Saturday, October 20, 2012

Beauty in the Beast

Morning sunlight, leaves still wet from yesterday's rain--what better time to capture the dazzling beauty of......What might this be, growing beneath a spruce tree on the well-coiffed grounds of Westminster Choir College?
One clue is in the leaves of three. Best appreciated at a distance, it's well away from where anyone might walk, so does no harm.


Some groundcovers are content to cover the ground, slowly expanding year to year. Looking up Hamilton Drive near Harrison, here's some Lamb's Ears (grey), and some sort of Sedums further up.

Other groundcovers, like english ivy, are more ambitious,

becoming treecovers,
fencecovers, sidewalkcovers, wallcovers, and probably even roofcovers over time. Only the existence of moving objects--the abrasion of passing people and cars--keeps it from expanding to become a towncover.

As with other vine species, english ivy blooms only on the climbing portion of the vine.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Flowers Come Lately

 Competing with the autumn leaves, New England aster;

turtlehead (occasionally encountered growing wild along streambanks; here used in a frontyard raingarden);

the native witch hazel, blooming now at Mountain Lakes and in other preserves, most commonly on slopes next to streams or lakes;

and, say what?, iris? Maybe fall is the new spring.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


One plant encountered during a recent visit to Princeton Day School (see post about their extraordinary school garden project at, is teasel (Dipsacus sp.).
It has a bristly grace.
Not native to America, it shows moderate invasive capability. I tend to group it with other moderately invasive species moving east from the midwest, like Queen Anne's Lace, interesting and attractive in some ways, but also with the potential to displace native species over time.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Pampas Grass

Pampas Grass is in its full glory right about now. These specimens, along Cherry Valley Road, surely help differentiate their owner's driveway, on dark, stormy nights, from all the others along the road. Given the human transformations of habitats, it's common for plants to be rare in their native range, and pampas grass is no exception. It's easier to find in suburban landscapes of the U.S., or escaping into wildlands of southern California, than in its native habitat--the pampas of Argentina. This I discovered by driving through the great expanse of grassland west and south of Buenos Aires years back. Only after two days of driving through lands frequently modified with ditches and agriculture did we arrive in a valley where the pampas grass grew--with plants considerably smaller than the towering specimens we see here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Retention Basin Beauty

Most visitors to Farmview Fields, across the Great Road from Coventry Farm, go there for soccer or baseball. I was there last week to check out the retention basin. It's tucked behind the soccer field, in the far back of this photo, essentially a big scooped out area designed to hold stormwater runoff from the parking lot and slowly release it into the stream, in this case Pretty Brook. They're common in housing and office developments around town, and are usually mowed to look like sunken lawns.
Most don't draw attention, but this one actually has a sign, and is mowed only once a year, if that. To the right of the mowed pathway you can see big bluestem grass leaning this way and that, fine fodder for the woodland bison that once lived hereabouts.
When I was naturalist for Friends of Princeton Open Space, and visiting the park to watch my daughter's soccer games, I decided that the mowed retention basin was an eyesore and a waste of gas. Its short grass wasn't doing a very good job of filtering nutrients and pollutants out of the runoff, and the turf was of little use for wildlife.

Eric Schrading of Partners for Fish and Wildlife came to the rescue, offering to replace the turf with native "warm season" grasses (Indian grass and big bluestem are tallgrass prairie species that do most of their growing during the hot summer months). The effort was federally funded, at no cost to Princeton Township.

Despite the requisite drought (there's always a drought after someone plants a native prairie), many of the grasses grew and prospered, and I added some local genotype wildflowers like Hibiscus moscheutos and late-flowering boneset. Goldenrods came in on their own.

Here's the before shot, in 2006.
Here's the basin last week. The late-flowering boneset (white) has spread, and in the distance is a nice patch of woolgrass (reddish brown) that came in on its own. This is the best shot I have thus far to show the potential for turning drab basins into beautiful habitat.

Last week, the monarch butterflies were clearly in agreement with the change, feasting on nectar in preparation for their long flight south to Mexico.

