Monday, July 28, 2014

A Record System in Translation

by Richard Bryant

Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum works hard to keep meticulous records of all the plants in its possession. These records are compiled in a database which currently exists in Microsoft Access. I was recently tasked with finding a way to migrate our database from Access to a new piece of museum software called KE EMu, or KE Electronic Museum. This software would allow us to keep a more detailed catalog of our plants, forcing us to maintain records that are organized and up to date.

I knew immediately that this would be an incredibly daunting task. My first thought was, “Do I really have to copy every single one of our 17,000+ object records and paste them somewhere into KE EMu?” Thankfully, this was not the case; as it turns out U-M’s IT staff could program this kind of heavy lifting.

To migrate a database, there needs first to be a consensus of what information is worth tracking and what is not. A detailed design plan must then be drawn up. Thousands of records---some of which are incomplete or complex and can cause technical glitches---must then be copied and moved. Coming up with the design plan, then, was my job.

I opened KE EMu in an attempt to acquaint myself with its inner workings. I only became more confused. I couldn't figure out how to use the software, and it seemed clunky and disorganized. Matthaei-Nichols’ IT and curation departments were somewhat confused by the software as well. I wondered, if this software is so confusing to all of us, is migrating our database to it really a good idea?

I decided to give it a chance. I scheduled a meeting with Beverly Walters, Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Herbarium. They’d already made considerable progress migrating their database into KE EMu and knew that they were ahead of us here.

Meeting with Beverly and a U-M School of Information intern helped answer a lot of questions. They gave me a rough idea of how to use and customize the software, and they briefly walked me through the plan for their own database migration. After the meeting I realized that our own migration process would be simpler than I’d originally thought—I could follow the Herbarium’s plan as a model. I came up with a rough game plan and then scheduled another meeting, this time with John Torgersen, U-M Database Administrator Intermediate, who oversees the KE EMu project as a whole. After discussing our plan for migration with John he approved of my ideas, adding that the Arb and Gardens has a far less complicated database than the Herbarium’s. I then drew up a design plan for the migration and sent it to the university’s technology staff. Our migration is nowhere near complete, but my role in the project is over for the time being. Creating the design plan was my responsibility. Initiating the migration process is a task for U-M’s IT staff.

This project was very interesting to me personally. As an intern I was fortunate to be given the authority to act independently. Creating a preliminary design plan for this migration process was a massive task given to Matthaei-Nichols as a whole but I did it almost entirely by myself. The choice to meet with the Herbarium and U-M IT staff was my own and one I undertook to expand my understanding of the software and the migration process. I also had many engaging team discussions with our curator David Michener and information specialist Adam Ferris-Smith.

Many questions remain for future curation work on our databases. What information does Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum track now? What information do we want to track in the future? What are we missing in our current record system and how can we consolidate this information? All of these are valid questions for years to come when other staff or interns continue where we left off.

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.

Richard Bryant

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