Learning Outdoors

Lemon goodies

December 16th, 2016

Our school lemon tree has recovered from three bad years of drought, flood and pesky whiteflies, and deluged us with lemons this fall! So this week all classes tried lemon squares, and everyone but the HWW classes made lemonade from our school lemons. The lemonade recipe received great reviews, and is very simple: 1 part lemon juice, 1 part simple syrup, 8 parts water. Simple syrup is 2 parts sugar and 1 part water, boiled for 10 minutes with a lemon peel or two, then cooled.
We also had record production from our Satsuma tree (we try to remember its name by thinking of large Japanese wrestlers, seated) and indulged in several taste-testings until we finally got them all picked before the holidays.

Vegetable production

November 28th, 2016

Most of our fall semester vegetables are being harvested. The only exception is our green bean plants, which raised a few green beans and a great many long-tailed skipper butterfly caterpillars, which delighted the children about as much as green beans would (but were NOT eaten, only allowed to crawl on a hand and put back on a leaf). Vegetables that were sampled and enjoyed included kale, cilantro, mustard seeds, stevia, kohlrabi and cabbage (both served as cole slaw).
We are looking forward to broccoli, more cabbage, snap peas and Brussels sprouts after the holidays!

Bed renovation

November 14th, 2016

HWW classes have spent several weeks reworking several garden beds and adding more native plantings. The two GroPods south of the parking lot HWW ramp are now filled with wildflower seedlings which we hope will burst into bloom in spring as their predecessors have for the past couple of years. The south Carpool bed (on your left as you drive up to door) now has a shrimp plant and fall obedient plant in addition to its dwarf bottlebrush and indigo spires salvia. We hope both will fill out and fill up the bed, once they’ve spent the winter getting their roots established. We have also worked in back just outside the pond fence on the north side of the playground. We are removing all the St. Augustine that has taken over what used to be lovely flowerbeds with stone walkways, and adding more native flowers to those beds. We should have plenty of food for our local ecosystems!

Mrs. Hightower’s sweet potato bread

October 22nd, 2016

So many children have asked for my sweet potato bread recipe that I’m giving it here.
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use coconut oil)
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup apple juice or cider
1 cup cooked and mashed sweet potatoes
1/2 cup chopped pecans (can be omitted)
Combine sugar and oil; beat well. Add eggs and beat well. Stir in sweet potatoes and beat well. Combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir flour mixture into egg mixture alternately with apple juice just until blended.
Pour batter into 2 greased 8×4 inch loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 40 minutes.

We’re all worm wranglers

September 14th, 2016

Mrs. Scarbrough’s kindergarten class expanded by about 50 today when they made the stripped newspaper bedding for their worm box and then (with the help of First Grade) welcomed some red wriggler (eisenia foetida) worms for the year. These worms reside at school throughout the year, consuming the odd banana peel or apple core along with their bedding. In May, they travel to Mrs. Hightower’s garage and join their cousins in her bigger worm bin, spending the summer finishing off their bedding (and a lot of Mrs. H’s kitchen garbage). The rest of the classes this week will find the rest of the worms to return to a clean box for Mrs. H and produce about 5 gallons of worm castings to use as fertilizer with our school trees and crops!

Excellent sweet potato harvest

September 7th, 2016

We had five tubs and beds planted with sweet potatos before the end of school in May, and with our new Eagle Scout project irrigation system and all the summer rain, we had a terrific harvest! We also got another look at our playground rough earth snake, who showed up on both our harvest days. This is a small (less than a foot long, about half inch diameter at widest) brown earthworm-eater (not a fang to be seen) who gets quite frantic when out in sunlight! We released him/her in the planting up against the school wall on both occasions, but I would bet he/she is already back in the nice soft soil looking for worms.

Houston we have a banana

August 28th, 2016

The teensy delicate banana sprout brought by a first-grader 4 years ago is now twelve stalks, several nine feet tall. This summer for the first time we have a pina of bananas forming and have been able to watch the flower unfurl day by day. Careful observation indicates it opens one petal per day, each containing 2-3 flowers. However, the flower has not “set” bananas for about a month: the pina is five or six rows deep and contains roughly 30 bananas. Classes have been warned about the staining power of banana sap, so should not be touching dropped petals or leaves. We plan to cut the pina just before the first freeze, and find a lucky classroom to let it ripen before we figure out what to do with it. Unfortunately, it’s not going to produce the kind of bananas we normally purchase in the supermarket: it’s probably a Rajapuri, which is more of a cooking banana

It’s pond time again

May 5th, 2016

We began our pond experience at TBS this year with a “centers” activity where students observed 4 tanks of pond life: large water plants, small water plants, baby gambusias (fish) and mature gambusias. Unfortunately the tadpoles didn’t show up until we actually started pond-dipping. Each student made a drawing of pond life showing inhabitants of all 4 tanks. Then we moved to the pond, and have had a couple of very happy weeks (interrupted by the floods, which pleased the pond creatures more than us) sitting around the pond “fishing” with clear plastic cups and collecting our catch in a large tub to be admired at the end of the session. So far we’ve captured one almost two-inch gambusia (biggest ever), zillions of smaller gambusias, both carnivorous and herbivorous snails, the aforementioned tadpoles (I’m guessing offspring of our little leopard frog whom we sometimes see in the middle), and of course algae by the handsful. I also managed to isolate some ostracods, VERY small critters about the size of a sharpened pencil tip, that under a microscope turn into translucent spotted shelled creatures with legs that won’t hold still long enough for me to count them.I hope to get some of our handheld scopes set up next week so the kids can have a peek.

Fruit trees blooming and fruiting

March 21st, 2016

The loquats we planted as part of WestWing expansion are now producing scads of fruit. When bright orange and a little soft, they taste like tangy apricots, but have a cluster of watermelon-seed-sized black seeds in the center. We know they will grow, because one has—in a pot just E of the WestWing deck! For the first time in four years, our lemon tree is full of blossoms. Three years back was a drought, two a flood, last year too many white flies. We couldn’t mitigate the rain issues, but we sprayed horticultural soap and dormant oil, and hung whitefly traps (sticky yellow rectangles that apparently smell interesting to the flies) in several places. As a result, this year we have the prospect of school lemons again. The old Satsuma (tangerine cousin) is also full of blooms. Thanks to the Drs. Fefer, we have a new baby citrus tree to replace the stunted Satsuma planted too close that never prospered. Our Mark O’Pella memorial peach tree has also bloomed out this year. It is still a little young to be allowed to bear fruit from them, but the flowers (dark pink/light pink) are beautiful! These trees are wonderful lessons in patience: fruit, after all, takes time.

Old MacDonald and bird guides

March 14th, 2016

The younger classes are learning cardinal and sparrow calls with Old MacDonald. He has a bird feeder instead of a farm, but in the same vein cardinals come to feeder with a “Cheer, Cheer” (which we hear on Cornell University’s Institute of Ornithology website, www.allaboutbirds.org ) and sparrows with a “Cheeweep, Cheeweep.” Kindergarten and First grade classes also had an adventure with the school’s set of birding guides (kindly donated by Houston Audubon Society members), where each class used the book’s index to find a cardinal. This was a great exercise in navigating through alphabetical order, locating page numbers, and exploring what bird guides look like.