Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Vine That Ate an Observatory

 Down at the Princeton football stadium, apex predators seek to intimidate all who dare challenge the orange and black. When I first moved to Princeton, these felines had ivy growing in their torsos. The combination of teeth and foliage was probably intended to send a message of Ivy League fierceness, but the effect was a bit odd. Now, with ivy relegated to the ground, they look more lean and mean.

In the field next to the stadium, geese graze peacefully,
unfazed by the local dentition.
Visions of migrations long past dance in their heads as they feast on the turf. Surely their distant ancestors once filled the sky like constellations on a thousand mile journey. Now they puddle jump from field to field around town.

I heard once that the origin of the non-migratory geese was a government farm in New Jersey where they were raised to supply hunters with targets. Then, when the farm closed, the geese were released, having lost the habit of long-distance migration. This explanation, having long hidden out in the pre-google part of my brain, has in the process of being written down just now caught the attention of newer, post-google brain cells that immediately called for a search to check its validity. Turns out that at least part of the story may be true. According to a post by someone with Connecticut Audubon, a non-migratory subspecies was discovered in Missouri in 1962. Government breeding programs helped increase the population to better insure its survival, and then spread them all over the country. That last part may be where good intentions went wrong.

 Just down from the grazing geese, next to the parking lot for Jadwin Gym, stands another entity whose range has become limited. Because of light pollution, most any observatory hereabouts cannot journey very deep into the universe.

This one, the FitzRandolph Observatory, has by default gained a new purpose as substrate for what appear to be Virginia creeper vines,
whose stems and berries ornament the walls.
Judging from growth patterns, the dome hasn't been rotated in at least a year. The monthly observing nights the astronomy department holds for the public are now conducted elsewhere on campus.
Hopefully, the writing on the door is not a metaphor for the building's future, or our own for that matter, given what we're doing to our lonely oasis in a harsh, unforgiving universe.

A website offers a link to the Friends of FitzRandolph Observatory, which leads to a blank page. Either the future hasn't been written yet, or the writing is on the wall.

By coincidence, Princeton Future had a meeting this morning about repurposing various buildings in town, though university buildings weren't included. Another building, county-owned, that sits quietly growing vines is the Veblen House. It at least has a few of us friends trying to give it a new life.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lesser Celandine Blooming, But Mostly Spreading

 I wish I could go back to the first time I saw this flower and could appreciate its beauty without being worried it would take over all of Princeton. At Pettoranello Gardens it grows like green pavement next to the paths, blooms beautifully, but is radically invasive. Since becoming established at Pettoranello Gardens, it has spread downstream and has now become established in floodplains at Mountain Lakes Preserve. It displaces native plants, is apparently inedible to wildlife, and though it's pretty for a couple weeks, the rest of the time it's busy making natural areas less supportive of plant diversity and wildlife.
 In a suburban yard, it first appears as a couple plants, with small, roundish, shiny leaves.
It displaces the grass over time, then dies back in late spring to leave bare spots in the lawn. Its many underground bulbules make it hard to eradicate by pulling.

Lesser Celandine has started to show up in my former home of Durham, NC, where I've been trying to help eradicate small populations before they spread downstream.

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.

Upcoming Talk on Hurricane Irene

Related to the previous post on the towpath, Jim Waltman of the StonyBrook/Millstone Watershed Assoc. will give a talk entitled "Lessons From Hurricane Irene," Wednesday, March 14 at 7:30pm at the Kingston Firehouse. More info at

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Repairing the Towpath and Nature Along the D-R Canal

For years, the towpath was a given, a high quality crushed-stone pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfare stretching more miles than most anyone has time to explore, up and down the DR Canal. That changed last August as the unprecedented flooding of Hurricane Irene--tearful after having been downgraded to a tropical storm--deposited a thick layer of silt over the trail. The gift of fertility, reminiscent of the ancient Nile, would have been more welcome if the valley's investment was in agriculture rather than transport.

I inquired last fall and was surprised to hear that there were no funds available for repair, and if and when they become available, the northern portion's washouts, up towards New Brunswick, would get the first attention. Some repair in the Princeton area, by the water authority rather than state parks, has taken place. The photo shows a patch job just up from Turning Basin Park.

I called Stephanie Fox at DR Canal State Park today, and was told that more extensive repairs are waiting on FEMA money from the federal government. In addition to trail damage, some of the park's historic buildings were also damaged in the flood. Though the crushed stone surface is still intact in most places underneath the mud, repair will involve bringing in additional stone. Cost for repairing just one mile of minimally damaged trail could run $10,000, so overall cost will likely be very high.

