Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Thinking (and Action) Behind a Successful Raingarden

In this post, we explore the thinking behind a successful raingarden. Thought has power, in that it sometimes turns into action, and so we will explore the thought behind the action that has made this large native planting thus far succeed.

In this case, it is a detention basin in Smoyer Park that was converted from turf grass into a wet meadow dominated by native prairie grasses with some wildflowers mixed in. Planted by Partners for Fish and Wildlife, this large-scale raingarden appeared sparse its first couple years, but has now grown thick and subtly colorful with time and attention.

Thick, that is, with intended plants, which is not a given when a raingarden is planted. How many gardens of all sorts, no matter how lovely the vision that brought them into being, have been taken over by mugwort, Canada thistle, and other invasive weeds? Having been this raingarden's volunteer caretaker for its first three seasons, as part of my work for Friends of Herrontown Woods, I visited it recently to see what needed to be weeded, and found nearly nothing requiring my attention. For a gardener, this state of affairs is almost unimaginable.

How could this be? Well, it helps to have planted a strong backbone of tall native grasses:

Indian grass

and big bluestem, to claim the space.

The caretaker's job then becomes a matter of influencing what other species come up in the spaces unclaimed by the grasses. Given limited time, a caretaker must learn to recognize each species and know from experience what to weed out and what to leave. Balance, beauty, and diversity are the goals. Some weeds like mugwort, Canada thistle, and crown vetch are notorious for taking over, and so were weeded out early in the game, before they could become too numerous and ruin any chance for diversity and beauty.

Others, like this fluffy-seeded, native but weedy pilewort that is growing lustily around the edge of the meadow, are judgement calls. I left it in, hoping it will behave like lambsquarters--another annual that makes a powerful showing one year but largely disappears the next.

(An example in this raingarden of a species that was numerous one year, gone the next, is black-eyed susan, which was in the original seed mix and generated lots of color before disappearing this year.)

There are a few native perennial wildflowers that have moved in on their own. At this stage, they are relatively few, and add spots of color and late-season nectar. But I don't entirely trust that they will continue to "play well with others." These include late-flowering thoroughwort,

a goldenrod species with narrow leaves,

and frost aster.

Providing bright color earlier in the season was one large specimen of false sunflower (Helianthus helianthoides)--commonly found in seed mixes for wet meadows. In another raingarden some years back I found it to be overly aggressive, but how it will behave here is yet to be seen.

A native annual I wish would spread around more is jewelweed, whose tubular orange flowers serve hummingbirds all summer long, and whose explosive seedpods delight anyone who takes one in their palm and touches it. Usually, the plant is rambunctious enough to survive the insistent browsing of deer, but for now it's huddling against the concrete outlet, chewed down before it can flower.

A "seed bombing" conducted by a girl scout troop in late spring may have been the origin of these young rose-mallow hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos),

and some ironweeds. These are local wildflowers we added to get more color and cater to the pollinators. Both of these can get tall, but may end up being kept low by deer browsing.

One of the pleasures in this wet meadow thus far, surely unnoticed by passersby and hard to photograph, is the clarity, by which I mean one can see inbetween plants all the way to the ground. Low-growing weeds like stiltgrass, carpgrass, ground ivy, and many others tend to muddle the planting, obscuring the ground. This clogged condition, the visual equivalent of listening to a scratchy record, has ecological as well as visual impacts. If the spaces between the bunch grasses are clogged with weeds, ground feeding birds have a harder time navigating, and can become more susceptible to disease from rubbing up against wet foliage.

An encounter with a garden that needs no weeding brings, for an experienced gardener, a mixture of feelings. There's surprise, some quiet pride and elation (that past interventions could have had such a positive effect), and a sense of foreboding. Surely I was missing something.

As it turned out, there was good reason for the foreboding. Getting ready to leave, I spotted a small patch of stiltgrass invading along one edge. Unlike lambsquarters or blackeyed susan, which can be prominent one year, gone the next, stiltgrass is one of the uber-invasives, an annual that grows ever more numerous with time, producing billions of seeds each year. Inedible to wildlife, it creates a stifling appearance, making a planting or whole woodland appear to be blanketed with green cobwebs.

