.

I wondered at how it possibly could have taken its shape. The main stem has long since been cut, leaving what looks like the turret of a castle. Perhaps I give too much credit to think that there was someone--fifty, seventy five years ago--with the vision to let the low lateral branches curve upwards to make a forest of a tree. There was genius here, in this courtyard, whether of intent or serendipity.

Arbor Day is being celebrated today. I suspect it dates back to a time when farm fields dominated the landscape and trees were scarce. Now trees are numerous, but I wonder if kids will grow up to be advocates for trees if they can only experience them from a safe distance. There's lots of talk of planting trees, but who is growing and tending the welcoming trees of tomorrow?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Earthday Weekend Volunteers at Little Brook Garden

Cool, wet weather did not deter hardy Little Brook volunteers from their appointed grounds yesterday, as the courtyard garden got a working over. Here was one of the photo ops, as the pond lining got pulled out and cleaned.

The fearless leader of Little Brook gardening this year is Alexandra Bar-Cohen, on the left in the green t-shirt.

Surrounding the pond is a circle of Jerusalem artichokes, which is a deceptive common name for the native sunflower Helianthus tuberosa. The 8 foot high plants produce dazzling flowers and abundant tubers that can be peeled and eaten raw, made into french fries, or maybe even used as a water chestnut substitute in Chinese cooking (haven't tried that yet). The plants actually benefit from harvesting, which prevents overcrowding of the next year's growth.

Meanwhile, out along the nature trail, Little Brook science teacher Martha Kirby and I planted some native wildflowers donated by the Friends of Princeton Open Space. One of the many trees that fell in the winter storm conveniently opened up a wet sunny area where we planted tall meadow rue, wild senna, fringed sedge and a native clematis called Virgin's Bower. The blue tags are a convenient way to mark and label the new plants.

Most of these plants were grown from seed collected along the canal--the goal being to expand the local range of native wildflowers that were previously limited to one or two locations in Princeton.

Back in the courtyard, my daughter Anna demonstrated the proper straw-dropping technique. In order to make a better border around the "RazzleDazzle" raspberry patch for the mowing crews to cut around, we layed down cardboard to suppress the grass, then covered it up with straw. It's a great way to slowly shrink your lawn.

In the background, the Community Park Elementary science teacher John Emmons tended to an herb garden.

I was impressed by this new "garden pal" compost bin, made of pallets, including some fine hinge work for the front door.

Update: According to Diane Landis of Sustainable Princeton:
"The compost bin is the first of many the Sustainable Princeton residents working group hope to build at schools and for residents. The pallets were leftover from the school construction and were donated to the SP working group by Valley Road School. The hinges etc...cost around $10 and an instruction booklet was created to show how to build the pallets. The project aptly named Build a Bin will go to Johnson Park Elementary School next!"

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bee Flies

It looked a bit like a bee, a bit like a fly, hovering over spring flowers while it sipped nectar with its long proboscis. I gave google a list of features--fly hovering long proboscis--searched through the answers offered, and decided I had seen a "bee fly," specifically Bombylius major.

The bee fly was hard to photograph, but can be seen somewhat blurrily hovering over a spring beauty flower in this photo.

From Wikipedia: "The large bee fly, Bombylius major, is a bee mimic. The eggs are flicked by the adult female toward the entrance of the underground nests of solitary bees and wasps. After hatching, the larvae find their way into the nests to feed on the grubs."

The photo is borrowed from a website that provides thousands of images to help identify various critters:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sustainable Jazz Trio at Whole Earth Center Saturday

Come hear the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble perform this Saturday, April 24, at the Whole Earth Center, which is celebrating its birthday down Nassau Street from Communiversity. We'll be playing music I composed since moving to Princeton seven years ago, with titles like Greening the Blues, Fresh Paint (composed while breathing latex fumes in a freshly painted room), and Cheery in Theory (which would make a good title for a book on overly aggressive ornamental plants that look great in the garden until they start taking over).

