Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Work Behind a Natural-looking Meadow--Smoyer Park in Princeton

Sometimes, maybe most of the time, natural takes work. This goes for both nature and human nature. Most people will look at this wet meadow, with its stand of ironweed set off by goldenrod in the distance, and think it burst spontaneously from the ground, fully formed. But that's not the case. 

There are places where native diversity happens without intervention. I've known a few, where the original hydrology is intact, and introduced species have yet to invade, and fire is allowed to sweep through periodically and beneficially, as in ancient times, and the soil still holds within it the seeds to feed all the stages of succession, from field to shrubland to forest. 

But not here in the middle of Smoyer Park, which had been a farm before it became ball fields. Plowed, regraded, planted with exotic turf grasses, this land had long since lost its native seed bank. Soil has a memory, as do we, composed of all the seeds that have fallen there and have yet to sprout. That memory is erased when plowed or bulldozed, as so much of America has been. Into the void will fall the seeds of mostly nonnative, weedy species that will lead to discouraging results for anyone who tries a romantic "just let it all grow" approach. 

Bringing back natural, then, takes work. For an analogy, think of all the parenting needed to raise a child, all the emotions that need to be understood, the impulses that need to be steered in a healthy direction, all the parts of self that can get buried and forgotten along the way. There's plenty that can go wrong during that perilous journey to adulthood, and if it does, even more intervention is needed to regain that sense of comfort within one's own skin. 

Nature has been profoundly traumatized, and yet many people somehow expect it to spring back without ongoing assistance. As with parenting, it's hard to have success in the absence of love. Most of the world's love and attention is directed somewhere other than towards nature, which explains why our suburban landscapes seldom receive more than custodial care--weekly visits of mow, blow, and go by crews indifferent to the land and its promise. 

This photo shows what the wet meadow looked like just after it was planted with native grasses and wildflowers four years ago. Many would assume that nothing more was needed to create a healthy meadow, and would have walked away thinking "mission accomplished." But as with a baby, birth is really just the beginning. I looked upon the detention basin's bare expanse, seeds planted but yet to sprout, with an eye for all that could go right and all that could go wrong. Over time, it has taken only a couple hours of attention now and then to steer the planting in the right direction, but those few strategic hours, catching problems early, has made a big difference. In a sense, the planting resides within me. It is part of my internal calendar, rising into my thoughts often enough to prompt action. 

Here is an account of the many kinds of plants that can make things go right or wrong when a detention basin is converted from exotic turfgrass to native meadow. (Click on the "read more" to continue.)

Monday, October 19, 2020

Fall is Burstin' Out All Over

After the heavy hitters of late summer are past--the Hibiscus, coneflowers, bonesets, et al--it's easy to think the season of native wildflowers is over, but this fall has been a surprise in the beauty and variety that nature held in reserve for these sweet autumn days. 

One that's been a big hit at Herrontown Woods is Hearts-a-bustin', though I prefer to call it Hearts-a-burstin', because when I see it my heart does more burstin' than bustin'. 

This native euonymus (E. americanus) would be a common shrub in the forest if not for the deer, who love to eat it, stem and all. They keep it browsed down to a couple inches high, so we had to take some of those and grow them out in cages so that visitors could see the ornamental seed capsules on the shrubs, one of which has risen to eight feet thus far. It helps, too, for the ornamental seed production, if it's growing in a clearing where the trees aren't hogging all the direct sunlight, like our Princeton Botanical Art Garden.

A little earlier in the fall when the capsules were just starting to open, you could see why it is also called strawberry bush. 

A solitary white snakeroot is growing near a Hearts-a-burstin' planted behind Veblen House. It can easily be confused with boneset and late-flowering thoroughwort. When I first moved to Princeton almost 20 years ago, white snakeroot was common in some areas, even weedy, being one of the few native wildflowers that deer didn't eat, but it seems much less common now. 

A few fall flowers in Herrontown Woods manage to bloom despite deep shade. Wood asters adorn some of the trails, 

occasionally accompanied by a wreath goldenrod.

More subtle is beechdrops, which parasitizes beech tree roots rather than producing its own nourishment through photosynthesis.

Along a busy street in a frontyard raingarden fed by runoff from the roof, blue mistflower blooms profusely for an extended period while staying low. 
New England aster also brings color to the garden late in the season.

The white of late-flowering thoroughwort makes a good foil for New England aster's rich color.

Another cloud of white late in the season comes from what I call frost aster. Because it can become too numerous, I would in the past make plans to enjoy the bloom, then cut it down and remove it before the seeds were released. But once it's bloomed, it quickly fades into the background of landscape and thought, foiling the best of intentions to control. 

