Here we are at the end of the semester and oh boy, it was a wild one. This semester brought us unprecedented circumstances, and unfortunately I was not able to see through to the end of my project. However, it's been rewarding experience nonetheless. I came to feel really comfortable at the farm, and really looked forward to my weekly hours of work. The Howdy farm is a small slice of agricultural paradise on our campus, and I had so much fun getting to work on it this semester. Even on weeks when I spent three or four straight hours weeding the rows, I felt accomplished; and as I watched the seeds I sewed grow I felt rewarded. It's a great opportunity being able to sit and engage in these meditative tasks for hours on end; if nothing else, through this internship I confirmed that I chose the right career path for me. Weeding, sewing, watering, transplanting, repairing water lines, removing pests, it's all good in my book.
Another good development I'd like to highlight is the growth of my plants, and the arrival of caterpillars! I began this project in January hoping for beautiful flowers and chrysalises, and got to enjoy both of those things! The Howdy Farm gave me an opportunity to actively participate in pollinator gardening, which has been a hobby of mine for about a year now. This internship provided a space to experiment with old and new species of host and pollinator plants. We have milkweed for monarchs, are growing some dill for swallowtails, and a first for the farm, some starflower! Growing plants is always a rewarding and peaceful life, even with the unpredictability of mother nature. Plants can be easily taken out by too little or too much water, unbalanced soil chemistry, pests, people, and sudden changes in weather. It strikes me as odd that I find so much peace in horticulture while there is a literal life and death battle happening simultaneously. Luckily for me, I'm okay with the "pests" eating my plants, as long as they're the right kind of pest! For lack of a better term it all goes back to the circle of life: I grow the plants, caterpillars eat my plants, become butterflies, and make pollination happen to grow more plants. It's been thrilling to see the progress the pollinator garden, caterpillars, and chrysalises have made in my absence (big shout out to my intern supervisor Michael for keeping everything alive and thriving). I'm looking forward to the quarantine being lifted, and it being safe for me to go visit and see the progress for myself. Hopefully, some of the butterflies will be there to say hello!
A lot has changed in our world since I began my internship in January. The social landscape of our lives has been impacted and will forever be different. We've seen runs on toilet paper, canned goods, board games and puzzles. We've seen medical workers step up and bravely face this novel virus. We've witnessed communities band together in creative ways to celebrate weddings and birthdays. Among all the chaos, good and bad, there has been a surge in gardening! Initially I wouldn't have guessed that gardening would see a surge in popularity but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. People are isolated and worried about food availability, so why not get some plant friends! Plants give people something to care for and nurture, and make us feel less alone. Many people probably wouldn't acknowledge this, but people and plants are meant to coexist. There's an entire class offered here at Texas A&M where students learn about the relationship between people and plants. We're all in uncharted territory these days and trying to find comfort in isolation. People are adopting more dogs and buying more plants and trying to adapt to the new normal; plants can help with that. Gardening is such a popular hobby because it is both relaxing and rewarding: two things we all need right now.
In addition, the ability to grow some produce or herbs for yourself is a valuable asset in today's climate of panic regarding the food supply chain. There is a movement nicknamed "scrap gardening" by the public in which people grow new produce from the ends of their old produce; i.e., cutting the end off of cabbage and letting it sit in water until a new cabbage plant starts to grow. Who knew you can grow food-- from your food! (most horticulturists already knew this, but we're excited for it to be mainstream). I for one, am excited for people to discover how easy it is to grow your own potatoes.
There are a few things that every job requires. For horticulturists, we have some tools and traits that we couldn't do our jobs without. Most agricultural tasks require a myriad of tools to accomplish, and horticulture is no exception. The level of tools required is often dependent on the nature of the task at hand, as well as the size and budget of the land being worked. For instance, a commercial cotton field would need more mechanical assistance than a sustenance garden. Likewise, the machinery we use at the Howdy Farm is more intense than the machinery I use at home. Since I've been at home for the last few weeks, I haven't been using a ton of tools, so I'm going to discuss the things that I've learned to love over the last few months, and learned to completely rely on in the last few weeks.
The most obvious and basic tool for horticulturists is, of course, pruners! However, my favorite tool has been a soil knife for awhile now. While I couldn't do my job without my trusty pruners, I think my favorite thing about soil knives is how versatile they are. If you need to dig, cut open a bag of mulch, carry something, plant something, chop something down, squish a bug, etc., there's a soil knife for that!
