Friday, January 29, 2021

Red Trail Now Fully Reopened

A big step has been taken by FOHW to make the red trail--the main trail route in Herrontown Woods--fully usable year-round. In the past, trails in the preserve would dry out in summer as the trees pulled moisture out of the ground, then cold weather would harden the ground in winter. But as rains have increased in New Jersey, and mild winters often fail to freeze the ground, the season when trails are soft and muddy has expanded. Though volunteers have laid hundreds of stepping stones along trails in Herrontown Woods, a 500 foot section in the northwest corner of the preserve has long seemed beyond remedy. A reroute two years ago on what appeared to be drier ground quickly turned to mud, as foot traffic broke down the delicate root structures that had held the highly organic soil together. 

This year, however, we set about making a more permanent fix. It began, as most major initiatives do in Herrontown Woods, with Kurt Tazelaar focusing his energy on the problem. First came a reworking of large stepping stones to cross the stream. He then stockpiled 100 large stepping stones along a pathway leading into the preserve from Stone Hill Church, occasionally assisted by family and friends. The stones came from the Windy Top development on Snowden, where periodic excavations for new homes have for years now been our handy go-to for stones that vary from small to massive. 

In a project that sometimes felt like building a railroad through the wilderness, Andrew Thornton and I then laid scavenged boards down to form a plankway. The planks allowed us to transport the heavy stones down to the red trail without getting bogged down in the mud.
As with so much of our work, simple machines in the form of a hand truck made the impossible possible.

During a stretch of days when no one else was available, I finished a usable version of the trail. The new route is actually the original route from previous decades, through a swamp forest habitat that hikers don't experience elsewhere in the preserve. Some of the planks used earlier became boardwalks. The crosspieces are posts scavenged when the Princeton Shopping Center took down an old fence several years ago.

One of the interesting plants found along this section of trail is Hearts-a-burstin (Euonymus americanus), a native shrub common in Herrontown Woods but rare elsewhere along the Princeton ridge. Though this native shrub can grow up to ten feet tall, in Herrontown Woods it seldom rises more than a few inches above the leaf litter before being nibbled down by the deer. This aggressive browsing is an example of how deer prefer to consume native plants, while leaving the closely related but nonnative winged Euonymus to reach maturity and spread its seeds.
The native Euonymus has taken to growing horizontally, surviving amidst the leaf litter through the decades in its miniature state. We've featured these shrubs in the sunnier, more protected environs of the botanical art garden, but one possibility is to cage some of these shrubs along the trail and allow them to grow, making the trail over time a Hearts-a-burstin alleyway.
Another native plant found in winter along the trail is partridgeberry. A few of these found in the trail path were transferred to the botanical garden. 

It's a relief to have a workable trail through the wettest section of Herrontown Woods. We'll see how it performs through the heavy spring rains, when the preserve plays the role of a giant sponge, absorbing water and slowly releasing it into Harry's Brook. 
Watching how water levels change with the season, we may find out why, for instance, this root is actually traveling above ground, with curious knobby growths along its length. 

Working on trails can be considered an alternative to going to the gym, and at Herrontown Woods there will be no end to opportunities for exercise. Stepping stones and boardwalks are to these trails as research is to science--more are always needed. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Gazebo Docks With Mother Ship

Herein lies the story of the moving of the gazebo and shed, which played out from August through November in that year of years, 2020.  

At some point this gazebo and shed will come to look like they've been in the Princeton Botanical Art Garden forever. But so involved and challenging proved the moving of them from their original home at 145 Ewing Street that, when we eased the gazebo's four posts back down onto its base, it felt like we'd just pulled off a mission to the moon.

Below is the story of all those who helped, of uncanny coincidences, and an unlikely challenge answered with resourcefulness, imagination, strength, and above all persistence. Click on "read more" to open the whole post.

Thursday, December 31, 2020


2020 saw a rapid acceleration of creative work at Herrontown Woods, riding a tide of interest and new visitors displaced from their routines and the indoors by the pandemic. Some key improvements to trails were made. Veblen House received some painting, cleaning, regrading, landscaping, historical researching, and weatherizing. What we now call the Princeton Botanical Art Garden became a focus of volunteer energy, aided by regular workdays. Native plantings are filling in, and now are complemented by structures that are unique in shape and style, and a matrix of pathways that kids love to explore. Families in particular have been grateful for this new destination for discovery and delight, with one parent calling the botanical garden "a lifeline." On the 140th year of his birth, Oswald Veblen's legacy was celebrated by an article in Princeton Magazine and by Princeton University's President Eisgruber in his annual State of the University report.

