Friday, July 18, 2014

Why I Love the Campus Farm

By Lello Guluma

Certain fragrances remind me of my childhood. I would wake up to my mother cooking special Ethiopian dishes in the kitchen of our home in East Lansing. The smell of spices and vegetables marinating under her watchful eye is a memory from my childhood. Years later, I can walk through the fields cultivated under the University of Michigan Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and smell my mother’s kitchen—oregano, thyme, Swiss chard, collards, onions, and garlic to name a few. Sometimes early in the morning at the farm, the noise of the trees rustling, the birds chirping, and the smell of the early dew remind me of the clear mountainside along my grandfather’s compound in Ethiopia.

One year and one month ago, I returned from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is my heritage, my culture, and Oromia—the land that the largest ethnic group (the Oromo) within Ethiopia occupies—is my ancestral home. This trip was my first time visiting Ethiopia and meeting a large number of my direct relatives. Ethiopia was an amazing experience, and I often long to go back. Nevertheless, it was my time in Ethiopia and what I learned about myself and about the country that inspired me to work at the Campus Farm this summer.

The first thing that Ethiopia taught me was about my heritage. In my life I’ve often heard stories about my heritage but to experience it first-hand was incredible. My father often told detailed stories of the village where he grew up. His grandfather owns a portion of land that he cultivates high up in the mountains of Ethiopia. I was able to travel to his village, even in the home where my father grew up many years ago. My grandfather and aunt were quick to point out a large mango tree. My mother translated and told me that over 40 years ago my father planted that tree. At that moment I looked toward my cousin, and his hands were full of ripe mangos. Ethiopia solidified my view on my identity; I say with pride now that I am an Oromo.

My passion lies in Ethiopia. Like many third-world countries, Ethiopia struggles with pollution, poverty, food insecurity, etc. After completing my first year at the university, I knew I wanted to incorporate my passion into my academics. This led me to the Campus Farm. Upon completion of Alternative Spring Break focused around environmental justice in the winter semester I meticulously searched for some summer position that would allow me to continue a similar path. I came across the Matthaei Summer Internship program, and subsequently the Campus Farm position. I could say the rest is history, but I know this is just the beginning. The Campus Farm is helping me further my interest in sustainability, organic/urban farming, and so much more. When I learn about another method of organic growing or natural pest control, I think of how my relatives abroad could benefit.

I am thankful for the opportunity to work at the Campus Farm and have learned more than I could have imagined. I am also grateful for the sights and sounds of working at the Campus Farm, and how they allow me to reminisce about my home.

Lello Guluma from East Lansing, MI, is a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts majoring in Environmental Science.

Pictured, from top: Home of the author's grandfather in Ethiopia; a view of the land the author's grandfather cultivates; a mountainside outside of Ne’Kemte, Ethiopia; up close view of part of the land farmed by the author's grandfather.

Below: Lello Guluma

Friday, July 11, 2014

A View from the Front Desk

There's never a dull moment for visitor services summer interns working the front desk at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

By Grace Fricano

Working as a summer intern in visitor services and at the Botanical Gardens front desk in particular can be pretty eventful. This is my third year working for the Gardens but my first summer as an intern. Summers are really different from the academic year, when I've been employed as a work study. A typical day as a work study meant checking in, pricing, and displaying merchandise, helping with inventory, and decorating holiday trees in the conservatory for the annual winter exhibit. In the summer it’s much busier than I’m used to, with more going on around the gardens. From weddings to snake bites, we see a lot of different situations that we have to deal with at the front desk.

One of our many tasks is fielding questions that visitors may have. We get a lot of random and strange inquiries about plants, event happenings, and the merchandise we sell. This summer, the most popular question at the front desk is “Has that one plant bloomed yet?” While the American agave/century plant is taking its sweet time to bloom, many people are very eager and want to see it right away even though its bloom will last several weeks. We post regular updates about the agave on our website, Facebook page, and blog, and many local and national papers have covered the story of the agave getting ready to bloom. Even so, people want to know about the agave from someone on the scene and so we still get calls for daily updates. It’s fun to hear all the different pronunciations of “agave.” The most popular is “ah-GAYVE,” but we also hear “ah-GUAH-veh” quite often as well. The phone rings regularly with questions concerning the agave. It’s great to see all of the interest in the plant. 

