Native Plant Garden at John Witherspoon Middle School–Plant Communities and Human Communities Come Together

My school, the John Witherspoon Middle School (JW), has a Memorial Garden tucked into a wonderful small niche in the front of the school.  It is a sort of “secret garden,” bounded on one side by a school corridor with a wall of windows.  This allows humans a view inside without needing to encroach on the garden’s privacy.  This makes it a perfect place to try to create a functional—and visible–ecosystem where plants will feed insects and other animals, where insects will pollinate plants and raise young, where some insects will become food for birds, and where birds and other animals will find shelter, food and water.

We had plenty of native plants–I still had part of a donation to the Princeton Schools from Pinelands Nursery, arranged through sponsorship from the Mercer County Soil Conservation District.  Mark Eastburn, the Science Teacher from the Riverside School, had native plants through grant funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).  Mark’s plants included some carnivorous (insect eating) plants, specifically Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants.

The garden already had some traditional decorative landscape shrubs, including azaleas, crape myrtle and those green bushes that prune so well into geometric shapes but whose names I never learn.  We decided to retain the existing shrubs as a layer in a multi-layer landscape.  Under and around the shrubs we would add the herbaceous native plants including sedges, monarda, goldenrod, columbines, and many others to provide shelter to flowers and animals as well as soil health promoting ground cover.

The whole project was a team effort not only by Mark and myself, but of the whole Princeton school community.  A lot of the effort was enthusiastically provided by students from Nyrie Janho’s Food Science and Wellness Classes, and by the school’s two Robotics Club teams, the JW Hornets and the Techno Tigers.  Students helped clear the English ivy and other invasive weeds that were overrunning the garden.  Mr. Eastburn and his students sunk five tubs into the ground for the carnivorous plants; the tubs will be watered only by rain water, which will help the plants retain the moisture they require to thrive.

Both of the Robotics Club teams are preparing for a competition that requires them to not only build Lego robots but to plan and carry out a community service program.  The Techno Tigers, whose project involves encouraging birds to take up residence at JW, raised funds for a bird house and bird bath.  The JW Hornets are working on a project to help bees, which are increasingly endangered in the modern American landscape, and will be adding elements to the garden for this purpose.

Compost and mulch were supplied by Princeton Public Schools Grounds Foreman Tony Diaforl and his crew from the ecological facility that Princeton shares with Lawrence Township.  We applied the compost as an initial top dressing to supply organic matter and some nutrients from the surface down, just as it happens in natural systems.  The top dressing of compost will work with the mulch to discourage weed seeds from growing by denying them the sunlight that they require to germinate. We mixed the donated mulch with leaves collected from the school lawns for the second layer over the compost.  This combined mulch layer will provide not only protection for the soil, reducing oxidation of carbon and soil nutrients, but cover for small critters including insects.

John Witherspoon Middle School Teacher Kelly Riely has arranged for some of the members of her Do Something Club to water the new native plants once a week until it gets colder.


The project could not have been done without the support of Princeton Public School District personnel, including Science Supervisor Edward Cohen and John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Jason Burr.

The garden is still very much a work in progress, as we wait to see both how well our new introduced communities of plants and the ones already there function together.  In the spring, we will add additional plants to fill any holes and to replace any plants that don’t make it.  We will continue to recruit members of the JW and the larger Princeton communities to help with maintenance as a form of stewarding some of the ground that stewards us.



To Trim or Not to Trim?

It is the time of year that gardeners’ thoughts turn to garden cleanup.  The flower garden may look like this photo (maybe minus the garden Viking that my son bought me).  Is this messy, charming, or both?  In a Participatory Ecology garden, should you trim the dead, brown stalks or not?

Is the garden Viking saying this is too messy?

If you do determine that you won’t be trimming now, will your neighbors begin to believe they are living with an eyesore?

As with other garden questions, under a more natural gardening paradigm, you have to make plant-by-plant decisions.


This sedum is not a native plant, but it is one of the plants that has the most rationales for not trimming; not only is it rather lovely as a dried winter flower in the garden, but it provides both food in the form of seeds for birds and cover for winter critters.  Okay, this may not be great if the critters are mice!


