Notes from Garden & Afield, Week of December 24, 2017

Article and photos by Joe Sapia

Soft morning sunlight contrasts with threatening skies at the high ground of Thompson Park in Monroe, Middlesex County.

A popular winter activity for generations at Thompson Park is sledding from the high ground toward the low ground around “Jamesburg Lake” (properly Lake Manalapan). The 30-acre lake is formed by the damming of Manalapan Brook at Jamesburg. Remember, there are few, if any, natural bodies of water on the Coastal Plain.

Sledding at Thompson Park in Monroe, Middlesex County, via my 2001 folk art Christmas card.

SNOWFALL: The Saturday, December 30, snowfall of 1.0 inch at my house in the part of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg, Middlesex County, brought the season’s total to 9.0 inches. The seasonal average for New Brunswick, Middlesex County, about 7 miles away, is 25.8 inches. Elsewhere in the Midlands, according to the National Weather Service, with these readings based on what had been reported by reliable spotters at the end of the snowfall and perhaps not comprehensive: Burlington County: a high of 2.5 inches at Florence to a low of 1.5 inches at Moorestown; Hunterdon County: 1.0 inch in Lebanon to .8 inches at Whitehouse Station; Mercer County: 3.2 inches in Hamilton to 2.5 inches in Ewing; Monmouth County: 2.8 inches in the Howell area to .9 inches in Shrewsbury; Somerset County: 1.0 inch in Basking Ridge to .8 inches in Bridgewater; Ocean County: 3.3 in Jackson to 1.5 inches in Toms River.

Main Street in Cranbury, Middlesex County, in the Saturday, December 30, snowfall.

Iced-over and snow-covered Devil’s Brook on the boundary of Plainsboro and South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

Cranbury Brook as it drains Brainerd Lake (“Cranbury Lake’) in Middlesex County.

SAFE ICE: This time of year, and especially in the hard freeze the Jersey Midlands is in the midst of, we may be tempted to walk out on ice or go skating on it. Be careful! My rule of thumb is the ice must be at least 4-inches-thick. But various factors could come into play, such as warming temperatures, honey-combing, and running water. So, additionally, I look for crystal clear ice or blue-white ice. I am careful of melting ice, snow insulating ice, channels that may run through bodies of water, and fragile ice where water meets land or vegetation.

Anglers on an iced-over Helmetta Pond.

ICE SAFETY: If ice is breaking underneath, displace your weight by lying flat. For would-be rescuers, follow this order: throw (a line or flotation device), row (a boat to the person), go (yourself only as a last resort). Probably the soundest advice is to immediately seek help from expert rescuers.

Prospertown Lake in Jackson, Ocean County. The lake is at the northern extreme of the main Pine Barrens.

SWAMP-WALKING: With the sub-freezing high temperatures for an extended period, this is what I look for — a good freeze of the swamps, allowing access to otherwise difficult places to get to. I love swamps!

An iced-over wet area in the Manalapan Brook floodplain in Monroe, Middlesex County.

SWAMP-WALKING, No. 2: I started off into the woods across the street from my house – in the Pine Barrens of Monroe, Middlesex County – to do some swamp-walking in the Manalapan Brook floodplain. I did do some, but I got sidetracked when I noticed the abundance of winterberry, genus “Ilex.” I did not get around to making a Christmas wreath or swag, which I decorate with winterberry, but I wound up gathering winterberry to display on its own. I came home with a nice bundle. (To conserve, I broke only one branch from each selected bush.)

Winterberry from the swamp hardwood forest of the Manalapan Brook floodplain on display on my antique kitchen table.

SNOW GEESE: I finally saw some snow geese, “Chen caerulescens,” down from the Arctic as I was driving along the Mercer County-Middlesex County boundary on the border of East Windsor, Cranbury, and Monroe. They were easy to identify by their white bodies and black-tipped wings. There were only a few, rather than a flock. I took a few minutes to see if they were joining a flock on some farmland, but I was going to work and had limited time, finding nothing in my quick search.

Canada geese, “Branta Canadensis,” is a snow-covered field in South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

ATLANTIC OCEAN TEMPERATURES: The Atlantic Ocean temperature at Sandy Hook on December 30-31 weekend ranged from about 30 to 35 degrees.

A quiet December Atlantic Ocean beach, looking from Avon-by-the-Sea to Asbury Park, Monmouth County.

MOON: The next full moon, the Full Moon After Yule, is January 1, New Year’s Day.

The near-full moon over the swamp hardwood forest of the Manalapan Brook floodplain in Monroe, Middlesex County.

SUNRISE/SUNSET: For Sunday, December 31, to Saturday, January 6, the sun will rise about 7:20 a.m. and set about 4:35 to 4:40 p.m. For Sunday, January 7, to Saturday, January 13, the sun will rise about 7:20 a.m. and set about 4:45 to 4:50 p.m.

Soft sunlight on Manalapan Brook in Monroe, Middlesex County, as it flows toward Helmetta and Spotswood, also in Middlesex County.

Joe Sapia, 61, is a lifelong resident of Monroe — in South Middlesex County, where his maternal family settled more than 100 years ago. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and a gardener of organic vegetables and fruit, along with zinnias and roses. He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Polish-immigrant grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda. He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Grandma Annie and Italian-American father, Joe Sr. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Ma inspires his rose gardening. Joe is a semi-retired print journalist of almost 40 years. His work also is at @JosephSapia on, along with on the Jersey Midlands page.

Copyright 2017 by Joseph Sapia