Besides soil knives, the best tool a horticulturists can have is actually a trait: adaptability. If this semester at the Howdy Farm has taught me anything, it's that horticulturists can't do their job if they're not adaptable. A lot of what we do is entirely dependent on mother nature, so the very foundation of horticulture is prone to shifting at a moment's notice. There was a day that Michael and I were thinking about planting my seeds and setting them up in the greenhouse but we ended up repairing a broken water line. I started my semester as an intern at the Howdy Farm in College Station and have ended up doing several home improvement projects around the house with my parents! This semester has been an unprecedented, unanticipated exercise in adaptability. With the current state of the world, horticulturists are now having to be even more adaptable.
Since I've been at home, I've installed a new lighting fixture, helped my parents clean out and reorganize several closets, bought some plants for the yard, and helped my dad design and instal a sprinkler system for our yard. We started the project by measuring all the areas around the house that we wanted to cover. As we were measuring we decided what valves and types of sprayers we wanted to place. We measured and decided on spray heads and then sat down and designed the layout. We measured out the popes to scale and color coordinated the spray heads. Once we had the layout finished, we sat down to work on the grueling process of adding all of the materials we needed to our online Home Depot cart. This process took about two hours for my father to evaluate all the brands and different prices and make his choice. About 300 items in our cart later, we still had to wait a week before we could go pick up our supplies. Being a Type-One Diabetic, I have not gone in to any place of business since coming home to quarantine, so unfortunately my dad had to do all of the heavy lifting at this point. We finally got to lay out all the pipes, and dug the pathways before gluing the pipes together. We buried them and tested them and so far so good! We have the back all worked out, and starting next week we plan on finishing the front yard.
As a horticulture major, when I talk to people about my life I hear a lot of "I can't grow anything, I have the opposite of a green thumb!". Even my own mother would tell you that she can't keep anything alive. Maybe it's just because I like nurturing my plants and I know how to take care of them, but this always makes me sad. There are so many different kinds of plants, what would work for an outside space in Austin, Texas will not work for an indoor space in Boston, Massachusetts. A lot of people get drawn into the trendy plants like Pilea or Fiddle Leaf Figs without realizing that they might not be able to keep it alive based on their experience with succulents! Plants all need different levels of love and attention, just like people. For example, a few good species of low maintenance, indoor house plants would be something like a Pothos or Sansevieria (commonly known as Devil's Ivy and Snake Plant, respectively). I like to recommend these to friends because they're easy to take care of and stunning houseplants. But I also like to tell people that not everything is going to live forever! I know this sounds a little macabre and even a little morbid but it's truth! Everything dies! I've had my fair share of troubling plants too. One of them, a Hearts and Flowers I received from a lab on campus, is only just now starting to look nice-- and I got it several semesters ago. I think people get discouraged when their plants don't look completely perfect all the time. I also know that one of the biggest issues with sad houseplants, primarily succulents, is that people tend to love them too much. The most common cause of death among succulents is overwatering! People want to care for their plants, and sometimes they ignore the specific needs of different species. Honestly, I would tell people to keep on trying, there's always a learning curve with new hobbies and anyone can garden!
Below: Pictures of my Hearts and Flowers from about two months ago, to the same plant today! Keep on loving your plants, you can bring them back!
Many people might be aware that the annual monarch butterfly migration passes through Texas every year. What they might not know is that Texas is a vital stopping point in the migration. It makes sense that Texas would be a big part of the migration for many northern monarchs traveling south through the continental United States to Mexico. In this world, there are few things that we can depend on, and sadly the monarch migration is no longer one of the things we can rely on. There are many unknowns in the world today. With climate change, urban sprawl, pollution, and dwindling amounts of milkweed plants, monarch butterfly populations are shrinking. However, there is a lot that we can do to help butterflies thrive. One of the best and simplest things people can do to help the monarch butterflies make a comeback is by planting flowers and host species! The most common of these flowers is milkweed! All it takes is a trip to your local garden center to find a pollinator species or two to plant in your garden and hopefully make a difference!