Another recent happening that created quite a buzz at the Gardens was the snake bite. I worked that day with a Matthaei-Nichols staff person who handled the situation and quickly made the call for assistance. It’s a rare occurrence for something like this to happen, but we always have to stay calm, be prepared, and know what to do when it does occur. My co-worker did a great job responding to the situation!

The busiest days by far at the front desk are Saturdays. On summer weekends we usually host two weddings or more. There’s also very high visitor traffic and other various events like birthday parties/meetings/workshops. It’s not uncommon that the parking lot fills up completely at times. Days like that can be crazy! Between the three visitor services interns (Megan, Sydney, and me) we help host weddings, restock the gift shop, and deal with visitors. There can be large crowds that congregate in the lobby. Dealing with multiple people at one time has taught me to be very patient and to be a great multitasker.

I think one of my favorite aspects of working the front desk is all of the people that I get to meet. From employees and interns to visitors, I have interesting conversations with all types of people and learn something new every day. Even though I don't work directly in the garden most of the time, I’ve learned a lot about botany and other fascinating facts.

We can always handle the crowds and excitement but it makes for some challenging and exciting days. Being able to kick off my shoes at the end of the day feels amazing, but only to return on Sunday, our second busiest day of the week. The summer has been fun, busy, and flying by!

Grace Fricano

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Providing Kale to the Victors: GAP Certification and the Campus Farm

By Jake Kornfeld

In its second year as a bona-fide operation at the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the Campus Farm is back and better than ever. With a year of hard work developing the space up on the hill off the Matthaei service entrance, we’ve been able to move on to working out some of the details of the farm—legitimizing the operation in a sense. Now that we have the basics of growing down, we’ve been using our time to organize the farm and increase our efficiency. Thankfully, we have the noble goal of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to spur us on through this daunting task.

Volunteer work day at the Campus Farm
GAP is a USDA certification that assures restaurants or institutions such as the University of Michigan that a farmer or organization—in this case the U-M Campus Farm—uses safe and reliable practices. If we obtain the certification we will be able to sell our produce to the University’s dining services, allowing us to serve our local, sustainable produce directly to thousands of students and staff in the University of Michigan community. However, the certification itself requires jumping through a notoriously expansive set of hoops. Eventually the certification process will culminate with an extensive audit where a representative grades our operation against a 555-point checklist.

In order to pass this audit, we’ve had to tighten up the ship a bit. We’ve created record keeping systems for everything imaginable: planting, harvesting, injuries, maintenance, soil and water tests, etc. We have also compiled a collection of maps of the farm, written policies defining farm procedures, and created a traceability program for our produce.

Volunteers planting kale at the Campus Farm
Aside from the record keeping, the GAP certification has prompted us to make some larger changes to the Farm. Mostly notably, we have written a Campus Farm mission statement, which can be found at the University of Michigan Sustainable Food website. It outlines the three main goals of the farm: education, community, and production of sustainable food. We are also in the process of building a wash station to make sure our produce is clean and ready for the table. With all of these things in place, we’re confident we can pass the audit and begin spreading the work of the Campus Farm to the dining halls.

Early spring lettuce mix

Golden beets

Pink Beauty radishes

While it has been a big task, the GAP certification is just one part of what we’ve been up to this summer. We’re also preparing to expand our one-quarter-acre cultivation area to include some of the old peony beds and former storage space of the Great Lakes Gardens. At the moment we’re producing over 40 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and we’re working towards obtaining a hoop house so we can grow food year round. Until that food makes it into the dining halls, you can find it in the Botanical Gardens Store, in various student housing co-ops, at food gatherers, and going home with our dedicated volunteers. We’re also hoping to be featured by some local restaurants and businesses soon, such as Menna’s Joint, Argus Farm Stop, and the Brinery! If you’re interested in visiting the farm swing by any time or keep an eye out for information about our big Harvest Festival in early October.