Near Harrison Street, where the nature trail branches off, the towpath is in relatively good shape, at least when it is dry. The trail loop was built by parks personnel after I "discovered" the meadow there where the land between Carnegie Lake and the towpath broadens out. At the time, the park crews were mowing the meadow weekly during the summer. When I pointed out that they were mowing not grass but a field of beautiful native wildflowers, they agreed to limit mowing to once a year in late winter. Everyone was a winner with this arrangement: less work, more habitat, more flowers.

In winter, at the trailhead, the switchgrass leaves are an attractive legacy of last year's growth.
Word is that the bluebirds have hung around all winter, it being so mild.
One reward of exploring the nature trail this time of year is an encounter with fragrant honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), whose small white flowers live up to their name. This is the one exotic bush honeysuckle species that I've never seen spreading into wild areas. A line of the shrubs remains from maybe 40 years ago when that ribbon of land between the canal and Carnegie Lake was carefully tended as part of the grand entryway into the university.

Each year, with no assistance other than annual mowing, the meadows have become richer with wildflowers like joe-pye-weed, ironweed, tall meadowrue and cutleaf coneflower. It seemed time to relax, sit back and enjoy the fruits of less labor.

But a trained eye will see in this very plain-looking photo a web of vines. Porcelainberry, a grape-like exotic vine that has covered forest edges at Princeton Battlefield with stifling kudzu-like curtains of growth, has been spreading down the canal corridor. A light infestation noticed a few years ago is now exploding, threatening to permanently overwhelm the wildflower meadows.

Park crews are busy elsewhere along the canal, dealing with invasive Japanese knotweed and hops. We'll have to see if there's anything that can be done this year.

In the meantime, there are sweetgum balls serving as natural tree ornaments next to the trail,
the resident geese, and, if one can negotiate with the geese for access to the shore,

trout to be caught.

Monday, March 05, 2012


The word is that the woodcocks are doing their mating flights at Rogers Refuge, and probably in meadows elsewhere in Princeton. Below is a link to some posts from previous years about the woodcock's aerial display at dusk.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

March 1: Sustainable Jazz Performance

Momentary interruption of the nature stream to invite everyone to a free performance at the Labyrinth Bookstore, Thursday, March 1, 6-8pm, as part of an Art Walk event downtown. All original music, organically composed using local ingredients. More about the band at

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Story a Spicebush Tells

You can still find a few of these dead stems of spicebush standing in Princeton's preserves, pockmarked with holes reminiscent of cholla cactus wood we used to find in the deserts of the southwest. They tell a remarkable story of a forest understory's rebirth.

Seven years ago, instead of this cluster of healthy stems you would have seen one old stem too tall for the deer to reach, and a dense cluster of tiny stems eaten nearly to the ground. Soon, those old stems, which singletrunkedly kept the shrubs alive back when deer browsing pressure was high, will have rotted back into the ground amidst the crowd of younger stems that now, with reduced deer numbers, can grow to maturity. The many healthy, multi-stemmed spicebush serve as monuments to those single stems that kept the bushes alive through a period of ecological imbalance.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Rockingham--George Washington's Office Outside Princeton

I had heard there was a house somewhere near Princeton where George Washington stayed for awhile. Over Presidents' Day weekend, we finally made it out there to have a look. Conveniently, for us if not for the owners, the house has moved a mile closer to Princeton over the years, displaced several times by an expanding quarry. Now owned by the state, the house has hopefully reached its final destination on a bluff just outside Kingston.

They've planted an orchard in the field--something the Princeton Battlefield has in its long-range plan to recreate a more authentic landscape.

Washington's several month's stay was eventful, as described in this borrowing from Rockingham's kiosk.

Behind the house is a new colonial garden. Someday I'll return to ask if raised beds were common back in the day.
Thorns from hawthorn trees were used for pins in clothing.
Next to the hawthorn are some old-fashioned rose bushes with nutritious general-sized rosehips.
Though it may prove auspicious for pest control, I doubt that this praying mantis eggcase would have been found in a colonial garden. According to some internet searching, there are 20 mantis species native to America, but the 2 most common species were introduced from Europe and China.
After the tour (Did you know that the colonists won only three battles during the whole Revolutionary War--Trenton, Princeton and Yorktown--and that Washington's hair was real?), it was closing time as the shadows grew long and the staff made the hike from the visitors' center to the house.
Depending on the status of the towpath these days, this is a very reachable destination by bicycle from Princeton, as the house is perched just above the towpath a mile or so past Kingston, with a path leading up through the woods. Check out the programming at

Monday, February 20, 2012

Update on Dam Restoration at Mountain Lakes

I haven't heard anything official, but it looks like the lower dam at Mountain Lakes Preserve is nearly complete. The wooden posts in the foreground mark where a ramp once was located for hauling chunks of ice out of the pond and hoisting them into the 3-story ice barns that used to rise behind the dam to the right.

