Thursday, June 6, 2024

Plant Sales Begin at the Barden

Many of the plants that pop up in the pathways of the Botanical Art Garden (Barden) are native. We call these plants "volunteers", and have begun potting them up for sale. Everything about our little plant nursery has to do with reuse: the plants, the pots, the pallets we use to display the plants, and the collected rainwater we use to water them.

Come to May's Cafe this Sunday, June 9, 9-11am, and check out our selection. 

Currently in stock:

Sundrops (see photo below)

Shrubby St. Johnswort



Wild Senna

Sensitive Fern (see photo below)

Mountain Mint


Evening Primrose

Enter the Barden next to the kiosk and follow the path straight up. The plant nursery is next to one of the sheds, to the right of the gazebo. Many of these native plants are local genotypes. 

Sundrops is a lower growing perennial that spreads slowly and provides bright yellow flowers in June.  
Though Sensitive fern is sensitive to frost and drought, it is a robust native that spreads slowly to create a lush groundcover. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Welcome FOHW's First Summer Intern

Thanks to a grant from a local charity, Green Matters, FOHW has hired its first summer intern! 

Meet Sandy Shiff, who has just finished her first day of work at Herrontown Woods. Sandy's a rising junior at Boston University who has returned home for the summer. We started with what all gardeners spend considerable time doing: weeding. There were some garlic mustards left to pull before they go to seed, and some path rush to dig out of the Barden's pathways.

Sandy's a quick study, and was soon potting up plants to sell in our expanding plant nursery. Many native wildflowers pop up in the pathways of the Barden, begging to be given a new life somewhere that's not underfoot.

Sandy helped organize and label the rescued plants, which now sit in reused pots on reused pallets in the repurposed spaces of the Barden. Somehow I think she's going to help us do many things that hadn't quite gotten done before.

Note: A shout out to our volunteer extraordinaire, Bill Jemas, for helping us apply for the grant funding.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Our 2024 Earthday Celebration--a Recap

Though the day began with a light sprinkle, by mid-morning we had a cool but comfortable day, as several hundred people came to enjoy the woods, five walks, good food, and many exhibits, both at the Barden and up at Veblen House. This was the third Herrontown Woods Earthday celebration--the brainchild of board member Inge Regan, developed in collaboration with the Princeton Public Library, with lots of ideas and organizational effort added by board members Shefali Shah, Pallavi Nuka, Nicole Bergman, Scott Sillars, and Adrian Colarruso. We held it a week early, April 13, to avoid overlap with other Earthday celebrations in Princeton. 

Herrontown Woods' Earthday 2024 began with a 9am frog and flower walk led by Princeton native Fairfax Hutter. Kids crowded around to see crowds of newly hatched wood frog tadpoles in the vernal pool.
Then I led a tree walk through what I'm calling the "Valley of the Giants"--accessed via a new trail meant to show off some particularly large tulip trees, oaks, and ironwoods that thrive on a seepage slope along the ridge. It took six of us to fully hug this tulip tree. 

The photo was taken by Alastair Binnie, who has been donating his time, funds, and organizational capacities to create a Tour of Trees for Herrontown Woods. During the walk, we used our phones to access an inventory of some 300 tagged trees that Alastair had just posted on the FOHW website. 
The tree walk ended on the Veblen House grounds, where kids and adults quickly became immersed in various displays. The Princeton Public Library helped promote our Earthday celebration. Their staff and volunteers hosted a table and later held a story hour for kids. 
Beekeeper Allison Gratton had many stories to tell about honeybees, 
and some wonderful products made by the bees, including some honeycomb from the remains of a wild beehive we had found in a fallen tree this past winter, and the heavenly smelling propolis that bees use for glue. 
Bhavya, a Princeton High School student who has been studying vernal pools in Herrontown Woods, hosted a table on salamanders. Earlier in the spring, FOHW organized a Princeton Salamander Crossing Brigade that involved Bhavya and other PHS students in helping amphibians cross the road to reach their breeding grounds. 

Philip Poniz shared his knowledge of mushrooms, edible and not. He and his family have a long tradition of collecting edible mushrooms. 
One of the tree walk participants collected the wild onions that pop up in the lawn. They are not native, and we think of them as weeds, but he and his family use them like chives for cooking. 
Nicole Bergman hosted her fabulous May's Cafe at the Barden. 
The popular restaurant Ficus donated some savory sandwiches to go with Nicole's sweets and coffee. 
Sophie of FloreOrganicBotanics sold pressed flowers, donating some of the proceeds to FOHW. 

