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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/.

Community Seeds Program Series

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I love the way networks work in my life, connecting me to more of whatever I need to learn right now.  I had already set up the Seed Saving Program with Jeff Quattrone, (learn more in my previous blog post:  https://participatoryecology.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/seed-saving-so-old-and-so-new/) when I got an email from someone who had also been in touch with Jeff.  Shanyn Siegel, who had spent nearly five years managing the seed bank maintained by Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/) was about to start teaching a “season-long” program in which she would walk program participants through seed saving, step by step.  The introduction to the whole series, the first of five sessions, was scheduled for just a few days after I learned of it.  The whole series (http://dukefarms.org/en/Programs/CommunityGarden/Community-Garden-Courses/Community-Seeds-Program-Series/) was to take place at Duke Farms, in Hillsborough, NJ, and would serve any of Duke’s Community Gardeners (http://dukefarms.org/en/Programs/CommunityGarden/) who chose to sign up, as well as outsiders like me.

In my earlier seed-saving post, I mentioned that I had some of my young students save seeds from radish and lettuce plants that I had asked the garden parents not to pull out when the plants “bolted.”  In the fall, the seeds had dried nicely on the plants, but were still mostly inside the seed pods on the plants.  I had other classes save marigold, tithonia, Echinacea, and fennel seeds.

I had planned to try saving tomato seeds with some of the older students, but the fermentation method laid out in my seed saving book was intimidating.  I kept gathering tomatoes, and just leaving them places in bowls, thinking they needed to be beyond regular eating ripeness in order to save seeds.  As it turned out, this wasn’t necessary.  I left the bowls in various indoor locations, where they eventually became too much for my family to stand, so they all ended up spending the winter freezing on my front porch.

My tomato experience suggested I needed plenty of real hands-on instruction in order to really master seed saving.  I expected that whatever I learned with Shanyn would only build on and be reinforced by the later session with Mr. Quattrone.

Before I describe the wonderful first program with Shanyn, let me tell you something about her from the interview I did with her after the program.  Shanyn brought up the tomato intimidation problem without my even prompting her, confessing that her first attempt at saving tomato seeds failed miserably.  She assured me that saving tomato seeds was very easy.

“It’s such an easy process when someone shows it to you,” Shanyn said.  “But it seems intimidating.  One of the reasons for this season-long course is to give everyone an opportunity both to watch how this and other seed saving is done, and then actually get hands-on experience with it.”

Shanyn hopes that the season-long program will be a model to other such programs.

In the first session, we were given a refresher course in some basic botany, which is essential to understanding what it takes to save seeds that are true to the parent plant.  A genus contains closely related species, and closely related genera (plural of genus) comprise a family.  But it is the species level, which is below both the family and genus levels, where plants really share the most characteristics and can interbreed with each other.  This is most important for the process of seed saving.

As noted above, when you save seeds, you are looking to get seeds, which you can essentially think of as embryonic plants, with the same traits as the parent plant.  Seed saving gives you the power to select seeds from plants that most closely show a combination of traits that you appreciate.  However, you are definitely not looking to save seeds from a plant that may have accidentally interbred with another member of the species.  Such interbreeding would be the result of pollen from a different species member being carried to the plant you are using for seed saving.  This accidental interbreeding can happen with plants that are pollinated either by insects/animals or wind pollinated, but rarely with plants that are self-pollinated.

So, you have to keep plants that you don’t want interbreeding separated, and/or hand pollinate female flowers that are ready to receive pollen.  Then, you have to enclose the flowers you have hand pollinated so no other pollen sneaks in.  It isn’t even just other species members you may have planted that you have to watch out for, since many cultivated plants have “weedy” relatives that could be nearby your plants.

Shanyn also covered the important topic of knowing when to take seeds from a plant.

“Maturity for seed saving may not be the same as market maturity,” she said.  She explained that a watermelon that is ready to eat also has mature seeds, while a cucumber must be left to ripen beyond the point at which you would want to eat it for the seeds to mature.  As I had seen in my own lettuce and radish experience, you have to leave those plants in the garden beyond the point when they have bolted, until the seeds and the pods that enclose them are dry.

