Notes From Garden & Afield — Week of April 8, 2018

Article and photos by Joe Sapia

Matchaponix Brook near Englishtown Market in Manalapan, Monmouth County. This section of the brook is both diamond and rough — a beautiful natural world fighting the nonpoint-source pollution along Route 527. Brook in the foreground, swamp hardwood forest in the near background, and in the left of the far background, pitch pine trees of the Spotswood Outlier, disconnected from the main section of the Pine Barrens to the south.

MATCHAPONIX BROOK AT ROUTE 527:  I am 61-years-old and have been crossing Matchaponix Brook at Englishtown Market in Manalapan, Monmouth County, since as far back as I can remember. Yet I never gave much thought to the natural world here — until Englishtown outdoorsman Gary Forman relayed information to me through our mutual friend, outdoorsman Frank Ulatowski. This is the beginning of Matchaponix Brook, formed by the joining of Weamaconk Creek and McGellairds Brook. When I stopped by this week, I was amazed. Step only a few feet away from busy Route 527 and one is in a beautiful natural world of brook; swamp hardwood forest; a lodge of beaver, “Castor canadensis”; mallards, “Anas platyrhynchos”; great blue heron, “Ardea herodias”; and the telltale pitch pine, “Pinus rigida,” of the Pine Barrens because this is part of the Pines’s disconnected Spotswood Outlier. Probably plenty more that I did not notice. Unfortunately, I did notice the nonpoint-source pollution — garbage gathering in Matchaponix Brook. Take away this garbage and the busyness of Route 527 and I was in a wonderful natural world. Again, we should keep our eyes open because the natural world is around us, even if we taint it.

A great blue heron on Matchaponix Brook in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

     AS BEAUTIFUL AS MATCHAPONIX BROOK IS AT ROUTE 527…:  Nonpoint-source pollution — basically debris, such as litter or materials blown offsite, with no specific origin — is a major problem in our world. Simply look at litter along a road or, in this case, gathered in Matchaponix Brook at Route 527 in Manalapan, Monmouth County. Generally, the source of this garbage appears to be debris that drains into the brook and Route 527 littering.

Garbage in Matchaponix Brook at Route 527 in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

Garbage in Matchaponix Brook at Route 527 in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

     MATCHAPONIX BROOK:  In the Englishtown area of Monmouth County, Weamaconk Creek and McGellairds Brook join to form Matchaponix Brook. The brook then flows for about 5 miles, as the crow flies, to the north and merges with Manalapan Brook to form the South River on the boundary of Monroe, Spotswood, and Old Bridge in Middlesex County.  “Matchaponix” is a Lenni Lenape Indian word for “land of bad bread,” or land where corn does not grow well. I speculate this name comes from the Matchaponix Brook area being in the Spotswood Outlier of the Pine Barrens, or an area of sandy soil not conducive to growing corn or other conventional crops. (Conversely, “Manalapan” means “land of good bread.” Manalapan Brook begins and runs for miles in a non-Pine Barrens area, or an area of darker, gravelly soil that is good for growing corn.)

Mallards on Matchaponix Brook in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

     SPRING SPRINGING:  People are fishing. Listen in the early morning and you will likely hear birds singing. Look at a woods and you likely will see the red buds of trees. Flowers are blooming in gardens. Nature is coming alive with spring.

Warren Kiesler churns up horseradish plants on his farm in Cranbury, Middlesex County. To the right of the tractor in the background, notice the tree budding.

An angler at “Jamesburg Lake’ (properly “Lake Manalapan”) on the boundary of Jamesburg and Monroe, Middlesex County.

     ROBINS IN THE YARD:  With the coming of spring-like weather, it means the likelihood of seeing robins, “Turdus migratorius,” in our yards. I have noticed more of them around my yard in Monroe, Middlesex County. This week, I watched a robin pull a worm from my garden. “Although robins are considered harbingers of spring, many American Robins spend the whole winter in their breeding range,” according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website. “But because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time in your yard, you’re much less likely to see them.” As the weather warms and nature comes alive, they move to yards because of the availability of such things as worms. “American Robins are common sights on lawns across North America, where you often see them tugging earthworms out of the ground,” according to the Cornell website.

A robin in the shrubs of my front yard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

     HORSERADISH FARMING:  With the collapse of newspapers and, in turn, the collapse of my approximately 35 years as a reporter – basically from 21-years-old when I got my journalism degree to 55-years-old – I am always looking for work. Over those 5-plus years, I have been a part-time staff writer on a weekly paper, freelance writer, writing teacher, security guard. Security guarding, which I did during my college years and resumed these years later, now takes me from a Central Jersey professional park to the perimeter around foreign cargo ships where Maryland’s Patapsco River meets Chesapeake Bay. As I like to say, I have the best syntax at the Baltimore docks and am the only employee of Rutgers University’s Plangere Writing Center that wears a hard hat on his other job. This week, at 61-years-old, add laborer at the Kiesler horseradish farm to my resume.

 Harvested horseradish on Kiesler farm in Cranbury, Middlesex County.

     SNOWBIRDS GOING, GOING…:  When will “snowbirds” — juncos, “Junco hyemalis” — be gone for the season? Based on field notes I have kept over the years, they should be leaving Monroe, Middlesex County, any day now to about April 25 or so. They will head to high ground, as close as North Jersey or Pennsylvania or as far as Canada. Then, I will see them again around the yard about mid-October to early November.