FOHW board member Adrian Colarusso led a fun children's walk, past the streamside skunk cabbage and the ping pong/skeleton barn, up to the Veblen House grounds in time for the story hour presented by the Princeton Public Library staff. Photo from Town Topics.

An afternoon geology walk was led by not one, not two, not three, but four geologists from Princeton University. Thanks to Lincoln Hollister, Blair Schoene, Laurel Goodell and Frederik Simons for explaining some of the deep history of Herrontown Woods and the Princeton ridge. 

Meanwhile, fritillarias and primrose bloomed in the Veblen House garden. The most gratifying thing for me was seeing how much fun kids were having, clambering over rocks on the cascades, watching the tadpoles, listening to stories. The many talents and interests brought to bear in organizing the event are a reflection of the many dimensions of Herrontown Woods itself, where flowers, trees, geology, amphibians, and multiple cultural histories come together. 

We took a group photo of the geology walk, with the boulder field in the background. Back in the Barden, people lingered long after the 3pm finish time, in a kind of afterglow. A
special day at Herrontown Woods.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Barden Egg Hunt Brings Delight

Not every Easter egg hunt features a bagpiper striding down the Barden path, leading a procession of children to a table of games and goodies. But then, not every egg hunt is led by Mathilde Burlion, who honed her bagpipe chops in the south of France, where music is part of the spring migration up the slopes of the Pyrenees to higher pastures, though probably sans bunny ears. 

Working at the Barden as part of our weekly Sunday morning stewardship session, pulling weeds and propagating native plants, I could still pick up on the joy of the event. Written on the children's faces was that look of anticipation and concentration as they headed down a pathway to begin the search, basket in hand. The Barden has never been so thoroughly scrutinized by young eyes as it was during the search for hidden eggs. 

Part of the event happened the day before, when kids and adults gathered to paint the eggs and hide them. Some of the plastic eggs held candy, but others held little treasures that, when gathered together Sunday at the table in the gazebo, were incorporated into art projects. 

One of the boys, having helped hide eggs the previous day, hid them so well that only he could find them. That allowed him to come late on Sunday and still find some eggs. Nice strategy. 

The many egg hunt activities slowly gave way to adults and families out for a Sunday walk on a lovely cool day. Helping out before and during the event was our part-time caretaker, Andrew Thornton, whose combination of work ethic and whimsy adds so much to the Barden experience. Thanks to everyone who helped make this such a delightful community event.

Wood Dragons, Lanterns, and Song--Celebrating the Chinese New Year

February 24 was a very special day at the Botanical Art Garden in Herrontown Woods.  Community celebrations of the Chinese New Year had begun two weeks prior, when in the morning sun, the air cool and crisp, dragons began to appear in the Barden, first on the gazebo, 

then on a small leaning tree. 
Another dragon strode down the wooden bridge fashioned years ago from fallen trees.
By mid-afternoon, people had gathered, too, some 200 in all, for a dragon parade, traditional Chinese songs and games, and a tea party--all part of a festive community gathering in nature.
To the beat of red Chinese drums, children and adults carrying colorful dragons paraded through the winding paths of the Botanical Art Garden, known as “the Barden.” Children sang traditional new year songs, guests enjoyed tea and tangerines, and the Herrontown Woods visitors played traditional games like jianzi and ribbon dancing.

Some of the more adventurous participants joined FOHW president Steve Hiltner for a lantern walk up to Veblen House. 

The event was the brain child of Danni Zhao, who founded United Moms and recently completed a PhD in economics at Princeton University. She was inspired by the nature of Herrontown Woods, and also by the nature of this especially auspicious year of the wood dragon. Again, from the Town Topics article:
“The wood dragon, known for its cooperative, upbeat, and understanding nature, symbolizes a year of growth and stability, especially in relationships,” Zhao wrote in a press release. “It brings both the promise of fortune and new opportunities according to the Chinese zodiac. This made our event at Herrontown Woods particularly special, blending the wood dragon’s symbolism with the serene beauty of nature.”

Danni teamed with FOHW board member Inge Regan, and as they worked together over several weeks the event took shape.

