Thursday, October 27, 2011

Free workshop on vermicomposting (worm composting) at the Lyle Center in Pomona!

Photo of worm composting bin, courtesy of Josepah Bartmann
 To all the teachers and parents out there, if you'd like to learn how to get going on vermicomposting (worm composting). There will be a free workshop on November 5th at the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. You can use this wealth of information to teach students about worms, compost, decomposition, and all kinds of fun science activities. So if you'd like to teach your kids about worm composting and have never vermicomposted before, you can learn how to get started! You'll even have a chance to make your own worm composting bin! (There is a material fee for that part if you want to take it home though.)

Here are the details and how to RSVP from Anne Pandey at the Lyle Center:

On Saturday, November 5th  from 10:00 a.m. - Noon, the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies will be offering a worm composting workshop where you can learn to reduce your waste stream and turn kitchen scraps into nutrient rich fertilizer. The two hour session will provide a wealth of information on how to start and maintain a worm bin and the benefits and uses of compost.  
Participants will also have the opportunity to build their own bins and receive worms, leaving will a fully functional worm composting unit. The workshop includes material fees of approximately $25, payable at the time of the workshop (the workshop itself is free so if you don’t want to take home your own worm bin at the end, you don’t have to pay the material fee).
If you wish to attend, please email  Let us know whether or not you would like to purchase the materials to build your own bin.
Anne Pandey
Outreach Associate
John T. Lyle Center of Regenerative Studies

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pumpkin Patches

Photo of pumpkins, courtesy of Jeremy Seitz

Fall is the time of year when pumpkins are plentiful! It is estimated that the United States produces 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins every year!

Pumpkins are from the genus Cucurbita , which is part of the gourd family. Cucurbitas are native to North America; the first known evidence of pumpkins dates between 7000-5500 BC in the area today known as Mexico.

Pumpkins are a winter squash, which means they have a thick outer shell to help them last throughout the winter. This self-preserving quality has made the pumpkin a staple of the human diet. In addition, there are certain types of pumpkins that have naturally high sugar content. Commonly called "baking" or "sugar" pumpkins, these pumpkins are used to make pumpkin pie and other desserts.

Pumpkins come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. At maturity, there are some ornamental pumpkins that are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, while there are other pumpkins that can weigh over 1,000 pounds! However, the most common pumpkin that most Americans recognize is a medium-sized, orange pumpkin that we carve around Halloween. This variety is called the Connecticut Field pumpkin.

As with most fruits, the pumpkin is not only valued for its flesh, but for its seeds. This year when you carve your pumpkin, try to save as many seeds as you can. You can use some for planting next year, or if you want to make a treat out of them, you can soak them in salt water and roast them in the oven.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monte Vista Elementary School Garden Under Way!

This past Wednesday and the Wednesday before, we have been working hard at Monte Vista Elementary School's garden.
Pick Axes!

We have almost completed the irrigation and we have completed making 6 of 10 vegetable beds.

Star Trencher of the day!
Parent volunteers, teachers, and students all came out and worked very hard to get everything done on task and on time!
Parents, Teachers, Staff and Students all working hard.

Even Principal Dixon was out there early shoveling away.
Principal Dixon digging trenches!
A great turnout of volunteers!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Seasonal Sun

Photo of sun, courtesy of Martin LaBar

The sun is the star at the center of our solar system. Its mass is so large that its gravitational effect holds several planets in orbit around it. Our sun is only a medium-sized star classified as a yellow dwarf, but its diameter is still over 100 times that of Earth's diameter.

In our solar system, Earth is the third planet from the sun. In addition to a plentiful supply of oxygen and water, Earth's position has enabled life to evolve on our planet. Some of our most basic organisms, like plants, algae, and many bacteria, create food for themselves by drawing energy from the sun through a process called photosynthesis.

Earth is not exactly spherical; in fact, it bulges in the center around the equator. Earth's axis is also slightly tilted; the angled axis is what causes the seasons to change as earth makes its annual trip around the sun. The longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere is on June 21st and is referred to as the summer solstice. The shortest day occurs six months later on December 21st and is referred to as the winter solstice. Check out the picture below to see how the Earth is tilted and how that might affect the amount of sunlight/solar radiation the Earth receives at different times throughout the year.

Image of seasons, courtesy of Wally Glutton.