Turtlehead grows quietly and unobtrusively during the summer, bending around other plants to attain its tall, skinny, awkward state of maturity. The blooms make for a top-heavy look, but this year were solidly ornamental.

Indian grass is particularly pretty when growing in a distinctive clump, rather than crowded in a field. Like many prairie grasses, it responds beautifully to the wind.
Bottlebrush grass is more of an understory grass, and unlike most native grasses it gets an early start in the spring. 

This one's called woolgrass, for its wooly appearance, but is actually a sedge, with edgy triangular stems. Unlike most native sedges that get an early start in the spring and move quickly to flower, woolgrass takes its time, gaining more height and slowly developing its inflorescence, which is ornamental at all stages, particularly when backlit. Though typically found growing on wet ground, it has been thriving through our wetter summers when planted upland as well, as here in the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

There are many species of native sunflower. They can make a big and very welcome show in the fall after other tall yellow wildflowers like cutleaf coneflower and cupplant have faded. A powerline right of way in the Sourlands preserve is one of the few places where they really show their stuff around here.

In North Carolina, they had names like "giant," "showy," "woodland," and a rare one called "Schweinitzii." I knew giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) from only one derelict patch growing along a roadside outside of town, and decided to do it and myself a favor by taking a tiny bit of the patch and planting it in my garden and in a sunny opening in a nature preserve I managed in town. As often happens, what seemed like a species on the brink in the wild turned out to be prolific and expansive in the garden. 

The sunflower in the photo, though, is sunchoke, a sunflower that has long carried the name Jerusalem artichoke. Each year, I think I'll eat its tubers, which I don't, even though they have an appealing nutty flavor when eaten raw, and can work well in a stirfry. And each spring, I attempt to pull out every last sprout, tired of its aggressive underground spread. Then in the fall, longing for summer blooms to continue, I am thankful to find that my eradication efforts have once again failed to completely stem the tide. 

These are some of the flowers that ease the transition from summer's glory to a palette of browns and grays. Let their colors, and the rich spectrum of autumn leaves, penetrate deep into your soul, to carry you through the winter to come.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Autumn in a Vase

As autumn has evolved, so have the bouquets that appear on counters and tables in our house. 

I'm content that the flowers in the front and back gardens feed the pollinators and produce some seed and beauty, but my wife invites them inside in various congregations. Plants have always been easier to photograph than people, and especially now, given that they don't need to social distance. 

The yellow is autumn Helenium, and the long strands in the back are white vervain, which looks scraggly in the garden, with tiny white flowers barely noticeable, but in a vase takes on an artistic effect.

The frost asters in this bouquet (white) are weedy native that can get too numerous but has shown its glorious side this fall. The burgundy colored disks are a common stonecrop that's not native but has a very long ornamental trajectory, going from green to pink to burgundy to chocolate, and keeping its form through the winter.
This one adds blue mistflower, goldenrod, and one of the many kinds of sunflowers. The sunflowers don't last very long in a vase.
A week or two later, turtlehead got added in (white tubular flower).
The pink/purple is New England Aster. 

We have so many flowers in the garden that no matter how many end up in vases, there will still be enough to produce seed for new plantings elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Algae Impersonators at Smoyer Park Pond

For most, perhaps all of the summer, open water was only a memory at Smoyer Park's pond. In its place was a layer of green, molded into static swirls that blotted out what in previous years had been a play of light and wind on water. It's like closing the curtain on a stage.

Though I'd seen a pond in North Carolina similarly coated shore to shore, the disappearance of open water in Smoyer Park came as a surprise. What was it, and had it happened before? One regular walker in the park said it had never been as bad as this year. 

An older photo from early September, 2014 shows just a little algae or algae-like growth accumulated along the shore, offering more evidence that this year is different. 

I mention "algae-like" because not all accumulations of green growth on ponds are algae, as became more evident as we took a closer look at this year's green growth in Smoyer Park's pond.

The closer look was prompted by a link in a Sustainable Princeton email to an NJ Spotlight article about the increasing number of lakes in NJ beset by harmful algal growth, and the likely link to nutrient pollution flowing into waterways from fertilized lawns, farm fields, and pavement. We tend to think of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus as beneficial, but excess nutrients in nature tend to cause harmful chain reactions. In a waterway, they can lead to blooms of algae, which then die and decompose, sucking up the dissolved oxygen needed by fish. Some species of algae produce toxins, such as those alleged to have recently killed hundreds of elephants in Africa.

