Native Plant Garden at John Witherspoon Middle School–Plant Communities and Human Communities Come Together

My school, the John Witherspoon Middle School (JW), has a Memorial Garden tucked into a wonderful small niche in the front of the school.  It is a sort of “secret garden,” bounded on one side by a school corridor with a wall of windows.  This allows humans a view inside without needing to encroach on the garden’s privacy.  This makes it a perfect place to try to create a functional—and visible–ecosystem where plants will feed insects and other animals, where insects will pollinate plants and raise young, where some insects will become food for birds, and where birds and other animals will find shelter, food and water.

We had plenty of native plants–I still had part of a donation to the Princeton Schools from Pinelands Nursery, arranged through sponsorship from the Mercer County Soil Conservation District.  Mark Eastburn, the Science Teacher from the Riverside School, had native plants through grant funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).  Mark’s plants included some carnivorous (insect eating) plants, specifically Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants.

The garden already had some traditional decorative landscape shrubs, including azaleas, crape myrtle and those green bushes that prune so well into geometric shapes but whose names I never learn.  We decided to retain the existing shrubs as a layer in a multi-layer landscape.  Under and around the shrubs we would add the herbaceous native plants including sedges, monarda, goldenrod, columbines, and many others to provide shelter to flowers and animals as well as soil health promoting ground cover.

The whole project was a team effort not only by Mark and myself, but of the whole Princeton school community.  A lot of the effort was enthusiastically provided by students from Nyrie Janho’s Food Science and Wellness Classes, and by the school’s two Robotics Club teams, the JW Hornets and the Techno Tigers.  Students helped clear the English ivy and other invasive weeds that were overrunning the garden.  Mr. Eastburn and his students sunk five tubs into the ground for the carnivorous plants; the tubs will be watered only by rain water, which will help the plants retain the moisture they require to thrive.

Both of the Robotics Club teams are preparing for a competition that requires them to not only build Lego robots but to plan and carry out a community service program.  The Techno Tigers, whose project involves encouraging birds to take up residence at JW, raised funds for a bird house and bird bath.  The JW Hornets are working on a project to help bees, which are increasingly endangered in the modern American landscape, and will be adding elements to the garden for this purpose.

Compost and mulch were supplied by Princeton Public Schools Grounds Foreman Tony Diaforl and his crew from the ecological facility that Princeton shares with Lawrence Township.  We applied the compost as an initial top dressing to supply organic matter and some nutrients from the surface down, just as it happens in natural systems.  The top dressing of compost will work with the mulch to discourage weed seeds from growing by denying them the sunlight that they require to germinate. We mixed the donated mulch with leaves collected from the school lawns for the second layer over the compost.  This combined mulch layer will provide not only protection for the soil, reducing oxidation of carbon and soil nutrients, but cover for small critters including insects.

John Witherspoon Middle School Teacher Kelly Riely has arranged for some of the members of her Do Something Club to water the new native plants once a week until it gets colder.

DO SOMETHING CLUB MEMBER WATERING PLANTS.jpg

The project could not have been done without the support of Princeton Public School District personnel, including Science Supervisor Edward Cohen and John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Jason Burr.

The garden is still very much a work in progress, as we wait to see both how well our new introduced communities of plants and the ones already there function together.  In the spring, we will add additional plants to fill any holes and to replace any plants that don’t make it.  We will continue to recruit members of the JW and the larger Princeton communities to help with maintenance as a form of stewarding some of the ground that stewards us.

ANOTHER CLUB MEMBER WATERING.jpg

Kale Ecology

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Would you eat this leaf?

I have been telling people, sometimes ruefully, sometimes excitedly, about my “kale ecology.” The lovely rows and rows of donated kale seedlings that I planted last spring had sprouted an apparently entirely self-sufficient ecosystem.  Lots of white flies and at least a few aphids are sucking juices from the kale leaves, and excreting out sweet liquid called honeydew.  Ants crawl up to eat the honeydew.  Flies are landing on the leaves—they must be lapping up honeydew as well.

