Sunday, October 02, 2016

Mushrooming in Nature's Living Room

Our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit hosted a mushroom walk last weekend. Philip Poniz (right), who had offered to co-lead, began by saying he is not an expert, but offered as evidence of his knowledge that he had been foraging for many years and is still alive. In keeping with the egalitarian nature of our walks, others contributed their knowledge as well, including Peter Ihnat (left in the photo).

The weather had been dry, and scouting around a few days before, I had found only one mushroom rising from the ground. It was quickly identified by Philip and others as an "avenging angel", one of the most poisonous mushrooms of all. If the angels are seeking revenge, what hope do we have? This is why, in addition to any laws against foraging on public lands, I encouraged participants to only harvest knowledge and pleasure during the walk.

We headed up the red trail (check out the newly completed, remarkable remarking of trails at Herrontown Woods in our updated brochure), past the Veblen cottage, finding a few fungi here and there, clinging to fallen logs.

I didn't ask what this one was, found during the scouting trip, but it looks reminiscent of a fungus called turkey tail. One participant asked if observing what animals eat can give clues as to which mushrooms are edible. We heard a story of two squirrels being tracked after having eaten a certain mushroom. Both died. Some animals may get more tutelage from their elders than others.

There was another story about the "big laughing Jim" mushroom, which can contain varying amounts of psilosybin.

Though the mushrooms would have preferred rain, we basked in the comfort of dappled shade, heading off trail to see Herrontown Woods' special mix of nature and culture, scrutinizing the fungal legacy on trees toppled by past windstorms.

The beech forest on the far side of the pipeline right of way has a nice open feel. We were happy with our modest findings, the day, the woods, the company, but a surprise awaited that ended the walk with an appropriate exclamation point.

Most of us had already walked by, but filmmaker Andrea Odezynska had the eye to spot this foot-tall mushroom growing on the bare ground where a tree had been uprooted. Books came out, a name was tentatively offered: 
"stalked polypore?", 
the stuff of lore, 
what we'd all been waiting for. 

We pulled out our cameras and surrounded it as if we were the mama-and-paparazzi, and it were a movie star. It seemed unfazed.

Afterwards, many stayed on for refreshments and conversation next to Veblen House, just off the beaten trail. Thanks to all who contribute to our Friends of Herrontown Woods, and our work to maintain the trails, restore habitat and bring the wonderful Veblen legacy to life for the community.

Foraging on the internet, I found this site: The Three Foragers, a family that has delved deep into wild edibles and speaks to the riches nature has to offer, and the importance of foraging carefully and responsibly. Though foraging is highly discouraged at Herrontown Woods and other nature preserves, the walk offered food for thought (a much safer food than wild mushrooms!) on how we can safely and sustainably connect to the nature around us in more than an observational way.

Friday, September 30, 2016

October Workshops at Mountain Lakes Begin Sunday

I'm passing along info about a nature series being hosted by my former employer, the Friends of Princeton Open Space:

Friends of Princeton Open Space is pleased to announce a fall workshop series that brings new voices into the conversation about the value of nature and open space.

Nature as Muse: A Sensory Exploration of One Landscape Through Four Creative Perspectives

4 Sundays in October from 2PM to 3:30PM at the Mountain Lakes Preserve in Princeton

Friends of Princeton Open Space has invited four creative professionals to lead workshops in the Mountain Lakes Preserve that examine how nature inspires fragrances (perfumer), cuisine (chef), poetry (writer), and branding and design (graphic designer). Each workshop includes a woodland walk to explore - and catalog - the sensory landscape, followed by a simple creative exercise that puts the concepts we learn on our walk into practice.

October 9: Perfumer: Etienne BouckaertFirmenich
October 16: Chef: Gab Carbone, the bent spoon
October 23: Graphic Designer: Sarah Smith, Smith + Manning
October 30: Poet: Douglas Piccinnini, writer and poet; chef at Poor Farm Food

Cost: $100 for 4 workshops
Details and registration at:
Series only registration until October 1. After October 1, registration for individual workshops will be available, if any openings remain.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Where Have All the Flowers Gone at the Neuroscience Building?

What's wrong with this picture? Something's missing, and that something is all the native grasses and wildflowers planted here just two years prior, as part of a naturalistic landscaping of Princeton University's neuroscience building.

In 2014, it looked like this, with partridge pea showing its stuff and little bluestem grasses waving gracefully in the breeze. In a post, I celebrated the planting, and an accompanying raingarden that catches runoff from the road. It was a wonderful example of how native meadow could be integrated into a peopled landscape.

But sometime between then and now, there was a decision to abort. Everything got mowed down, making the area look like the lawn didn't take.

The partridge pea is hanging low, blooming where it can in midget form.

And the native grasses show as discrete bunches foiled in their rise towards the sun.

We've seen this elsewhere in town, at Harrison Street Park, and at Westminster Choir College's parking lot. A design is developed, often at considerable expense, the native plants are installed, there's congratulations all around on vision and sustainability, and then a few years later the mowers reclaim the area for a default landscaping of trees and turf.

What happened? Well, here's one reason: crown vetch.

And here's another: mugwort. Maybe they hitchhiked in as contaminant in the seed mix, or in the topsoil trucked in for the landscaping, or were already on-site in the resident soil. Whatever the source, they grew up and over the intended plants, and the facilities crew decided they couldn't possibly weed it all out.

With careful maintenance the first couple years, the weeds might have been few enough to remove and the intended plants could have filled in, minimizing maintenance needs in the years that followed. But as we've seen with climate change, it's not human nature to catch problems early, when they hardly seem like problems at all. Though university facilities staff are probably better trained than most, they still may not have been familiar enough with the intended plants and weeds to know which to pull.

Now everything's mixed together. Here's mugwort in the upper left, partridge pea below, and some sort of blue oats-like grass that was clearly intended.

Here's mugwort and crown vetch intermixed with the native grasses.

You could say that the crown vetch has a pretty flower, but what was lost by the dominance of these two invasive species is the way the intended plants, mostly native, grow without displacing what's around them. Little bluestem is a bunch grass that stays in place, at a modest height, and the partridge pea intermingles without smothering. Mugwort, in contrast, grows tall, spreads aggressively, and undoubtedly fell over into the walkway. Crown vetch crawls over the plants around it, tending towards monoculture. The effect of grace, beauty and diversity is lost over time.

So, what's to become of the planting? Will it all be converted to a static planting of liriope?

Or mimic Roberts Stadium, just across the sidewalk?

Or will they find a way to restore some version of the original vision of native meadow, which would take close tending at first but ultimately be lower maintenance than mowing?

Facilities staff are working with their landscape architect to reassess.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Wet Meadow is Born

It looks like a barren expanse, essentially an acre-sized bowl of brown, just down from the parking lot at Smoyer Park.

But look at it with a vision for what could be, and you'll see not so much the present as the future. The photo below is a wet meadow in Ann Arbor's Buhr Park, where some portions of vast turf were regraded and planted so that runoff from nearby streets and homes can be filtered through native grasses and wildflowers, and seep down into the groundwater, which in turn feeds the local creek. Function and beauty, all in one. Much of its beauty owes to the ongoing care provided by a friend and dedicated neighbor of the park, Jeannine Palms.

Meanwhile, in Princeton's Smoyer Park, rainwater flows down the broad parking lot towards the basin,

Where it ponds and slowly seeps, in or departs through a small aperture in the outlet. Each inundation adds to an underground reservoir to sustain the deep-rooted natives through any drought--a resilience all the more relevant as climate change brings more weather extremes.

There was some suspense, in early summer, whether the seeds for this meadow-to-be would respond, but some timely rains came and the black-eyed susans sprouted, along with a substantial portion of the fifteen or so other native species in the seed mix.

The project is a coordinated effort that was initiated by yours truly and given the go-ahead this past spring by Princeton municipality. Partners for Fish and Wildlife, a federal agency that has done other good deeds in Princeton and across the state, prepared and planted the ground, at no expense to the town. The Rec department put up No Mow signs, and the nonprofit I lead, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, is charged with doing the all-important maintenance.

Thus far, that maintenance has involved spending a pleasant evening hour now and then, doing some light weeding. Passersby stop to ask what's going on, and are happy to hear the park will soon have a little color to go with the broad expanses of ballfields.

The planting has brought back memories of the first garden I ever planted, a 2 x 6' grid of different garden vegetables. I'd look at it every day after school to witness the changes. Each new leaf was a revelation (So that's what a carrot leaf looks like!).

This time, it's plants that are more likely to feed birds and insects, but each new bloom gets celebrated just the same. This is the first Indian grass flower opening. They have golden anthers that can create a subtle but beautiful effect when massed.

First wildflower to bloom was partridge pea, a native that should replace all the highly invasive, exclusionary Chinese bushclover used by various states for erosion control.

Though the native grasses put much of their first year's energy into building a root system, many have now bloomed. Here's a big bluestem, whose branched flowerheads give it the name "turkey foot". Big bluestem and Indian grass, found here and there in NJ, are the same species that dominate the tall grass prairies of midwestern and plains states.

This is side oats grama, a shorter grass that I don't associate with eastern piedmont, but is often found in seed mixes for meadows.

I had to be fast with the camera to photograph this first black-eyed susan flower,

because most are being chowed down by the deer. Hopefully when the grasses become thicker, the deer will be less thorough with their browsing.

There's a lot of variability in the density of the new plants, but even the seemingly bare spots have grasses sprouting.

Identifying which grasses to weed out requires a close look. Generally, the grasses that spread out horizontally, like crabgrass, are the weedy annuals to be pulled before they go to seed.

Foxtail also is also getting pulled. It grows more vertically,

but even without the seedheads can be distinguished because it's fleshier than the leaner looking native grasses, e.g. the one in the foreground of this photo.

Pilewort is a native I tend to weed out, along with 3-seeded Mercury.

Amaranth is another which, if allowed to go to seed, could grow to shade out the intended plants next year.

To be able to do this light sort of weeding at the outset gives a wonderful sense of control. So often, there's a delay in intervention, the weeds assert themselves, and the gardener/land manager scrambles to steer a stampede of plants.

Evenings are peaceful at Smoyer Park, bringing back memories of childhood pickup games of softball or soccer, played until the day had no more light to give.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mushroom Walk at Herrontown Woods, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2pm

Today's rain may have been auspicious, not just because we needed rain, but because the Friends of Herrontown Woods will host a combination mushroom/nature walk Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2pm, led by mushroom expert Philip Poniz.

I'll be there as well, to speak of all things green in case not many mushrooms show up for the mushroom walk (why wouldn't they?).

The walk is free, but donations are welcome to support restoration of the natural and cultural heritage of Herrontown Woods, Princeton's first nature preserve. We'll end at Veblen House for some refreshments.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, across Snowden Lane from Smoyer Park. Maps can be found at html. Check the site in case weather's iffy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Finally, a Monarch!

Three days ago, a monarch finally came and lingered for a short while in the backyard, moving quickly from one late-flowering thoroughwort to another, gathering nectar for its long journey to Mexico. Several generations removed from the monarchs that flew north from the mountains of Mexico this past March, this individual is part of that special end of the season generation that will fly 2500 miles south and west to where they gather for the winter, west of Mexico City. Unlike the generations that headed north, it will not become sexually mature until next spring.

Monarchs had a modest rebound in numbers last year after their numbers dwindled, largely due to the elimination of milkweed from farm fields and edges since Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans became the norm. There was optimism this year that they could rebound further, but an "unprecedented" ice storm hit their sanctuary in the Mexican mountains in March just as they were leaving. Some had already headed north, but many were killed. That "unprecedented" makes one think of climate change's impact, which makes restoring habitat all the more important.

I had caught a glimpse of three other monarchs earlier in the summer, but none that settled on a flower. Fortunately, there was a 50x canon camera around to capture the fresh beauty of this magnificent insect, poised at the beginning of its long journey.

Monarchs in NJ head south through Cape May, and you can read about those who track their passage and count their numbers there on their blog.

I saw no caterpillars this year. In 2010, we had many on the swamp milkweeds in the backyard. My daughter grew some in a jar.

As a kid growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, I remember a day, probably in the 1960s, when the sky was filled with monarchs heading south. Thousands upon thousands, swirling, dancing, there all day, and then gone. It's one of those magnificent nature-in-abundance memories that feeds a vision for what could be if we nurtured nature's inborn vitality. In Princeton, there was a field full (in the tens or hundreds rather than thousands) of monarchs in 2007, feeding on tickseed sunflowers, at that sharp bend in Quaker Road, near the canal. Tickseed sunflowers (Bidens sp.) are annuals, and appear to have given way to other species out there.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sept 12: Council to Consider New Tree Removal Fees

Those interested in good tree management in town will want to attend this Monday's council meeting, which begins at 7pm. Changes are being proposed to Princeton's shade tree ordinance that would make it more expensive to remove a healthy tree from one's property. Designed as a response to the clear cuttings associated with tear downs, these changes will also discourage homeowners from managing their tree cover for solar panels, or vegetable or nectar gardens.

A more detailed letter I wrote on the subject, describing last month's council discussion of the subject, can be found at this link. What follows below is information, critique and suggestions I sent to council members, the Shade Tree Commission, and the Environmental Commission.

Background summary of proposed changes (for those unfamiliar):

Among the revisions would be higher fees charged to homeowners for removing larger, healthy trees. The existing fee or replacement obligation is $400 or one tree, for every healthy tree removed, regardless of size. With the proposed changes, the fee per tree begins at $400 for an 8" diameter tree, and increases to $1600 per tree with diameter of 39" or greater. Instead of paying the fee, the homeowner can plant 1-4 replacement trees, depending on the size of the tree removed, but the replacement trees must be 2.5" diameter and adhere to nursery standards. Trees that size tend to be expensive to purchase and install.

I have since thought of a way to incorporate tree planting incentives into the proposal, which in its current form contains only penalties for removal. It goes as follows.

In order to reward people for actively cultivating trees on their property--planted or self-seeded--rather than simply making removal more difficult, might the town encourage homeowners to submit a sketch showing trees on their property, including young trees that are being nurtured. In the future, homeowners could get credit for those trees they plant and nurture, to be used against any replanting requirements for future permitted removals. Small seedlings would not be eligible for credit until they reached the size (2.5" trunk diameter) described in the existing proposal. Verification could be done by the arborist at the time of a request for removal, so the only additional staff time required would be the filing of submitted sketches by office staff.

The higher fees that the STC is proposing, combined with these credits, would provide an incentive for homeowners to think about how to incorporate new trees into their landscaping now, rather than in the future when they want to remove a tree, and would arguably lead to more canopy than without the credits. Significant funds would still be raised when developers clearcut a property. 
With the combination of higher fees and these credits, those of us who take an interest could then go to homeowners and encourage them to plant trees, with the credits serving as an added incentive.

Below is a more detailed listing of potential problems with the proposed ordinance changes. The primary challenges are how to encourage nurturing the urban forest rather than simply penalize tree removal, and how to give the arborist sufficient latitude so that other, equally important sustainability goals are not sacrificed by the STC's tree-specific agenda. 

Fees to remove the 13 trees on my parcel would total more than $10,000. To avoid the fee for removing any particular tree, I would need to make the case that the tree poses an imminent danger, or has been substantially compromised by disease or insect damage. But there are other reasons why one might want to remove a tree. For instance, the following:

Examples of how the proposed ordinance changes could further discourage good management and sustainable behavior by homeowners:
  • By far, the two most prevalent invasive tree species are Norway maple or Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), both of which emit harmful chemicals through their roots that inhibit other plants from growing. As the arborist explained, Norway Maples create very dense shade, stifling any growth underneath them. Oftentimes, Norway maples sprout on their own along fencelines and begin to threaten older, more desirable trees above them. Would removal of these undesirable trees be discouraged by the new fee?
  • Trees sometimes grow too densely and would benefit from thinning. Would thinning be discouraged by the new fee?
  • Some homeowners like trees, but also want to have a vegetable garden, or grow wildflowers that would benefit pollinators. Would the new fee essentially penalize them for removing one of their trees to pursue these desirable ends?
  • From a climate change perspective, solar panels are vastly superior to trees. Would the new fee penalize homeowners for removing a tree so that they can have, or maintain, solar panels?
Though the ordinance revisions are intended to discourage tree removal and raise money for planting new trees, there could be some unintended consequences.
  • Homeowners may actually limit the number of new trees on their property if they know that the tree represents a future financial liability.
  • The fees will make it more tempting for homeowners to find arborists who will remove trees on the sly. The benefits of a reputable arborist and the town arborist's good advice will both be lost, and poorer decisions may be made about tree removals.
  • There appears to be no incentive for homeowners to allow young trees to grow on their properties, since these young trees will not qualify as replacements for any tree being removed.

Monday, September 05, 2016

To Save a Raingarden, Know Your Weeds

This is one of several posts intended to show how a knowledge of weeds can boost one's confidence as a gardener. The more confident gardeners we have in Princeton and elsewhere, the more gardens are likely to survive. Photos of some common weeds are below, but first, some background.

A number of local, designed native plantings have been mowed down in the past year or two. Examples include plantings at Princeton University, Harrison Street Park, and Westminster Choir College. The latter is featured in this post.

As with recycling programs, that mundane-sounding activity called maintenance determines success or failure. Without skilled, attentive management, all those lovely designs are just whistling in the wind. Though design and installation get all the respect and publicity, maintenance requires far more skill, because the gardener needs to know not only the intended native plants but also the dozens of weeds that will inevitably show up. Furthermore, each species must be recognized in all its different life stages.

How shall we define a weed? Since the intention of this raingarden is a mix of function (filter runoff from the pavement, provide some habitat) and ornament, a weed here is defined as a plant that lacks ornamental qualities and/or proves too aggressive. Even an intended plant can later be considered a weed if it becomes too aggressive in a particular situation.

If one stays on top of things, these plantings are relatively easy to maintain. But allow aggressive weeds like mugwort, bindweed, Canada thistle, or crown vetch to get established, and the owner will sooner or later decide it's all too much trouble, and mow it all down. Lawn is the ultimate control of a seemingly unruly nature.

This is what happened at Westminster Choir College's raingardens. Walking our dog, Leo, I watched over several years as the weeds moved in, competing with the intended wildflowers and switchgrass. Last year, the amaranth grew 7 feet tall. That must have done it, because this year, everything was mowed to the ground.

I had offered my services before, but this year I reached out to the sustainability director at Rider University, of which Westminster is a part, and offered to weed the raingardens and gradually shift them back to natives if they would commit to not mowing. She agreed, and the mowing stopped. Essentially, I had just acquired a new pet, a hybrid between tame and wild, requiring considerable human intervention at first, but less as time goes on if the "parenting" is good.

The resulting growth would be a bit intimidating for anyone who doesn't know plants. There's a sea of crabgrass, nutsedge has an ominous foothold, the amaranth is again showing vertical ambitions, but amidst all this are some promising signs. Blue vervain is making a comeback, attracting skipper butterflies,

and a robust ironweed is poised to flower in its new freedom from the lawn mower.

Below are some of the weeds to be contended with. Different strategies are required, depending on the species. A few weeds, like pilewort, three seeded mercury, and horseweed, are native, but most are introduced.

Crabgrass! Note the horizontal growth form and the finger-like seedheads. No attempt to control it, given it's vast numbers. It's an annual, so will die this fall and hopefully be less of an issue next spring as the intended plants begin shading it out.

Green amaranth overgrowing a blue vervain (yet to flower). It helps to note the smooth margins of the amaranth's leaves, contrasting with the toothed leaves of the vervain underneath it on the right. Also, a different shade of green.

All the amaranth came out, because it would be unsightly if allowed to grow tall, and thereby give Westminster an excuse to begin mowing again.

Fortunately, it had rained a couple days prior, the soil was sufficiently soft, and their taproots yielded to a slow, firm tug. Since weeding is so much easier after a rain, a flexible maintenance schedule can greatly reduce the work needed.

Pull with your arm, not with your back.

Horseweed has had a great year in farm fields and empty lots, and is vying for space here. Pull before it can set seed.

Nutsedge spreads underground, invading lawns and flower beds. Pulls easily, but likely will pop up again, a bit weaker each time. It's a bamboo situation in miniature, requiring that one steadily deprive the roots of energy from those solar panels called leaves.

One of my favorite edibles, lambs quarters. Either pull or leave a few to munch on. Can get way too tall, though.

Barnyard grass is not particularly aggressive, but is best pulled.

A species of smartweed. These Polygonums tend to be problematic, and sometimes very aggressive. Likely to get pulled.

There are different kinds of thistles. This is not the dreaded Canada thistle that invades with its underground rhizomes, but will likely come out if I remember to bring gloves or a shovel.

Three seeded mercury is a native annual with a weedy look to it.

Surely a mint, with the characteristic square stem, probably catnip, with the tiny flowers of horseweed in the background. Only one in the whole raingarden.

The weeding session took less than an hour, given the raingarden's soft soil. Maintaining a raingarden is 90% knowledge and strategy, 10% work. Know your weeds and their potential for being problematic, time the weeding for when the ground is soft and before the weeds spread or set seed, and pretty soon the raingarden will be giving a lot more than it takes. These are the principals that have worked in the past, and are now being tested at Westminster.