Learning Outdoors

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!

More interesting taste-testing

January 10th, 2016

All classes this week had a taste of some familiar and some unfamiliar plants. Everybody got a bite of broccoli flower, which is a real treat since its nectar makes it sort of broccoli-with-honey flavor. Of course, some of the flowers had just been visited by a lot of honeybees we saw active, so they may have not have been as sweet. The bees’ presence gave the opportunity for a demonstration of how nonaggressive bees are, since I was sticking my hand in among at least half a dozen busy bees when I retrieved a stem of flowers for a class. As I expected, the bees ignored me after flying out of my way. I think yellowjackets (also yellow-and-black striped, but wasps) have very unfairly ruined bees’ reputations! We also sampled cilantro (coriander, to the English among you), dill, and magenta curly kale (chewy, but sweet). We will be sending all the kale home next week so we can prepare the beds for spring planting.

Compost pits yield interesting results

January 10th, 2016

We dug up all our compost burials this week, after several days of rain, and found results different from previous years, and varied among classes though the area covered by all the pits was smaller than 6’ x 6’. Two burials had free water at the bottom of the hole (which led to a discussion of how water tables worked), but the burial in between them did not. Two of the holes had red worms (I suspect feral red wrigglers from our worm boxes, since we’ve fertilized this area with worm castings); three had nightcrawlers; one had no critters—and had the greatest proportion of identifiable garbage remaining. We hope to put a wildflower garden in this area, but our discoveries have made it clear that a raised bed will be necessary for proper growth. Dr. Fefer has some good ideas about designs, so look for interesting developments in the northeast corner of the playground.

First graders taste test kohlrabi, tatsoi and satsumas!

December 6th, 2015

Our courageous first graders had a 95% approval rating (and most had seconds) in taste tests of 2 veg and a fruit grown on our playground. Kohlrabi looks like an alien life-form: an above-ground magenta or pale green bulb with a white interior, with magenta stems sticking out of it on all sides holding pale turquoise/green leaves. Tatsoi resembles a begonia more than any other plant—a rosette about 10” across of white stems holding dark green round leaves. The satsumas are the tangerines produced by one of the playground citrus trees. We harvested, washed and then sliced kohlrabi using a mandoline set on very thin; we harvested, washed and served tatsoi stems around a bit of ranch dressing; and we handed out sections of satsuma. To Mrs. Adams’ and my surprise, the overwhelming favorite was voted to be tatsoi, and the students swore that was only half due to the ranch dressing. And for the adults reading this – kohlrabi tastes somewhere between mild radish and broccoli stem; tatsoi is somewhere between spinach and bok choy.

Compost burials complete

November 11th, 2015

Greenhouse through fourth grade classes have now completed our annual compost pit experiment. This consists of digging an approximately cubic foot hole, and burying shredded paper from the office shredder mixed (by the children) with thawed frozen fruit and veg scraps from several volunteer kitchens, along with one plastic object to definitively identify our compost location. After dumping the compost mix in the hole, we replace the dirt, top with a bit of paper to keep shoes clean, and have the class march over and stomp on the pit to ensure we have good solid soil contact with our materials. We will return in early January to see What Has Become of our materials. Each class had a wide variety of hypotheses about what we will find!