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One ant on our plants

But what had me jumping up and down (in my mind, since my garden is just outside classroom windows) is the best crop of ladybugs I have ever seen in one garden.  We have lovely yellow eggs, we have the black larvae that are longer than an adult ladybug and always look like some weird armored horror movie critter, we have orange pupae, and we have adults—including a few that seem to be senior citizens.  I had never actually seen the pupa form before, and had to check my guide books to make sure that was what the unmoving orangey and blackish thing about the size of an adult ladybug actually was.

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Ladybug pupa on cut leaf
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Asian Ladybeetle larva

 

Predictably, there are also cabbage white butterflies flitting about, and I saw at least one green larva, the “cabbage worm,” a name that I find apt, since the caterpillar always looks squishy to me.  There are also crickets that seem to hang out below the kale plants, in the straw and leaf litter mulch.  There were some other beetles, shield-shaped like stink bugs, but more colorful.

I was hoping my middle school students would share my love of ladybugs, and be impressed by the four totally distinct looking stages of their lives.  But turning over leaves to look for critters raised a cloud of white flies every time, and most students, seeing that happen to one of their cohorts, wouldn’t even approach the kale patch.  One student claimed to have been bitten by something that might have been a grasshopper, like the one sitting on the side of the garden bed, and he was understandably cautious.

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Fly and Ladybeetle

But he was one of the students who volunteered to be “brave” enough to actually pull some of our kale plants for composting.  I had already given up the idea of actually using any of the kale for human consumption—the teacher I was working with found that even washing couldn’t eradicate the telltale signs of insects making a meal of the kale.

It is easier to tell people that we need to feed the critters using the ornamental portion of our yards, rather than with the plants we were hoping to eat ourselves.  It’s also easier, even in the vegetable garden, to do when the critter in question is one that is beautiful and naturally makes you pull out your phone or camera to take a picture, like the black swallowtail.  Truth be told, it is impossible to imagine any sharing happening when faced with a plant where every surface that has not been munched away is covered either with eggs or frass (the word for insect poop), or with the fungus that can also be part of a mini-ecology like my kale.

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Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

So, we’ll be pulling and composting all the old kale, as well as trying to protect the new kale and its fellow family members, broccoli and kohlrabi, with row covers.  But I won’t regret the ecology that brought had me jumping up and down over ladybugs.

Flowers, Food and Feathers

By:  Priscilla Hayes

At the end of last year, the first grade teachers at Littlebrook School started planning a bird garden as a service learning project for their classes with design ideas from Littlebrook’s fabulous art teacher. We are converting an existing bed which already contains plants that support birds, so the kids will be drawing plans to add additional bird-friendly plants from a pre-selected list.

Creating a successful bird garden is more than just adding plants—it’s learning to look at both the existing and new plants from a bird’s point of view. I am learning that this requires unlearning or rethinking some things that have become almost second nature to me as a gardener.

One of those things to reconsider is deadheading—removing the spent flower heads after the blooming period is over. If you do that, you also remove the developing seeds that can provide food for birds. I am suggesting that you should consider discontinuing deadheading for birdseed plants. Just a few examples of the many plants which produce seeds that birds can eat over the fall and winter are:

Perennials
• Rudbeckia
• Echinacea/coneflower
• Joe pye weed—per CREP publication, the seed is an angular nutlet providing food to songbirds; look for chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos; the fluff is used for building warm nests.
• Goldenrod—benefits songbirds; birds eat seeds; insects use it to overwinter, so birds can eat the insects, also.
• Tickseed
• Sedum—all sedum varieties popular with pretty much all types of seed eaters.
• Asters—provide seeds.
• Globe thistle—especially popular with goldfinches; not an aggressive plant.

Annuals
• Zinnia
• Nasturtium
• Marigold
• Bachelor button
• Coreopsis
• Tithonia/Mexican sunflower
• Sunflowers
• Purple majesty millet

My research also showed that some weeds, notably smartweed, produce a large amount of seeds per plant, attracting red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows and others. While I am not really advocating planting smartweed, I have a collection of seeds as they become ripe on the turnpike overpass where we bike in mind. I figure that I can move the ripe seeds to a bird feeder, since it is unlikely that they will get eaten on that hot, noisy, open overpass.