Though this was probably the largest event we have hosted to date at the Botanical Art Garden, there was no sense of overcrowding, as kids and adults spread down the many paths that wind through the grounds, exploring the Barden's numerous nooks and crannies.  
After an afternoon of joyful processions 'round the gazebo and down the garden path, this dragon collapsed on a table for a well-deserved rest. 

One doesn't usually think of February as a time for outdoor events, but somehow the weather felt just right. Coats and dragons helped keep us warm.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Dinosaur Tracks Found in Excavated Rocks Near Herrontown Woods

In 2023, the development of a woodlot at the corner of Van Dyke and Snowden Lane was finally begun. As heavy equipment graded the site, excavations of underlying sedimentary rock yielded a giant pile of rocks that sat for months near the road. One day, Lisa Boulanger, a Herrontown Woods neighbor with an interest in dinosaurs and geology, took a closer look at the rocks, and found several fossils, including a dinosaur footprint.

Here is her description of what she found, sent to me in an email in June. The upper Triassic is a geologic periodic that ended 200 million years ago. She said that fossils were also found in a similar excavation for the Princeton University library years ago. 
"Attached are some photos of rocks from the Prentice Woods construction site on Snowden Lane, near Herrontown Woods. Excavation for basements exposed part of the Newark Supergroup, the Passaic formation, that is from the upper Triassic. (Interestingly the same Newark formation cuts right through the center of CT, where I grew up, so the rocks are very familiar-looking.)

I split one slab and got the positive and negative of what may be a partial print from some kind of vertebrate, but it's not well-preserved enough to tell what.

I knew they were hitting some layers that had been ancient shoreline, because I found shoreline ripples in the stone.

There are also many big slabs of fossilized mud with dessication cracks, another good sign of areas that were inundated and then dried.

I found one invertebrate track, a type called Cruziana.

And then finally I found one clear print, most likely a rear foot ("pes"; the front feet are "manus"), possibly from an Atreipes.

(Of note, both Cruziana and Atreipes are what the tracks are called - it's not the name of an animal.) I just went back to the site today, and the track has been damaged, so probably not worth trying to haul it out. This rock doesn't weather well once exposed, it tends to crumble. (Note footprint to the left of the sticks on the rock in the photo below.)"

The huge pile of rocks is now gone, but we are very grateful to Lisa for sharing this photographic record of the ancient history that lay just a few feet beneath the ground near Herrontown Woods. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

The Toil and Reward of Rerouting Trails

The cool winter weather has been ideal for working on improving and rerouting some trails at Herrontown Woods. 

Some of the motivation is to bypass chronically muddy areas, but the best reroutes highlight previously hidden features of the preserve--quarried rocks, giant trees, or inspiring vistas out across a valley. The first reroutes of this sort were done by Kurt and Sally Tazelaar, who helped found the Friends of Herrontown Woods in 2013. The trail adjustments we are making now carry on that tradition.

Scott Sillars, Andrew Thornton, and I have been the most focused on this effort. The aim is to have two new reroutes in place in time to be featured during our April 13 Earthday celebration.

The process I like to use for creating a new trail route is to be intentionally unspecific as to the actual route the path will ultimately take. That way, we are motivated to first clear a wide swath of forest of the all too numerous invasive nonnative shrubs. The mass dieoff of ash trees has created many openings in the canopy, channeling solar energy down to the shrub layer, where nonnative shrubs compete with the native species. Highly invasive winged euonymus, with its "wings" along the stem, is super easy to identify in the winter. A more seasoned eye can also identify the nonnative Linden viburnum, Photinia and privet shrubs that crowd in on the native spicebush, blueberries, and blackhaw Viburnum. 

And of course there are many multiflora rose bushes that, with their vicious thorns, have made so many forested areas impossible to explore. These, too, must be subdued and hopefully extinguished, with the greatest of care to avoid the thorns. The liberation of native species from weedy incursion, using a pair of loppers and a Buckthorn Blaster, can itself be deeply satisfying, regardless of what trail ultimately takes shape. We are making the forest navigable again, seeable again, welcoming again.

Another advantage of working in the winter is that we don't disturb the spring ephemeral wildflowers that will emerge come spring. Work on several trail reroutes is on hold until the spring ephemerals have come up, the better to avoid building the new trail over top of them.

