Readers of my adventures with Beanstalk Children’s Garden in Kansas City, MO may remember my stint with the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. I was deeply invested in transplanting volunteer Portulaca grandiflora (moss rose) seedlings from the cracks between the garden path bricks into new homes at the base of our raised beds. The relocated plants turned out to be pretty successful at thriving at the new sites!
Here in Michigan, I’ve decided to put some of that portulaca cloning to work in my summer garden plot at the community garden. I started with a few portulaca seedlings that I purchased in flats at local nurseries. I planted these in the gaps between the bricks of my raised bed.
by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After the initial stress of being transplanted, the portulaca plants recovered and began producing new sprays of fleshy leaves. I broke off some of the smaller tufts of new growth to produce cuttings for propagation. From the cutting itself, I also removed the leaves from the stem portion that would be covered by the rooting medium.
New growth on portulaca by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Small tuft of new growth with stem. I removed some of the leaves along the stem to plant it in a rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Portulaca cuttings to be rooted! by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
In an old aluminum foil baking pan, I mixed vermiculite and coir (coconut fiber) with water to create a rooting medium. (Kind of looks like brownies!) I tucked the cuttings into this substrate, kept it moist and out of direct sunlight until they developed some roots.
Vermiculite, Coir & Water to create rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Bury cuttings stems in moist rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Close up of cuttings by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After about 2 weeks, the cuttings’ roots had grown large enough for me to attempt transplantation back into the garden.
Portulaca are hardy plants with succulent leaves/stems that do well in sandy/well-drained soil, as well as tight places like cracks between bricks. In my experience, it’s easier to transplant a small portulaca seedling (volunteer or cutting with developed roots) into a gap than smoosh a whole plant (i.e. from nursery flat) into a larger space.
If the portulaca seedlings take to their new homes, the growing plants will spread out across the bricks, creating a beautiful “carpet” effect, as well as providing nectar to insects. I never keep track of the flower color of the parent from which I take the cuttings, so it will be a surprise to see what colors combinations emerge.
I haven’t had much luck making a cutting and immediately sticking it directly into the soil. The cuttings always seem to dry out too quickly and wither, unless they have a set of well-developed roots. Even with roots, the transplants must be watered frequently for the first few days.
Putting in the baby portulaca seedlings only managed to feed my vision of portulaca carpeting the outside of the brick raised-bed. So I made some more cuttings from the original parent plants. Still didn’t keep track of colors.
I have been working on a post about neonicotinoid pesticide toxicity to bees, but have decided to back burner that piece to bring you a post inspired by summer camp (and goats!)
This summer, I’m running around with elementary-age kiddos at a science & nature day camp in Ann Arbor, MI. We just finished our first week of camp with campers, included a few very hot days. To help me stay hydrated, I made my own rehydration solution (aka “Goat gatorade”) from a glug (1-2 tsp) of blackstrap molasses dissolved in 16 oz of water. At a muddy dark brown, goat gatorade not as colorful as the panoply of commercially available sports beverages, but there are significant nutritional and dehydration-prevention benefits to this unusual beverage.
Blackstrap molasses is produced from the third boiling of sugar cane (or sugar beets) in the sugar-making process, concentrating minerals such as Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, Copper and Potassium. It is also a great source of B-vitamins.
I first learned about “goat gatorade” when I worked helped with spring kidding (birthing of baby goats) at Adamah in March 2013. After a mama goat had given birth, we gave her a solution of blackstrap molasses dissolved in water to replace fluids, electrolytes and minerals lost during labor. The mama goats also really seemed to like the taste!
When I found myself getting dehydrated during field work at Adamah, despite what I thought was copious water consumption, our farm manager suggested I try drinking the blackstrap molasses rehydration mixture. I discovered I also liked the taste of the solution(sort of a slightly bitter burned sweetness), so I drank more of it than plain water. The solution also seemed to help ward off dreaded dehydration-triggered migraine headaches. I started mentally (then verbally) calling the beverage “goat gatorade” in a nod to the mama goats.
As an apologetic hipster, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying my unsulphured blackstrap molasses glugs mixed with ground ginger powder, a dash of kosher salt and a pint of tap water shaken vigorously in a repurposed glass pickle jar. If you’re letting it sit overnight in fridge, you can even up your hipster points by adding 1 tsp of chia seeds for an interesting globby texture.
While I like the storage capacity of glass jars (pickle/mason/etc.) I learned that I may want to reconsider using them to transport beverages at camp. I hid my goat gatorade jar under a bench to keep it from getting knocked over during a camp activity. Little did I realize that the top of the jar was in exact place where a 6-year-old’s heels might hit if he or she was swinging them nonchalantly while sitting on the bench. Thank goodness the only casualties in the incident were a broken glass jar, a puddle of chia molasses liquid and my ego (after an embarrassed radio call to my camp director asking for help in cleaning up the puddle/broken glass prevent anyone from getting hurt.)