I think the seed pods on these hybrid hibiscus plants are rather nice looking, and my research shows they also offer up seeds as bird food.


Asters are not quite as attractive by human standards, but still dried-flower worthy, and their seeds are also eaten by winter birds.


Monarda is even a little more scraggly looking, but still nice, and also provides seeds.


Is Joe Pye weed getting to the limit of human aesthetics?  I like it, and it definitely provides food.



These penstemon stalks still have their seed capsules.  Even if the seeds were not eaten by birds, I would leave the stems holding the capsules untrimmed since I count on the plants, one of my favorite garden flowers, to sow any uneaten seed and multiply.


This tangle of gaillardia, another favorite flower, still shows a few blooms.  These blooms will keep providing pollinator food, while the seeds from spent flowers provide bird food.  I imagine these might tiptoe into the human aesthetic of messy.

I have other bird seed plants in the garden not pictured here.  Mountain mint looks like a plant that provides bird seed, but I haven’t yet confirmed that.  Goldenrod is definitely a bird seed plant, although I may bag the flower head so I can save seeds myself and plant in other parts of my gardens.  Daisies also provide bird seed.

I probably won’t need a bird feeder with all this seed, unless I want to provide things like suet.

So, as you may have guessed, I am not planning to trim any of the plants listed above just now, though there are a few plants I do think I will trim.


These annual sunflowers, a product of years of development by Native Americans before European incursions as well as years of breeding for beauty since then, have mostly given up their seeds to goldfinches and other birds.  They took over one of my vegetable beds before I had a chance to plant it.  It’s time for them to go, hopefully pulled with as little soil disruption as possible.


This chicory grew from an Insectory seed mix I got as a free bonus with a seed order, but I don’t really want more chicory plants.  The few I have are enough for me, so I will be clipping this as well.

So, it seems like my garden trimming work will be rather light this year, but what about my neighbors, with their manicured shrubs and wide expanses of mulch in landscape beds?

I guess I will just have to start putting up signs to let them know about all the birds.  I will let you know how that goes in the next post.


Here are some great resources that list more birdseed plants:

Check out this advice from a fellow WordPress blogger at

Another good list:


Kale Ecology

Would you eat this leaf?

I have been telling people, sometimes ruefully, sometimes excitedly, about my “kale ecology.” The lovely rows and rows of donated kale seedlings that I planted last spring had sprouted an apparently entirely self-sufficient ecosystem.  Lots of white flies and at least a few aphids are sucking juices from the kale leaves, and excreting out sweet liquid called honeydew.  Ants crawl up to eat the honeydew.  Flies are landing on the leaves—they must be lapping up honeydew as well.

ANT (1).jpg
One ant on our plants

But what had me jumping up and down (in my mind, since my garden is just outside classroom windows) is the best crop of ladybugs I have ever seen in one garden.  We have lovely yellow eggs, we have the black larvae that are longer than an adult ladybug and always look like some weird armored horror movie critter, we have orange pupae, and we have adults—including a few that seem to be senior citizens.  I had never actually seen the pupa form before, and had to check my guide books to make sure that was what the unmoving orangey and blackish thing about the size of an adult ladybug actually was.

Ladybug pupa on cut leaf
Asian Ladybeetle larva


Predictably, there are also cabbage white butterflies flitting about, and I saw at least one green larva, the “cabbage worm,” a name that I find apt, since the caterpillar always looks squishy to me.  There are also crickets that seem to hang out below the kale plants, in the straw and leaf litter mulch.  There were some other beetles, shield-shaped like stink bugs, but more colorful.

I was hoping my middle school students would share my love of ladybugs, and be impressed by the four totally distinct looking stages of their lives.  But turning over leaves to look for critters raised a cloud of white flies every time, and most students, seeing that happen to one of their cohorts, wouldn’t even approach the kale patch.  One student claimed to have been bitten by something that might have been a grasshopper, like the one sitting on the side of the garden bed, and he was understandably cautious.