The tilt of the Earth creates another interesting phenomenon: a seasonal change in the height of the sun relative to the horizon. In scientific terms, the height of the sun relative to the horizon is called altitude. The sun's position, as it travels from East to West throughout the day, is called azimuth. Azimuth is simply an angled measurement of the sun's position relative to true north. During the winter in the northern hemisphere, the sun sits very low above the horizon even during the middle of the day; however, in the summer it has the potential to reach 90 degrees from the horizon, hence the term "high noon".

An understanding of the sun and seasons is extremely important to humans. Besides being the source of life, our system of food production is dependent on this knowledge. It makes sense that at the time of the year where the northern hemisphere receives the most solar radiation (summer), we are able to produce a lot of food.

As a fun experiment, pick a time and a day that you will be in class every month (for example, the 2nd Wednesday of every month at 11:00 am). Use a protractor to measure the height (in degrees) of the sun. Use the horizon as the base (0 degrees) and the sun as your target. Chart your monthly altitude measurement and at the end of the school year, you should see that the sun has followed the pattern described above.

For a more in depth experiment, visit the University of Oregon's Solar Radiation Monitoring Laboratory ( and create a detailed graph of your observations.
Terms to look up: Solar System, Photosynthesis, Seasons, Altitude, Azimuth

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall Fruiting Trees

Photo of Pomegranate, courtesy of Kristen Taylor
 Fall is an interesting time of year. When many of our summer plants are beginning to wither and our stone fruit trees have dropped their last fruit, something quite unusual happens. Two trees, pomegranates and persimmons, become full of bright, colorful fruit.

Pomegranates and persimmons bear fruit in the northern hemisphere between September and January. These trees do best in Mediterranean climates(such as ours in the Inland Empire), which consist of short, mild winters and long, hot to mild summers, and so are quite important to urban homesteaders in the area. Pomegranate trees bear medium-sized fruits with a dense outer shell that protect small berry-like seeds encased in spongy pulp. Cutting into a pomegranate is a notoriously messy process, because the seeds pop and squirt red liquid in every direction. A good tip is to fill a small bowl with water and submerge the pomegranate; then you can make your attempt to crack into its hard exterior. Your water will turn pink, but at least your shirt will stay clean.

Photo of Persimmon, courtesy of Frank Chan.

Persimmons are also a medium size fruit with a hard exterior. They begin as small green/yellow berries that ripen to a deep orange color. As the fruit ripens and softens the exterior becomes edible. Make sure you eat a persimmon only when it has fully ripened; if you try to eat one too early it will make your mouth pucker. Prior to ripening, the persimmon shell is full of tannic acid, which makes it bitter tasting. There are some varieties that are non astringent such as the Fuyu and those can be eaten before they are fully ripened. In fact it is very common for Fuyu Persimmons to be eaten while still crunchy. Persimmons are often used to make cookies and jams. They are pervasive within East Asian culinary cultures and they were extremely important to early Native Americans.

Interestingly, many persimmons in the US, including Asian varieties are grafted onto a North American rootstock. We had a Fuyu persimmon in our demonstration garden which, due to high winds, broke at the graft. Now the rootstock has created new growth, so we'll be getting a North American variety instead of an Asian variety. I'm looking forward to seeing how those fruits turn out.

The IEUA Garden in Every School program uses both of these fruit trees in many of our school gardens. Take a look in your garden to see if you have any pomegranates or persimmons. If you're feeling brave, grab a few pomegranates and come up with your own way to harvest its seeds. Or, for a more educational venture, look up the different uses for persimmons in Asian cuisine. You will probably find several varieties that you have never seen before.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Wonder of Cover Crops

Photo of buckwheat cover crop,
courtesy of Al Pasternak

Cover crops are generally used in winter, or less optimal growing seasons (early to late fall). Planting a cover crop is a good choice if you find that you are too busy to garden over the fall/winter months or if you want to prepare your garden for production in the spring by providing it with nutrients.

Cover crops have many benefits; they include: increased soil fertility, increased nutrient levels (particularly nitrogen), suppressed weeds, pest and disease control, and best of all, reduced water use. They are typically fast growing crops of legumes, grasses or grains. Additionally, they provide a stable root system which reduces soil erosion from winter rains.