The first reroute, just completed, avoids a muddy seepage area on the yellow trail, and instead takes hikers through an area where past quarrying of the diabase boulders has left the hillside dotted with vernal pools.

We had just opened the new route when our first hikers showed up. Emma Kohn had brought some of her friends from Equador to see Herrontown Woods. 

Fun to see the boy lingering to count tree rings where Victorino had cut an opening for the trail through fallen trees.

Other trail projects in the works are an extension of the blue trail through what we're calling The Valley of the Giants, and some reroutes to improve the experience for hikers entering from Princeton Community Village. 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Special Clay at Herrontown Woods

We've had people of many sorts and interests visit Herrontown Woods--botanists, geologists, historians, birders, ecologists, herbalists, herpetologists, architects, a dry stone waller--all drawn to a particular facet of this multi-dimensional place. This post, about a ceramicist's visit, began with a conversation at one of our monthly May's Cafes at the Barden. Maybe we were talking about Toshiko Takaezu, the celebrated ceramicist who is said to have gathered clay for her pottery at Herrontown Woods, but in any case someone told me that there is an artist at the Arts Council of Princeton who is sampling clay from various locations in our region. I contacted Adam Welch, executive director of the Arts Council and himself a potter, for more information.

That someone canvasing clay in NJ turned out to be Ryan Lilienthal, the Arts Council's current resident artist. He was enthusiastic about visiting Herrontown Woods, and as it happened, he visited Toshiko's studio the day before coming. 

He brought a friend along, and I showed them a few places where I had encountered particularly dense clay. Ryan began digging, and was soon demonstrating "the worm test," in which soil is rolled into the shape of a worm. If it holds together, that means the soil's clay content is high. 

I have grown to love and respect clay, for the very reasons many gardeners dislike it. The denseness of clay slows water's passage through it, allowing water to linger on the surface. That water, if the clay is sufficiently dense, will form vernal pools in spring where frogs and salamanders can gather to breed and lay eggs. Many native plant species also thrive in areas where clay keeps the ground wet. Sedges, rushes, and wildflowers like hibiscus, ironweed, and cutleaf coneflower all thrive where sunlight reaches the wet ground made possible by clay. 

Ryan proved to be a kindred spirit. A longtime painter, he has in recent years taken a passionate interest in clay, and reveled in the mud that Herrontown Woods holds in abundance.

That clay comes in many colors--usually brown, but sometimes grey, and sometimes with an orange cast that reflects a higher iron content. Understanding clay in its many forms, and the forces that led to its creation from the underlying rocks, is a lifelong study in and of itself.

Ryan collected samples from several locations, placing shovel fulls in large ziplock bags, to take home and test. 

One of the tests he conducts is to make a brick out of the collected clay. A week after his visit, he sent me a photo of one of the bricks made out of Herrontown Woods clay. 

Where might this exploration of local clay lead? A possible next step that Ryan talked about is pit firing pottery, that is, using the ground as a kiln to fire the clay. 

In so doing, Ryan would take us back, or forward, to an era when people interacted with nature by making stuff. A government website about New Jersey's geology provides a dramatic contrast between how clay was used in the past, and how it is mostly used now to, alas, cover mountains of trash:
Back in the day, hundreds of thousands of tons of clay dug in Central New Jersey was used to make bricks, pottery, roofing tile, and other useful products. Most of the clay that is currently mined in New Jersey is used to seal the tops of landfills. 

The purpose, by the way, of putting a thick layer of clay on top of a landfill is to prevent rainwater from seeping into the pile of trash, where it might then flow down through the garbage and into the underlying aquifer, picking up toxins along the way. Instead, rain hits the impervious clay and runs off the landfill, keeping the contents dry and the groundwater supposedly unpolluted. Nice to think of the clay in Herrontown Woods' soil as cradling the rain in vernal pools for slow infiltration, rather than shedding it.

The "cultural zone" of Herrontown Woods--the area between the Veblen Cottage, Veblen House, and the main parking lot--was historically used to make stuff. The land was cleared to grow food. Boulders were quarried for trap rock. Trees were harvested for firewood or used for building. Though I'm glad they stopped hauling away rocks from the ridge (we like our boulder-studded forest!), there's something honest about local harvest. Now, we manage the land for native diversity, which is important, but it's also very satisfying to find utility in the landscape. We cut boards from fallen trees to make a boardwalk, and have started to grow some food near Veblen House. We collaborate with nature at the Botanical Art Garden. What a fine thing if clay, cursed by so many gardeners, becomes yet another source of art, utility, and wonder at Herrontown Woods. 