Note: A post from 2006, prior to this transformation, can be found here. (

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bidens in Bloom

One of the roadside yellows this time of year, other than goldenrod, is tickseed sunflower (Bidens), so-named because the seeds are dark and--prepare for unflattering comparison-- the size of wood ticks. It's a native annual, though I notice it's considered invasive in Canada by the USDA site. This is an example of an attractive wildflower that in a garden can start to become too much of a good thing, overgrowing everything else in late summer. It's tempting to oblige its exuberance for the big show of color, but with some species of Bidens the "big show" never materializes.
One common Bidens hereabouts, typically called Beggar-Ticks, turn out to be devoid of the colorful ray flowers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rain Barrel + Workshop for $20

(Previously posted at Might still be time to register.)
Princeton Township will be hosting a workshop by Rutgers on rainbarrels. Looks like it's open to all Princeton residents--township and borough. $20 registration fee gets you a 50 gallon rainbarrel, which they'll show you how to assemble. Go to this link and scroll down to the info on the workshop to be held Sept. 29, 9-11am in Princeton.

Some things to keep in mind about rainbarrels: A roof can shed a couple thousand gallons of water in a 1 inch rainstorm, so capturing 50 gallons is a symbolic gesture. Even less will be captured if the rainbarrel still contains water from the previous storm. One approach is to hook the rainbarrel up to a soaker hose so the barrel will consistently empty out inbetween rains, but then you don't have any water available for watering the garden during dry periods. Provision for overflow is important, lest the excess water simply spills out next to the foundation. After experimenting with rainbarrels long ago (with barrels donated by a local CocaCola plant), I ended up foregoing rainbarrels altogether and instead directed water out into areas of the yard where it can soak in and create an underground reservoir to sustain plants through droughts.

Still, they're worth considering. In particular, they serve to make one aware of where water is flowing. It's appealing, also, to fill a watering can with rainwater captured from the sky. The Rutgers link may offer some convincing success stories, and the price is right.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Taste of Taiwan in a Neighbor's Garden

Every now and then, walking the streets of Princeton, one encounters a yard devoted to growing food rather than grass. Many are in keeping with the Italian custom of treating a neighborhood like a matrix of minifarms, often with small fruit trees and handmade arbors growing behind a high fence.

An elegant nearby example with Taiwanese origins often gets worked into the evening walking-of-the-dog. Passing by last week, I introduced myself to the owner and got permission to take some photos. He told me about his lima beans, which he says are the most nutritious kind of bean to be had.

Also hanging down from the well-tended arbors, like Charlie Chaplin's vision of paradise in Modern Times, is something I didn't catch the name of, but may be Chinese melon.
On a small tree grow "Chinese dates", which turn out to be jujube--latin name Ziziphus zizyphus, in the buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae). Usually, the family name Rhamnaceae strikes fear into my heart, having experienced the extraordinary ecological mischief caused by Rhamnus cathartica in the Midwest. Web posts carry warnings that jujube can send up suckers in nearby flower gardens, which may be why this benign-looking tree was growing between a driveway and a mowed lawn. It tastes reminiscent of an apple.

The arbor is made of electrician's piping, galvanized to prevent rust, with some portions connected with metal joints, others hand-tied. Stems of cherry tomatoes too are tethered to these pipes, their growth carefully directed until they can head horizontally, occupying a parallel universe with the beans and squash six feet above the lawn. This double decker yard makes maximum use of space.

Having once again this year let my squash and volunteer gourds run rampant over my visions of backyard order, with regular pilferings by squirrels and catbirds, it's a relief and inspiration to see what a little more planning, vertical training and steady effort could yield. All it takes is a modest bit of ground, sun and water, add equal parts tradition and devotion, and the result can be a dream serene of order and easy pickin's.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Goat Patrol Cleans Up Invasives

Speaking of kudzu and its local imitator (see previous post), I witnessed a novel approach to controlling invasives during a recent visit to Durham, NC. A friend has gone into the goat business, herding them into a small trailer for a ride to clients' backyards and parks beleaguered by an onslaught of invasive plants. Across the street from the baseball stadium made famous by the movie Bull Durham, the city's Central Park has a ravine filled with kudzu.
Installing the temporary fence is the hardest part for these modern day goat herders, and it's sometimes necessary to remove plants that could prove toxic to the goats, such as pokeweed.