While the health and wellness blogosphere loves blackstrap molasses for its nutrition content, not everyone loves the taste or consistency. Some cooks warn not to use blackstrap molasses when a recipe calls for regular molasses, especially in baking recipes, because it will change the texture of the final baked good.
A quick search of Google Scholar and the NCBI database has not revealed much published research on blackstrap molasses solution for human rehydration on hot days. I mostly found information on blackstrap molasses as livestock food additive (because goats!), a feedstock for fermentation and other chemical processes, and as a plant-based dietary source of iron in nutrition journal articles.
Molasses seems to come in both sulphured and unsulphured varieties – the sulfur dioxide is added during the process as a preservative to keep the sugar cane fresh. I’ve try to avoid sulfur dioxide (I suspect it can trigger headaches), so I’ve been sticking with the unsulphured variety. (I also am not sure what causes the spelling changes from “f” in the chemical sulfur dioxide to the “ph” in “unsulphured” food product description.)
Fancier version of goat gatorade have been around for years in the form of switchel or haymaker’s punch. In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder even describes a version of “ginger water” made with sugar, ginger and vinegar, that Laura and Pa drink while bringing in the hay harvest.
My newest adventure this spring has been my adoption of a raised bed in the local community garden. While I have extensive garden experience, my labor has always been in the service of an organization’s particular vision and purpose (i.e. education, food pantry, CSA). This season is the first time I decided to plant a garden for myself.
It all started over the winter, when I saw a notice in the Parks & Rec brochure that community garden plots were available for rental by township residents. Some years ago, an Eagle Scout worked with the township to create a collection of raised beds located at the local park. These were designed for apartment dwellers (like me!) to plant their own vegetable gardens.
As I read the notice, daydreams of tomatoes and herbs danced in my winter scarf-ed and be-hatted head. “Yes,” I might have whispered to my vegetal fancies. “You shall be mine!” I made a note on the calendar to reserve a plot with Parks & Rec on March 1st, and slipped back into my winter routine.
Then in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species. My social media feeds were inundated with articles and information about the dire plight of native bees and other pollinators. I was very worried. Without bees, there wouldn’t be any tomatoes. Without bees … I didn’t even want to think about it.
I decided that I was going to research and create a pollinator-friendly garden. Yes, the bumbles needed me! I was going to have the happiest darn visiting pollinators in Wayne County, Michigan.
“It’s okay to plant flowers, not just vegetables?” I asked the Parks & Rec staff member, when I paid my garden rental fee for my reserved spots.* “Sure!” she said. “Just as long as you don’t plant any noxious weeds!” (*The city allowed each family to rent up to 2 beds. I took them up on it.)
As the Michigan spring gradually warmed, I was eagerly anticipating May 15th: The first day residents could work their raised garden beds. I watched enviously on social media as friends in warmer climates shared pictures of newly weeded, tilled and planted gardens. I checked out library books on gardening and pollinators and native plants. I bought a kit of garden hand tools from the grocery store seasonal aisle. I still only had the vaguest notion of what I was doing.
Since the Parks Dept has already tilled the soil, I only had to pull out a few weeds to make my beds ready for planting.
Before: Dandelions take up residence in the fluffy, tilled soil. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After dandelion removal. (They did prove to to tenaciously rooted, I suspect I will see some of their offspring later in the season.) PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Filling my bed with seedlings was an entire process unto itself. Since I live in an apartment and have limited space for starting seeds indoors, I decided that purchasing transplants was the best way to go. I was trying to source plants not treated with neonicotinoid pesticides (systemic pesticides that get taken up into the plants’ tissues) to protect my pollinators from getting stoned by sublethal doses. (This adventure will be the topic of another post, as it proved more complicated and challenging that I expected.)
Eventually, I did manage to buy mixed flats of transplants (veggies, herbs and flowering plants) to put into the beds. The garden plot also was the beneficiary of some friend-donated Yukon Gold and Purple seed potatoes.
First round of transplants in the ground. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Tomatoes have landed! PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Yukon gold and purple seed potatoes planted (under soil.) PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After my training at the Beanstalk Children’s Garden, I knew that a good layer of mulch would help maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds. At the garden, we had used cotton burr compost, which was a great mulch/soil amendment, but was often unpleasantly stinky.