Even when a seed seems dry on the plant, it is important to allow it to dry further after harvest.  When dry, seeds should be stored in a cool dry place, like an unheated closet.  Completely dry seeds can be kept a sealed container in the freezer or refrigerator, but if you are not going to use all the frozen or refrigerated seeds at once, you need to let the sealed container acclimate to room temperature before opening.  This helps to avoid condensation in the container that will affect the quality of any seeds you are going to put back into storage.

I have to stop here with the session content, since I think the story of why and how Shanyn got into seed saving is equally fascinating.  After working on various organic farms, Shanyn went back to school to study horticulture and discovered an interest in plant pathology and why certain plants were especially suitable for disease resistance without being “genetically modified.”  Appropriate varieties of plants could be bred to be particularly well adapted to a region; the genetic resources for assuring this were the seeds, which could be saved from the most well-adapted plants.  Her work led her first to Seed Savers Exchange, and now to work teaching and promoting seed saving as a means of enabling more people to carry on its traditions.  She has been reaching out to those with seed libraries, such as Jeff Quattrone, hoping that seeds being saved can also be more widely shared and that people in local areas can begin saving and sharing their own seeds.

If you feel like I have barely scratched the surface of seed-saving with this post, you are right, and maybe you will want to sign up for the rest of the Duke Farms series.  I will promise that my next blog post will be on Jeff’s program, with its amazing two hour long animated discussion among the participants, and I will also be reviewing my favorite seed saving book at some point in the future.

Finding the Lost Ladybugs

By:  Priscilla Hayes

Children participating in the Lost Ladybug Search in Ithaca, NY, 2008-2009.  Photo by Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth.
Children participating in the Lost Ladybug Search in Ithaca, NY, 2008-2009. Photo by Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth of the Lost Ladybug Project.

A week or so ago, as snow fell outside the window, I spoke with Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth of the Lost Ladybug Project, which was started in 2008 to coordinate efforts to survey ladybug populations, first in New York State, and then, across the country.  This blog post, as promised, will have lots of information on this wonderful resource, meant to help track the various ladybug species, and give a sense of which ones are losing ground and which are more dominant.  The website, www.lostladybug.org, has step by step directions about how to look for, observe, document, and submit data and photos for ladybugs.  The site contains links to two 4-H Science Toolkits designed to help teachers and others guide children in grades K-2 and 3-6 respectively in learning about, observing, and collecting data on ladybugs in their local area.  The website and the toolkits both contain loads of fascinating information about ladybugs, including the interactions between native ladybugs and introduced Asian ladybugs.  The website also includes a number of free-standing curricular units, besides those in the two toolkits.

Ladybugs, both native and introduced, eat the same range of things.  Ladybugs eat aphids, of course, and lots of soft-bodied insects and insect eggs smaller than themselves.  Since many, if not all, ladybugs eat pollen as well, they may be found on flowers and corn plants, eating pollen.  While on a corn plant, they may eat a tiny just-hatched corn borer larva (or the egg that preceded it), but only if it is accessible.  They wouldn’t be digging in after corn borer larvae which have themselves bored into an ear of corn, so ladybugs aren’t a predator humans can count on to keep this pest from eating fields of sweet corn, so this essentially confirms what Dr. George Hamilton had told me for the preceding ladybug post.

Ladybugs even eat ladybug larvae, since these are also soft-bodied insects smaller than themselves

All species are capable of having multiple hatchings of eggs in a year, but the reproductive cycle gets interrupted more often and for longer periods of time in colder and dryer parts of the country and world.  In other words, in New Jersey and other parts of the country/world where we have a true winter, a ladybug will go into diapause—remember, that is ladybug hibernation—and won’t begin to reproduce again until leaving diapause.