I contacted Jenny Ludmer, who lives near the park and takes a great interest in local nature, and suggested the possibility that a new algae might be causing the excessive coverage in Smoyer Park. As an example of recent changes, a strange algae has shown up in early spring in one of my backyard miniponds the past couple years. I also looked up the once pristine lake of my childhood, Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and found that algal growth stimulated by rising temperatures and nutrient pollution, plus an invasive plant named starry stonewort, are now interfering with boating and swimming.

Jenny and I discussed whether the green was duckweed or algae. She took another look and sent this photo that made it look like the duckweed had been coated in a layer of green goo. Concerned about the potential for toxins, she also sent some photos to the state DEP, which promptly dispatched someone to take a sample. It sure looked like algae, and yet the state report showed "HAB not present," meaning no harmful algal bloom. They found a little Cylindrospermopsis--a cylinder-shaped blue-green algae--and not much more.

Finally, I returned to the coated waters of Smoyer Park for a closer look. Was it algae that was cheating us of any reflection of the sweetgums now turning glorious colors on the far shore?
A closeup of the surface showed scattered duckweed, but something else as well, much smaller and much more numerous. 
The small green particles were gritty to the touch. The internet, as usual, offered an instant answer: watermeal, in the genus Wolffia, which includes what wikipedia calls "the smallest flowers on earth."

It's a native species, but can be expansionist in its behavior. Warming waters and runoff from chemical fertilizer used on lawns in the small watershed that feeds the pond are some potential causes of this year's "over the top" growth. 

Smoyer Park's is not the only pond having this problem. Brooklyn Botanic Garden included a small pond in a stream corridor they carved into their grounds a few years ago. Their pond's first two years of existence were marred by rampant algal growth, but this year, its watermeal that has moved in. They are hoping that over time, nature's checks and balances will take hold. But the example of an older pond like Smoyer Park's suggests that time is no longer the mender it once was.

For anyone wanting to report potentially toxic algae outbreaks, there's a form at this link.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Autumn Clematis and the Really Big Show

Even now, as the flowers begin to fade, 

autumn clematis makes this lamppost look like it's wearing a voluminous fur coat. 
It's been a good year for autumn clematis, whose big floristic show revved up in these parts nearly a month ago, caught in a photo where a cascade of flowers-to-be was piggybacking on a neighbor's fenceline. 

There is great appeal in the blooms, and yet this vine should come with a warning sign.

In my mind, though not in the garden, I pair the nonnative Autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) with the native virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana), which also has white flowers and a sprawling habit. An easy way to tell the two apart is the leaves, which are toothed in the native, rounded in the nonnative. The native's flowering comes earlier in the summer and lasts a week rather than a month.

Together they tell a familiar story, in which the native has become comparatively rare. Years back, I took this rarity to mean that the native was less aggressive, but in fact the native when planted in the garden has proven just as hard to control as the introduced species. While sending up vines that grow over other plants, as you'd expect of a vine, both also spread underground, popping up in all sorts of places where you had other plans. 

Why is it the nonnative that can be seen covering a whole side of an abandoned parking lot in Montgomery north of Princeton? 
or lining the road to Cape May Point State Park? 

There are books that claim that nonnative invasive species are somehow superior to the natives, and that we should embrace these "winners" rather than counter them. Hopefully that dubious premise has faded into obscurity, unlike so many other dubious premises that now strut their stuff on the national stage.

More likely, the autumn clematis's capacity to grow unhindered is due to its unpalatability to deer and other wildlife. That would explain why the native virgin's bower is rare in local nature preserves while it runs rampant in my garden in town, where deer seldom venture. 

Periodically, I head down the great eastern piedmont from Princeton to North Carolina, where I've been involved with saving some rare habitat known as piedmont prairie. This small remnant on the outskirts of Durham, NC contains a clematis that will seem odd to anyone accustomed to clematis being a vine. This one, called curly top, Clematis ochroleuca, grows a foot or two tall in full sun and special soils formed from the underlying diabase rock. Princeton has lots of diabase rock along its ridge, which also hosts rare species, though not the same ones as in NC. 

The name "curly top" might come from the way the flowers curl downward, or from the curly seedheads that are also characteristic of the more common kinds of clematis. 
Another clematis in the piedmont prairies of NC is leatherflower, Clematis viorna, a small vine whose flower also points downward. 

