Sunday, July 08, 2012

Artillery Fungus

A morning dog walk provided a chance to do some garden detective work. I was talking to a neighbor when I noticed tiny black spots on her car. She had been wondering how they got there.
Closer up, they look like tiny specs of tar.
A few years back another neighbor, after finding tiny black spots accumulating on house siding, traced the culprit back to something growing in the woodchip mulch used around foundation plantings.

I checked the other side of the car. Almost no spots at all.
The side with the spots is always parked next to a flower bed mulched with woodchip mulch, which makes good habitat for artillery fungus, so-called because it can shoot spore sacs more than 15 feet. In areas of the garden close to houses or parking, it may help to use bark mulch rather than woodchips, or use the well-composted woodchip mulch available to Princeton residents at the Lawrenceville Ecological Center. Below is one of many sources of more information.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Walk That Saved a Canal

On this July 4, when independence from oil is as patriotic a goal as any, a story of how a shaded walkway in our nation's capital was saved. We got a chance to witness this greenway running through Georgetown on a recent visit.

In 1954, the Washington Post ran an editorial calling for the Connecticut and Ohio Canal to be turned into a roadway. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas responded with a letter to the editor, calling for preservation of the canal as a national park. 

He invited the editors and other reporters to walk the canal, along with authorities who could speak to the natural and cultural beauty at stake. The editors changed their minds, wrote in support of preservation, and the public response was such that in 1961 the canal was preserved as a national monument. 

A bust of Douglas stands next to the canal in the shade of an American basswood tree, from where he's able to gaze out upon a part of his environmental legacy in perpetuity.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Highschool Wetland in Full Flower

It's a good time of year for an evening walk along Walnut Street. The sunsets can put on a show across the sports fields, and the high school ecolab wetland is having one of its finer moments. These elderberry blooms are past, replaced by a good-looking crop of berries, but there's a resplendent wave of wildflower blooms coming on.
This is the view from the sidewalk. Music may be wafting out of the practice room to the right, mixing with the loose banjo string call of the green frogs.
The blue irises made quite a splash a month ago, and the soft rush (left) was looking stately.

But a larger ensemble is just warming up: wild senna, black-eyed susan, hundreds of joe-pye-weed, swamp rose, sunflower, and cut-leaf coneflower. What's particularly auspicious about this wetland's setup is that it is essentially surrounded by an observation walkway, perfect for viewing the wildflowers rising ten feet up from the wetland below.
Walk around the back of the wetland to get a look at the crayfish living in the small pool where the sump pump feeds the wetland with fresh water from the high school basement.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Chainsaw Gardening

Planting gardens in public spaces, like this raingarden at the Senior Center on Harrison Street, has its risks. With the surrounding ground maintained by crews familiar only with mowing grass and trimming shrubs, you never know when some new crew member might unknowingly unleash his weapons of vegetative suppression on the comparatively rambunctious wildflowers.

 Years back, one of the wetland gardens I was nurturing in a park in Durham, NC, had reached a fine stage of spring splendor when I arrived on the scene to find it had been completely mowed down by a clueless city employee. The first time this happened, it was like a punch to the gut--a labor of love destroyed. The garden grew back, however, and the next year when yet another new worker accidentally mowed it, my skin was a little thicker. 

This conditioning prepared me well for a sight this past May, as I came strolling down Harrison Street to see how my raingarden grew.
Not so great, as the blueberry bushes, Joe-Pye-Weed and other wildflowers were at that very moment falling victim to a chainsaw massacre.

It's always smart to be diplomatic when approaching people with chainsaws in their hands, even when they're decimating your garden. And so I walked up calmly and we discussed the situation. He was under orders from his boss, but we came to an understanding that the plants in that special spot were to be left to grow.

The next time I saw him, we laughed about it, but I know that somewhere deep down, the guts still churned.

Islands of White Clover

White clover is quickly colonizing the sports fields installed a year or two ago at Princeton's JW Middle School, making for a nice visual effect.

Distinguishing Porcelain Berry and Grape

One invasive exotic vine that is exploding in its prevalence around Princeton is the porcelain berry. It does an all too convincing imitation of kudzu's growth pattern, smothering other vegetation. Porcelain berry is an Asian species and its leaves can easily be confused with our native grapes. In this photo, the deeply lobed leaf of porcelain berry is above the grape leaf.
From top to bottom in this photo, Virginia creeper (a native vine with five leaflets), porcelain berry in the middle, and a grape leaf below. I've heard that the pith of the porcelain berry's stem is white, while that of grape is brown.

The berries of porcelain berry are bright shades of blue, red and white. Cutting the stems at the ground, before the seeds mature, is one way to keep this species from taking over. It really helps to catch this species early, before it has become established and spread into nearby areas.

Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, Lunchtime Performance Thursday

The Sustainable Jazz Ensemble will B there at P Square in Princeton as part of Palmer Square's Lunchtime Music on the Green series, with performances of Greening the Blues, Scrambled Eggs, Lemon Merengue and other sustaining fare.

Music runs from 12-2pm. Last year, we sprinkled chairs across the lawn, but some bring a favorite lawn chair or a blanket for a picnic.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bottlebrush Buckeye

Buckeye species come in varied sizes. This one, bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), has a growth pattern similar to sumac, forming a low clone over time. Having overgrown its narrow space between a path and the low carport roof, this specimen should have been moved in early spring, but to catch this year's flowers, I moved a portion early and left the rest until after it finishes blooming.