Jake Kornfeld, from Norwich, Vermont, is a University of Michigan junior studying public policy. He is working this summer with Matthaei-Nichols education program manager Catriona Mortell-Windecker.

Jake Kornfeld

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fairy Village Debuts in Gaffield Children’s Garden

By Jackie Latham and Alex Peters

A little town of wonder has appeared in the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Hidden in the Sense-Sational Garden in what used to be a raised bed of empty dirt is a newly constructed fairy village put in just last week by the horticulture team of Judy Dluzen and her two summer interns Jackie Latham and Alex Peters.

A view of the center of the
village with tree stump house,
secret door, twig ladder,
and clothesline.
The fairy village makes ingenious use of commonplace items, recycled materials, and found objects to create a miniature magical living space for our resident fairy population. Jackie’s background in crafting miniature houses as a child proved to be helpful for creating innovative pieces such as a little clothesline complete with a small sweater and shorts. Other items include a bridge made of a broken pot, fences out of twigs, houses out of gourds, and paths made of pebbles and rocks. Take a closer look and you may even see a fairy doghouse, little campfire site, and a secret door.

An overview of the Fairy Garden. Remember: no humans allowed!

One of the many gourd houses,
complete with a dog house (beware!)
and various plants.

Horticulturist Judy Dluzen was responsible for the overall design and layout of the village. Alex placed forest groves complete with succulent trees and sumac fruits as well as a fairy-sized vegetable garden with picket fence. Horticulture interns Sarah Bertman and Joe Mazur helped with planting and creating the miniature items. Creeping thyme was planted along the outer edge of the raised bed to deter wandering hands and create a nice enclosing border. A surrounding fence made of bent saplings is currently under construction. The village will doubtlessly undergo a few changes in the weeks to come, but its flexibility makes it an exciting ongoing project.

The Gaffield Children’s Garden provides spaces for exploration and education aimed at young children. We hope the new fairy garden inspires children to look closely in their own backyards for hidden spaces and items as well as provoke a sense of imagination and wonder. Kids can practice plant identification looking for similar plants at home and maybe building a fairy garden of their own. Head on over to the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens to see the newly added fairy village.

Jackie Latham is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Program in the Environment. She is currently pursuing a future in environmental education, and will continue her work experience in the Redwood Forests in the Bay Area of California in the fall. Jackie is from Brighton, Michigan.

Alex Peters, from Gurnee, IL, is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan in Plant Biology. She is attending the School of Natural Resources in the fall as a first year masters student in landscape architecture and conservation ecology. Both Jackie and Alex work under Horticulturist Judy Dluzen.

Jackie Latham

Alex Peters

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Hires Energize Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

By Joseph Mooney

Even with big shoes to fill at the University’s Gardens and Arboretum, Mike Kost and Yousef Rabhi are hitting the ground running. Kost and Rabhi were recently hired to manage Matthaei-Nichols’ native plant and volunteer programs. With their respective backgrounds in natural areas work and with city, county, and state agencies, they’re creating a lot of excitement at the Arb and Gardens.

Kost replaces staffer Connie Crancer, who retired in May. Most recently, he served as the lead ecologist and a senior conservation scientist with Michigan Natural Features Inventory at Michigan State University Extension. There, he oversaw and conducted research to provide land managers with information on managing native ecosystems and rare species. Kost is also the coauthor or author of more than 75 publications, including three books on the natural communities of Michigan.

Earlier in his career, Kost worked for The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois where he managed the adult natural history education program, taught courses in field ecology and monitoring, and oversaw stewardship of the Arboretum’s natural areas. He has also worked for the University of Wisconsin-Extension and at the Koenen Land Preserve in Milwaukee.