There are many native species of ladybugs, but of the natives, Dr. Smyth says that three species have “suddenly practically disappeared.”  Dr. Smyth indicated that their disappearance is dramatic, since these three were once virtually ubiquitous.

Since crops attract and promote populations of the insect or animal species that ladybugs eat, they are often found in agricultural settings.  The ladybugs help control those species, especially aphids.  Asked about whether ladybugs are disappearing overall, Dr. Smyth indicated that agricultural surveys of ladybugs do not seem to indicate an overall decline across all ladybug populations.  As to ladybugs in non-agricultural settings, the Lost Ladybug Project hears primarily—or perhaps only—from those who have seen ladybugs.  Dr. Smyth agreed it would be hard to determine whether there has been any overall population decline based on those reported—and necessarily—positive observations.  Moreover, ladybug populations, like those of any other creature (except perhaps humans), vary somewhat based on yearly weather and other variable yearly conditions, so that it would be hard to say whether any observed decline in one year meant an overall decline.  All of this makes it very important to assist the Lost Ladybug Project by reporting ladybug sightings, in order to increase the data available to them and to other researchers.

Cycloneda munda found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, October 5th, 2009.  Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.
Cycloneda munda found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, October 5th, 2009. Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.

Each species of ladybugs has its own “specialties” in terms of the habitat and microclimates which it prefers—and where it is most well-adapted.  Some like high trees, some prefer lower areas.  Even what the aphids are eating goes into ladybug location preferences—after all, the juice of each plant being sucked by aphids has a different chemical composition and each ladybug species tolerates a certain range of chemicals more easily.  Since the presence of native plants is generally correlated to native ladybug development, planting native species which support ladybug food sources can help encourage native ladybug population growth.

The chief reasons introduced Asian ladybugs have been more successful than natives is that, generally, the Asians eat faster and more of the ladybug foods and grow faster and better than their native counterparts.

When asked to explain why I—and my local area of New Jersey with me—had crowds of Asian ladybugs invading our homes in 1993 and only a very few now, Dr. Smyth explained that when first introduced, a species like the Asian ladybugs experience fast population growth, then, over time, that growth and population itself subsides.  She indicated that since 2008, the percentage of the Asian ladybugs and another currently dominant species, the seven spotted ladybugs, which was introduced from Europe, have not changed that much.  Still, none of the ladybug species native to the Eastern United States was ever as dominant as these two have become.

Humans appreciate ladybugs for their eating of various critters that eat our crops.  I asked Dr. Smyth why humans should care about some species disappearing, if Asian ladybugs are eating aphids and the other soft-bodied insects that we want to see gone.  Dr. Smyth pointed out that while current conditions support the dominance of the Asian and seven spotted ladybugs, conditions could easily change.  In changed conditions, the species which have disappeared will likely not be able to rebound to pick up the slack.  Moreover, even in the absence of changed conditions, when individual native species begin to disappear, their “specialties” in terms of where and what they ate as well as what plants they favored for finding food disappear, and, again, there may be no one available to perform the same ecosystem functions that they performed.

More importantly, as one or two species become so dominant at the expense of others, the stability of the entire system is weakened.  Likely, as the book A Gap in Nature indicates, we can expect the ladybug disappearances to cascade—or, as Ray Archuleta stated it, “there are no hardy species” (see the blog post “Connecting the Gap Between Humans and Nature” for more on the project behind the book, as well as Ray’s work as a soil scientist).  When one species is threatened or eliminated, others begin to disappear as well.

So what should we do?  Should we all buy mass quantities of ladybugs and release them?

Harmonia axyridis, found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, August 17th, 2009.  Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.
Harmonia axyridis found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, August 17th, 2009. Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.

The ladybugs currently being sold are generally of the Hippodamia convergens variety (although web research suggests that Asian ladybugs, Harmonia axyridis, may be for sale as well).  These ladybugs are collected from the wild, and the collection, mailing, and release processes all seem to impact survival negatively.  Reported sightings of these ladybugs in the release areas reflect far fewer ladybugs than those reported released, which could, of course, also reflect a shortage of ladybug food.  It is possible that released ladybugs are leaving the release area to find better food sources elsewhere.