Phil Orr's on piano, Jerry D'Anna's on bass, and I'll be playing saxophone. From 2:30 to 3pm, we'll be joined by teenage congueros Ian Mertz and Nick Cosaboom, and my daughter Anna on clarinet, for some latin numbers. After that, from 3-5, the trio will play on its own.

The Bent Spoon will be serving samples of its ice cream through the afternoon.
The Whole Earth Center is at 360 Nassau St. in Princeton. I've posted the full schedule for the three day festival, which begins this Thursday at 11am and is being called WECstock, at

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Climate Change Takes The Stage At McCarter Theatre

Having called the McCarter Theatre a few weeks ago to tell them about this wonderful idea I had for a play on climate change (they were kind, but not given to diving into collaborations with local dreamers), I was surprised and gratified to later discover that a play on climate change has been in the works since last fall and will be performed free of charge this coming Saturday, April 17, at 2pm and 7:30, at McCarter's Berlind Theatre. A more pressing, and generally deprioritized, issue is hard to imagine. I saw a preview performance at D&R Greenway last week, and was impressed with the acting and songwriting.

The play is being sponsored by the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Lewis Center for the Arts. Though free, reservations are required, at 258-2787. More info can be found at this link.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The American Chestnut Returns To Princeton

There's an extraordinary story to tell about the American chestnut. Most of us have never seen one, but they were once a dominant tree in the eastern forest.

Next month, Friends of Princeton Open Space will host a talk on the return of the great American Chestnut to the landscape.
Sandra Anagnostakis, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, will describe her decades-long work to bring the native chestnut back from near extinction. The talk will be at Mountain Lakes House on Thursday, May 6, at 7pm.

Through a collaborative effort with Bill Sachs, local expert on nut-bearing trees who is spearheading a number of local projects, Sandra will also be bringing twenty native American Chestnut seedlings for planting in local parks and preserves. Once a main constituent of the eastern forest, the American chestnut was nearly wiped out by chestnut blight fungus, which was introduced into the U.S. in the early 1900s via either lumber or chestnut trees imported from Asia.

To give a sense of what was lost, here's a passage from Wikipedia: "Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet (sometimes up to one hundred feet), could grow to be 200 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 14 feet at a few feet above ground level. For three centuries most barns and homes east of the Mississippi were made from American Chestnut."

The exotic fungus, which kills the above-ground portion of the tree but not the root, caused this most important of eastern American trees to literally "go underground." Surviving roots still send up sprouts, which survive until they reach nut-bearing age, at which point the fungus again intervenes. Though the chestnut was nearly wiped out by 1950, the rot-resistant, fallen trunks of the trees were still a common site when I was working in the Massachusetts woods in the mid-70s.

The trees Sandra will be bringing are 15/16th American, 1/16th Japanese.
Her experimental work to restore the American chestnut to the Connecticut landscape uses a combination of disease-resistant hybrid seedlings and inoculation of existing native sprouts with the virus that transforms the blight pathogen to a less virulent form.

One blight-resistant American chestnut, developed by another breeder, was planted some years ago at D&R Greenway by local arborist Bob Wells.

It's worth noting that the devastation caused by the unregulated international trade in plants and lumber, of which chestnuts and elms are two particularly dramatic examples, continues unabated. In Princeton, we will over the next decade likely witness a dieoff approaching the scale of the chestnut and elm dieoffs of the 20th century, as the emerald ash borer, which hitch-hiked to Michigan from Asia in wooden packing crates, continues its spread eastward.
There will, in other words, be a lot of gaps in the canopy for the chestnut to claim, if its return is successful.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Thread, a Path, and a Winding Road

Over spring break, we drove to Durham, NC to drop off a car and see friends. On the way, we traveled through the Shenandoah Valley, to which I was lured by the melody and lyrics of a song. There, I hoped to look out across the valley, to give the kids the experience of climbing a mountain of whatever size, to hike to a waterfall and visit one of the caverns.