Planting a cover crop is easy. Simply pull all of the existing plants and weeds in your plot (Tip: make sure you pull weeds gently or you will shake seeds loose). Once your plot is clear, you can sprinkle several of your cover crop seeds over the planting area. At this point, you can add a thin layer of compost or potting soil. The planting density can be as thin or thick as you would like; cover crops will thrive under most density conditions (see the picture of buckwheat above for an example of density). Water your plot thoroughly and let it rest. Cover crops will require water early on in their growing cycle to establish their root systems.

Some common cover crops are buckwheat (pictured above), clover, sorghum, barley and winter wheat. Check out your local landscape center or nursery to see which varieties are available. A note of caution, some cover crops are perennials which means that they will need to be pulled at the end of the season. So make sure you purchase an annual plant type, which will die back at the end of the season.

For further reading see: and

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Onion Family

Photo of Leeks, courtesy of Karen and Brad Emerson

Onions and other aromatic plants belong to the genus Allium in the lily family. In fact, they are commonly referred to as "the stinking lilies" for their distinctive aromatic properties. There is a wide range of species within the genus Allium. They include: onions, leeks, garlic, chives, and shallots.


The Alliums grow best when planted in the fall as they prefer a cooler growing season. The average allium takes about 180 days to grow completely, from the time the bulb is planted to the time the plant is harvested. Growing onions from seed may take even longer. Planting bulbs can be purchased at your local hardware store, or you can order them from specialty seed stores if you want to try more exotic varieties like Russian Red, Ajo Rojo, or elephant garlic.

Photo of Mirepoix, courtesy of Island Vittles

The Allium family has been prized throughout history for its culinary properties. There are several regions in Europe that have incorporated alliums into the base flavor of their foods. As European explorers and settlers moved west, these regional flavor bases spread throughout North and South America. Today we may use these combinations and not be aware of their origins.

For example, the French use a flavor base of onions, carrots, and celery. This special combination is called mirepoix (pronounced: meer-pwah) and it is used in countless soups, sauces, and other flavorful recipes.

Have your students look up other regional flavor bases to see how they vary from location to location.

A good starting place is to investigate sofrito (Spain), sofritto (Italy), refogado (Portugal) and Suppengrun (Germany).

Also, check out locations in North and South America to see how European culinary influences exist today. Creole and Cuban cuisine will both be very promising.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Potato Experiment: Examining How Your Food Grows

Photo Courtesy of "Seven Morris"

There are several experiments that can be done in the classroom to demonstrate differences in food production. One that works particularly well and can be done within a manageable time frame is the Potato Experiment. The goal of the potato experiment is to see how quickly potatoes from various production methods will sprout.

To do the experiment you will need three types of potatoes: a potato that was grown in your school garden, an organic potato from the store and a regular potato(non-organic) from the store. You will also need three large glasses; preferably tall, see through glasses so it's possible to track the root development of the potatoes. Finally, you will need some toothpicks to help hold the potato half-submerged in the glass. Use the picture to the left for assistance.

Have your class document the growth of the potatoes. Which one sprouts roots faster? Which one grows leaves sooner? Which one grows the most overall?

Have your class look into why there might be a difference or why there might not be a difference. If you're doing the experiment with a high school class, you can have them examine the use of chlorprophan as a bud suppressant and how it works.

Monday, October 3, 2011

It's that time of year again! Get started on a winter garden.

Photo courtesy of Alyss "AlyssssylA" Some leaf lettuce
in a square foot gardeing scheme.

Southern California's mediterranean climate enables year-round gardening. Late summer is typically the best time to start planting vegetables and herbs that grow well in cooler weather. There are several fall/winter vegetables that will thrive in the garden from October to late April/early May. Consider planting the following:

Brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi and brussel sprouts

Amaranth family: Swiss chard, spinach, and beets

Various root vegetables: potatoes, turnips, carrots, and radishes

Other lettuces and leafy greens: Mesclun, butter lettuce, and Red leaf lettuce.

Also, if you're starting a new garden with store bought potting soil, or if you've recently refertilized, remember that your soil will contain a high amount of nitrogen. Nitrogen is the element most needed to grow large root structures and the "green" parts of the plant, as opposed to the "fruit" part of the plant. To take advantage of the high nitrogen content in new soils, consider planting big leafy greens and lettuces.