But not every bird eats seeds. If you begin to study the shapes of birds’ beaks, you will begin to see that some birds have the right beaks to eat seeds, and others have beaks that are appropriate for collecting and eating something from the animal kingdom (of course, some things eat both plant and animal things, as we do). Insects and other small crawlies are among these foods, so another important change in gardening habits is to learn to tolerate some level of insects chomping away on garden plants. Many of these things, including caterpillars, are foods for birds we want to see. In fact, the presence or absence of enough of these may help determine how many eggs are laid and how many young birds can be successfully raised by adult birds nesting in a given area.

This has proved more slippery to embrace than the no-deadheading protocol change. We are wondering if the reason we aren’t seeing many of the Black Swallowtail caterpillars this year is because we have a bird population that is too efficiently picking them off and eating them. We really do like Black Swallowtails—they are one of two butterflies especially studied by the second graders, and we don’t mind sharing our parsley and fennel with their caterpillars. On the other hand, no birds seem to be eating the cabbage worms we are seeing on our collards. Are Black Swallowtail caterpillars the caterpillar of choice for birds with discriminating palates? We have taken to squishing the cabbage worms (and drowning Japanese beetles) since nothing is eating these for us. Figuring out how to provide insect food for birds is going to be a real learning process for us humans at Littlebrook School.

As I was introducing the fifth graders to their Freedom Garden (instead of a bird garden) for this year, the teacher I was working with pointed out an adult male and a juvenile goldfinch eating coneflower/Echinacea seeds in one of our pollinator borders. With her impressive birding skills, she could tell that the youngster was trying to get the adult to feed it, and the adult was saying the youngster was old enough to feed itself. I was reminded of how much I still have to learn about the natural world, but at the same time, a mystery was solved for me. Last year I collected Echinacea seedheads with the second graders from that very border and we seemed to come up with almost no seeds or fully pollinated, viable seeds from the seedheads. The finches in the courtyard explain why—they had already picked out most of the seeds before we even got to the seedheads.

I love my job for all of these constant little insights every day, and even just the gift of noticing things, like goldfinches, that were there all along.

Ravishing Radishes

By:  Priscilla Hayes

During May, 2015, the Garden State on Your Plate program of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative hosted radish tastings on Wednesdays in the four Princeton K-5 schools.  As the school garden educator for two of those schools, I had the chance for some garden serendipity, connecting our school garden radishes to the radishes being experienced in the cafeteria.

It began with an email from Fran McManus with an idea for planting radish seeds in transparent containers, which would allow students to observe the development of both the root—the radish—and the leaves.  My sister had donated a bunch of transparent plastic gelato containers, which I had Community Park School third graders fill with potting mix.  Then, they carefully planted radish seeds adjacent to the outer walls so we could watch them grow.  As an added bonus, only half the seeds planted were purchased.  The other half were seeds saved by Kindergartners from the Community Park garden itself, and our goal was to see which would grow better.

By the time we planted the radishes in the jars, there were already Kindergarten radishes coming along nicely in one of the Community Park beds.

I checked both the jarred radishes and the garden bed radishes a couple days before the tasting.  The jarred radishes showed nary a sign of any radish root development, just some disappointing white roots.  The gardened radishes were reaching the point of woodiness, but they were lovely on the outside.  Some were developing flowers, which, as I learned from talking with the wonderful Trent House gardener Charlie Thomforde, would soon turn into sweet little radish pods—tasty if we got to them before they fully went to seed.

So, on radish tasting day, all the Kindergartners met out in the garden to pick three radishes—one for each class—to present to Joel Rosa, the Food Service Director of Nutri-Serve Food Management, the company that brings cafeteria lunches to Princeton students.  Why only three?  I explained to the kids that I wanted the rest to go to pods, which we could pick.

Forage Radish Pods
Forage Radish Pods

Joel Rosa was wonderful with the kids, and duly impressed when he learned that we were planning to eat radish pods soon.

