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.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Kitchen Favorites Sale and Cultivating Community - an Intern's Perspective

By Colton Babladelis

The annual “Kitchen Favorites” plant sale and fundraiser for Cultivating Community went really well! The sale bought in nearly $10,000—best ever. “It was one of the most well-run and smoothest Kitchen Favorites sales ever,” says Matthaei-Nichols education program manager Catriona Mortell-Windecker.

A special thanks also to the Campus Farm volunteers. They did an immense amount of transplanting that would have otherwise been a full-time job during the academic year.

Here’s a photo of the set up the day before the sale:

Greenhouse 3 the day before the Kitchen Favorites weekend sale (May 16). 
Now, time to talk about the actual Cultivating Community garden at the Ginsberg Center on central campus (see picture). We’ve put in new fencing, built a new compost bin, weeded both the greens garden in the back and the main garden up front, and we’re getting soil and are ready to start planting!

We’ve got lots of ideas for great projects over the summer, and would also like to get some plans for field trips. Thanks for reading and hopefully see everyone soon for some fun workdays in the garden!
Preparing the Cultivating Community garden at the Ginsberg Center on central campus

Colton Babladelis is a recent U-M graduate with majors in environmental studies, anthropology, Spanish, and modern Greek.

Editor’s note: Colton Babladelis was the lead intern on the Kitchen Favorites sale. He worked all of the winter 2014 semester with Matthaei-Nichols staff member Adrienne O’Brien on planning the sale, selecting the plants for sale, and growing the plants. Colton also worked with 2014 summer interns Jake Kornfeld, Lello Guluma, and Andrew Miller on the sale. The annual Kitchen Favorites sale is an important fundraiser for Cultivating Community and for helping fund the Arb & Gardens summer interns. Cultivating Community is the U-M student gardening volunteer group on campus.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Fascination with the Fly Trap

By Esther D’Mello

Being the children’s education summer intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens has been a wonderful experience for me. There’s always something new and exciting to learn while leading tours and workshops with children who are visiting the gardens. The tours are packed with interesting information on plants, biomes, ecosystems, and even animals on the trails and in the conservatory.

The one plant that always amazes the children and captures their attention—regardless of their age—is the Venus fly trap. Every time we get within a few feet of this plant, students start saying, “Wow, an actual Venus fly trap!” while throwing their hands up to catch imaginary flies in the conservatory. That’s when I tell them this small plant is actually insectivorous—a plant that eats insects.

“That’s right kids, it actually is a plant that can digest insects. Can you say ‘in-sec-TI-vuh-rus’ with me?” I love seeing their faces light up as they try to creep closer to the plant and sometimes try to touch it to see what happens. I explain that what’s cool about this plant is that it developed a way to capture insects (particularly flies) in order to obtain additional nutrients lacking from the fly trap’s nutrient-poor habitat (bogs).

The fly trap has two leaves with what look like teeth, and these leaves have two trigger hairs on their inside surfaces. Both hairs have to be touched—by a fly, for example—in order to activate the trapping mechanism of the leaves. This trapping mechanism is so specialized, however, “that it can distinguish between living prey and non-prey stimuli such as falling raindrops.”1  Once the leaves are closed the insect cannot escape. The plant then secretes enzymes into the leaves that break down and digest the trapped prey.

The fly trap’s “insect-eating” behavior to obtain extra nutrients is an amazing adaptation. I love the enthusiasm and curiosity the Venus fly trap brings to the tours in the conservatory.

1 (Raven, Peter H.; Evert, Ray Franklin; Eichhorn, Susan E. (2005). Biology of Plants (7th ed.). W.H. Freeman and Company. ISBN 0-7167-1007-2.)

Guest post by Esther D’Mello. Esther is from Cleveland, OH, and is a second-year master's student with a concentration in conservation ecology at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Post-Winter Growth Spurt Sparks Mega-staking Effort in Peony Garden

By Joel Klann

This year, for the first time since 1928, every peony plant in Nichols Arboretum’s famed peony garden has been staked with bamboo reeds and biodegradable jute twine in order to provide pillars for support during what has turned out to be a period of bursting growth.

Fresh peony sprouts are a welcome herald of spring

Horticulture manager Adrienne O’Brien decided to assist the peonies through their blooming period this spring due largely to her foresight that they might grow too large to support their own weight. A host of helping hands contributed to accomplishing this great chore, including staff, interns, and volunteers.

After its completion last Thursday, curator David Michener remarked that the staking of all of the 700-something plants hadn’t been undertaken since at least the 1930s. Those of us who have taken the time to examine and appreciate the flowers have observed a significant advance in their size, and we cannot overlook how far the peonies have stretched out this year in order to amass the all-important sunlight needed for photosynthesis.

The peony garden on May 15, 2015

Adrienne believes that the harsh winter followed by an abrupt shift to spring—along with heavy precipitation in both periods of time—are the primary reasons for the delayed, but continually piercing growth we have witnessed this year. Peonies are plants that thrive in climates with cold winters; they are extremely hardy perennials capable of living many years. Many in our own garden have remained for generations. We believe that by staking these plants as they tower over the ground we are contributing to their aesthetic quality, and more importantly, providing a greater display to any and all who visit the collection.

Staff, interns, and volunteers work on the peony garden in early May, 2014

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.