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.



Radiator Charlie Inspires an Artist to Create Seed Libraries

By:  Priscilla Hayes

It’s May 15, and I am finally completing a post about a wonderful session that took place a month ago.  On Tax Day, April 15, 2015, we welcomed Jeff Quattrone to the New Jersey Audubon Plainsboro Preserve facility to talk to community and school gardeners about seed saving.  Part of the reason this blog post is delayed is because it is prime school garden season and I have been in my three school gardens non-stop rather than at the computer.  The other reason is the breadth of the April 15 session and of the intense discussion there.  We covered some beginning seed saving tips complete with a demonstration of tomato seed saving.  We also learned about the careful research and steps Jeff took starting three “seed libraries” and some legal issues that have lately arisen, in which states seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between regulation needed for those selling seeds versus those exchanging seeds non-commercially.  After some struggle over how to convey all of this to you, I decided that on the latter, I would refer you to some online sources, including a New York Times article.  Please see the list of links at the end of this article and in the blog’s resources section.  Still, this post is longer than usual, and will be divided into sections.


Seed saving involves stories of each of the seeds saved.  We can look at seeds themselves as stories, and Jeff’s getting to seed saving and seed libraries is a story in itself.  Jeff has a background and training as an artist, and he views all his ventures through an artistic lens.  When he saw that the print graphic arts work he had been doing was disappearing in favor of digital forms of representation, he began trying to “reinvent himself,” drawing always on his arts base.  In art school, he had learned both to challenge the prevailing notions of society and also to value stories as integral art in their own right.  All of this led him to start a blog that featured a daily story about a person who was doing something positive to change the world.  In the course of writing that blog, Jeff found himself coming back again and again to posts related to sustainability and gardening, and found himself especially drawn to the Ark of Taste, which is a project of Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.  The Ark of Taste is described online as “a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.  By identifying and championing these foods we keep them in production and on our plates.”

Jeff became passionate about the idea of keeping heirloom plants from becoming extinct, and had also developed an interest in promoting “food security,” i.e. making sure that people had enough good food to eat.  He started a second blog, Vanishing Feast, An Heirloom Solution, described as intended

to bridge the gap between society today and the history and tradition of heirloom gardening.  The focus will be on food sources that are endangered, and specifically on fruits and vegetables, and bring awareness to the tradition of seeds and or plants as family heirlooms.


Vanishing Feast gave Jeff new opportunities for his artistic outlets, celebrating the stories and variety of colors and textures that heirlooms offered.  But Jeff realized that that, too, was only a step in his reinvention journey.  He wanted to do more than blog about heirlooms—he wanted to actively work on saving them.  It became clear to him that the action most within his power and abilities was seed saving and the starting of seed libraries to foster the community that is built over the sharing of saved seeds.  Seed saving was also the best way for individuals to ensure food security, and Jeff felt especially lucky to be in New Jersey, where a three season harvest is possible.  More than that, there were stories about each of the heirlooms and about the varieties that had disappeared.  There were stories about the privatization of seeds, and the loss of biodiversity in food crops, while biodiversity was generally only thought of as a necessary element for wild plants and animals.

Since he had “always grown plants, not seeds,” one of his first tasks was to teach himself about pollination and seeds.  He needed to learn about how to keep the genes of heirloom varieties pure.  He quickly determined that “selfers,” i.e. those plants that pollinated themselves, would be good starter plants for beginning seed savers.  Success with these plants could give them confidence to go on to the more challenging seed saving with wind or insect pollinated plants.  He saw that seed saving could allow gardeners to develop seeds best adapted to their own local environment.

As another step in his research, Jeff looked to the models of seed banks already in place elsewhere.  He became inspired by seed companies or individuals who were breeding vegetables for local environments, like “Radiator Charlie,” who originated the “mortgage lifter” tomato, so called because it was so big that he was able to make enough money off its seeds to lift his mortgage.  He then looked to more formal seed saving operations, like Richmond Grows, (  a seed library in Richmond, California that had stepped up to take the lead in providing resources, tools and data collection both about and to seed libraries starting around the country.  Richmond Grows encourages beginning members to save seeds only from the “super easy” drawers of seeds that it makes available, also known as the selfers.  Jeff also looked at the more local model of Hudson Valley Seed Library (, although the latter sells the seeds its members save, not simply facilitating a non-commercial exchange of seeds.