The goats cleared this bank the previous day. They do their job well, but now the question is what to plant, and how to keep the kudzu from growing back.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kudzu-Like Vine Surrounding Princeton Battlefield

This is a followup to a previous post about the Princeton Battlefield grounds. The vast mowed lawn gives the impression of order at the battlefield, but along the edges, there's a different story.
In a closeup, it's possible to see the reddening foliage of flowering dogwoods spaced along the woods' edge.

Likely planted many decades back to grace the battlefield's borders, those along the left side are now completely overgrown by vines.

Here, one dogwood branch (slight burgundy color on the right) is all that can be seen reaching out of a stifling blanket of exotic porcelain berry vine. (Porcelain berry is short for Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, a name as sprawling as its growth form.)

In addition to ornament, the dogwoods have traditionally provided abundant berries for migrating birds. Some internet research has yet to reveal whether the porcelain berries provide an adequately timed and nutritious substitute. Lipid (fat) content in the berries is important for sustaining the birds' energy, since lipids provide more energy than an equivalent weight of sugar. The shade of the vines will also limit dogwood blooms next spring (note the flower bud on the left).

All around the base of the dogwoods, a tangle of vines reach upwards--porcelain berry and oriental bittersweet, along with the native wild grape.

It's easy to liberate a tree from vines. Simply sever the stems of the vines and leave the top portion to die. No need to pull anything down.

Elsewhere at the battlefield, on the south side of Mercer Road, more advanced stands of porcelain berry demonstrate the plant's kudzu-like capacity to overwhelm trees and shrubs.

These three trees and the surrounding landscape behind Clark House have completely disappeared beneath a blanket of porcelain berry. The one native seen was jewelweed, somehow able to poke a few of its orange flowers up through the enveloping vines sprawling across the ground.

Princetonians may want to develop a taste for grand-scale topiary, because the battlefield and the local birds are serving as a seed distribution service for this highly invasive species.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Brushpiles as a Backyard Bonanza

The term "yardwaste" makes little sense, because everything that falls in the yard is useful. Nature has been in the recycling business for a few billion years now, give or take, and has in that time figured out how to convert all its spent products back into the building blocks for new life. But nature goes beyond simply dismantling structures as quickly as possible to make something new. When one of our products, such as a TV, stops functioning, its useful days are considered over. But when a tree limb dies, it becomes a perch where birds can have a commanding view unimpeded by dense leaves. When the limb falls, it becomes cover for animals, a place for a butterfly or firefly to rest. The legacy of a tree, or parts thereof, is not only as food and fertilizer but also the structure it leaves behind.

A naturalist friend of mine, Joshua Rose, who now lives in Amherst, MA, wrote an article last winter about the utility of building a woodpile in the backyard. Though his PhD focused on dragonflies, he has gained in-depth knowledge of plants, birds, herps, and all other manner of life, to the point that he could more appropriately be called a supernaturalist. These supernatural powers allow him to perceive and convey an understanding of how woodpiles benefit the lives of a broad range of creatures, including us. The article can be found at this link:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Face Recognition and Tree Identification

Some faces I have trouble attaching a name to. I know I've seen this face somewhere before. Maybe he's the namesake of Murray Place.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


I suspect most people develop ambivalence towards pokeweed over time. With thick annual stems rising as much as eight feet up from perennial roots each year, pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) can become a striking specimen if given enough room, with flowers and berries that hang like elaborate jewelry from purplish stems. And yet its elegance tends to be ragged around the edges, and its admirable capacity to fill voids in the garden quickly segues into a realization that its many offspring are leaving no room for anything else to grow.

One approach to managing its exuberance is to dig out most of the volunteer pokeweeds each year, leaving one or two in an out of the way spot where they have enough room to reach their full size.
The berries are poisonous for people but not for birds, and were once used for dyeing clothing. The only current application of the berries as a dye that I'm aware of happens accidentally when a robin eats berries from one yard, then dive bombs the neighbor's laundry hung outdoors to dry. A land manager I know relishes telling this story, while asserting that the neighbor could easily avoid the consequences by putting her clothes out closer to midday, after the birds had already processed their early morning feast.

Here's an example, sent by a friend, of the berry's use in colonial days to dye uniforms the color of garnet.

