Thursday, July 30, 2009

Passing It On

As a child I always loved wandering around out in the wild with my father. It always impressed me that he could identify pretty much every tree in central Illinois by leaf, bark, or wood grain. There is something special about knowing something about the nature you pass through. It all takes on so much more meaning if you know what it is. If all that green stuff around you gets mentally categorized simply as “plants,” you are really missing a lot. You SEE so much more when you know what the plants are, and more importantly what they do. Some plants are edible, some produce berries at certain times of the year, some have thorns, some produce dazzling flowers, and some are poisonous.

But the natural world is so much more than plants. My father would help us catch grasshoppers so we could put them in spider webs and see the wonder that is a spider trussing up its prey. We would sneak up to trees and he would lift me up to see baby robins hatching from their beautiful blue eggs. We would catch stick insects, toads, snakes, moles, and much more, just to observe them and learn about what makes them work and how they live. My father helped me become the biology geek I am today.

Now that I have children of my own, I am passing along to them the wonder of the natural world around us. About eight months ago my family and I moved to a new apartment in a neighborhood that values open space. Now I have seven acres of virgin chaparral right out my back door to explore and learn about. The proximity to wilderness has also provided a wealth of wildlife to observe. Recently, a spider moved in to our back porch and it spins a large spiral web right by the light every night. Soon thereafter, we found a mortally wounded wasp and took it as an opportunity to feed the spider. So I gathered the kids around and tossed the dying wasp into the spider web. The spider pounced on it, securing it with a line of string, and then jumped back and waited a few seconds. When it didn’t get out, the spider jumped in again and quickly wrapped the head and then the wings with silk. Then it began turning the wasp and wrapping it fully. Once that was done, the spider bit the wasp and then retreated again. When the wasp stopped moving, the spider moved in to feed. The kids were fascinated and barely talked except to say “COOL!” during the whole process.

My community also has a community garden. While I have gardened with my kids before, I haven’t had my own garden for a few years now. My daughter particularly appreciates wandering the garden and has learned to identify many plants. She has picked up my habit of grazing on the plants as she walks through the garden, her favorites being purslane, mint, swiss chard, and basil. I took my daughter to the neighborhood’s community garden a few weeks ago and selected a plant that looked ready to harvest. I asked her what it was. She correctly guessed that it is related to cilantro, but couldn’t identify it. The surprised delight on her face when I pulled it out of the ground to reveal a carrot was an emotional jewel I will carry with me a long time. The fact that she got to eat it was an extra bonus.

Recent monsoon rains have brought the local flora to life. On my way home through the community garden I noticed some mushrooms. Then I noticed some different ones growing up in the community lawn area, so I collected a couple of each kind and brought them home. I explained to the kids how there are different kinds of mushrooms and suggested we try to identify them. So I pulled out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and we started comparing features. Once we were fairly certain that we had the right identifications, we took a spore print of each mushroom to verify our identification. In the end we were pretty sure that the yellow one was a deadly lawn galerina, a deadly toxic mushroom, and the large white mushroom was a spring agaricus, a choice edible. No, we didn’t eat it. I don’t trust my identification abilities that much, plus it was full of worms.

A few evenings ago we spent nearly an hour observing a tarantula that came to our back patio to hunt. We initially caught him in our bug cage, which has a large magnifying glass for a lid, so we could look at him up close. Once we had looked at him enough, we let him go. To our delight, he didn’t run, but instead continued up the wall to hunt near our patio lights. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see him catch anything. Nonetheless, my daughter remarked the next day that that experience was “awesome.”

So take your kids out and show them, hands-on, about the world around them. Teach them what you know. Show them the wonder, beauty, joy, and flavor of the life around them. I hear so many people these days complaining that our children don’t know where food comes from. How can they, if we don’t teach them?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Insulation

There's a new green insulation product out there called Greensulate. It is designed to replace both styrofoam and fiberglass insulation and is cheap to make, easy to make locally just about wherever you are, light, strong, has a good R value and is very fire resistant. When you are done with it, it is biodegradable. It can be insulation in your walls, firewalls in your home, or packing material in your boxes. Here's the cool part: you don't make it, you grow it. They fill molds with a mixture of water, minerals, starch, and hydrogen peroxide and then introduce mushroom mycelium. When the mycelium have grown through the substrate, they are removed from the mold and dehydrated, killing the mycelium.

As an engineer, I'd love to see specifications on strength, durability, longevity, and R-value of this stuff. As a bioneer, I'd love to know what kind of mushrooms they are using. I'd also love to know what they are using as a food source for the mycelium to grow on. There are so many agricultural waste products that would be great for this.

I'm totally geeking out over here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Living Soil

Most gardeners see their job as one of taking care of the plants. You water them when they get dry, fertilize them as needed and deal with pests and diseases. But how does this process work in nature? Nature takes care of the plants. So why doesn't it take care of the plants in our garden? Nobody fertilizes that beautiful meadow you hike through on your weekend hike, so how does it look so lush? Nobody sprays it for fungal diseases and pests, so why do the plants there only have minimal damage despite a lack of intervention?

Despite what we like to tell ourselves, a garden is a very un-natural place. Nature is subverted at every turn. A fully natural garden would look like a meadow and the Home Owners' Association would show up and cite us for not removing weeds.

So what is it about those natural environments that nurtures the plants and keeps them healthy so effortlessly, and more importantly, how can we mimic that environment without invoking the ire of the neighbors? The key is living soil. Soil is not just some foundation beneath our feet, a stable medium for plants and a source of important minerals. It is very much alive, or at least it should be. Soil is it own ecosystem, it just exists on a microscopic scale. It is filled with bacteria, fungus, insects, worms and much more, all living in harmony. Each player has a niche to fill, a job to do, and is an important part of the whole. Nearly half of each plant exists immersed in this ecosystem and has evolved specifically to live in that environment.

Healthy soil nourishes the plant and increases its health. Healthy plants don't need outside intervention to prevent pests and diseases. They have an immune system, just like you and I. Plants grown in healthy soil are healthy and have the ability to fight disease. They also grow faster, get bigger and are able to produce more sugars.

So how do you make healthy, alive soil? As always, we take our cues from nature. What soil amendments does nature add? Dead plants and insects are returned to the soil to decompose and occasional doses of manure are added. That's pretty much it. It needs regular doses of organic material.

But dead plants laying all over the ground is unsightly. How do we fix that? Well, that’s where bioneering comes in. Compost is bioneered soil. By composting our organic material, we create the ideal soil ammendment, the perfect food for our living soil. Also, regular applications of organic mulch, such as wood chips and straw help a great deal. Those ammendments feed the soil, which in turn cares for our plants.

So remember to feed your soil!

Oh, and synthetic fertilizers are like junk food for your soil. It doesn’t create lasting health, especially if you don’t also give it the healthy food.