A week or so later, radish tasting came to Littlebrook School, my other K-5 school.  I was so excited on that day to discover that our forage radishes, which fourth graders had planted as part of a cover crop mix (more on that another time), were going to lovely, delicate pods.

All three fourth grade teachers responded enthusiastically to my request to bring their classes out for a brief picking and tasting of pods.

I asked the students to answer three questions:

  • Did the pods taste like the radishes they had tasted earlier that day in the cafeteria?
  • If so (or even if not), were the pods milder or spicier than the radishes they had already tasted?
  • If not like radishes, what did the pods taste like?

Very few students—or I, for that matter—actually thought the pods tasted like radishes.  Everyone thought they were milder.  Many students thought the pod tasted like a mini green bean or a pea pod.  I can’t remember all the other answers.

The garden is nothing if not a place for serendipity!  The programs mentioned in this post provide great ways for students and their families to discover this for themselves.

The Garden State on Your Plate Program seeks to not only serve fresh, local foods to students but also to educate them about their sources and growing processes.  The program teaches students about the links between their food, their local environment and the larger world through creating new bonds between students, local farms/farmers and local chefs who prepare food for school tastings.  Learn more at http://www.psgcoop.org/garden-state-on-your-plate/.

Princeton School Gardens Cooperative focuses on hands-on methods of food and garden based education, not just in the classroom, but in the community.  Their goal is to teach every student to be an active participant and take responsibility to understand the impact of their eating habits and food choices on their surroundings.  For great links, articles and resources, visit http://www.psgcoop.org/.

Radiator Charlie Inspires an Artist to Create Seed Libraries

By:  Priscilla Hayes

It’s May 15, and I am finally completing a post about a wonderful session that took place a month ago.  On Tax Day, April 15, 2015, we welcomed Jeff Quattrone to the New Jersey Audubon Plainsboro Preserve facility to talk to community and school gardeners about seed saving.  Part of the reason this blog post is delayed is because it is prime school garden season and I have been in my three school gardens non-stop rather than at the computer.  The other reason is the breadth of the April 15 session and of the intense discussion there.  We covered some beginning seed saving tips complete with a demonstration of tomato seed saving.  We also learned about the careful research and steps Jeff took starting three “seed libraries” and some legal issues that have lately arisen, in which states seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between regulation needed for those selling seeds versus those exchanging seeds non-commercially.  After some struggle over how to convey all of this to you, I decided that on the latter, I would refer you to some online sources, including a New York Times article.  Please see the list of links at the end of this article and in the blog’s resources section.  Still, this post is longer than usual, and will be divided into sections.

THE POWER OF STORY

Seed saving involves stories of each of the seeds saved.  We can look at seeds themselves as stories, and Jeff’s getting to seed saving and seed libraries is a story in itself.  Jeff has a background and training as an artist, and he views all his ventures through an artistic lens.  When he saw that the print graphic arts work he had been doing was disappearing in favor of digital forms of representation, he began trying to “reinvent himself,” drawing always on his arts base.  In art school, he had learned both to challenge the prevailing notions of society and also to value stories as integral art in their own right.  All of this led him to start a blog that featured a daily story about a person who was doing something positive to change the world.  In the course of writing that blog, Jeff found himself coming back again and again to posts related to sustainability and gardening, and found himself especially drawn to the Ark of Taste, which is a project of Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.  The Ark of Taste is described online as “a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.  By identifying and championing these foods we keep them in production and on our plates.” https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-of-taste-in-the-usa

Jeff became passionate about the idea of keeping heirloom plants from becoming extinct, and had also developed an interest in promoting “food security,” i.e. making sure that people had enough good food to eat.  He started a second blog, Vanishing Feast, An Heirloom Solution, described as intended

to bridge the gap between society today and the history and tradition of heirloom gardening.  The focus will be on food sources that are endangered, and specifically on fruits and vegetables, and bring awareness to the tradition of seeds and or plants as family heirlooms.

