Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 32
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
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Nature Paints a Wetlands Portrait, Creates Eco-Lab for PHS Students

Linda Arntzenius

Students returning to Princeton High School after the summer will find a new laboratory classroom for their science studies. This classroom has no walls, however, and one might need to don waterproof boots to enter.

Since planting began in the spring with the help of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Friends of Princeton Open Space(FOPOS), and the PHS's Parent Teacher Organization, the detention basin adjacent to the science wing in back of the school on Walnut Lane has begun to be colonized by native plants, insects, and birds.

The result provides a native wetlands eco-lab as envisioned by science teachers Tim Anderson and Paula Jackowlew, and others, including former long-term Board of Education member Charlotte Bialek and Steven Hiltner, the natural resources manager for FOPOS.

The eco-lab will be used for the study of horticulture and environmental science, where students will be able to use the natural environment for plant identification and observations of wetlands ecosystems as well as plant and animal behaviors.

Mr. Hiltner has been among those guiding the project. "Helping get projects like the high school basin going is part of my public outreach work for FOPOS," said Mr. Hiltner, who described the outdoor laboratory as the happy result of many minds thinking alike.

The project was enthusiastically endorsed by Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson, and PHS students designed a naturalistic layout for the basin that lends itself to a wetland because of a constant flow of water and occasional flooding. The plan included a stream with several ponds, as well as raised ground to encourage the growth of native plants. Members of the school district's ground crew excavated the area for the plantings — a selection of woody plants donated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to form a foundation for the eco-lab, and native herbaceous species bought by funds contributed by the high school's PTO.

"The key element in this basin is the supply of water from the school's sump pump and from rain water that runs off from the roof," said Mr. Hiltner of the basin that is also fed by water from a second detention area by the tennis courts and parking lots.

Last week, as Mr. Hiltner stopped by to plant an arrowhead plant in one of the pools, he spotted soft rushes, sedges, rose mallow, and pickerel weed. He was delighted to note the bright red spires of lobelia cardinalis in bloom and the activity of mud dauber wasps among the insect life.

As a wetlands enthusiast, Mr. Hiltner has planted many such gardens over the years. He noted their values in being both low maintenance and conducive to native plantings. "Native plants don't mind getting flooded and don't care how good the soil is," he said, opining that many people are oblivious to the value and the beauty of native species that are the natural heritage of the region.

But even here there are weeds, that is to say non-native or invasive species such as bindweed and nut sedge that, according to Mr. Hiltner, will have to be removed. "The cattails will also have to be managed or they will take over the entire basin," he said.

Mr. Hiltner shares his advice regarding natural plantings, Native Plant Workshops, and volunteer clean ups, on his Princeton Nature Blog on the FOPOS website (, which also has news from Princeton's preserves, parks, and backyards of the area's shared natural heritage and the benefits of restoring native diversity and beauty.

The basin was formerly regarded as a problem area — a grassy hollow with drainage issues. Surrounded by a neat chest-high iron rail, it seemed like a frame surrounding an empty canvas, said Mr. Hiltner. "Now that the fine details and colors of the 'painting' are developing, it's more like a centerpiece."

Not only that, in addition to its value for science education, the eco-lab will also save the district money since the former grassy basin will no longer have to be mowed.

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