Fly and Ladybeetle

But he was one of the students who volunteered to be “brave” enough to actually pull some of our kale plants for composting.  I had already given up the idea of actually using any of the kale for human consumption—the teacher I was working with found that even washing couldn’t eradicate the telltale signs of insects making a meal of the kale.

It is easier to tell people that we need to feed the critters using the ornamental portion of our yards, rather than with the plants we were hoping to eat ourselves.  It’s also easier, even in the vegetable garden, to do when the critter in question is one that is beautiful and naturally makes you pull out your phone or camera to take a picture, like the black swallowtail.  Truth be told, it is impossible to imagine any sharing happening when faced with a plant where every surface that has not been munched away is covered either with eggs or frass (the word for insect poop), or with the fungus that can also be part of a mini-ecology like my kale.

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

So, we’ll be pulling and composting all the old kale, as well as trying to protect the new kale and its fellow family members, broccoli and kohlrabi, with row covers.  But I won’t regret the ecology that brought had me jumping up and down over ladybugs.

Flowers, Food and Feathers

By:  Priscilla Hayes

At the end of last year, the first grade teachers at Littlebrook School started planning a bird garden as a service learning project for their classes with design ideas from Littlebrook’s fabulous art teacher. We are converting an existing bed which already contains plants that support birds, so the kids will be drawing plans to add additional bird-friendly plants from a pre-selected list.

Creating a successful bird garden is more than just adding plants—it’s learning to look at both the existing and new plants from a bird’s point of view. I am learning that this requires unlearning or rethinking some things that have become almost second nature to me as a gardener.

One of those things to reconsider is deadheading—removing the spent flower heads after the blooming period is over. If you do that, you also remove the developing seeds that can provide food for birds. I am suggesting that you should consider discontinuing deadheading for birdseed plants. Just a few examples of the many plants which produce seeds that birds can eat over the fall and winter are:

• Rudbeckia
• Echinacea/coneflower
• Joe pye weed—per CREP publication, the seed is an angular nutlet providing food to songbirds; look for chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos; the fluff is used for building warm nests.
• Goldenrod—benefits songbirds; birds eat seeds; insects use it to overwinter, so birds can eat the insects, also.
• Tickseed
• Sedum—all sedum varieties popular with pretty much all types of seed eaters.
• Asters—provide seeds.
• Globe thistle—especially popular with goldfinches; not an aggressive plant.

• Zinnia
• Nasturtium
• Marigold
• Bachelor button
• Coreopsis
• Tithonia/Mexican sunflower
• Sunflowers
• Purple majesty millet

My research also showed that some weeds, notably smartweed, produce a large amount of seeds per plant, attracting red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows and others. While I am not really advocating planting smartweed, I have a collection of seeds as they become ripe on the turnpike overpass where we bike in mind. I figure that I can move the ripe seeds to a bird feeder, since it is unlikely that they will get eaten on that hot, noisy, open overpass.

But not every bird eats seeds. If you begin to study the shapes of birds’ beaks, you will begin to see that some birds have the right beaks to eat seeds, and others have beaks that are appropriate for collecting and eating something from the animal kingdom (of course, some things eat both plant and animal things, as we do). Insects and other small crawlies are among these foods, so another important change in gardening habits is to learn to tolerate some level of insects chomping away on garden plants. Many of these things, including caterpillars, are foods for birds we want to see. In fact, the presence or absence of enough of these may help determine how many eggs are laid and how many young birds can be successfully raised by adult birds nesting in a given area.

This has proved more slippery to embrace than the no-deadheading protocol change. We are wondering if the reason we aren’t seeing many of the Black Swallowtail caterpillars this year is because we have a bird population that is too efficiently picking them off and eating them. We really do like Black Swallowtails—they are one of two butterflies especially studied by the second graders, and we don’t mind sharing our parsley and fennel with their caterpillars. On the other hand, no birds seem to be eating the cabbage worms we are seeing on our collards. Are Black Swallowtail caterpillars the caterpillar of choice for birds with discriminating palates? We have taken to squishing the cabbage worms (and drowning Japanese beetles) since nothing is eating these for us. Figuring out how to provide insect food for birds is going to be a real learning process for us humans at Littlebrook School.