Dr. Smyth indicated that all this has led the Lost Ladybug Project to begin thinking about raising selected native species, and making these available to be released.  In the meantime, she agreed with me that you need to look at the problem “at the landscape level,” and promote landscape in your yard which will, in turn, promote ladybug population growth and retention.  So, the homeowner or school garden educator needs to be able to tolerate a certain level of continued aphid populations, and probably continued populations of other things we think of as “pests,” which serve as food sources for ladybugs—or other insects, birds, and other animals that we humans consider beneficial.  In order to promote the continued existence of these food sources, we need to make sure we have plants for them to eat, which might include “trap crops” for aphids.  We need to make space in our landscapes for a whole ecosystem, if we want any part of that ecosystem to be successful.

This is the idea behind one of my new favorite books, The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy.  I will be reviewing the book in one or more future posts.

A Garden is a Place We Are Invited Into

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I have the great privilege of being a part-time garden educator for two K-5 schools in Princeton, New Jersey, a town that has had a commitment to garden education for over a decade.  Generally, I am rushing around one of our school gardens either prepping a garden bed for a class that is coming out in 15 minutes or using a few spare minutes to weed and mulch.  But, I had a few minutes to just sit in the Community Park School “Edible Garden” one beautiful day this fall.  I had set up for a weekend garden event and was just waiting for people to arrive.  On a bench in our classroom/seating area, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to slow myself down.

For all my protestations about people just needing to get outside and observe more, and my tossing about of the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” I was rather shocked to find the garden full of critters—birds, bees, butterflies and more, all acting as though I weren’t there.

Only a few feet away from me, a quite bold squirrel flung him or herself off a tree branch onto one of our tall and lovely corn stalks, grabbed tight, and waited as his/her weight bent the stalk down to the ground.

I’m pretty sure that’s when I called out, “hey you, squirrel!”  It did occur to me, irrationally, that we needed a better name than just “squirrel” for our little friend, but in an instant, I had discovered who was stealing the corn from our corn patch.  I wasn’t going to let our new friend steal another ear of corn, at least while I was sitting there!

True confessions:  having saved an ear of corn, I somehow magically believed the squirrel (or squirrels) would never steal every one.  But our squirrel did just that, scattering empty husks around the Edible Garden.

I had been planning to bring the fourth grade classes out to pick our lovely Indian corn, from seed donated by my friend Zane.  But, having been reminded that a garden is not another human room, but a place where we are invited to share space with lovely living things, I created new lessons to let the kids experience the same reminder.

I asked each fourth grader to solve the mystery of the corn theft.  Each student had to find clues to the thief’s identity, and use them to come up with a conclusion.

I also created a game of “critter bingo” to ask the kids to see who else besides our corn thief was sharing the garden with us.  Students didn’t actually need to see a critter, but had to come up with clues that suggested that critter had been there.  From the kids, I learned where every hole in our fence was, and the location of some probable rabbit or vole holes.  We had a great discussion, considering seriously even the possibility that deer might have been here (in spite of our very tall deer fence).  There are probably still some kids who believe the deer steal in by dark of night.

In spite of my many years of being a gardener, and in spite of my burning desire to get kids outside more to experience nature, it took observing the squirrel to remind me that the critters and the plants are much more full-time residents of the garden ecosystem than we humans are.  We humans count mainly as visitors.  The critters and plants freely invite us in to spend some time in a place that is shaped by humans, yes, but even more by non-humans—from the living soil, which contains more organisms per square inch than any other segment of earth—on up through the wonderful shading trees.

I am indoors as I write this, dreaming my way into the lovely private CP Edible Garden at a time when the ground is frozen.  Me and the kids are really going to pay attention to the garden’s full-time residents this year, looking at the underside of leaves for insects, marveling at the small black voles that just love to hide under a flat of parsley plants and slowing down enough to see the birds.  Of course, we also have to come up with our name for the squirrel, one that will describe what he/she teaches us.