Jeff also thought long and hard about the envelopes to be used for seed sharing, and settled on coin saving envelopes as the perfect ones.  The sample that he gave seminar goers, that is pictured here, is 2 ¼ by 3 ½ inches.  As the photo shows, it contains the seed variety name, a short description of its backstory, the quantity enclosed, season, and seed source.

After a year of research, Jeff began approaching possible municipal venues and opened his first library in February 2014, followed by two more in 2014 and this year.  The seed libraries “check out” seeds to patrons, with a promise from them that they will return seeds at the end of the growing season.  While there are a variety of seeds available for checking out, the seeds which patrons are asked to return are those of open pollinated or heirloom plants, and are generally “selfers.”  “Selfers” are plants which can pollinate themselves, and thus can be expected to breed true to the parent plant without the need for hand pollination and protection of flowers from pollen brought by insect or wind.  Only experienced seed savers are invited to save more challenging varieties.


Jeff recommended that the beginning seed-saver start with “selfers,” tomatoes, peas, lettuce and beans, and then move on from successes with these to other plants.  In the April 15 session, he demonstrated removing seed containing pulp from a tomato and placing it into a jar of water, where it should remain for three days to ferment.  The seed would then be washed to remove seeds from the pulp over a small seed screen, which was basically a frame around screen material.

A seed saver who had gotten confidence with these first, easy plants could move on to more challenging items, such as squashes.  Jeff provided all of the seminar participants with a list of recommended distances between any insect pollinated plants that could breed with each other.  He also showed us silken bags to use to assure that no insects sneak in to bring unwanted pollen to a plant being raised for seeds.  These bags ranged from drawstring bags available for wedding favors, which could cover a single flower, to larger silken bags to cover a whole plant or significant part thereof.

Of course the seminar could only whet our appetite for starting seed saving, especially since we were attending it at a time when there were no seeds to be saved, but only planning to be done.  I can see that learning seed saving is a process, and am doubly glad that I have the continuing opportunity to learn slowly, through the season-long training at Duke Farms, the next session of which I will attend tomorrow.


In the interests of making sure that farmers and others buying seeds are getting what they paid for, various states are regulating non-commercial seed savers as well.  While he is not a lawyer and it is important to come to your opinion, Jeff believed that New Jersey law is clear enough to support the non-commercial distinction and won’t lead to this imposition of excess regulation on seed savers.  Those interested in learning more about the topic can consult the following links.

Community Seeds Program Series

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I love the way networks work in my life, connecting me to more of whatever I need to learn right now.  I had already set up the Seed Saving Program with Jeff Quattrone, (learn more in my previous blog post: when I got an email from someone who had also been in touch with Jeff.  Shanyn Siegel, who had spent nearly five years managing the seed bank maintained by Seed Savers Exchange ( was about to start teaching a “season-long” program in which she would walk program participants through seed saving, step by step.  The introduction to the whole series, the first of five sessions, was scheduled for just a few days after I learned of it.  The whole series ( was to take place at Duke Farms, in Hillsborough, NJ, and would serve any of Duke’s Community Gardeners ( who chose to sign up, as well as outsiders like me.

In my earlier seed-saving post, I mentioned that I had some of my young students save seeds from radish and lettuce plants that I had asked the garden parents not to pull out when the plants “bolted.”  In the fall, the seeds had dried nicely on the plants, but were still mostly inside the seed pods on the plants.  I had other classes save marigold, tithonia, Echinacea, and fennel seeds.

I had planned to try saving tomato seeds with some of the older students, but the fermentation method laid out in my seed saving book was intimidating.  I kept gathering tomatoes, and just leaving them places in bowls, thinking they needed to be beyond regular eating ripeness in order to save seeds.  As it turned out, this wasn’t necessary.  I left the bowls in various indoor locations, where they eventually became too much for my family to stand, so they all ended up spending the winter freezing on my front porch.