Since its seeds were not yet ripe, I pulled as much as I could find out of the ground, then collected them all and threw them in a nearby woods where stiltgrass had already invaded. The source of the stiltgrass was actually the mowed lawn that surrounds our wet meadow. Given that stiltgrass can grow and seed even though only a few inches tall, the lawn is likely to remain a source of invasion for the foreseeable future. Since the weed prefers moist conditions, the more frequent and heavier rains we are experiencing due to global warming will only make it more aggressive. There continues to be hope that something--a fungus, an insect--will figure out how to consume it and thereby begin to bring stiltgrass into ecological balance, but that wait could be long.

These, then, are the thoughts that fill a wild gardener's mind when visiting a raingarden. Because the aggressive weeds were caught early--nipped in the bud, so to speak--the visits need only come once or twice a month for an hour, even for a wet meadow nearly an acre in size. Knowledge and experience make for strategic, efficient interventions. There's time left over to appreciate the bright flowers of partridge pea and the growing diversity. And it's satisfying to know that in a landscape dedicated to ballfields, a lowly bumblebee or the occasional monarch butterfly will still find some sustaining habitat when visiting Smoyer Park.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Fairy Ring Mushrooms

Princeton's mushroom community has responded well to recent rains. This one's looking like a Lepiota, a poisonous mushroom that can form rings in lawns as the mycelium radiates outward from its beginnings years back.

This one is growing in a remarkably straight line, which somewhat plausibly could be a remnant of a very large circle,

while this grouping is shaped in a half circle. According to this link, the darker grass at the leading edge of the circle is due to the grass's utilizing nitrogen made available by the fungi. Grass on the inside of the circle can be stunted.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Sustainable Jazz Comes to South Brunswick October 5, 8-10

Graphic by Phil Orr

Posted this last week at, but want to mention it here for anyone fancy free on a Friday evening. My Sustainable Jazz group will be performing a two hour show of all original compositions this evening, Friday, October 5, 15 minutes from Princeton, at the South Brunswick Municipal Complex. For those unfamiliar with South Brunswick, there's an address below, but here's a musical version of directions based on some of my compositions: It's not Lejos de Aqui (Far From Here) at all. Just take the Princetonian Thoroughfare over the Funky River (and Route 1), and you'll find yourself In the Company of Friends, with lots of Ruum to Rumba. For videos of Phil and me performing, one of my favorites is Cheery in Theory, along with Funky River.

Our duo of Phil Orr on keyboards and myself on sax and clarinet will have the added dimension of Lars Wendt, with his big sound on trumpet and trombone, and Jason Harris on upright bass. Should be a fun show featuring our newly recorded original jazz, latin, funk, tango, and a rumba thrown in for good measure. Copies of a new recording, Until I Find the Words, will be available at the performance.

Details: Friday, October 5, 8-10pm, South Brunswick Municipal Complex
540 Route 522, Monmouth Junction

Admission $6 at the door - Light refreshments included
Doors open 7:30pm – No reservations, no advance ticket sales

Monday, September 24, 2018

Sunchokes--The Native Sunflower That Stirs Gratitude and Grief

Sunchoke, aka Jerusalem artichoke, or Helianthus tuberosus, is such a neat plant that I never quite manage to eliminate it from our yard. That may sound strange, but the combination of opulent flowers, edible tubers and, less wonderful, a habit of spreading every which way from where they're planted, makes for a mix of affection and exasperation.

This year's unsolicited crop included a plant that grew to 11 feet, holding its flowers high and proud, as if defying autumn's inevitable dousing of summer's riotous blooms. The sunchoke's brilliant display is appealing yet feels a bit out of place, like an overly-enthusiastic late-comer to a party everyone thought was over.

Here's a way to enjoy all that sunchokes have to offer while containing their spreading habit: Get a really big plastic tree pot. Fill with soil, buy some sunchokes at the local healthfood store (Whole Earth has them sometimes through the winter). Cut tubers up into chunks and plant four or five pieces in the pot. Place in a sunny place, either on asphalt or on the ground with a piece of plastic underneath to prevent the roots from spreading into the garden. Keep watered. After the plants have grown, bloomed and died back in the fall, cut the stems and turn the pot upside down, leaving the pot on. You now can lift the pot, pluck a few of the 40+ tubers to eat raw or in a stir fry, and put the pot back on to protect the soil from winter weather. I haven't tried the part about turning it upside down and taking a few at a time, but it would likely work better than harvesting all the sunchokes at the same time and then having to store them.