Please support our work, and join us out at Princeton's first nature preserve.

  • Officially leased Veblen House and Cottage from Princeton. The lease runs for five years, giving FOHW official permission to begin repairs and seek funding. 

  • FOHW volunteers continue to care for 220 acres of public land at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, including major work after this year's storms.
  • Scenic reroutes of two heavily rutted sections of the Red trail
  • Expansion of trail and major invasive plant removal in 7.5 beautiful acres FOHW had previously gotten added to Herrontown Woods.
  • Collaborated with town to treat massive wisteria clone.
  • Transported hundreds of large stepping stones from nearby development site for repairing muddy stretches of trails
  • A commemorative bench was added along the yellow trail, overlooking the boulder field.
  • Worked to update trail maps on other trail websites


  • Princeton gained a new outdoor destination, as FOHW added major infrastructure this year, including a gazebo and shed saved from demolition, a handmade boardwalk, meditation garden, yurt, mobile, frog pond, "walking tree", labels on dozens of native species, deer cages to protect plantings, picnic bench
  • Sunday morning workdays engaged youth and adults, speeding progress and providing a much needed socially distanced social opportunity
  • Seasonal displays on kiosk about plants
  • Installed rainbarrel on kiosk for watering new plantings

  • 140 years after Oswald Veblen's birth, FOHW utilized Veblen House as an inside-out museum, telling his story in photos and text
  • President Eisgruber featured Oswald Veblen's legacy prominently in Princeton University's annual State of the University letter, describing Veblen as "a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy" who "probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University." 
  • Princeton Magazine published an article entitled The Extraordinary Legacy of Oswald Veblen, including information on FOHW's work


  • Two board members helped save a 1755 house on Ewing Street from demolition. The owner then donated to us the gazebo and shed, which we transported to the Botanical Art Garden.
  • Board members visited the extraordinary Clausen Farm in Sharon Springs, NY, as part of research on the Whiton-Stuarts--builders and first owners of Veblen House.
  • A chess board and calendar found long ago in the Veblen Cottage were donated for exhibit in the future Veblen museum. The calendar mentions getting together with Einstein to play chess.

  • Inspected, cleaned and weatherized east wall of Veblen House
  • Two dangerous trees near Veblen House were removed by town. FOHW volunteers turned some of the wood into boards and tables
  • Grading around the house to restore original drainage
  • Cleaning Veblen House interior, including removal of old carpet
  • More hinging and painting of window covers
  • Repaired wellhouse and installed rainbarrel
  • Reestablished addresses for House and Cottage
  • Efforts begun to get electrical hookup for Veblen House
  • More diversion of runoff into raingardens.
  • Maintaining grounds and keeping buildings secure and dry
  • Invasive plant removal with Girlscouts Troop 71837
  • Another year of growth for an edible forest of pawpaws, hazelnuts, butternuts, persimmons and plums.

  • Expanding plant identification signage in the botanical garden
  • Collaborating with Girlscouts Troop 71837 to improve trail map, signage and flower descriptions
  • Ongoing research and website posts about nature, FOHW's activities, and the fascinating history of Veblen House at, and
  • Many students participated in workdays at the botanical garden
  • A Minute of Calm video series posted online


  • Celebrated Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen's birthdays with a socially distanced outdoor jazz party next to Veblen House
  • Hosted a volunteer appreciation jazz party next to Veblen House
  • Hosted a Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad practice rescue in Herrontown Woods

  • New board members and many new volunteers.
  • Another board “retreat” to develop strategic planning

  • Additional progress towards our initial goal of raising $100,000.

Thanks to all who contribute to making these achievements possible.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Process and Progress at the Princeton Botanical Art Garden

This past Sunday's workday at Herrontown Woods' botanical art garden was made even more pleasurable by the beautiful sunlight that slowly shifted in angle as we worked. Complementing the now dormant native plants are the "found" structures that we installed this year--a shed, a gazebo, and the curious dugout boat that some highschool  kids created for their Odyssey project at Princeton High School. 