SEED SAVING AND SEED LIBRARIES

Vanishing Feast gave Jeff new opportunities for his artistic outlets, celebrating the stories and variety of colors and textures that heirlooms offered.  But Jeff realized that that, too, was only a step in his reinvention journey.  He wanted to do more than blog about heirlooms—he wanted to actively work on saving them.  It became clear to him that the action most within his power and abilities was seed saving and the starting of seed libraries to foster the community that is built over the sharing of saved seeds.  Seed saving was also the best way for individuals to ensure food security, and Jeff felt especially lucky to be in New Jersey, where a three season harvest is possible.  More than that, there were stories about each of the heirlooms and about the varieties that had disappeared.  There were stories about the privatization of seeds, and the loss of biodiversity in food crops, while biodiversity was generally only thought of as a necessary element for wild plants and animals.

Since he had “always grown plants, not seeds,” one of his first tasks was to teach himself about pollination and seeds.  He needed to learn about how to keep the genes of heirloom varieties pure.  He quickly determined that “selfers,” i.e. those plants that pollinated themselves, would be good starter plants for beginning seed savers.  Success with these plants could give them confidence to go on to the more challenging seed saving with wind or insect pollinated plants.  He saw that seed saving could allow gardeners to develop seeds best adapted to their own local environment.

As another step in his research, Jeff looked to the models of seed banks already in place elsewhere.  He became inspired by seed companies or individuals who were breeding vegetables for local environments, like “Radiator Charlie,” who originated the “mortgage lifter” tomato, so called because it was so big that he was able to make enough money off its seeds to lift his mortgage.  He then looked to more formal seed saving operations, like Richmond Grows, (http://www.richmondgrowsseeds.org/)  a seed library in Richmond, California that had stepped up to take the lead in providing resources, tools and data collection both about and to seed libraries starting around the country.  Richmond Grows encourages beginning members to save seeds only from the “super easy” drawers of seeds that it makes available, also known as the selfers.  Jeff also looked at the more local model of Hudson Valley Seed Library (http://www.seedlibrary.org/), although the latter sells the seeds its members save, not simply facilitating a non-commercial exchange of seeds.

Jeff also thought long and hard about the envelopes to be used for seed sharing, and settled on coin saving envelopes as the perfect ones.  The sample that he gave seminar goers, that is pictured here, is 2 ¼ by 3 ½ inches.  As the photo shows, it contains the seed variety name, a short description of its backstory, the quantity enclosed, season, and seed source.

After a year of research, Jeff began approaching possible municipal venues and opened his first library in February 2014, followed by two more in 2014 and this year.  The seed libraries “check out” seeds to patrons, with a promise from them that they will return seeds at the end of the growing season.  While there are a variety of seeds available for checking out, the seeds which patrons are asked to return are those of open pollinated or heirloom plants, and are generally “selfers.”  “Selfers” are plants which can pollinate themselves, and thus can be expected to breed true to the parent plant without the need for hand pollination and protection of flowers from pollen brought by insect or wind.  Only experienced seed savers are invited to save more challenging varieties.

THE BEGINNING SEED SAVER

Jeff recommended that the beginning seed-saver start with “selfers,” tomatoes, peas, lettuce and beans, and then move on from successes with these to other plants.  In the April 15 session, he demonstrated removing seed containing pulp from a tomato and placing it into a jar of water, where it should remain for three days to ferment.  The seed would then be washed to remove seeds from the pulp over a small seed screen, which was basically a frame around screen material.

A seed saver who had gotten confidence with these first, easy plants could move on to more challenging items, such as squashes.  Jeff provided all of the seminar participants with a list of recommended distances between any insect pollinated plants that could breed with each other.  He also showed us silken bags to use to assure that no insects sneak in to bring unwanted pollen to a plant being raised for seeds.  These bags ranged from drawstring bags available for wedding favors, which could cover a single flower, to larger silken bags to cover a whole plant or significant part thereof.

Of course the seminar could only whet our appetite for starting seed saving, especially since we were attending it at a time when there were no seeds to be saved, but only planning to be done.  I can see that learning seed saving is a process, and am doubly glad that I have the continuing opportunity to learn slowly, through the season-long training at Duke Farms, the next session of which I will attend tomorrow.