"Check out this interesting use of pokeweed berries, at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia which was founded by the son-in-law of John Witherspoon:"

Sometime I'll find a photo of my daughter standing on the trunk of an ombu tree (Phytolacca dioica), a close relative of pokeweed that grows in the pampas of Argentina. It grows like a tree yet has no wood. The swollen base of the trunk provided gauchos with a shady spot to sit down and play guitar.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Tomato Thieves

A neighbor who lives close to Princeton Shopping Center was erecting a high fence around the attractively designed vegetable garden he planted in his front yard. After several weeks worth of tomatoes kept mysteriously disappearing overnight, he finally spied a deer nibbling away in the wee hours.

Two blocks away, I have no deer to eat tomatoes growing in our fenced in backyard, but the squirrels are happy to oblige. My theory is that the squirrels took to eating tomatoes several years ago during a horrendous drought, and have made it a habit ever since.

A Gentle August, For a Change

It was a gentle August, in contrast to the previous two years, when the month brought torrential flooding. Those who remained in town during this month of traditional exodus have not had to play heroes--rescuing basements from flooding or helping neighbors clear fallen debris--but instead could enjoy relatively cool weather. Cool nights allowed the house to release heat, and shade kept it cool enough during the day to maintain comfort without air conditioning. With the window open at night, I sometimes awoke early enough to hear the neighborhood screech owl's soft trilling call, cast over a creaky bed of crickets and katydids.

Several nights ago, walking the largely abandoned streets, I felt sporadic drops of moisture falling from a clear sky in late evening. Though there are street trees elsewhere in the world whose resident aphids drop honeydew on pedestrians, these drops were falling directly from the sky above. Sweat from migratory birds, migrating dragonfly droppings? I looked up and saw nothing but feint stars peaking through the glow of a Jersey sky. The universe, it seemed, was shedding tears--one for every star blotted out by the manmade haze.

Sassafras Leaves' Three Forms

One day, in a parking lot just up from Princeton University's football stadium, a sassafras tree presented on one branch a nice demonstration of its three kinds of leaves. A close look reveals that some have three lobes, some have two (like a mitten), and some have a simple, unlobed shape. They all, however, smell the same when crumpled up--a hint of root beer.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Late Summer Visit To Mountain Lakes

Though still undiscovered by many, Mountain Lakes Preserve is Princeton's "Central Park", located surprisingly close to the geographical center of the soon to be consolidated Princeton. A walk down the driveway at 57 Mountain Ave, leading into Mountain Lakes, reveals it's been a good year for spicebush, whose abundant, lipid-rich berries should provide lots of energy for birds this fall.
The berries are just starting to ripen. It all seems natural, but these berries might not be here at all if volunteers hadn't cut down the invasive honeysuckle shrubs that were competing with the spicebush.
If you haven't been to Mountain Lakes in awhile, you'll find that it has its lakes back, now that the dredging and stonework is done.

The stone wall that makes a sweeping curve along the front of the lower dam is completely new, though built to imitate the old one now buried a couple feet down after they added extra height to the earthen dam.
The back side of the dam is less scenic, but includes a seepage whose steady moisture provides perfect habitat
for the phantom craneflies described in a previous post.

Across the dam separating the upper and lower lakes can be seen Mountain Lakes House, which has become all the more popular a spot for weddings and other events since the dams were restored and a new permanent roof was built over the patio.
If you continue on the driveway past the Mountain Lakes House and head down the hill, you'll find another newly restored dam. The anonymous donor provided additional funding to restore this third dam, built around 1950 (the other dams were built around 1900). In addition to being as beautiful as the others, it serves to catch sediment that might otherwise begin filling in the two main lakes. Dredging this little pond also served to get rid of an infestation of Phragmitis, a highly invasive grass of freeway ditches and wetlands. It cannot be overemphasized just how extraordinary was the generosity of the donor, who provided some $4 million to make these three dam restorations possible.

The raingarden on the side of Mountain Lakes House, which catches water from the driveway and roof, has filled in nicely with native plants.

Mountain Lakes is one of the finer examples of how human intervention can work with the natural energies of plantlife and water flow to create attractive and productive landscapes.