The gazebo, which we saved from demolition elsewhere in Princeton, is the latest addition. Our work at the botanical garden reminds me of jazz improvisation, in that we are constantly responding to each other's and nature's creativity. Until the light struck the gazebo in a certain way, I hadn't seen how the vertical lines of its balusters complemented the verticality of the bronze-colored broomsedge grasses growing nearby. 

That in turn led to the idea of planting native prairie grasses in a circle around the gazebo, to give mass and color to the garden in the winter when other plants are muted. Though grasslands are also native to New Jersey, they particularly thrived in Iowa, where the person who long ago acquired and then donated this nature preserve, Oswald Veblen, grew up. This is one of many ideas for the garden that come through the serendipity of the setting.

Nature, of course, is the greatest artist, limitless in the scope and variety of its creations.
Our work above all seeks to facilitate and appreciate nature's infinite creativity. 

But we are also collaborators, as when Rachelle turned a fallen tree and trimmed vines into a special spot to sit down and drink in the surroundings.

Though the pine grove that once grew here became the victim of windstorms, the sunlight now reaching the ground is driving the growth of many native shrubs and wildflowers that couldn't prosper elsewhere in the deeply shaded preserve. These catkins of hazelnut bode well for the food forest taking shape in one part of the botanical garden.

An important contributor to the serious fun is Victorino, who combines virtuosic chain saw skills with an artistic sensibility
and a sense of humor. 

Our workdays next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot begin around 10am on Sundays, but often run into late afternoon. This coming year, we hope to apply a similarly collaborative process to other cultural zones in Herrontown Woods, at the Veblen House and Cottage. The aim is for visitors to gain insight into Princeton's nature and history, combined with a healthy dose of delight. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

FOHW to Receive an Award of Recognition From Princeton Mayor and Council, Dec. 22

Great news! The Friends of Herrontown Woods will be receiving an award of recognition during Princeton mayor and council's Celebration of Community, this Tuesday, Dec. 22, starting at 6pm. To tune in to the event via zoom, here is some info for signing on at 6. Looks like we might be the first group to be honored:
Working link:
This meeting ID: 867 209 749 36

or go to the town calendar and scroll down to the agenda on the day of the event.

The award caps a year that saw a surge of interest in Herrontown Woods, as people sought refuge and renewal in the outdoors. The Botanical Art Garden took a leap forward, or FOHWard as we like to say, and trails benefitted from key additions and improvements. Our nonprofit officially leased the buildings from the town, and began work to clean and renovate the Veblen House. 

We are raising funds for the upcoming year's expenses. Your support will help us take the next steps as we care for and realize the potential of Herrontown Woods. It's easy to make an online donation.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Practice Rescue by Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad

On October 24, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) came to Herrontown Woods to conduct an exercise in backwoods rescue. All of this came about through the initiative of Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Inge Regan, who is an emergency room doctor. 

With the Veblen Cottage in the background, PFARS volunteers clambered over rocks and fallen branches, fending off the thorns of multiflora rose as they carried the volunteer victim back to the trail and over to the ambulance. 

We're thankful to PFARS for all they do for Princeton, and for coming to Herrontown Woods to hone their skills under difficult backwoods conditions. Like FOHW, they are a spirited group of mostly volunteers, and though we've been fortunate not to have any accidents in the preserve, it's a great comfort that PFARS is gaining familiarity with our trails and stands ready to help if needed. It was also a pleasure to get to know PFARS leader and soon to be mayor of Princeton, Mark Freda, and introduce him to all we are doing in Princeton's oldest and newest nature preserve. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Trail Work in Herrontown Woods in 2020

Herrontown Woods gained a new trail in 2020, a loop trail that winds through 7.5 acres donated by the Windy Top development that fronts on Snowden Lane. A couple years ago, FOHW convinced the developer that our environmental nonprofit was much more likely to take good care of the greenspace than the homeowners association that would otherwise own it. FOHW then convinced the town of Princeton to accept the donation, which actually took some lobbying. 

