Thursday, April 29, 2021

Some Photographic Perspectives

Thanks to Joan Marr for her photographic perspectives on Herrontown Woods, up close and personal, 

looking sideways at some daffodils, 

looking down at a gray tree frog, indifferent to her camera and a spider she watched crawl across its face,

and a new addition to the gazebo,
looking up at a clustering of so-called snowflakes 
and some redbuds, both of which persisted as Veblen House slept through decades of neglect, 
and logs took a very long rest, even as Herrontown Woods has awakened, all around them. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Spring Cleaning at the Princeton Botanical ARt garDEN ("Barden" for short)

Sunday workdays, 10-1, recommenced this past weekend. New areas are getting cleaned up and cleared of Japanese honeysuckle.

The shed/horse stable has gained some nifty suspended bottles to hold hardware, thanks to Andrew, and a chandelier. That was Rachelle's idea.
There's usually room in the parking lot, but sometimes on Sundays it fills to overflowing. FOHW is exploring ways to accommodate more parking.

Back in the 1920s and 30s, the Princeton ridge was a mecca for horse riding. Though actual horses are not allowed in Herrontown Woods, kids get to ride "Champion" while we're working in the gardens.


Friday, March 12, 2021

Letter in Town Topics about the Princeton Botanical Art Garden

One thing the Friends of Herrontown Woods has had to overcome is its acronyms. FOHW sounds like faux or foe, but sounds better when turned into the stirring call to action: FOHWard! Likewise, the grand-sounding Princeton Botanical Art Garden has the less than fortunate acronym PBAG, which somehow doesn't capture the beauty and serendipity of the enterprise. Thus this proposal to call it the BARDEN, short for Botanical ARt gardDEN. And if the Barden brings out the bard in those who visit or work there, all the better. 

The following appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of Town Topics.

Human Imagination, Resourcefulness Collaborate With Nature at Princeton Botanical Art Garden

To the Editor:

This past year, as the pandemic closed down indoor destinations, many people turned to Princeton’s nature preserves for diversion, renewal, and exercise. Coinciding with this surge in what is often called passive recreation has been an acceleration in several projects along the Princeton Ridge where people take a more active, restorative role in nature. Initiatives by the Friends of Herrontown Woods, the Friends of Princeton Open Space, and the Ridgeview Ridge Trail Blazers have all gained momentum, benefiting from an influx of volunteers.

On the eastern side of town, our relatively new nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, founded in 2013 to make Princeton’s first nature preserve once again accessible after years of neglect, has overseen the rapid evolution of a space we now call the Princeton Botanical Art Garden. It began three years ago as a small loop trail through a former pine grove decimated by windstorms. As invasive species took hold among the fallen trees, we saw the opportunity to create a rare habitat — a sunny forest opening. Removing rampant invasive growth and planting sun-loving native wildflowers and shrubs, our first goal was to create a space where people could come to learn about native flora.

But the botanical garden took a cultural turn this year as artists and students displaced from school began building structures amidst the wildflower beds. A boy made a fort. Several high schoolers built a yurt. A chainsaw virtuoso cut planks and handrails from fallen trees to build a whimsical but sturdy bridge over a small wetland. Using massive upturned root balls as backdrops, a spiritual gardener created a meditation garden, and a daughter and mother created an exhibit of wildlife bones.

Another family dug a miniature frog pond that attracted real frogs. Rocks were gathered from a nearby construction site to line whimsical trails. Most recently, considerable resourcefulness and imagination were applied to moving a donated shed and gazebo to the site. Witnessing the joy visitors were experiencing, we knew we were on to something. One parent of young kids described the art garden as “a lifeline.”

If there were ever any doubt, the pandemic has proven the worth of Princeton’s investment in preserving open space, beginning with the visionary mathematician Oswald Veblen’s personal and professional efforts in the 1930s to acquire lands that later became Herrontown Woods and the Institute Woods.
But at the Princeton Botanical Art Garden we have discovered the pleasures and ecological benefits of going beyond preservation and passive appreciation to create an in-between space — part nature, part culture — where human imagination and resourcefulness can collaborate with nature’s unparalleled creativity and generosity. By locating ourselves within nature, learning from it and giving back, we can begin not only to heal nature, but also heal ourselves.

Stephen K. Hiltner

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Herrontown Woods Parking Lot Plowed!

Thanks to director Ben Stentz and the Princeton Recreation Department crews for plowing the Herrontown Woods parking lot! 

Traditionally, the parking lot had been left unplowed, but due to increased use by the public, and some advocacy by the Friends of Herrontown Woods, the town has responded. 

The road down to the parking lot is privately owned, so the lot and the drive may not get plowed at the same time. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Herrontown Woods--Where To Park After Snows

Please be aware that the Herrontown Woods parking lot has not traditionally been plowed. The Friends of Herrontown Woods is working with the town to change that in the future. The situation is complicated by the fact that the street leading down to the parking lot is a private drive. A number of people have headed down this deadend road, then gotten trapped when the snow proved deeper than it appeared.

As of yesterday, Autumn Hill Reservation parking lot remained unplowed as well.

For now, please park at Smoyer Park or drive to the back of Stone Hill Church,

and park near this shed. The trail leading into Herrontown Woods is just beyond it. 

Herrontown Woods has a special look in snow, if you're up for the trek.

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.