This is an exciting day out on the farm: I get to plant a multitude of seeds I had ordered for my project this semester and plant transplants of Asclepias, more commonly known as Milkweed! This plant is a beautiful full sun flower that is famous for attracting Monarch butterflies. Unfortunately, they're also somewhat infamous for their susceptibility to bugs (first picture on bottom left). Already in my horticulture career I have spent hours cleaning the little yellow aphids off of the plants. I cannot stress how many days my hands were just stained yellow. Luckily for me and my hands, this time on the farm we used a spray bottle full of water and Dawn dish soap to clean the plants. After cleaning the mother plants and taking new cuttings of them (second left below), I transplanted some already rooted cuttings (third picture below) to the newly cleaned and weeded beds (last picture below). Throughout this day of planting, cutting, and dealing with all of the bugs, I kept thinking about the prospects of possibly getting monarch caterpillars over the summer. Interestingly enough, these little yellow pests can severely limit the caterpillar's access to the milkweed plant. Suddenly, I didn't mind the yellow stained bug-gut hands as much! If getting these guys off of the plant means a better life for monarch caterpillars- and more monarch butterflies-- I'm all about that!
One of the things that I love about the Howdy Farm is the variety. There's always something ready to harvest or something blooming. Recently I've been noticing (distracted by) the amount of beautiful blooms appearing on the farm. Springtime is bringing us all sorts of new growth and all sorts of interesting plants.
Below are some of my favorite flowers on the farm right now, and a fun fact about each of them (because they're beautiful and why not).
#1. Mustard flower: All species of Mustard are edible, although some taste better than others. In other words, it doesn't matter which species of mustard you find, as long as it's mustard and you like the way it tastes, you're good to go!
#2. Oxalis: These plants are also edible! The bright purple leaf is extremely sour; some people think that it tastes like Sour Patch Kids but others, me included, just think they're SOUR.
#3. Larkspur: One of the first recorded uses for larkspur was to scare scorpions away!
#4. Carnation: Carnations are used as flavoring agents in the manufacture of beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages.
#5. Poppy: Opium, from which morphine, heroin, codeine, and papaverine are derived, comes from the milky latex in the unripe seed capsule of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). It grows wild in eastern and southern Asia, and South Eastern Europe. It is believed that it originated in the Mediterranean region
#6. Stock: In the Victorian “Language of Flowers,” individual colors of stock have their own nuances, but collectively they symbolize overflowing affection and contentment.
#7.Honeywort: The name Cerinthe comes from the Greek keros for wax and anthos for flower, since at one time it was thought bees got wax for their hives from the flowers.
#8. Turks Cap Hibiscus: This plant is capable of growing 9 feet tall! To compare, the tallest man alive, Robert Pershing Wadlow, was 8 feet and 11 inches tall!
#9. Violet: One quirk of some Violets is the elusive scent of their flowers; along with terpenes, a major component of the scent is a ketone compound called ionone, which temporarily desensitizes the receptors of the nose, thus preventing any further scent being detected from the flower until the nerves recover.
2. Personal experience/farm manager Michael
8. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=MAARD; https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/tallest-man-ever/
A few of the greatest skills a horticulturist can have are adaptability and versatility. I've heard it before, but people say when you're a horticulturist you're also an entomologist, an electrician, a plumber, and just about anything else it takes to keep your operation running. This week on the farm, I experienced that old adage first hand. There's been a lot of sporadic weather this week, (in true Texas fashion) and during the colder, rainy weather, the water line to the Howdy Farm broke. This is not a common or fun occurrence on the Howdy Farm and repairing it was no simple task. Michael walked me through the lego-like process of assembling, priming, and glueing all of the PVC pipe. Once he got that all sorted out we had to fit all of the pieces together, drain some water from the area (below left), interlock all of the pieces, drain more water from the area, slowly add back some of the dirt to gradually fill in the hole, and drain some more water. Eventually all of the puzzle pieces fit together and we were able to pack all of the dirt back around the repaired pipes (bottom right). The farm has water again, and I'm sure Michael is happy to be able to seal that up and forget about it for a while.
As with most horticultural projects, the first step to getting anything done is getting rid of those darn weeds. Before anything else can be built, developed, or planted, the weeds have to go. Before we can begin any sort of specific intern projects we have the task of clearing out the pathways between rows of crops. Honestly, I don't hate spending hours pulling weeds. Gardening is a really popular hobby and a very therapeutic pass time, and spending several hours at a time pulling weeds has begun to feel really meditative. And even if it's not meditative, it's fun to spend time in the sun working with my hands. Bring on those weeds, I'm ready for some quality garden time.
Howdy! My name is Allie and I am a senior Horticulture major from Austin (keep it weird, y'all). Welcome to the home of pollinator garden paradise. Here you will find my journey through growing pollinator and host plant species, and hopefully, see the life cycle of native butterflies unfold!