Since then, with help from a crew contracted by Princeton, FOHW has been battling a massive clone of wisteria that had already overwhelmed and downed several trees. But nothing compares to this year's transformation of the forest by Kurt Tazelaar, who built the trail using large stepping stones scavenged from the building site, and cut down masses of invasive shrubs that were clogging the understory and blocking views of the scenic valley. The trail includes several carefully crafted stream crossings and passes by some impressive trees that have thrived on the slopes overlooking the stream. 

The trail can be accessed by heading down the red trail from the parking lot, then taking a left just before or after reaching the stream.

Other projects Kurt undertook in this year were scenic bypasses of two badly eroded sections of the red trail, and some clearing of invasive shrubs near the cliff. After nearly a year fighting an illness, Kurt was able to return and has again made a big difference in Herrontown Woods this year. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

"A Minute of Calm" Video Series

Board member Inge Regan captured the elemental beauty and peacefulness of Herrontown Woods this year in a series of Minute of Calm videos. Frogs, butterflies, woods, rocks and water all find their way into these captured moments, beautifully framed and edited by SMP Video LLC of Princeton , NJ.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Pigs Fly at Herrontown Woods

If pigs could fly, 

we'd save from a sorry fate this elegant gazebo, with its porcine weather vane, 
and its mahogany benches
that give comfort and a view up and out and all about.

One of the views the gazebo framed for untold years was of this house on Ewing Street, parts of which date back to 1755. A few of us feel lucky to say we recently helped save this house from demolition.

If pigs could fly, we'd also save this shed, with its unusually shaped roof, to store stuff. 

But wait! Where is that shed going?
And the gazebo's mahogany floor?

And its mahogany benches?

And the gazebo itself!?
To Herrontown Woods they're going, to its Princeton Botanical Art Garden, to offer rest and social space, and frame views of native plants along winding pathways. 

Turns out that all it takes is a trailer, some help, and some ingenuity and perseverance to make pigs fly, and horses ride, and gazebos pick up and head off to a new life. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Botanical Art Garden for Princeton

One volunter project that has taken a leap forward during the pandemic is the Princeton Botanical Art Garden next to the parking lot for Herrontown Woods. Families seeking safe diversions and learning opportunities are discovering the garden and the deep woods beyond, which together serve as an introduction to Princeton's flora.

Now in its third year, the garden's collection of more than 100 native species continues to gain in signage and diversity. 

Whimsical, rock-lined trails and craftings of wood delight the kids while the parents check out what's in bloom. 

Visitors can work at the names--"Joe Pye Weed", "Ironweed", "mountain mint"--or just check out the colors and the many pollinators that the wildflowers now sustain.

The botanical garden is in turn sustained by volunteers who come Sundays 10-12, and Wednesdays as well from 4-6. Social distancing is maintained, while families can work closely together. All victories in gardening are provisional, but we're having surprising success weeding out the invasive plants that would have surely taken over if not for human intervention. Though many people equate nature with trees, this storm-damaged clearing allows sunlight to reach the ground, where the many native flowers, grasses, and shrubs that need direct sunlight now have a place to thrive.

The garden site's history is also an important part of its habitat. Snags and fallen trees provide habitat for insects and birds. Small tree trunks provide the makings of a tripod that holds a mobile made of the craggy roots exposed when a tree falls.

Next to one of the snags, a Princeton University professor recently mounted a sensor designed to measure rain and sense whether plants around it are healthy.  The sensor is part of a class experiment, producing data that will automatically be posted online. 

Several families of volunteers collaborated to make a little frog pond. They dug and dug until a small plastic tub would fit in the ground, then lined the area with flat stones and moss, adding a small solar powered fountain that spurts water when the sun reaches the panel. Local frogs have given the pondlet their seal of approval,

as did some kids who were passing by.

Even the root balls of fallen trees, jutting up from the ground, have become backdrops--one for a lovely meditation garden, and this one--a mother/daughter project displaying native plants and bones found in the woods. 

A contribution of local stones, some Christmas ferns, and moss gathered from a roof gave it a more formal look.

Projects like this help shift the balance at the site from aggressive plants, like Japanese stiltgrass and native blackberry, to plants that "play well with others" even though they can be considered wild. 

Over time we hope to give visitors an experience of the abundance and variety nature is capable of when given the chance.

Regular workdays are on Sunday mornings, 10-12. All are welcome.