To get more of a sense of how clay was mined and used historically in Princeton, read Clifford Zink's history of Jugtown, in which he describes the use of local clay to make bricks and pottery in the Jugtown neighborhood of Princeton. 

Friday, February 9, 2024

Tales of Winter Toil to Improve Trails at Autumn Hill Reservation

People tend to think of winter as a dormant time for the outdoors. The woods around Princeton seem static, with the color palette reduced to infinite shades of gray and brown. For a preserve manager, however, it's this dormancy that makes now the best of times to be working on trails and habitat. Invasive shrubs in full summer growth somehow feel much more intimidating. At Autumn Hill Reservation, which is tended to by the Friends of Herrontown Woods, winter is the best time to carve through dense stands of invasives to shift some trails to dryer ground and more interesting routes.

Most people know about Autumn Hill's most charismatic feature: this abandoned automobile. 

Fewer have noticed this plaque at a homestead site nearby, where pachysandra and bottlebrush buckeye speak to past habitation. But in some other areas of Autumn Hill's 70 acres, trails pass through less than engaging seas of invasive shrubs.

We've tried to add to the interest by looking for other landmarks to feature along trails. Last winter, one reroute incorporated a tree whose rootball had lifted four hefty boulders up when it fell. A bit uncanny: I was actually standing ten feet away, looking at it when one of the boulders fell back to the ground. The root ball is still holding onto the other three. 

It's heartening to see that the humble signage has not strayed from where we put it to help with navigating the new routes.

Winter rains highlight a few spots where we still need to either reroute trails or install a boardwalk. We grieved when this tree fell--probably the last wild butternut in Autumn Hill Reservation, pointed out to us by arborist Bob Wells when it was still alive. The wood is said to be good for carving, if we can get some of it out of the woods. FOHW has been planting butternuts elsewhere to see if we can bring back this largely lost species.

A recent success stories in Autumn Hill is the reroute of a chronically wet trail onto higher ground along a previously hidden old rock wall. It looks relatively tame now, but reclaiming this high ground for a trail required a major battle with dense and often thorny invasive shrubs. Multiflora rose, border privet, Linden viburnum, autumn olive, asian photinia, winged euonymus--this is the usual cast of characters in backyards and preserves town-wide that displaces native species more edible for wildlife. Cutting invasives to create a better trail counts as a win-win. While liberating spicebush, blueberries, and flowering dogwoods from competition, we get to expose interesting rock wall features and improve the hiking experience. I guess that's a win-win-win, which makes the work more rewarding. Simply by using the trail, hikers helped to maintain it. One year later, remembering the toil of creation, it's a pleasure to walk this trail and see how dry it is, despite recent heavy rains.

This winter, we're cutting through dense invasive shrubs to shift wet portions of the yellow trail to higher ground. Just to show what we're dealing with, here are three different species of invasive vine growing up a native tree: Asian bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, and multiflora rose. The latter is a thorny shrub that sometimes grows up trees as if it were a vine. Winter is a great time to cut these vines at the base. A "buckthorn blaster" is used to prevent regrowth.

Japanese stiltgrass makes these mops of light brown where it sprawled during late summer. Even this super invasive annual grass seems less intimidating in the winter, when it survives only as billions of seeds in the ground. 

One of the more positive stories in Princeton's nature preserves is the rebound of the native spicebush since the town began culling the deer herd in 2000. When I came to Princeton 20 years ago, spicebush were rare in the woods, and they looked like this, with a buzzcut of intensely browsed stems at the base of one mature trunk. With fewer deer to eat them, they have become numerous again, with many trunks reaching maturity. But this one, growing next to a trail frequented by the deer, shows what all spicebush used to look like. 

Despite the cold and color deprivation of winter, work in Autumn Hill Reservation lifts our spirits. It was ten years ago when Friends of Herrontown Woods made Autumn Hill's trails passable again. Each year, with incremental interventions, we can highlight more of the preserve's long hidden beauty and make it easier and more fun to hike there.