I wasn’t able to locate cotton burr compost locally, but another gardener suggested cocoa hull mulch, made from the discarded outsides of of cacao beans. Unlike the composted cotton burrs, it smells wonderful (sun-warmed mulch redolent of chocolate!) However, because it is made from chocolate by-products, may be toxic for doggos who like to eat mulch. (I hope dog-adjacent humans visiting the park don’t let their canine buddies wander into the garden for this and other reasons.)
The garden (like all gardens) is a continuous work-in-progress. I keep squeezing new and interesting plants that appeal to me, creating a melange of edible herbs & veggies, pollinator-attractors, yummy smells, textures, and brightly colored flowers.
Portulaca for the narrow places. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Physalis (ground cherry) blossom close-up. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot all of my free time working at the garden, watering the garden, admiring the garden, acquiring plants and supplies for the garden, and when I’m not doing those things, thinking about the garden. It increases my physical activity, improves my mood tremendously and fuels a strange sense of accomplishment.
I love checking in at the garden every day to see what changes are occurring, as well as the various visible visiting creatures. Once camp starts next week, my available brainpower for garden-related activities decreases, but I am looking forward to keeping the blog updated with garden developments.
The internet over the last couple of weeks have been chock full of reports that very hungry caterpillars have been observed eating holes in plastic bags. These caterpillars, known as “wax worms,” have also been shown to make holes in plastic film when applied as a ground-up smoothie, indicating that their digestion is due to some chemical factor inside the caterpillars and not just a solid pair of chomping jaws.
It may be a little too early to hail the humble wax worm caterpillar as a panacea for the Earth’s plastic pollution problem (or that eating plastic is not terrible for wax worm tummies!) This report triggered the memory of an almost entirely irrelevant, but amusing, anecdote from my Shmita Adventures.
During the Summer 2013, TEVA sent me to work as a wandering nature educator for day camps at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds on Central Long Island. My aunt kindly hosted me in a guest room at her home in the Five Towns. However, I was not the only house guest that summer. It was shortly after Hurricane Sandy that year, when many of my aunt’s neighbor’s homes had been seriously damaged.
The humans and dogs from one family of neighbors’ had temporarily relocated to a hotel until they could repair their house for habitation. However, they needed a quiet place to house their geriatric leopard gecko. That is how my aunt came (who is otherwise understandably squeamish about small reptiles) to host Snippy the Leopard Gecko in her upstairs guest room. Snippy became my roommate when I moved into the guest room for my summer job at HKC.
After Hurricane Sandy, Snippy’s human would come by once a week or so to feed Snippy live food and clean his cage. However, I had been my aunt’s lodger for about a couple of weeks when I realized I hadn’t seen Snippy’s human the entire time I’d been there. I asked my aunt when the last time Snippy had food, she was pretty vague on the subject. “I don’t ask too many questions about the gecko,” she said, “but it may have been a while. I’ll give them a call.”
Leopard Geckos are tough little critters, but I had developed a certain amount of affection for my reptile roommate. In the interest of science and roommate solidarity, I took it upon myself to ensure Snippy had adequate nutrition. After camp, I went to the local pet store reptile section to purchase live food for my scaly friend.
Upon consulting with the salesperson, I returned to my aunt’s house with a take-out container of live crickets, a tube of vitamin powder (for dusting the crickets) and a special treat of high-fat live wriggly wax-worms for fattening up the possibly-undernourished Snippy. My aunt saw me stashing the take-out container with the wax worms (with air holes) in her basement (extra) refrigerator.
“Do I want to know what’s in there?” she asked, warily.
“Nope!” I responded, cheerfully.
Anyway, Snippy enjoyed the wax worms (he ate them immediately when I put them in his cage), and found a newfound-bond with my reptile roommate. I told my aunt that would continue to feed Snippy for the rest of the summer. And my aunt was relieved that she didn’t need to ask too many questions.
Oddly, only friction in my relationship with Snippy came from the crickets: In order to feed live crickets to Snippy, I would add the crickets to a plastic bag filled with special reptile vitamin powder, and shake the bag gently so that the crickets were well-dusted with powder.
I put the disoriented, white-frosted crickets immediately into Snippy’s aquarium. The crickets’ grogginess and disorientation gave Snippy time to snap a least a couple of them up, but the survivors would continue to hop around the aquarium, disconsolately chirping throughout the night.
I think the re-oriented crickets were generally too spry to be of interest to Snippy. It took several days for him to either get around to consuming them, or for them to succumb to other causes.
When asked how living with Snippy measured up to other roommates, I explained, “He was very quiet and tidy, and I got to feed him live food!” A win for everyone!