Other places in town where sunchokes thrive are Chambers and Robeson,

and also Harrison Street Park, where they have taken over a raingarden we planted in a swale at the end of the field. The sunchokes are outcompeting two other species of sunflower we put there, and in a couple years may well swallow the bench. Each year I think of covering the sunflowers over with big sheets of cardboard, to eliminate all the aggressive spreaders while saving what few JoePyeWeeds and other non-aggressive natives may still persist, but I don't get around to it. One has to be scrupulous, persistent, eschewing all sentimentality lest some little sprig of sunchoke survive to reassert utter dominance over time. In the wild, sunflowers do not dominate like this because they are growing amongst other native plants just as aggressive.

In other plant news at Harrison Street Park, a couple rare native trees called butternuts are thriving, if not as yet bearing butternuts. They've been laid low in the wild by an imported disease, and our local nut tree expert, Bill Sachs, is working to bring them back.

The two at the park have an interesting way of splaying out around six feet high into multiple stems of similar strength, rather than maintaining a strong central trunk.

One survivor from the older generation of trees in the park is hosting a dense vertical stand of English ivy. Like the native poison ivy, English ivy doesn't bloom unless it's able to climb.

The flowers provide nectar for the monarchs migrating south, but any resulting berries probably get delivered to neighboring yards by the birds, making for yet another plant that, whatever its charms, must be deterred from its relentless spread.

Friday, September 21, 2018

August's Peak Bloom of Native Wildflowers

It's been gratifying lately to hear testimonials from friends and acquaintances about the joy they've found in replacing some of their lawn with wildflowers. Though we have a few non-native flowers in the garden, there's a predominance of local genotypes of native wildflowers found growing wild in Princeton. The ones shown here are well adapted for wet ground, so have flourished in this summer's consistently recurrent rains. Here are some photos from the peak bloom in August, when the garden was positively rocking with flowers.
Autumn Helenium - Helenium autumnale

Front to back: Cutleaf coneflower, jewelweed, wild senna, Joe Pye Weed

Front to back: Boneset, rosemallow hibiscus, Joe Pye Weed, boneset, wild senna

Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

A mix of Joe Pye Weed and cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

RoseMallow Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa)

Hibiscus and cutleaf coneflower

Cutleaf coneflower, Hibiscus moscheutos, Joe Pye Weed

Boneset, Hibiscus, Joe Pye Weed

Monday, September 17, 2018

Oh Great! A Rice Weevil Infestation

They first appeared as specks on the floor when I was cleaning up the sunroom, which functions as a sort of mudroom where we store garden supplies, boots and charcoal. I had been cleaning out a plastic bin that held bags of long neglected birdseed and potting soil, plus whatever shoes and other items that had gotten thrown on top. The bugs looked harmless enough--small, slow moving--but they were a strange shape. For a moment I entertained the possibility that we were hosting a newly imported species, potentially invasive, that somehow had found its way into our house. But that thought seemed far too dramatic. I shrugged, figured they'd go away, and moved on to other tasks. A week or two later, my daughter found one climbing on the kitchen wall. I squashed it and continued cooking.

Then, one evening, a few of them appeared on the surface of a pot of hot water that I'd just poured a box of pasta into. That was the wakeup call. The pasta got thrown out, and an internet search began. They had weevil-like snouts, which was just enough information for the internet to work its magic. A search for "weevil, kitchen" instantly provided the answer: rice weevils.

That precipitated a closer look at the bag of birdseed that had sat largely unused in the sunroom for many months. "Economy mix," it said on the label, clearly one of those false economies where you get lots of birdseed for the price, and they throw the rice weevils in as a bonus.

The weevils had had abundant time to lay their eggs in the seeds, which provide the nourishment the larva need until they are ready to emerge as adults through holes in the seed coating. The bag should have been labeled "Rice Weevil Feed."

It was unnerving to learn that the weevils can fly, which may explain how they got up to the cupboards, where they infiltrated various boxes and bags of food.

There our detailed instructions on the internet for dealing with a rice weevil infestation. In my case, the bag of birdseed was poured into a vat of water outside to kill the weevils, then added to the compost with the food from the kitchen, far from the house; the packaging was put in a plastic bag and put in the trash.

All in all, it was a good motivation to clean the cupboards after years of accumulation. Haven't seen the tiny weevils since, but for the time being, all food in paper packaging is being stored elsewhere in the house, away from the kitchen. We were never very good at keeping the birdfeeder filled. Better in our case to keep feeding the birds indirectly, through all the seeds generated by the wildflower garden.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Great Princeton Garden

Update, Oct/2021: The life of Dorothy Mullen, 1955-2020, will be celebrated at Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville on Oct. 30, beginning at 10am. Here's a link to watch via zoom. I wrote a song called Dorothy's Garden after seeing Dorothy for the last time. The song on the video starts about two minutes in. 