As I was introducing the fifth graders to their Freedom Garden (instead of a bird garden) for this year, the teacher I was working with pointed out an adult male and a juvenile goldfinch eating coneflower/Echinacea seeds in one of our pollinator borders. With her impressive birding skills, she could tell that the youngster was trying to get the adult to feed it, and the adult was saying the youngster was old enough to feed itself. I was reminded of how much I still have to learn about the natural world, but at the same time, a mystery was solved for me. Last year I collected Echinacea seedheads with the second graders from that very border and we seemed to come up with almost no seeds or fully pollinated, viable seeds from the seedheads. The finches in the courtyard explain why—they had already picked out most of the seeds before we even got to the seedheads.

I love my job for all of these constant little insights every day, and even just the gift of noticing things, like goldfinches, that were there all along.


Priscilla Hayes

The title of this post is the question that Shanyn Siegel asked us at the start of our most recent Seed Saving class at Duke Farms, a session that was entitled “Garden Smarter:  Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners.”  Two of my fellow class members offered as favorites the Brandywine tomato (there may have been another part to the name) and a Rattlesnake bean (again, there may have been another qualifier, but this is what I got in my notes).  I mentioned the Principe Borghese tomato, which I grow almost exclusively, because I try to dry a lot of tomatoes each year.

Most people didn’t offer a favorite, which went to the point Shanyn was trying to make, which is that most of us don’t pay attention to vegetable varieties.  Who hasn’t seen packets of seeds, she asked, in the big box stores, that say simply “Eggplant,” as though there were only one variety.

Large national seed companies try to offer seeds that will grow pretty well anywhere in the country.  But the same variety of plant doesn’t do equally well in all places, and the trick is to find something that is well suited to your own climate and growing conditions—for instance, here in New Jersey we have a fairly short growing season, high humidity, and lots of disease pressure.

But even more than place, you will need to determine whether what you are going to grow is well suited to your personal needs as a gardener.  If you didn’t think you had personal needs as a gardener, it is helpful to review some of the questions that Shanyn suggested at the class:  are there times in your gardening life when you don’t or can’t get into your garden for a week or so, and thus don’t weed, or water, or feed, or harvest?  Then you need to be looking for plants that will stand the neglect of whatever period you anticipate giving them.  Then there is the question of how are you going to use the produce—Shanyn likes things she can munch in the garden, or use with a minimum of prep, rather than things that require a lot of cooking before use.  Do you want things to mature all at once, so you can do a big harvest production like canning, or do you want things to come in a few at a time, so you can use them over a longer period of time, similarly a few at a time.  Do they store well, and is this important to you—red onions are tastier for salads and other similar uses, but don’t keep as well as white or yellow onions.

Flavor is perhaps the most personal thing, and this is where you are really going to have to be guided by your own experimentation.  And, as has become obvious to me, and hopefully you, you are going to have to keep records of what you grew, and how it did for you, other than just recording “grew eggplant.”


There was a lot more to learn at this class, and like all the classes in this series, it has been a really eye-opening experience, and so obvious once you get it.  But Shanyn went on to introduce us all to an online resource she wanted us all to start using, the Cornell University Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners site.  Here you can read reviews of vegetable varieties from real-life gardeners who have grown the same vegetable variety you may be contemplating.  Most useful, of course, will be reviews from others in your geographic area or under otherwise similar gardening conditions.

For many vegetables, there are not many reviews, which is why Shanyn wants everyone to start putting in lots of feedback, so we will all have more to draw on.  For example, the most reviewed vegetable variety, Sungold Tomatoes (which I ate at our seed garden and now HAVE to grow) has only 98 reviews to date—interestingly it is not the site’s top rated variety, or even in the top five.

To get started, you create a garden profile and name for your garden; the profile includes your name, etc., your garden experience level, and then your garden’s location, frost free days (that needed a call to the local Extension office; I note that another local gardener does have a different estimate), soil texture and sun exposure.