I would be remiss if I failed to mention my interest in the topic (as a clothes-wearer, water-drinker and eater-of-food) started with a series on articles on plastic pollution by science writer Lola Gayle at STEAM Register and Science Crush (Read some of them here, here and here. ) Thanks, Lola!
In addition, outdoor retailers like Patagonia and environmental advocacy organizations such as The Story of Stuff have been generating awareness about how wearing and washing synthetic fabrics can contribute to this pollution stream.
Check out some citizen scientists sampling microfibers from Puget Sound aboard the schooner Adventuress:
But as a science-educator and a concerned citizen, being informed about the problem isn’t enough. I also want to know how to take action. What can we (both as individuals and society) do to both reduce microplastic pollution and mitigate its effects?
One reader suggested that nudity (ignoring for a moment the issues of frostbite and indecency laws) could solve the problem of washing clothing made from synthetic fabric (It seriously reduces the volume of dirty laundry!) This suggestion would also possibly improve one’s Vitamin D levels by increasing overall skin exposure to sunlight.
Other suggestions have included only purchasing clothing containing natural fibers (i.e. cotton, wool, silk, hemp), whose fibers will biodegrade more readily when discharged with waste water.
But what if you already own a lot of synthetic-fiber based clothing and want to keep wearing it? These fibers seem to be in everything, from yoga pants to t-shirts to wool-blend socks.
1. Reducing washing frequency and intensity.
This cat won’t let you wash his fleece!
Suggestions from Patagonia and researchers at UC-Santa Barbara include washing your fleece outerwear less frequently, and using a front loading washing machine.
Any machine washing will wear down the fiber and cause micro-bits to break off. If you wear your stuff a little schmutzy (as any TEVA educator will attest), you don’t have to wash it as often (ergo, reducing breakage potential in washing machine).
If you use a front loading machine (vs. a top loading machine) it lowers the intensity of the laundry agitation, reducing impact on the fabric and breakage of fibers.
The folks at Plastics Pollution Coalition also add: Washing in cold water (is less tough on the fibers), using liquid detergent instead of powder (ditto) and drying on slower speeds (less impact during tumbling.)
2. Improved filtration of wash water.
Another strategy is improving filtration of the washing machine water to remove as much of the microfibers as possible before the effluent is released down the drain.
Some filters, like this one, are installed on the washing machine itself to catch microfibers from the water. The filters must be periodically cleaned out and have the microfiber clogs disposed of in the trash. These were originally designed with septic systems in mind, because plastic microfibers don’t break down in a septic system’s biological digestion process and clog up equipment.
If you can’t modify your washing machine, the folks at GuppyFriend have developed a wash bag (like a lingerie bag) that will catch synthetic fibers coming off your clothes. Users put laundry in the bag before putting it in the machine. Then after you remove your laundry, you clean out the bag after each wash and dispose of fibers in the trash. GuppyFriend bags started with a crowdfunding campaign, and do not yet appear to be available to the general public for purchase. Will keep you posted.
Since we’ve been washing synthetic fabrics for awhile, a lot of plastic microfibers have ended up in our bodies of water, as well as in our farm fields (fertilizers made from treated municipal sewage sludge may contain laundry-borne plastic microfibers). The plastic microfibers are out there in the world.
Some organisms may be adapting to consuming and breaking down plastic fibers in our soil and water. For example, researchers have discovered that mealworms (darkling beetle larvae) appear to be able to eat styrofoam (polystyrene) due the special Exiguobacterium sp. of bacteria that live in their digestive tract.
A team in Japan discovered a species of bacteria, Ideonella sakainesis, in wastewater and sediment samples at a recycling plant. These bacteria can eat a thin film of polyethelene (PET)- the same plastic used in water bottles and polyester fleece- given enough time and the proper temperature.
It is still too early to tell if any of these organisms (or others like them) will be able to tackle the massive amount of plastics humans have dumped into the environment. The fact that these critters exist gives me hope that microfibers may not be floating around forever. However, it is still better to try to keep microplastics out of water in the first place.
Or my love affair with synthetic fabric and shed microplastic fibers.
It’s a laundry day again (an occasion usually determined by running out of clean socks and/or underwear). I dutifully sort out my pile of dirty garments into hot, warm and cold washes. Bras and fine fabrics on delicate cycle. Add some bleach to my gunk-stained kitchen towels.
Here is a cute picture of a toddler captivated by a washing machine:
Normally, my focus is on whether or not the washing machine in my apartment building is being used by another resident. (It’s not – Check!) But today, I’m thinking about washing machine waste water, specifically the laundry fuzz in the water that shakes loose during the washing cycle, and where it ultimately ends up.