Native to the deep south (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina), the USDA range map (click here and scroll down) unexpectedly shows disjunct wild populations in Pennsylvania and Somerset County, just to our north. I wouldn't be surprised if these northern populations are escapes from cultivation.

The tubular flowers attract some enthusiastic pollinators, including this moth that imitates the flight of a hummingbird.

Type "buckeye" in the search box at the upper left of this website for previous posts about bottlebrush and red buckeyes.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Fertile Oasis on John Street

Can you find the stealth township service in this photograph? In the distance are the basketball and tennis courts of Community Park, but I had heard rumors of community gardens somewhere along John Street, for heavily shaded residents to grow vegetables. This desolate corner with parking lots and weedy lawns didn't look promising,
but a peek over the fence reveals another world.
Looks like a good year for local food production.

A parallel scene at the Smoyer Park garden plots can be found in a post at

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Phantoms at Mountain Lakes

A close look reveals a Phantom Crane Fly (Bittacomorpha clavipes), clinging to a tiny bit of dead grass above a rivulet of water. In preparation for my nature walk tomorrow, I was exploring the backside of the lower dam at Mountain Lakes today, hoping that the renovation of the dam hadn't blocked a seepage that in years past had fed a wetland just below the dam.

Sure enough, the spring still flows, and above its steady trickle of water hovered magical-looking creatures the size of a silver dollar. When they fly, their legs remain extended, on a plane perpendicular to the ground. The effect is not unlike a sideways version of the woodsprites in Avatar, the "Atokirinas".

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Towpath in June

A few shots during a recent visit to the towpath along the canal, just upstream of Harrison Street:

Here's a section of the towpath trail whose crushed stone surface is still in good shape.
In many areas, though, the trail has yet to recover from the floodwaters last August that deposited a layer of mud over the crushed stone. The mud forces bicyclists and joggers to the edges of the trail.
Lush mounds of native switchgrass grow near Harrison Street, where a nature trail branches off from the towpath.
Deertongue grass is also at an attractive stage in its growth along the nature trail.
Common milkweed isn't typically thought of as an ornamental, but this extensive patch of it is eye-catching, and well attended by pollinators.
These flowers are able to bloom because the DandR Canal State Park agreed to reduce mowing in the field next to the towpath to once a year, allowing already present wildflowers to grow to full size. The great response of the wildflowers in turn led to the cutting of a loop trail through the field. This time of year, you'll see a progression of tall flowers like these milkweeds, tall meadow rue, cutleaf coneflower, rose mallow hibiscus, joe pye weed, ironweed, Helenium and so on--some thirty species with more being discovered occasionally, all because the mowing crews were convinced to do less work.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nature Walk June 24

I will be leading a nature walk at Mountain Lakes Preserve on Sunday, June 24 from 10 to noon. The walk is sponsored by the Princeton Borough Shade Tree Commission. Meet at Mountain Lakes House, which can be accessed by going up the long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave in Princeton. Parking is in the gravel lot just before you reach the house.
The walk will include discussion of trees, invasive shrubs, and is also a great chance to admire the newly restored historic dams and lakes. We'll stick to main trails around the lakes, but sturdy shoes are recommended.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Weedful, Needful Sidewalk

After I posted an expose on an overgrown sidewalk in my neighborhood, a friend emailed to report another sidewalk in town whose copious foliage she does daily battle with on her way to work.

Upon arriving at the scene a mere two weeks later, my first impression was that there was no problem, because there was no sidewalk.

But closer inspection revealed evidence of a strip of asphalt originally intended for pedestrians. Could it be a remnant of the Indian trading route upon which Bayard Lane (206) is said to be built? Presence of a well-aged realty sign suggested no owner present to keep the trail clear. It being a state road, jurisdiction for maintenance could be even more muddled.

Given that I had come equipped with a camera rather than loppers, I decided my role was to document rather than resolve the problem, and provide tips on how to make the best of the situation until the party responsible for maintenance could be found. Here is my virtual guided tour of a nearly unnavigable sidewalk:

As you head south along the trail from Mountain Ave, acknowledge the hearty greetings of the foliage.

Shake hands with an overly friendly American elm.
As cars and trucks speed by just a few feet away, take time to smell the privet.

While sidestepping the poison ivy,
take note of the rich variety of leaf shapes--

Norway maple
and mugwort.
Be glad this bindweed isn't growing over the shrubs in your backyard.

Daydream of evening primrose flowers to come in late summer.

Sigh at the intimate intertwining of Japanese honeysuckle and Rose of Sharon.
Show proper respect for the thorns of barberry

and black locust.

Thrashing your way towards daylight, you may occasionally catch glimpses of a Shell station across the road. If you begin running low on provisions, it's good to know that help is nearby.
Some liquid sustenance may be obtained from these Japanese honeysuckle blossoms.

If slow progress forces you to camp for the night, nettle soup could be an option for dinner,

along with garlic mustard pesto.

Your campsite comes complete with television. Traffic should keep the bears away, though this is not guaranteed.

Beating the odds with a mixture of effort and luck, you'll make it through the toughest section with plenty of daylight hours left to reach your intended destination, and can look back with some pride at having conquered one of the most challenging stretches of sidewalk New Jersey has to offer.

Level of Difficulty: Class 4 (large standing waves of foliage, some precise maneuvering may be needed)