Learning Outdoors

Planting sweet potatoes

May 8th, 2017

This is the time of year when all the soil we’ve made through composting and our wormeries finally goes back into the vegetable beds in a ridge to plant sweet potatoes in. Our compost heaps turn quickly into soil the past 2 years, thanks to Willy Wonka the second-grade rabbit’s bedding. Mixed with kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps, students’ castoff apple cores and banana peels, coffee grounds, the occasional Halloween pumpkin, and shredded paper from the office, and we have sweet-smelling soil in just a couple of months. The sweet potatoes come by mail—and a more miserable bunch of four-inch vine-ends you’ve never seen: rubber-banded together, wrapped in wet newspaper, shoved in a plastic sack and then a box, and ruthlessly sent via post. They arrive limp, pale and practically whimpering. HOWEVER a short stint in water and/or moist potting soil, in the shade, and they become optimistic again, putting out new roots and greening up. They stand up pretty well at that point to being grabbed by our young gardeners and stuffed into the side of a mound of dirt up to their first leaves. By the end of June they will cover the vegetable beds so most weeds are shaded out; by August they will have made dozens of nice tubers for us to excavate.

Pond time again

May 3rd, 2017

Every class’s favorite activity is once again on the schedule: “fishing” in our small campus pond for all the critters who live there. This year we have the added fun of child-sized magnifying cups that can hold small creatures in ½” of water and magnify it 4 or 6 times. Our quarry include gambusias (mosquito-eating fish ranging from newborn about 1/16” long to old mother fish almost 2” long), tadpoles (both frog and toad varieties), and both round- and pointy-shelled snails. We have now had spotted leopard frogs around campus long enough to find them in both the “linear pond” North of the West Wing and the regular pond in the fenced wildscape. This year has produced a couple of triumphs as two children have caught mother fish (first time after a dozen years trying) and we captured a very small frog in the campus pond. Our usual practice is to fill a plastic tub with each class’s catch for the children to admire as they go back to the building, then release them all back into the pond.

HAS Birdathon preparations

April 3rd, 2017

We are deep in preparations for the Houston Audubon Society birdathon again. All the classes enter as teams, although our goal is more to raise lots of eager, knowledgeable birders than to maximize funds for Houston Audubon. Preparations include learning how to use a bird guide to figure out what birds we saw, familiarization with all the common campus birds (house sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, mockingbirds, purple martins, white-winged doves, and nutmeg manikins/munias), learning bird calls, and learning how to use binoculars (we have a little over one classroom set of decent binos, and plenty of hand-me-down bird guides from the Audubon Society). It is such a joy to hear the four-year-olds sing out “there’s a cardinal!” when one comes to our bird feeder.

Playground purple martin colony

February 20th, 2017

Our purple martins have returned from South America and settled back into their 12-apartment condo in the middle of the playground with great fanfare. It looks like we have more pairs this year, which we hope is due to some successful hatchlings from prior years. They make a beautiful (and noisy!) display perching around the rails and turrets of the condo, flying off when we walk under, zooming around the playground, over the school, and around the front of campus, and coming back while we watch for them, with food for their nestlings. It will be interesting to see next winter how many nests we find! They make a perfect “first bird” for our birdwatchers, since they are easy to find and fun to look at through binoculars.

Compost experiment results

January 30th, 2017

Since our second grade focuses periodically on composting, they went beyond the other classes’ compost experiments . Before the holidays, they divided into 4 teams and chose 4 different “recipes” for their raw materials. They used either shredded paper or dead leaves for “brown stuff” and either coffee grounds or frozen/thawed fruit and veg scraps for “green stuff.” After some serious stirring and enthusiastic digging, each team’s recipe went in a 5-gallon pit and was covered up to soil level with the hole’s dirt. A numbered stake and bucket marked the exact location for each team, and after a month and a half, we uncovered the pits last Friday. The thoroughness of decomposition, from best to worst, were Team 4 (leaves and scraps), Team 2 (paper and scraps), Team 1 (leaves and coffee), and Team 3 (paper and coffee). Almost all the raw materials had turned into organic soil, easily distinguishable from the clay in that part of the playground. The scraps attracted (grew?) giant nightcrawler worms, where the coffee grounds attracted fewer critters, mostly larvae (grubs).
Any parents interested in supporting our ongoing composting activities are welcome to drop off bags of oak leaves or pine needles or shredded paper for the Outdoor Classroom. They will be put to good use – and reduce our need for purchased soil for our vegetable gardens.

Annual nestbox survey

January 17th, 2017

We always wait until after a freeze to ensure we don’t surprise any nesting wasps before we do our annual nestbox survey. This year showed some interesting findings: we clearly have 3 kinds of nests (therefore 3 kinds of birds nesting) and our purple martins lost a baby (found a mummified fledgling in one apartment on their birdhouse). Our bluebirds seem to select for pine needles; our sparrows cram the box as full as possible with grass straw; and the purple martins use a twig base and straw mattress for their babies. We also found a number of wasp nests (3-8 chambers) and spider egg balls.
We now have 3 years of individual data on our boxes, and may soon be able to draw some conclusions or make changes to see if we can get 100% utilization of our 22 boxes.

First hard freeze in 2 years

January 10th, 2017

Well the freeze took out our banana grove, including a massive flower on our biggest trunk that had shown promise of surpassing the 33 bananas we ripened (and made bread from) from an earlier stalk. Now we won’t have blooms till 2018—it takes 18 months. And we will be in the banana-removal business as soon as the weather warms and we can see if any of the trunks survived. Our two citrus trees against the building fared reasonably well, though with some leaf loss. We managed to pick and distribute most of the fruit. The Satsuma on the N at our property line seems to have come through close to unscathed—still full of bright green leaves. We hope of course that the good hard freeze will also result in big population drop on the citrus pests that produce curly leaves with nasty patterns on them. I am still waiting to see if the loquats (which were in flower just before the freeze) will produce fruit or not this year. Our wildflower plantings are mostly unscathed, and the cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cilantro all survived with little to no damage. Our big African basil, which is such a bee magnet, is gone.

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!