My tomato experience suggested I needed plenty of real hands-on instruction in order to really master seed saving.  I expected that whatever I learned with Shanyn would only build on and be reinforced by the later session with Mr. Quattrone.

Before I describe the wonderful first program with Shanyn, let me tell you something about her from the interview I did with her after the program.  Shanyn brought up the tomato intimidation problem without my even prompting her, confessing that her first attempt at saving tomato seeds failed miserably.  She assured me that saving tomato seeds was very easy.

“It’s such an easy process when someone shows it to you,” Shanyn said.  “But it seems intimidating.  One of the reasons for this season-long course is to give everyone an opportunity both to watch how this and other seed saving is done, and then actually get hands-on experience with it.”

Shanyn hopes that the season-long program will be a model to other such programs.

In the first session, we were given a refresher course in some basic botany, which is essential to understanding what it takes to save seeds that are true to the parent plant.  A genus contains closely related species, and closely related genera (plural of genus) comprise a family.  But it is the species level, which is below both the family and genus levels, where plants really share the most characteristics and can interbreed with each other.  This is most important for the process of seed saving.

As noted above, when you save seeds, you are looking to get seeds, which you can essentially think of as embryonic plants, with the same traits as the parent plant.  Seed saving gives you the power to select seeds from plants that most closely show a combination of traits that you appreciate.  However, you are definitely not looking to save seeds from a plant that may have accidentally interbred with another member of the species.  Such interbreeding would be the result of pollen from a different species member being carried to the plant you are using for seed saving.  This accidental interbreeding can happen with plants that are pollinated either by insects/animals or wind pollinated, but rarely with plants that are self-pollinated.

So, you have to keep plants that you don’t want interbreeding separated, and/or hand pollinate female flowers that are ready to receive pollen.  Then, you have to enclose the flowers you have hand pollinated so no other pollen sneaks in.  It isn’t even just other species members you may have planted that you have to watch out for, since many cultivated plants have “weedy” relatives that could be nearby your plants.

Shanyn also covered the important topic of knowing when to take seeds from a plant.

“Maturity for seed saving may not be the same as market maturity,” she said.  She explained that a watermelon that is ready to eat also has mature seeds, while a cucumber must be left to ripen beyond the point at which you would want to eat it for the seeds to mature.  As I had seen in my own lettuce and radish experience, you have to leave those plants in the garden beyond the point when they have bolted, until the seeds and the pods that enclose them are dry.

Even when a seed seems dry on the plant, it is important to allow it to dry further after harvest.  When dry, seeds should be stored in a cool dry place, like an unheated closet.  Completely dry seeds can be kept a sealed container in the freezer or refrigerator, but if you are not going to use all the frozen or refrigerated seeds at once, you need to let the sealed container acclimate to room temperature before opening.  This helps to avoid condensation in the container that will affect the quality of any seeds you are going to put back into storage.

I have to stop here with the session content, since I think the story of why and how Shanyn got into seed saving is equally fascinating.  After working on various organic farms, Shanyn went back to school to study horticulture and discovered an interest in plant pathology and why certain plants were especially suitable for disease resistance without being “genetically modified.”  Appropriate varieties of plants could be bred to be particularly well adapted to a region; the genetic resources for assuring this were the seeds, which could be saved from the most well-adapted plants.  Her work led her first to Seed Savers Exchange, and now to work teaching and promoting seed saving as a means of enabling more people to carry on its traditions.  She has been reaching out to those with seed libraries, such as Jeff Quattrone, hoping that seeds being saved can also be more widely shared and that people in local areas can begin saving and sharing their own seeds.

If you feel like I have barely scratched the surface of seed-saving with this post, you are right, and maybe you will want to sign up for the rest of the Duke Farms series.  I will promise that my next blog post will be on Jeff’s program, with its amazing two hour long animated discussion among the participants, and I will also be reviewing my favorite seed saving book at some point in the future.