Learning Outdoors

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.

Nematode peril

March 7th, 2016

When we harvested lettuce in one of the north-end silver tubs, we found evidence of root-knot nematodes (instead of white strings, roots look like swollen tan tubes with knots in them). After we sent all the lettuce home with them, Fourth grade helped us sow cereal rye in the bed on Friday. That grass attracts nematodes into its roots like any other plant, but traps them there so they starve and die. Then we compost the rye and get extra nutrients for the soil!

Time for lemon squares and lemonade

February 26th, 2016

Although our school lemon tree has not bloomed for several years (first the drought, then the floods, then whitefly problems), my home tree is still fruitful enough to provide for all the classes. With the rain Tuesday, it was a perfect opportunity to let everyone sample the difference Meyer lemons can make in cooking! If your child came home raving about the food, here is the recipe information: lemon squares recipe is in The Branch School Cooks, a cookbook we published a couple of years ago. I believe Lauren can direct you to a copy if needed. The lemonade is quite easy, once you make its sweetener: 2 cups sugar in 1 cup water, with the peel of one lemon, boiled for 10 minutes. When you mix the sugar and water, you will think you have the ingredients backwards because it makes a sludgy gray mess. As the liquid heats and you occasionally stir, the sugar will eventually all dissolve, and you will end up with about 2 cups of a clear/slightly gold liquid with candied lemon peel floating in it. Cover and refrigerate. To make lemonade, the proportions are 1 part syrup, 2 parts lemon juice, 8 parts water/ice. So 1 cup syrup plus 2 cups juice plus 8 cups water makes almost 3 quarts of lemonade. Enjoy!

Hightower West Wing spring exploration

February 23rd, 2016

After eating lemon squares, the middle schoolers and I walked around the front campus to see what early spring was bringing. We found the maple tree at the foot of the deck stairs covered with winged seeds (not ripe yet, unfortunately). Several other saplings west of the buildings were just beginning to bud—Houston is still a week or two from “bud burst,” when we start seeing widespread green in our deciduous trees. One of our staff mentioned seeing woodpeckers around the front of campus, and we found out why: one Mexican sycamore (silver-gray trunks, giant leaves) had tidy patterns of holes pecked in its trunk! Clearly, there were insect issues! The spirea and the Mexican plum are about to burst into white flowers, and the fruit on the loquat trees by the east deck ramp is just beginning to ripen. It needs to turn completely orange/pink before it can be picked and eaten. We’ll try again this year to save some seeds and see about growing a batch of baby loquat trees. It can’t be hard—after all, one managed to plant itself in the redbud pot on the east side of the deck!