The ice operation closed down around 1930, as refrigerators became more widely available. The stone wall extending the length of the dam is completely new, designed to mimic the original wall that now lies buried under the expanded earthen portion of the dam. For safety reasons, the dam is now broader and several feet higher than previously.

At the other end of the dam stands the newly restored spillway. As far as I know, the informative signs that were there prior to restoration will be reinstalled, describing the decades during which Mountain Lakes supplied Princeton with ice for its iceboxes.

Meanwhile, upstream of the two Mountain Lakes is another dam that was added onto the project, funded by the same anonymous donor. I had long argued in favor of restoring this "upper settling pond", also known as North Pond--an argument that was going nowhere until funding became available. It's located on one of the two tributaries feeding the lakes, and was built in the 1950s by the Clarks, who also built Mountain Lakes House around the same time.

The pond is called a catchment basin for good reason. Water rushing downstream from Witherspoon Woods drops its sediment in this pond, thereby greatly reducing the amount of sediment that would otherwise have continued into the Mountain Lakes. It played this role very effectively, completely filling up over the past 50 years. There must be 8 feet of very rich sediment here, which this week is being trucked away, perhaps to a topsoil business.

With the catchment basin trapping sediment, at least on that one tributary, the upper Mountain Lake will last much longer before it once again will require dredging.

This is my favorite vista, standing at the northwest, upstream end of the lakes, looking down.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Invasive Plant Threatens Albatrosses

Strange how learning happens. Here's an unlikely string of events: 28,800 rubber duckies are lost overboard in the northern Pacific in 1992. A high school english teacher named Donovan Hohn eventually hears word of this and leaves his job to find out where the drifting duckies drifted to. He writes a book called Moby-Duck and travels to Princeton to make a presentation at the public library's 2011 Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

One of the images he showed is of a baby albatross that died, apparently due to a stomach full of the notorious plastic bits that currents concentrate in that part of the Pacific. But he explains afterward that the photo of the 200+ bits of plastic in the albatross's gut tells only part of the story. Also making life difficult for the albatross is global warming, which he says is making its nesting grounds too warm, and an exotic plant called Golden Crownbeard.

Native to the U.S., Golden Crownbeard is, according to my internet research, the most invasive of hundreds of exotic plants on the Midway Islands. Chances are, it hitchhiked to the islands in topsoil--a notorious means by which plants travel to new locales. The plant displaces low-growing native vegetation, making tall dense stands unsuitable for building nests, sometimes growing so fast that the adult birds lose track of their young. Managers of the refuge are hoping to eradicate the plant from the islands.

A rubber ducky spill in the north Pacific, then, ended up bringing to Princeton a very familiar story of the impact of plant invasions on native wildlife, and the human efforts going on around the world to restore ecological balance.

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

Owl Programming Tonight at Howell History Farm

Very interesting program tonight from 7:30-9pm, for kids and adults, about wildlife that help farmers. Led by the county naturalist. Great description here.

Note: I got reports that this event was magical. A schedule of Howell History Farm programming, some of which is led by Mercer County naturalist, Jenn Rogers, can be found  here

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.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Princeton University Stream Restoration--Part 2

Down in the valley, between Faculty Drive and Carnegie Lake, near Washington Road, the geese graze peacefully in the meadow, like a flock of pygmy long-neck dinosaurs.
Just across Faculty Drive, a new landscape has been hewn out of what I vaguely remember being a dense patch of scrub near the road. Not sure what the solar panel's for, but it's a nice modern touch.
This is the bottom reach added to the stream restoration since a previous post. The relatively steep slope allows a nice series of "cross-vein" structures (boulders assembled into the shape of a "v" pointed upstream, designed to focus flow inwards towards the center of the channel.) In the background, through the woods, are Jadwin Gym on the right and the new chemistry building back to the left.
On either side of the narrow channel are floodplains designed to allow floodwaters to spread out, slow down and thereby dissipate their energy, as would happen in a natural stream. Less energy means less erosion, which means less sediment flowing into Lake Carnegie, which in turn theoretically means the lake needs to be dredged less often.

Urban streams tend to get badly eroded over the years by the powerful blasts of flashy runoff coming from hardened surfaces in town. A stream restoration such as this attempts to mend the stream, designing in the right amount of meander, floodplain and well-placed rock formations so that it will resist deformation by the erosive force of all that heavy water coming down the hill.

Assisting in this goal to some extent are some absorbent green roofs and rain gardens installed in new buildings upstream. The tree trunks scattered in the floodplain probably play some role in slowing or redirecting floodwater.

The sewer (or maybe water) line looks like it will have a bridge mounted on it, so that athletes can cut through the woods to get to the playing fields.

Looking back down the slope towards Faculty Drive, with geese and Carnegie Lake in the distance. The matting spread over the floodplain should prevent erosion of the freshly contoured soil until grass seed can sprout through it.