Learning Outdoors

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!

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