Update, August 18, 2019: Dorothy tells her story in a wonderful article in US1, and gets honored with a proclamation by the Princeton school board, starting at about 26:23 in this video. It's very moving, as many people speak of the impact Dorothy, her gardening and the Suppers program have had on their lives. As reported in the article, Dorothy has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

One of Princeton's great gardens is Dorothy Mullen's. For many years she managed the educational gardens at Riverside Elementary, which eventually became integrated into the school's curriculum.  Now she focuses on her own garden, using its produce for her Suppers program. Many people dabble in gardening, but Dorothy is hardwired to care for gardens, keeping them in beautiful shape year after year. The more she vanquishes weeds one year, the fewer seeds in the soil to sprout new weeds the next. Eventually, the soil loses its "memory" of weeds.

An unsuspecting passerby on Patton Avenue will be greeted by a figure enrobed in runner beans who seems to take the leguminous embrace well, with a gesture that says "Why not?"

Why not, the statue seems to say, why not convert your whole lawn to garden?

Why not mix raised beds of vegetables

with wildflowers beds?

Why not grow fig trees that actually bear figs?

And why not invite passersby to help themselves to a sample of food or flower? Forgot your scissors? There's a pair provided, protected from the elements by a plastic bag. Like a screened porch that has elements of indoors and outdoors, the garden mixes elements of private and public. Dorothy does gardens right.

(photos taken in mid-August)

Saturday, September 01, 2018

In Memory of a Man Who Maintained a Nature Trail

This post is dedicated to the memory of Henry Tuliszewski. I never met him and just learned his name, but for years he made possible my and others' enjoyment of nature down along Carnegie Lake. A resident of Princeton, he was the man who remembered to mow the nature trail loop that branches off of the DR Canal towpath near its Harrison Street crossing.

A recurring theme on this blog is the importance of something that too often goes unsung: the ongoing maintenance that quietly sustains the quality of and access to urban nature. We tend to take many aspects of civilization for granted, but nothing lasts without care, and the same pertains to natural areas whose balance often now depends on human intervention. Many examples have been given here, of how interventions that are minimal, yet strategic and informed can sustain beautiful, diverse habitats.

The loop trail that Mr. Tuliszewski mowed is one of the success stories. For twelve years, its meanders have provided a diversion from the straight and narrow of the canal's towpath, on a 6 foot wide mowed path bordered by native wildflowers, grasses, and all the insects and birds they attracted.

Part of the trail's beauty is how it came to exist. Owned by Princeton University but maintained by the staff of DR Canal State Park, the broad fields there along the towpath were getting mowed weekly during the summer. When I pointed out that the area being mowed was actually packed with native wildflowers, the state park staff shifted to annual mowing, allowing the wildflowers a chance to grow and mature each year. The staff then created a lovely trail through these meadows, and installed a sign.

The trail is as old as this blog, whose first post had a picture much like this one, taken of the cutleaf coneflowers bordering the towpath in their first year of bloom near the nature trail's entrance. The many species of wildflowers growing here, their flowering due largely to thoughtful maintenance, have provided seed to expand their populations to other areas of Princeton, most recently at Herrontown Woods.

Thoughtful mowing's as important as the blooming, since only regular mowing keeps the towpath and nature trail passable. Over the years, the nature trail loop's meanders have deepened, to dodge newly fallen trees. Each shift, I noticed, was done in such a way as to make the trail more interesting.

Dropping by a week ago, for the first time this summer, I was surprised to find that the nature trail loop was not getting mowed. Though hikers and joggers have still been trying to use it, one section has nearly been swallowed by the fast growing porcelainberry, underscoring how invasive species can increase the effort required to maintain trails.

I contacted Stephanie Fox, a resource interpretive specialist who supervises care of the DR Canal State Park, and she responded with the sad news that Henry Tuliszewski had died.

Instantly, the meaning of the flowers blooming along the unmowed trail changed. With gratitude for his many years of quiet service, anonymous until now, these photos of Joe-Pye-Weed and ten foot tall Cutleaf Coneflower are for Mr. Tuliszewski, affectionately known to his coworkers as Buzzy.

An obituary can be found here.