This is not a squirrel--it is a giant leopard moth larva that appeared equally magically in our garden.
This is not a squirrel–it is a giant leopard moth larva that appeared equally magically in our garden.

Love Those Lichens

By:  Priscilla Hayes

A lichen I photographed during my program at Eagle Hill Institute
A lichen I photographed during my program at Eagle Hill Institute

I have loved lichens for as long as I can remember. I have always found the large and colorful rosette shapes they form on rocks beautiful. Thirty or so years ago, I wowed a group of teachers while taking a Project Learning Tree training course. For my introductory science question, I asked them to identify the entity composed of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga.

So, when I started designing an after school schoolyard habitat series for young students, I naturally included a session on lichens. Along with the bird books which were meant to make me an expert for the birding session, I bought two normal size lichen books (this is meant to distinguish the books from Lichens of North America, a massive volume, which I finally bought this month).

I realized almost immediately that I wouldn’t be able to be enough of an expert on birds to do any kind of session, partly because birds move. You might not find any at all! What you do find may be moving too fast to see with binoculars, let alone to see long enough to identify with beginning birding skills. It’s better not to be embarrassed in front of my little third and fourth grade students!

So I concentrated on creating a lesson about lichens. Lichens don’t move, and I could theoretically scout my lichen hunting sites out in advance, make identifications, and be prepared to wow my students into loving them as I did.

Of course it didn’t happen that way (there’s a Steve Forbert song, “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” playing in my head as I recount this)! I never found the time to do the advance scouting. I made sure I knew a place that had lichens, but I didn’t do any ID. Of course, I needn’t have worried. Not only was I miles beyond my third and fourth graders, so they didn’t notice any lack of expertise, but really, what they wanted to do was make little movies in the garden with the iPads again. And not even movies about habitat or plants, but featuring little stuffed animals! It was an after school program after all.

This teaching experience had taught me that my lichen ID skills were rudimentary, so for my next student lesson, I persuaded a local lichen expert to come out to one of the schools that I work with to do a lichen walk in our “community forest.” He even brought a microscope, and gave each student a look at several different lichens.

It was on his recommendation that I headed off to Maine for a week in June, to an intensive course on lichens at the Eagle Hill Institute (link and a description, below). It was on the first day, I finally had to face the supremely underestimated profundity of my ignorance.

I didn’t even have a clue about good naturalist hand lenses, and had to go to the office to buy one immediately (they didn’t have the lighted ones the instructors recommended). I had not used a microscope myself since 9th grade biology, and had never dreamed how much skill that required. Out in the field, I collected lichen specimens in small brown bags as feverishly as any of my colleagues (none of whom were the rank beginner I proved to be), but my notations on each bag were sketchy, since I figured I would do identifications back in the lab. After the first night, when I found I couldn’t understand the difference between isidia and soredia and other lichen structures, or apply the dichotomous key well enough to identify my specimens from scratch, I made sure to carefully write down whatever name the instructors said in the field as we were collecting. That made it somewhat easier to make correct identifications back in the lab and let me play around with looking for whatever structures the book said that kind of lichen was supposed to have.

This experience not only challenged me to sharpen my lichen identifying skills, but also left me with another positive end result. My preconceived notions about symbiosis were upended, leaving me with a whole new understanding of and appreciation for what I thought I already knew. I’ll explain more in a future post!

Eagle Hill Institute, in Steuben, Maine, offers weeklong and shorter courses/seminars on lichens, birds, bryophytes, and a host of other nature topics. See http://www.eaglehill.us/programs/nhs/natural-history-seminars.shtml. My week was intense but thoroughly enjoyable, the food is great and the accommodations are rustic but fine. During my lichen week, there was also a group of people studying bryophytes, including a 12 or 13 year old prodigy who had already been volunteering at a natural history museum in Chicago. He was always the first one to head back to the lab for specimen identification after dinner.