This is not the first time I have been concerned about the issue of wastewater treatment.
This is the cover of my 7th grade research paper on wastewater treatment, circa 1994. Found while cleaning out my childhood bedroom. The colored things are supposed to be pipes.
Back to laundry. So from my particular washing machine usage, the waste water (which often contains little fuzzy bits of lint that come off of synthetic fabric in the wash) goes to the Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges treated effluent into the Detroit River. The Detroit River continues flowing into Lake Erie, and then Lake Erie water continues to flow throughout the Great Lakes.
That water flowing from my washing machine to River to Great Lakes still contains tiny, tiny particles of plastic fibers shed from the fuzz of my polyester fleece sweaters and other synthetic fabrics. Hoffman & Hittinger model this flow of microplastics into the Great Lakes in the December 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin. (Note: Not all the microplastics come from washing machine discharge.)
These microscopic plastic fibers might look something like this:
The problem with these synthetic microscopic fibers is that they’re … plastic. They’re really, really small, so they are impossible to remove from the water after the fact. They don’t biodegrade in the water (though they might break down into even smaller particles.) These fibers can absorb (and concentrate) other pollutants that are present in the water. And then these plastic fibers get eaten by plankton, and then work their way up the food chain into the bodies of fish and other wildlife, including humans.
As an environmental educator, most of my “outdoor” clothing (i.e. Teva Pants, long underwear, and outer layers, including socks) contain synthetic fibers. Every time I come out of the garden or woods to wash my mud-caked clothes, I’m contributing to this pollution problem.
I just started reading the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. It chronicles the adventures of a group of determined librarians who rescued centuries-old handwritten Islamic manuscripts in North Africa. First, going house to house in small villages to collect and preserve ancient works from the depredations of dust, moisture and termites. Then later, pulling off a massive rescue to keep the assembled libraries of texts from deliberate destruction at the hands of Al Qaeda extremists.
I am lucky to have encountered many Bad-Ass librarians (including archivists, information scientists and Wiki-enthusiasts) in my adventures. I hope that some number among my readership. Their efforts at preserving and disseminating information have enriched my education and work life, as well as to satisfy my personal curiosity. I also continue to benefit from the easy accessibility of reliable information ensured by these data warriors.
Some vintage Bad-Ass Librarians:
I remember in 6th grade, I had an assignment to create a graph for a social studies project. My mom and I went to the main branch of the Johnson County Public Library. A reference librarian helped us locate and photocopy a table of data from a US Government publication that I could use to create my line graph. Later, in my undergraduate climate lab, we downloaded NASA satellite temperature data to analyze differences over land and oceans. I use Wikipedia daily, to explore unfamiliar topics or confirm knowledge only dimly remembered.
However, information is only as good as the paper it’s printed on, or as solid as the computer servers where it is stored. A careless (or deliberate) hand with a shredder or unplugged computer can reduce public access to data sets, effectively eradicating years of accumulated work. A few weeks ago, I heard that a group of volunteers in Toronto & Philadelphia were rushing to preserve scientific data now freely available on the internet, lest policy changes by the incoming US administration decide to remove those data sets from public view.
Data Rescue events organized by scientists and librarians were popping all over the place, including one in Ann Arbor, MI. When they put out a call for volunteers (all you needed was a laptop and charger, no tech experience needed), I signed up.
We had a list of federal government scientific data websites which were parceled out to teams of volunteers. A lot of the process was figuring out whether data was stored on “crawlable” or “uncrawlable” websites. Crawlable sites could be tagged with a special tool that would automatically upload a copy to the Internet Archive. Uncrawlable sites required figuring out other ways of downloading data (accomplished by more technically adept teams). One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to check off “completed” sites from the list (many of the websites were circular and labyrinthine), and how to communicate that information to the other groups so that we didn’t duplicate efforts.
That morning, I sat down with a group of students, librarians and community members I had never met before, got some bagels and coffee, and got to work. When I stood up 5 hours later, it felt like only a few minutes had passed, but we had logged hundreds of web pages.
Michigan Radio reported on the event, which logged 19,000 links to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and preserved more than 1.5TB of data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It was satisfying to be part of a grassroots event that protected public data for continuing use by researchers, students and citizens, even if the Federal agencies make the decision not to host the information anymore on their servers. In a political landscape filled with rancor and uncertainty, it felt good to be able to actively contribute to a small act of resistance.
However, there is much more work to be done. For example, the USDA removed a database of information regarding animal welfare complaints from its website last Friday, drawing attention from animal welfare advocates. The work of the “guerrilla archivists” and Data Rescue volunteers has brought greater scrutiny to how government agencies under new political leadership limit access to previously public information.