One of the things that I have learned since moving to Michigan is that cold & snowy weather is not really an excuse for staying inside. Instead, you wrap your shivering limbs in multiple layers of warm clothing, then top everything off with an insulated and waterproof shell of coat, gloves, boots and snowpants.
Photo left: A good first step. Now to get off the couch and get outside! Retro legwarmers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.
(Also important: hats, scarves or other face covering, but need not be waterproof if inside your crunchy tardigrade*-shell of outer gear.)
Tangent:Tardigrades are microscopic animals, also known as water bears, that are tolerant of extreme cold, dessication and other environmental insults. I also think they are extremely cute. Photo below : Water Bear by Aditya Sainiarya (2015) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Between the ages of 1 and 6, I lived with my family near Milwaukee, WI, where a similar winter climate necessitated my adult caregivers bundling me up in many layers of protective insulation. At some point, I must have learned how to bundle myself, because I remember pulling on bib-style snowpants, “moon boots,” lovingly-knitted wool hats, and those mittens that would clip to the inside of your coat sleeves with metal alligator clips.
Maybe my early years in Wisconsin are the source a vague sense of nostalgia I felt when pulling on my snowpants and snow boots to staff winter break camp at the Nature Center. During first week of January 2018, daily highs hovered around 10 deg F (-12 deg C). To determine a safe amount of time we could spend outside in the cold, we referred to the NOAA windchill chart. As long we were in the “safe zone” with regards to air temp and wind speed, we could let appropriately bundled kids stay outside up to about 30 minutes.
Our day was a mosaic of inside/outside transitions around planned activities.
Kids Arrive: Take off coats, snowpants, boots etc for morning stations and welcome circle indoors.
Morning Activity: Put on snowpants, coats, boots etc. for morning hike outdoors.
Warm-up interlude and snack: Remove boots, coats and snowpants.
(Repeat with additional indoor/outdoor activities, warm up interludes including lunch and afternoon snack, until 5:30pm when parents arrive to pick up kids.)
Which leads to the following exchange:
New Camper: This is my first time at winter break camp! What do we do here?
Me: Well, we have a lot of cool activities planned. But we mostly put on and take off our snowpants.
Our nature center, accordingly to popular acclaim, hosts one of the finest sledding hills in Ann Arbor. This means that we incorporate sledding as an outdoor activity whenever possible during the course of the day’s activities.
This morning, I woke up to the rumble of salt trucks and snow plows. Southeast Michigan is experiencing the first significant snowfall of the season this week. The mood is varied (depending on who you ask) with emotions of delight, annoyance and resigned acceptance (sometimes all mixed together).
While the kid part of my personality checks the school closings for a snow day first thing (810 today in Metro Detroit!), the grownup part (with the driver’s license) is very grateful for my car’s snow tires, the snow removal crews and copious amounts of rock salt sprinkled on the roads. Salt, when added to the wintry roads, keeps the slush and melted snow from re-freezing by depressing the freezing point of water. When salt molecules dissolve in a film of liquid water on top of ice, these dissolved substances alter the way that water molecules can line up to freeze. It takes a lower temperature to freeze water with stuff dissolved in it.
These salt layers are what remains of a shallow saltwater sea that once covered this area around 410 million years ago. This ancient “Great Lakes region” (which is a little confusing, because the Great Lakes wouldn’t form for another 400 million plus years), was located near the equator. Coral reefs allowed some water in, but limited exchange with the larger ocean. The seawater got saltier and saltier as the water evaporated in this hot climate.
Eventually, the salt (and other minerals) would precipitate in layers from the super salty water that sank to the sea bottom. By the end of the Silurian period (390 mya), this inland sea completely dried up, leaving only the salt deposits behind. (I highly recommend checking out MSU Prof. Randall J. Schaetzl’s online resources about Great Lakes geology.)
I like to think about how the salt spread on the local roads (even though it contributes to potholes, cars rusting and water pollution) is a connection in deep time to sunny days on an ancient sea. Right here, in this place (but not this latitude), now and 400 million years ago.
Last night around sunset, we noticed a steady stream of gulls flying south against the pinkish-purple sky. Every time we thought the flock was done, for a few heartbeats of open sky, the procession started again with a new wave of gulls. “They’re going south for the winter,” Toby observed.
I didn’t get a picture through the window blinds, but today went searching for some potential identities for these Laridae migrants.
While both Ring-Billed Gulls and Bonaparte’s Gulls migrate through southeast Michigan, open water and abundant landfills may provide incentive for some populations to stay here through the winter.
So how do the gulls know where they’re going? Ring-billed gulls have a built-in sensitivity to magnetic fields that can help them navigate. Even 2 day old “chicks showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the appropriate direction for their fall migration. The gulls also rely on landmarks and high-altitude winds to provide directional cues.”
In my work as an environmental educator, we’ve been teaching our PreK students about animal survival strategies for the winter: Migrate, Hibernate and Stay Active. One adorable 4 year old, when asked about the word that describes birds flying south for the winter, shot up his hand.
Over the summer, I diligently more-or-less managed to water my garden and to document its growth on my camera phone. Even though I have worked with gardens and growing things for awhile, it is still really exciting to be able to see the changes over the course of the season. I also know that annual plants are supposed to produce seeds, wither and die at the end of their life cycle. But it’s still always a little sad to witness the green garden I nurtured turning brown and crumbly.
My contract with the community garden stipulated that I had to vacate my plot by October 15th. I finally got around to pulling out the dead plants two weeks later, and putting their considerable biomass into the dumpster at the park. In an act of minor rebellion, I left my sage (which was still abundant and green) and the still-blooming sweet alyssum (which had grown huge and floofy.)
Sweet alyssum (mid June)
Sweet alyssum (late October)
The days here in Michigan are turning colder and rainier, which gives me the opportunity to upload and organize all those summer garden photos. I was trying to use Flickr to arrange photos taken of the same of angle of the garden in chronological order, to show the planting, growth and decline of each section. I’m ambivalent about the results, but readers are welcome to check them out here.
I think it may be better to just showcase specific plants in their various life stages. Even the dried-out sunflowers make me pretty happy (I used to see goldfinches eating the seeds, but my camera skills are not strong enough to get a good picture of the birds).
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.
End of Season Update: November 9, 2017
A large proportion of my baby portulaca cuttings failed to root. However, the ones that did managed to bring a lot of color to the bricks of the raised beds. Towards of the end of the summer, I discovered many of the portulaca plants ripped out of the cracks by the roots, with the green parts nibbled away. My guess is that deer visiting the garden decided that these were tasty, or at least worth some nibble attention.
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.