I looked up Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert Squash, which I had gotten only as a substitute for a pumpkin that was out of stock, but which was growing in an exuberant fashion before someone ran off with our developing squashes from one of my more open school gardens.  There weren’t any New Jersey reviews, so of course, I am planning to add one, assuming I manage to keep any squash through maturity as a winter squash, without it disappearing with someone who thinks it is a summer squash.


Speaking of squashes, as in many years past, I am growing “mystery squash” in my garden—on a plant that has erupted out of the compost bin and sprawled across the front of a couple of garden beds.  I have observed that the plants behind it seem less nibbled on than similar plants elsewhere in the garden, leading me to believe that the Native Americans were right when they thought it would give some protection against animal moochers in their Five Sisters gardens.  I attach two photos of the squash and a flower—note the bump on the bottom of the squash, rather than a flat pumpkin-like bottom that you might expect from such a pumpkin like squash.  Any ideas out there on what variety I am growing?

Flower for mystery squash
Note the bump on the bottom of the mystery squash

Dandelion as Rock Star–A Crusade

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I recently got to catch up with my friend Pam Lewis, who mentioned that she was trying to convince her 80+ year old, “green grass crazy” landlord that the dandelions in the backyard of the apartment shouldn’t be removed.

“They are rock stars of the plant world,” Pam told me, “not weeds.”

A dandelion-laced lawn in Pam's neighborhood
A dandelion-laced lawn in Pam’s neighborhood

Of course, like many of our weeds, dandelions were introduced by Puritan, Dutch and German settlers, who saw them as a source of both medicine and food—including dandelion wine.

So if dandelions are non-native, doesn’t that automatically make them unwelcome?

Pam’s research led her to the following website,, from which she learned the following about dandelions:

93 species of insects collect nectar from dandelion flowers, including bees, and butterflies such as sulphers, cabbage whites and admirals.  Ruby throated hummingbirds weave dandelion seeds into their nests.

Seeds and foliage are eaten by at least 33 species of wildlife including 4 different kinds of sparrows: chipping, field, house and song, American Goldfinch, indigo bunting, quail, turkeys, chipmunks, rabbits and white tail deer.

Leaves are eaten by caterpillar larvae of 13 species of butterflies and moths including the Frilliary butterfly, one of the 1st butterflies of spring.

Wine and beer can be created with the flowers.  Leaves are delicious and highly nutritious as they supply Vitamins A, D, and C, potassium, and magnesium.  Dandelion has been found to be helpful for arthritis, has been utilized as a laxative and as a treatment for liver disease.  The milky sap is excellent at removing warts, which Pam thought was especially great to know.

As you can see, Pam’s research seems to suggest that this non-native plant is extremely beneficial, so how should we respond to dandelions?  Should we continue on with knee-jerk removal, or should we learn to understand them as something useful to both humans and other species?

As it turns out, there is a project devoted to just such questions based at Columbia University.  Called the Introduced Species Summary Project, its goal is “to provide information that would help a natural resources manager or concerned citizen to understand the basic biology of a non-native species and whether and how to respond to its arrival.”  ( The project grew out of a graduate level Invasion Biology course and a Certificate in Conservation ecology course.  I just love discovering things like this and the Lost Ladybug Project.

There are 95 species included in the Project so far, most of which are not actually just arriving, but have already “become common in at least some areas of the Eastern United States.”  I have noted that there is an entry on both the domestic cat and on humans, both of which I will probably report on in this blog at some future date.

A little "urban" dandelion near the sidewalk in Philadelphia
A little “urban” dandelion near the sidewalk in Philadelphia

But for dandelions, the site confirms what Pam learned—the plant has many benefits, and unlike many introduced species, actually hosts or feeds much beneficial wildlife.  The Introduced Species Summary Project found no ecological threats posed by dandelions unless you just insisted on thinking of them as weeds, like Pam’s “green grass crazy” landlord, who she hopes to convince otherwise with her new findings!