Manalapan Brook in the section of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg, Middlesex County.

     IN MY GARDEN:  I finished the planting of the early spring crop — Kaleidoscope Blend Carrots, Touchon Heirloom Carrots, Bloomsdale Long-Standing Heirloom Spinach, Early Wonder Heirloom Beets, and Salad Bowl Lettuce, all Burpee products.

I found this in my garden. Something got this bird, the remains possible those of a mockingbird, “Mimus polyglottos.”

     YARDWORK:  I tackled the first yardwork of the season, working the front yard. I trimmed trees and prepared soil to plant zinnia and warm-season vegetables. The latter is a continuation of my plan to make my one-quarter-acre yard as productive as possible. With that idea, I am trying to minimize a generally unproductive lawn as much as possible.

PRINCETON ENVIRONMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL:  I attended the annual Princeton Envirionmental Film Festival, seeing part of the “Evolution of Organic” movie and the entire “Seed to Seed” movie, both about organic farming. I also got to see the talk of Dr. Joe Heckman — organic farmer, a member of the board of directors of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, and Rutgers University soil scientist — after the showing of the “Evolution of Organic” and got to socialize with Joe. (Joe and his wife, Joyce Goletz Heckman, own Neshanic Pastures farm in East Amwell, Hunterdon County. Joyce and I are childhood friends from Monroe, Middlesex County.)

Awaiting a movie at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

Dr. Joe Heckman, who spoke on organic farming  at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Joe is an organic farmer, a member of the board of directors of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, and Rutgers University soil scientist.

     UPPER MILLSTONE RIVER EAGLES:  We are pretty sure the nest of bald eagles, “Haliaeetus leucocephalus,” on the Upper Millstone River on the boundary of Mercer and Middlesex counties, has one eaglet in it. The baby should fledge in early to mid-May or the early end to early June on the far end. Then, the family should stay together in the area. After fledging, the young eagle or eagles should stay in the area until about early September to early December. (The bald eagle remains in New Jersey an “endangered” breeder – that is, in immediate jeopardy as a breeder – and “threatened” in general – that is, in danger of becoming “endangered” if conditions deteriorate.)

An adult bald eagle landing on the Upper Millstone River nest.

     GARDEN WRITING:  A great pleasure of mine is to be back at the Princeton Adult School this semester, again teaching non-fiction writing. In the past, I have taught the essay and the vignette. This semester, the course is called “Garden Writing,” but is really about gardens, the outdoors, or nature. Because of its title, the course has drawn a class of passionate gardeners. This passion inspires wonderful stories. Just this week, I have read papers about dandelions, beginning spring plantings indoors, tomatoes and their guests of the hornworm and Braconid wasp. The dozen or so in this class make it a joy to teach.

THINGS THAT DO NOT BELONG:  Just because something is outdoorsy does not mean it belongs everywhere in the outdoors world. On the Millstone River on the boundary of East Windsor, Mercer County, and Cranbury, Middlesex County, I noticed ornamental daffodils growing in the river floodplain. I suspect these were purposely planted or they grew from waste soil. They looked pretty along the river, but they are a non-natives that do not belong there.

These daffodils look pretty blooming along the Millstone River on the boundary of Cranbury, Middlesex County, and East Windsor, Mercer County. But they are ornamentals that do not belong in the wild.

     SKY PHOTOS:  This week’s sky photos are from Monroe, Cranbury and Plainsboro, all in Middlesex County.

Sky above farmland in Monroe, Middlesex County.

Sky above farmland in Cranbury, Middlesex County.

Above my backyard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

Above farmland on the Cranbury-Plainsboro boundary, Middlesex County.

     SUNRISE AND SUNSET:  For the week of Sunday, April 15, to Saturday, April 21, the sun will rise about 6:20 to 6:10 a.m. and set about 7:35 to 7:45 p.m.

A Piedmont boulder field on the Princeton Ridge in Princeton, Mercer County. Notice the lichen growing on the rocks. Lichen is a sign of fresh air.

     MOON:  The next full moon is April 29, the Sprouting Grass Full Moon.

ATLANTIC OCEAN TEMPERATURE:  The Atlantic Ocean temperature off New Jersey was about 46 to 52 degrees.

WEATHER:  The National Weather Service office serving the Jersey Midlands is at


April 21, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Burlington County, Southampton:  The Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s 13th Annual Native Plant Sale, Alliance headquarters, 17 Pemberton Road (Route 616). More information is available from the alliance, telephone  609-859-8860 or website

April 28, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Middlesex County, New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Ag Field Day, Cook Campus, Route 1 and Ryders Lane. More information is available at website

April 28 and 29, Saturday and Sunday, Hunterdon County, Lambertville:  Shad Fest event of environmentalism, entertainment, food, crafts. More information is available at 

Daffodils in bloom in Cranbury, 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 an organic gardener of vegetables and fruit, along with zinnias and roses. He loves the Delaware River north of Trenton and Piedmont, too.

     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 The Jersey Midlands page on on the Jersey Midlands page.

Copyright 2018 by Joseph Sapia