Witness a high quality piedmont prairie, and you'll see how rich and diverse an intact native habitat can be. Though cheated of the periodic fires that used to sustain them, prairie remnants have persisted here and there, mostly under roadside powerlines where trees were not allowed to shade them out. I've rescued plants from a few that were being lost to development, and marveled at how each shovelful would contain four or five species. Nature was demonstrating how co-evolution moves towards a rich coexistence. Presumably, each species is limited in some way, most likely by herbivory, from running roughshod over the others. 

Witness that, and a monoculture of autumn clematis will look both showy and disturbing. 

Friday, September 04, 2020

A Monarch Butterfly Status Report

Around mid-summer, I begin wondering how the monarchs are doing. Last summer, in 2019, they were more numerous than usual in the Princeton area, and as I googled for news of their numbers in 2020, it was with the expectation that their population was on the upswing. Surprisingly, their overwintering numbers in the mountains west of Mexico City were down dramatically. The count comes out in March, just before they begin their journey north, and was down by half compared to the winter of 2018/19. 

The low count this past winter was due in part to less than favorable migration weather last fall. Warm weather in the north delayed migration southward, and a drought in Texas left little nectar for the monarchs as they funneled through Texas on their way to Mexico. From Princeton, that flight is about 2500 miles, powered by the liquid sunlight of nectar.

This summer, I saw one every few days. Here's a male visiting Joe Pye Weed in our backyard. 

You can tell it's a male by those two spots on the back wings. 

The monarch has a delicate look, but a powerful flight. A single beating of the wings sends it rocketing forward at unexpected speed. 

One of summer's finest moments can be spent watching a monarch navigate a garden. In our backyard, masses of variously sized wildflowers form a kind of mountain range with peaks and valleys that the monarch masterfully navigates just above. Turning on a dime, coasting, darting this way and that, the monarch's flight can seem like whimsy, or an incredibly efficient and complete survey of a garden. 

Sometimes a monarch visits every section of our garden without landing, then heads off. What was it looking for? A mate? A milkweed to lay eggs on? Clearly not nectar that other more predictable insects are busy feasting upon. Oftentimes, the monarch's motivations are an enigma.

One time this summer, I witnessed a monarch whose intent was very clear. In the "Veblen Circle" of wildflowers at the botanical garden we're creating next to the parking lot at Herrontown Woods, there's a mix of purple and common milkweeds in sufficient numbers to satisfy a monarch caterpillar's voracious appetite. Yet until this summer, I had never seen a female monarch land on one.

August 7, however, a monarch came along and perched on the side of a leaf, then bent its abdomen around and under to lay an egg on the underside. All I had was an iPhone to record the moment, and didn't dare get close enough for a good photo, lest the monarch be distracted from its mission.

Though we can witness, appreciate, and take small steps to support any monarchs that come along, our capacity to influence their destiny is limited. As Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor explains on his highly detailed blog, "High numbers in the northeast do not translate to high overwintering numbers." In other words, we can support monarchs by planting milkweed and other wildflowers, but their fate is largely being determined by weather and land management playing out elsewhere.

A 2019 New Yorker article with a less than auspicious title, "The Vanishing Flights of the Monarch Butterfly," quotes Chip Taylor describing how a banner year in 2018 was largely due to the favorable weather the monarchs experienced at various stages in their migration. With humanity still on its climate-radicalizing fossil fuel treadmill, and massive misuse of herbicides killing milkweed in farm country, the cards are increasingly stacked against monarchs getting lucky with the weather. The "inland hurricane" that swept through Iowa in August seemed an example of the increasing extremes the monarchs face.

Still, there is the delicate, improbable power of their flight, and the promise of an egg. Nature is incredibly resilient if given a chance. There are raingardens to plant and milkweed to propagate. Common and purple milkweeds spread underground, making it easy to dig one up and start a new planting that will soon expand on its own. So much tears at the foundations of our world. Let the odds be what they may, to care and to act defines who we are. 

The best source I've found thus far for updates on monarch status, and potential for participating in a larger effort, is the Journey North website:

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Video Tour: An Intro To Steve's Garden

A video tour to help you gain acquaintance with the classic native wildflowers of mid-summer in Princeton. The video is a good companion to the previous post, Wildflowers of August. 

Wildflowers of August

Sound the trumpets! The main course of summer's feast of flowers is underway. Time to gather them into one big blogpost bouquet.  This collection is gathered from my backyard and from the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

Rose mallow hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa)
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium sp) in the background, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) in the foreground.

Cutleaf coneflower (Ratibida laciniata)
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), with some bottlebrush grass on the left.
Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) -- a sedge that grows taller and matures later than most native sedges
 Groundnut (Apios americana)