LEGAL ISSUES LINKS

In the interests of making sure that farmers and others buying seeds are getting what they paid for, various states are regulating non-commercial seed savers as well.  While he is not a lawyer and it is important to come to your opinion, Jeff believed that New Jersey law is clear enough to support the non-commercial distinction and won’t lead to this imposition of excess regulation on seed savers.  Those interested in learning more about the topic can consult the following links.

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2014/12/28/us/ap-us-seed-struggle.html?_r=0

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-02-12/seed-libraries-fight-for-the-right-to-share

An Organic Garden Bed Redesign by Fourth Graders

By:  Priscilla Hayes

One of the things I love the most about being a school garden educator is the classroom teachers, with whom I try to have an “organic” relationship.  When they suggest things, or make comments, I can run with their ideas and turn them into whole new lessons.  Because I present the same lesson to multiple classes, I can refine the lesson as I go and incorporate more teacher suggestions.

Our garden beds are limited in size out of necessity.  Putting an entire class of kids in one all at once generally leads to crowding—or worse, what I think of as the butt bumping problem.  Picture 20 fourth graders in a hexagonal bed about 11 feet in diameter.  Now, think of them all in one row of mounds in that garden, not even the whole bed!  So, when one of my fourth grade teachers suggested that we have the kids plan the reconfiguration of our “Three Sisters” bed, I was enthusiastic.

The Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—were interplanted in the garden plots of Native Americans, including our native Lenape, all across the Americas.  Corn served as a support for bean vines, beans fixed nitrogen from the air and provided nutrients to the corn, and squash spread across the ground, both keeping weeds out and keeping animal pests from crossing to get to the corn and beans with their semi-prickly leaves.

Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov has determined that corn, beans, and squash have all have originated in southern Mexico/Central America.  Native Americans there bred them over many generations into something approximating the forms they take today.  Then the crops were spread up to the United States, New Jersey and beyond, without, as I point out to the kids, the advantage of trucks, planes, trains or even horses (which were then extinct in the New World, until reintroduced by Europeans).

This year, inspired by an interview with Rowen White, a Mohawk who I found on Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden (http://awaytogarden.com/), I added two more “Sisters”:  the sunflower, a plant which most Native Americans grew along with the Three Sisters, and Mexican spinach, another common Native American crop.  While it is clear the Lenape generally grew sunflowers along with their Three Sisters, I can’t say it is quite so clear that they grew Mexican spinach.  It is likely, however, that they grew something similar.  I added that plant in hopes that we will have something for a fourth grade spring salad, since all the other Sisters take until the fall to be ready for consumption.

After discussion with the teachers, I started the students on a redesign project for the newly renamed “Five Sisters” bed.  During the first session with each class, I introduced not only the reasons behind the plants selected, but also how the geographic origins of the plants were determined, their growth habits and the “likes/dislikes” of the plants.  I built on lessons we had previously done with the classes about soil health, emphasizing that we wanted to minimize paths in the redesigned bed, but that those paths would be the only place feet were ever allowed in order to minimize disruption to the soil ecology.

Fourth graders were challenged to use the parameters I had introduced to create their plan, using what they had learned of the habits of the five plants.  They also needed to minimize the amount of the bed set up as paths and make sure no one stepped on the planting parts of the bed, so as not to compact the soil or crush the plants.

In the second design sessions, students presented and explained their proposed redesign plans, either individually or in groups.  I used the proposed redesigns submitted by students to create two possible composite redesigns, shown here (forgive the quality of the photos; my scanner wasn’t working).  I sent my two designs, each with questions about possible additional elements, to the students for them to vote on the final design.

Redesign 1
Redesign #1
Redesign #2
Redesign #2

I have the student votes in my bag, but haven’t had the time to tally.  It looks really close, though.  Will the students have picked the design that divided the bed into three equal pie slices, with a circular path in the middle to contain the bean-hating sunflowers?  Or will they have chosen the one with paths in a modified “smiley face” design?  Which would you pick?