Native Plants Key to Matthaei-Nichols
With its new Great Lakes Gardens, Matthaei Botanical Gardens benefits from a native plants expert who can continue to build on and expand the organization’s efforts to steward the region’s natural heritage. Arb and Gardens director and University of Michigan landscape architecture professor Bob Grese was impressed with Kost’s record of research into and documentation of Michigan's natural ecosystems and his deep understanding of Michigan’s flora.

Helping the broader public understand the importance of stewardship is critical for the future of our natural heritage. Kost understands the role that institutions like Matthaei-Nichols can play in education and conservation efforts, Grese says, “and in helping people learn about our native flora and ecosystems through our various garden spaces.”

Kost will also contribute to natural areas management, including monitoring and protection of special habitats on the Matthaei-Nichols properties. “He’ll also be actively involved in serving as a resource for teaching and research and in helping us explore grant opportunities to support some of our stewardship programs,” Grese adds.

Building and strengthening university connections is a major institutional priority for the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, says Grese, and “Mike certainly brings expertise that will be valuable to University classes and researchers in understanding the ecosystems on our properties, in assessing and monitoring vegetation, and in understanding how our resources connect and compare with other sites around the state.”

Ask Mike Kost why native plants and systems are important and his answer is simple. “Everything is interconnected,” he says, and with a little practice, “one can begin to recognize the remaining native patches of this place we call Michigan. By restoring and stewarding native ecosystems, we are helping to ensure their survival for future generations. I also hope we can inspire visitors to take an active role in caring for their local natural areas and supporting conservation efforts to protect and steward our precious natural heritage.”

Volunteer Program Integral to Arb and Gardens Ecosystem
Just as native plants play a key role in nature, volunteers contribute greatly to an organization’s operational ecosystem. That’s especially true for Matthaei-Nichols, where more than 1,400 volunteers logged nearly 19,000 hours in the last fiscal year alone. As the Washtenaw County Commissioner and former City of Ann Arbor Natural Areas Preservation Workday Coordinator, new volunteer manager Yousef Rabhi is no stranger to shepherding hundreds of volunteers through dozens of workdays. Rabhi replaces former volunteer manager Tara Griffith, who left in May.

Inspired by his years in pre-school volunteering for the Adopt-a-Stream program, Rabhi went on to be an early volunteer for the Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project in Ann Arbor. While studying at the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment, he spent all five of his summer terms working at the Arb and Gardens as an intern. After graduating, Rabhi went to work with the City of Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation as the Workday Coordinator. He currently serves as the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and has served as a Washtenaw County Commissioner since 2011.

Five years as a summer intern at the Arb and Gardens made Rabhi a compelling candidate, director Grese observes. “Yousef is a people person with very good skills at making others feel valued and plugging them into meaningful activities—something critical in managing volunteers, he says. “As a summer intern working for us, he ably managed teams of workers.  Since graduation, he has shown similar leadership in working with teams of people in the city administration.”

Rabhi is also very interested in broadening the Arb and Gardens outreach to students on campus, Grese notes, “so I expect to see a strengthening of those ties.  And I see him continuing to build on the foundation that former volunteer manager Tara Griffith laid in recruiting a diverse pool of volunteers and running a well-managed program.”

Having devoted his life to helping people and working with the public to build a better community and better environment, Rabhi looks forward to meeting each volunteer personally. Among his many goals, he adds, “I hope to empower staff and volunteers to help build the capacity of the volunteer program. With so many great organizations in this community, there are also many opportunities for collaboration that should be explored.”

Mike Kost

Yousef Rabhi

Friday, June 20, 2014

Deadheading the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden

By Joel Klann

The practice of removing spent flowers—deadheading—keeps peonies healthy for future blooming and growth

Work groups dedicated to maintaining the beauty of the Nichols Arboretum peony garden have once again committed themselves to help complete a great task: deadheading all 700+ plants.