We arrived at the north end of the national park's Skyline Drive with only two hours of daylight left, and rain predicted for the following day. My teenager, in particular, couldn't have been less interested in a scenic drive along the mountain ridge. As we approached the mountains, the only tenuous thread of interest buried in her impressive stream of protest was a lone tree she had noticed from afar, a tiny speck of distinction standing out on an otherwise evenly wooded mountainside. We headed up the winding road, stopped at the first overlook, and much to our surprise found ourselves looking at the tree, rising from a field of blooming spicebush. We drank in the view, quenching our souls with the valley's immensity. At least, that's how I experienced it. But I did notice a spark of interest beginning to kindle in the next generation.
With the sun angling downward, we stopped at Compton Gap to climb a section of the Appalachian Trail to the top of a small mountain. There is nothing like a rockstrewn hillside to turn two unenthused daughters into eager explorers. They beat me to the top, stalked a strange bird--most likely a ruffed grouse--and led me far enough off trail to hear the croak of a raven rising from a chasm.

Farther down the road, we stopped again to see the valley in moonlight, and heard the "peent!" of woodcocks resting between mating flights. Though the interpretive signage told of the forest mending from a previous era when settlers cleared farm fields on the hillsides, the woodcocks wouldn't have a stage for their aerial acrobatics if not for the clearings now kept open for the roadside views.

The next day, the Skyline was socked in with fog. We toured Luray Caverns, headed south to Monticello, then on to our destination. The waterfalls will have to wait. "Oh Shenandoah" means many things to many people. For me, it's two daughters following a path together, and a healing view into infinity.

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Talk and a Nature Walk at FOPOS's Upcoming Annual Meeting

Come to beautiful Mountain Lakes in Princeton on April 18 to learn about preservation efforts in the pinelands at the annual meeting of the Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS). After an update on FOPOS's accomplishments in Princeton over the past year, the executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Carleton Montgomery, will give a talk entitled Saving theNew Jersey Pinelands: Success Against All Odds, or the Road to Ruin that's Paved with Good Intentions?"

Following the talk, refreshments will be served, and I will lead a nature walk around Mountain Lakes. Sure to come up are changes wrought by the recent windstorm, and all the work soon to begin to restore the dams and dredge the lakes.

The event begins at 3pm. It's free, but please RSVP by April 13--phone 609-921-2772.


The Pinelands Preservation Alliance is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to saving New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, a 1.1 million-acre treasure in the midst of the nation’s most densely populated state and the largest surviving open space on the Eastern Seaboard between Maine and Florida.

Mountain Lakes House is located at 57 Mountain Ave., Princeton.

Carleton Montgomery has been executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance since 1998. An attorney by training, he practiced law at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in its Washington, D.C. office for nearly 12 years, the last four years as a partner in the firm’s litigation practice. Since joining the Alliance, Carleton has worked with his colleagues to strengthen both its advocacy and its education initiatives, with the goal of ensuring the New Jersey Pine Barrens ecosystem will survive, and its regional conservation and sustainable development will succeed, in the nation’s most crowded state. Carleton has a B.A. from Harvard University and an M. Phil. from University College London, both in philosophy, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

About Friends of Princeton Open Space

Founded in 1969 to preserve open space in the face of rapid development, Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS) is a non-profit organization that has helped to establish over 1,000 acres of parkland and a network of interconnecting trails that nearly circles Princeton. Through the contributions of hundreds of people in the community, FOPOS has helped to raise $3.6 million for the purchase and acquisition of easements on properties that might have been bulldozed for development. Mountain Lakes, Coventry Farm, the Institute for Advanced Studies Lands, the Woodfield Reservation, and Tusculum are among the properties in Princeton preserved with the assistance of FOPOS. For additional information see: