Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Asphalt, Tree Roots, and Leaf Piles

If you encourage people with large wooded lots to simply pile their leaves in the woods, rather than piling them in the street where they become a nuisance, a seemingly simple solution becomes complicated by people's fears that the leaf pile will smother the tree roots beneath it. It does seem logical that a thick layer of matted leaves would prevent water and air from reaching the soil.

But if that's so, then why are tree roots perfectly content to grow underneath bikeways and sidewalks? And why have I found tree roots invading the leaf piles I've made over the years?

There are a number of answers. One is that water in soil doesn't alway obey gravity. It wicks upwards from below, and seeps sideways. And a wet leaf will transfer moisture to the leaf just beneath it, and so on down through the pile. Worms feasting on the leaves will create passages for water to penetrate more quickly. So the ground under a thick leaf pile will be supplied with water from the sides, below, and even from the top. A leaf pile, by this logic, would actually serve as a feeding station for the trees, rather than a threat.

If this makes the survival of tree roots under asphalt and leaf piles more comprehensible, there remains a greater mystery, namely, what impedes the movement of warning signals through the human brain? The asphalt at Pettoranello Gardens has been showing signs of heaving for years, and yet no one thought to cut the roots at the edges, so that they wouldn't continue to push upwards. Incremental, silent change seems to activate the "procrastination ... oops, too late" response. A beautiful path along Pettoranello Pond has been rendered hazardous to the bikes it was built for.

Maybe if people piled their leaves on their own properties, town staff would have more time and funding to maintain our bikeways. Just a thought.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Red Cedar Sculpture

Kurt Tazelaar and I were out exploring a part of Herrontown Woods we hadn't been in before, and found a remarkable bit of sculpture--the still standing legacy of an eastern red cedar.

The shape is likely due to it having once stood out in a field, where its lateral branches would have spread wide, feeding on the strong light coming from all directions.

The cedar's long since been overshadowed by larger, deciduous trees, but its decay resistant wood still testifies to its former dominant standing in the landscape.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Teaching an Old Chicken Old Tricks

After a few years, chickens and ducks stop laying eggs. Our peking duck laid one egg per day like clockwork for several years, but stopped suddenly this past fall, even though she still waddles about the yard as robustly as ever. Our one hen remaining from the first batch, bought about four years ago, also stopped laying around the same time.

There followed then a lull of about a month, when we finally gave in and bought a dozen eggs at the grocery. Strange feeling after several years of home grown. Then, just as days were narrowing down to winter solstice, the three chickens we bought this past May came online, began their tour of beneficence, or however you'd like to describe the remarkable generosity that is a hen's nature. Though all are araucanas, one lays brown eggs, while the others lay variations on green and blue.

Then one day in late December a tiny egg appeared, as if a quail had happened by for a brief visit. Sometimes that can mean a chicken has just started laying. I wanted to believe the older white hen had found new inspiration. Hard to say, but if one looks closely enough at the greenish eggs, one can see three different shades, with one grayer, one bluer, and one just possibly from an old hen made newer.

Araucanas are sometimes called "easter egg" chickens, because of the varied colors of their eggs, and sometimes when the eggs aren't showing up in the usual spot in or near the coop, we do a good imitation of an Easter egg hunt searching for their new nest. I hear that Araucanas are also particularly resilient in cold weather. That will be tested this weekend, when temperatures are predicted to dip nearly to 0.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

When Snow Snazzed Up the Morning

Winter's second snow caught us by surprise. I had just put the shovels away, but they were hardly needed, as this snowstorm snazzed up the landscape without snarling traffic, beautifying the morning before fading away in the afternoon sun. The snow added definition to the landscape, revealing the outline of the ephemeral stream that flows from the neighbor's yard down into ours.

making clear the boundaries between aqueous and terrestrial.

Even in a freeze, the chickens can still find water where our tiny stream, a thin blue line on old maps of Princeton, trickles past the sedges.

The fillable, spillable ponds, fed by snowmelt from the roof, received a cheery rim of snow,

and an idea for leaf corral as scroll-shaped sculpture sprang from a shape unseen until the snow gave it a defining presence.

The snow made this fence into an optical illusion (doesn't it look like the photo isn't quite rectangular?),

and even turned unsplit wood into an artful assemblage. If all unfinished work received such ornament, what a beautiful world it would be.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Princeton Ridge Land Preservation Up for Vote

The Friends of Princeton Open Space, my former employer, has sent out the following call for action. Please send emails to the council members below to express your support for preserving 20 acres along the Princeton Ridge.



The acquisition of 20+ acres on the Princeton Ridge, designated in our Master Plan for decades as a critical area to protect, is threatened with defeat on Monday, February 8th. That is when Council votes on a bond ordinance to finance the purchase, the principal of which will be fully reimbursed from the State/Green Acres, County, and Friends of Princeton Open Space with a small amount of remediation funds from the TRANSCO pipeline. Two members of Council would not vote for the ordinance on January 25th because of the governor’s pocket veto of legislation concerning the division of future Green Acres funds among various purposes – an issue that affects only 9% of the funding(about $400,000). A third member believes Princeton already has “enough” open space.

Princeton citizens voted for a dedicated open space tax that can be used for bond financing costs, and to cover the 9% if need be. But there is every reason to believe that these outlays will be reimbursed by Green Acres, even if on a delayed timetable due to the governor’s action. The funds for future open space purchases were constitutionally dedicated by the voters last November.

This property is a critical link between preserved lands on the Ridge to the west and east. It is mature forest, traversed by a stream, with a large beautiful boulder field. It is immediately adjacent to 35 acres of other preserved public and private open space, and accessible from the Mt. Lucas pedestrian/bike path. It provides habitat for threatened and endangered species, and is part of the beautiful forest corridor by which one enters Princeton from Montgomery. IT DESERVES PROTECTION!

Please contact these Council members and tell them you want them to protect our forests, water, wildlife and quality of life by voting for the bond issue:





For more information, call the FOPOS office at 609-921-2772

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Small Aquatic Invasion in Pettoranello Gardens

Walk along the edge of Pettoranello Pond, over near Mountain Lakes in Princeton, and you'll see a band of green slowly expanding along the banks. Five years ago, when I first noticed it, my immediate thought was that a new invasive species had arrived. Even though there was only one small patch, about a yard across, it was easy to extrapolate from the present into a future where the pond water's pleasing reflections would disappear beneath a dense mat of green.

It had stems, so couldn't be duckweed, and was much too small for water lettuce. Google searches yielded nothing similar, which could at least be taken as reassuring that it isn't a widespread menace. With help from Chris Doyle, via Mike Van Clef, we determined that it was water starwort (Callitriche sp.). Seeds would need to be collected later this year to identify the species. Vernal water starwort (C. palustris) is a native species. Pond water starwort (C. stagnalis) was introduced from its native Europe and Africa back in the 19th century, and has been slowly spreading in the U.S.

Though it hasn't spread aggressively across the pond, here's an example of where it has moved beyond the edge into more open waters.

In this photo, you can see the water starwort and, popping up on dry ground, small roundish leaves of the much more aggressive lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) that has become ubiquitous in Pettoranello Gardens and has spread downstream into Mountain Lakes and beyond.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Snowbound Landscapes and Language

Five days after the big snowstorm, and memory finally returns of the comic "Snowbound Language" piece posted two years ago, in which the language becomes as snowbound as the landscape. In the story, Snaddy, his snife, snaughter and snarking snog deal as best they can with the deluge of snow that has laid siege to their snouse. A lexicon for snowbound language can be found in a post called Principitation, which provides names for all the sorts of precipitation that is made special by having fallen on Princeton. There's snuff, snirt, snapples, snazzycakes and snight (snow that falls at night), snizzle and snool. The inspiration was a mix of the extraordinary variety of snow we got in early 2014, which made clear how the Eskimos could develop so many different words for snow, and Victor Borge's classic Inflationary Language, which allows language to inflate along with the economy. Create becomes "crenine", wonderful becomes "twoderful", and sofifth.

The storm this past weekend brought a whole lot of one kind of snow, rather than the crazy variety of formulations that fell two winters ago.

This year's storm made it hard to compost the food scraps in the frontyard Wishing (the earth) Well,

made it look like our house is balding,

made our roofs into glacier-capped mountains,

collaborated with the sun to fashion a shadowy snow angel with the head of hosta seeds,

served up a birdbath snowcone,

fashioned a leaf corral snowman who looks like he should have Pinocchio nose,

and availed itself of the comfort of our lawn furniture. A little sculpting and we'd have a pair of very content snowmen.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Carnegie Ice Before the Snow

Though there are cross-over recreationists who love both skating and skiing, you know you're in the skating camp if an approaching snowstorm brings wistful thoughts of all that gorgeous Carnegie Lake ice about to get covered up.

It wasn't thick enough to skate on, but most of the lake was covered with a glistening smooth initial layer. The winter's brief history, about to be buried under two feet of snow, could be read in the rough ice that got blown into a southeast corner, on the left in the photo.

It told stories of how frozen waves formed, seeming to lap at the hibiscus-lined shore, like a Seward Johnson sculpture,

and of water's restless shifting from solid to liquid and back again, that gathered these chunks together for one in winter's long progression of still-lifes.

Our backyard minipond caught some runoff to make a miniature version of Carnegie Lake, with similar patterns of dark and light ice.

Nice to have H2O as the artist-in-residence in the backyard, with a new snow exhibit about to open, up and down the east coast.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Vine That Bushed the Bush

It looks like a bush,

but it's really a vine.

And this one, too,

is only a vine,
that borrowed the bush, until the bush
was bushed,
and left its structure behind
to be used by the vine.

Whatever it was,
it's Japanese honeysuckle now.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ice Can Be Naughty or Nice

Work with nature, or it can work against us. That's a truth whether the nature is inner or outer.

This backyard minipond swelled in recent rains, then froze to make attractive patterns.

A different scenario plays out on Linden Lane, where a sump pump discharges into the street, creating a hazard. Meanwhile, the high school's sump pump, a few blocks away, plays the role of ecological hero, discharging serendipitously and safely into a detention basin we converted into a wetland that sustains native plants, frogs, and crayfish.

A shrub like buttonbush can grow right in the water of a backyard minipond. The ice patterns arise from the slow seepage of pond water into the underlying clay, causing the ice to sag.
There's a tendency to want to get rid of sump pump water and runoff as quickly as possible, often adding to downstream flooding. More fun, and beauty, comes from a collaborative approach with nature, finding ways to use the water in the landscape.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The "Living Well" Leaf Corral

My sister-in-law, Edna, must have been reading my mind, which was puzzling over possible additional uses for a leaf corral. After being filled in the fall with leaves, a corral needs to sit through to the following autumn before harvesting the rich compost generated within. Snow, rain and decomposition cause the leaves to settle considerably. Might the corral do something more than just sit there through the summer, looking half filled?

Edna answered that unspoken question by sending me a photo of her leaf corral in mid-summer, resplendent with the growth of potatoes. She took some store-bought potatoes that had started to sprout, buried them a few inches down in the pile of leaves, and let the potatoes do the rest. Because the potatoes weren't grown in the standard way in soil, they were much easier to clean. She mentioned having prepped the leaf corral by watering some Milorganite into the leaves, to add nutrients and speed decomposition. A product produced near her suburb of Milwaukee, Milorganite is described on its website as "composed of heat-dried microbes that have digested the organic matter in wastewater." That's a 90 year success story in and of itself, but I'm thinking of skipping the Milorganite in favor of a few shovelfuls of rich dirt or compost sprinkled on top over the winter. With decomposers migrating up from the soil, and nutrients infiltrating down from above, there should be plenty for potato roots to feed on, sustained through droughts by that moist, spongy realm inside a leaf corral.

Riffing on the "Wishing (the earth) Well" name for one of our leaf corrals, the potato-bearing corral can be called the "Living Well", which feeds nutrients back into the earth while growing food out of the top.

Friday, January 08, 2016

The Christmas That Stole Spring

At least in one yard, Princeton had a white Christmas, with snow-covered evergreen and a few inflatable penguins playing hide and seek.

Elsewhere, the 65 degree weather turned a lot of flower buds into suckers--a botanical morphological miracle of sorts. For these cherry-like trees planted along Walnut St., 2016 will be a growing year, with no blooms in spring.

These blossoms fit, at least colorwise, with the wreath on the door in the background.

Winter jasmine (Jasminium nudiflorum) took the warm weather bait. Though considered a vine, it could easily be mistaken for a forsythia shrub in a neighbor's yard on Stanley Ave.

Also showing up for the unexpected party was some heather on the hill,

and sweet alyssum,

and a stray aster over at Westminster's parking lot. Not shown is the asian witch hazels, which also started blooming. Native plant species--all or nearly all--remained dormant.

A flock of robins, drawn north by the warm weather, made a surprise Christmas day visit, in search of any insects beneath the leaves.

On a day made all the more peaceful by a lack of traffic noise, the warm weather drew us out as well, for an evocative, misty walk along the canal.

These oak leaf hydrangia leaves were doing their part to express holiday cheer.

Our thermometer was expressing more the spirit of El Nino.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Grounds Tour and Pawpaw Patch Planting Party Sunday at Veblen House, 2pm

Posted this at VeblenHouse.org, but forgot to post it here.

Tomorrow, Sunday, Jan. 3, come by Veblen House in Herrontown Woods, where our Friends of Herrontown Woods group is hosting a gathering to show off the recent transformation of the Veblen House landscape. Should be a beautiful day, but cool, so dress warmly, and we'll have something warm to drink. In addition to touring the grounds, you can participate in a planting of pawpaws to symbolize new beginnings, not to mention future harvests of delicious tropical-tasting fruits. We'll be there 2-4pm.

Directions: Reach the Veblen House by entering the gravel driveway across from 443 Herrontown Road in Princeton (look for Rotary sign wrapped around a tree), or by taking the trail from the Herrontown Woods parking lot up to the farm cottage (cedar shingle siding) and taking a right through the fence. Veblen House appears as a small white square on this map, north of the parking lot.