It seems like only days ago that the first few plants in the garden were beginning to show signs that that they would soon reveal their annual display of vibrant color and intricate patterns, and now all of a sudden, bloom season has passed, the party is over, and cleanup has already begun. In order to contain the mess from plants which have completed their flowering cycle this season—and to avert the maturation of seeds which could result in stray plants—volunteers, interns, and staff have cut and collected upwards of 35,000 flower heads! Deadheading the vast collection of peonies at Nichols Arboretum is a tedious chore, but a necessary one.

Cutting lower down on the stem hides the cut and looks neater

More deadheading

Spent blooms left on the plant give it an untidy appearance and make the plant invest more energy into seed production

A nicely managed peony. Now the plant can put its energies into root growth.

The task of deadheading is a rather straightforward operation on all plants that involves removing decaying flowers which have completed their bloom cycle. Using sharpened pruners, make a cut anywhere you wish below the blossom, likely near the foliage so that the snipped shoot can blend in with the plant.

Not only does deadheading help keep plant matter from being dispersed chaotically throughout the garden, it also aids the health of the plant. Much of the energy of the plant goes into seed production, and by eliminating that stage of development, the plant can conserve energy and divert it into root development and growth instead. This creates a hardier plant more suited for future survival. Many of our own peonies have remained in the garden for generations, and it is not inconceivable this practice has played a significant role in that. The doctored peony plants will remain until October, at which point they will be cut down to within inches of the ground. They will remain dormant through the winter as they prepare for their re-emergence next spring.

Guest post by Joel Klann. Joel, who is from Detroit, MI, is a senior majoring in political science in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts with a Program in the Environment minor. Joel works for Matthaei-Nichols staff member Adrienne O’Brien.

Joel Klann

Monday, June 16, 2014

Broken Records – Fixing the Peony Website Database

by Richard Bryant

I work in curation at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. So what exactly is “curation,” you may ask?

Curation integrates the planning, collection, preservation, and maintenance of objects and data about those objects for management, historical, and research purposes. Adding a further layer of complexity, curation in a botanical garden also may include physical objects that are too big to hold, such as a grove of trees.

There is usually a curator who oversees objects or data in a museum or other location of an exhibition. Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum is no exception as it helps people form or enrich their relationships with plants, nature, and the environment. To do this, Matthaei-Nichols curator Dr. David C. Michener must maintain a thorough documentation of our past and present plant collections. One of the most notable collections I have worked with this summer is the digital version of the peony garden—its database.

I worked as an intern for Matthaei-Nichols in the summer of 2012 and returned this May under the supervision of Dr. Michener. Upon my return I found that the database had somehow undergone a mislink. Many plants at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum—and in particular the peonies as we refine and enhance our new website devoted to the peony garden—have both a Plant ID and an Object ID. The former tells us what type of plant it is and the latter tells us which specific item it is. These serve to link data that are stored in various digital locations so that when a visitor, member, researcher, student or other person needs information on a plant such as confirmation of its existence, its location, its color, or its history, this information is readily available. Due to the mislink of data, much of the information on the peony website was in the wrong location: historical information about the peony Adelaide E. Hollis might have shown up on the web page for peony Walter Morgan, for example. It was then a long and grueling task to correct an entire database that through technical issues had become grossly incoherent.

Accurate records of the peony garden are particularly important. When the peonies are in bloom, visitors from all over the world come to Nichols Arboretum. If you see an especially beautiful peony, you may want to know what it is so you can buy one and add it to your own garden. If you volunteer in the garden, you may need information about a specific peony.

As an intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, I am one of the few who is not frequently out in the field taking care of the property—most of my work is done in front of a computer screen. Even so, I feel incredibly proud to have helped the public be able to find the correct information on the peonies, and to have helped the staff keep accurate records that will be referred to and used to make decisions for years to come.

Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, MI, is a master's candidate in statistics at the University of Michigan with Bachelor of Science degrees in economics and statistics.