Plant Science

This Fairytale House

by Moises Hernandez-Rivera

View from Spring Valley Farm

Disbelief, that is the first thing that I think of on most mornings. As I face the rising sun, I am reminded that I live in a fairytale. Everything is scenic here, from the fall foliage framed perfectly by my window, to the rolling hills beside the farm fields. This place has it all, trails, thickets, pine stands, spring and rivers. Spring Valley Student Farm is my home.

We are a great community, eleven-strong, we work here, we play here, and most importantly, we live here. When it’s hot and sunny, cool or muggy, snowing or raining, it is always perfect here. This place grows on you.

I moved here in January of 2018; that spring I saw my very first chipmunk, first owl and spent the rest of that year with a group of amazing people. Each of us was brought here for a different reason, some could set up solar panels, some were expert gardeners, and some were community healers–all of us tied up in a perfect union. My job was fish. I studied at a vocational high school for four years training on aquaponics, the fusion of growing plants and fish for consumption.

Greenhouse at Spring Valley Farm

Everyone here wears many hats: neighbor, roommate, housemate, workmate, we all do our part. The system of weights, however, works different here. Our tasks and weeks are very fluid; one day you’re leading tours; sometimes you’re mulching, weeding, or picking. We’re often manning the farm stand selling our produce on Fairfield Way, giving away plants, or delivering food to the Bistro, Towers, or Whitney. We run a very productive and demanding agricultural operation. We count and pick our next year’s seeds, we plant and weed our fields and tend to our own farm projects. Even the harsh Storrs winters are no trouble, with hundreds of thirsty little plants in our greenhouses, seed planning meetings and plenty of snow and ice to clear from our solar panels; we’re busy all year long.

The primary focus of the farm is education. You don’t need to be from a major in the College of Agriculture, Health & Natural Resources to be here. You don’t even have to know how to water a plant. The farm is a self-selected team of very different people. What one does not know can be taught by another, and what no one knows can be taught by our farm manager, Julia Cartabiano; she’s our queen bee! Everyone comes in with different skills, and the farm finds a way to weave those skills into a perfect blanket.

Our population is always changing, from semester to semester. Sometimes one person graduates; sometimes six people graduate. Spring or Fall, we’re ready. Everyone helps and teaches and ensures that when it’s our turn to go WOOF, join the Peace Corps or graduate, the farm keeps chugging.

As students we maintain our growth through interaction with the greater UConn community, from EcoHouse to the many clubs and cohorts, our different majors and approaches keep our gates open to any and all. From Farm Fridays to Summer Bug Week, we make sure to tap into the fabric of the community and pull from all sides: campus students, parents, transfers and commuters, that’s what makes our community so resilient and strong. Around these parts, be it through the Dean or freshmen, local farmers and residents, we make ourselves known.

Finding Myself in Landscape Architecture: Tuning into Myself

By Ely-Anna Becerril

Storyboarding/Presentation Project! Sketched drawings of different areas in Versailles garden. Scanned and laid out on a big poster.

I had everything planned out before I would set foot at UConn. I knew I would work in the environmental science field, measuring water quality in water bodies all over the world and conserving our forests. I was so set on my plans and knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I found absolute comfort in that. It wasn’t too far into my freshman year that I decided to rethink everything and tune in to things I’ve always been drawn to. The environment, of course, but art and storytelling as well.

Growing up, I loved drawing, painting, and writing my own little books. I dream’t I’d be an author someday. However those beloved interests of mine slowly dissipated over the years. I hardly ever painted, drew, or read for fun  anymore. A big factor was that I lacked confidence in my skills, and lacked time to dedicate to creative pursuits; therefore, they were abandoned.

However, my artistic side demanded attention again. I missed my creativity and was sad, ultimately, that my science-filled schedule had no room for art. I desperately wondered if I could ever have a career that involves both of my dearest passions, art and the environment. After hours of researching majors, courses, and careers, one title caught my eye: Landscape Architecture. At first I was terrified of the word architecture, since I never imagined myself as an “architect.” But I discovered this field was a perfect combination of everything I wanted to study: art, beauty, environmental conservation, and science. As a natural resource major, I found myself very pessimistic about the role of humans in this world, considering all the damage we’ve done to the environment. As a result, I wanted to focus solely on the environment for the environment and not for humans. However, I started to realize that we humans play an integral part in conservation, and we need to factor ourselves into the topic if we want to make real change.

Revitalized High Line in NYC

It is possible for us to coexist in harmony with the environment and that is exactly what landscape architecture strives to do. I knew this major would allow me to affect the world and make real change for the environment and for people.  It will give me the opportunity to create meaningful spaces for communities, places that will make people happy and relaxed.

After visiting the tight knit and supportive studio they have, taking classes towards that major, and growing closer with the landscape architecture faculty, not only did I find the perfect major for me, but I also found my little niche in this enormous college. Tuning into my longtime interests has led me to a place that I am so grateful to be in. It feels good to revisit old hobbies that made me happy as a child.

It’s always important to do things that have always made you happy. It’s no wonder that many people base their career choices off of longtime interests or things that have always had a special place in their heart.  I think if you ever find yourself in a career crisis, or re-thinking your major, tune into yourself and remembers the joys of childhood pursuits. Lastly, always set time aside for things you enjoy doing, have confidence in your abilities and give your passions a try.

Recent project/may desk!

A Tale of Two Avocado Trees

Figure 1: Avoseed® is a buoyant tool that lets your avocado be  exposed to water and allows for easy visual of the germination and  growth of the seedling
Figure 1: Avoseed® is a buoyant tool that lets your avocado be
exposed to water and allows for easy visual of the germination and
growth of the seedling

Last year I decided I wanted to grow an avocado tree in the UConn Floriculture greenhouse. My friend, Aisha, gave me a seed from her home in southern California, where her family has about a dozen avocado trees in their backyard. I started Aisha’s avocado seed in water (Figures 1 and 2). People often do this because it is interesting to see how the seed germinates and puts out a stem and a leaf. I decided to grow a second avocado seed from an avocado that I got at the supermarket. I planted the supermarket seed in soil. So, it was a bit of an “experiment” to see which one grew better based on each different type of growing medium.

They’ve both been growing for almost a year now, and since then have successfully germinated, emerged, and grown into sizable plants. I have also since put Aisha’s avocado seedling in soil. Check out the photos of the avocado trees (Figure 3), and take a guess at which one you think is the healthier one. You may be surprised to find out that the shorter one is actually healthier. The health of the plants can be tracked back to the original growing conditions.

Figure 2
Figure 2

If you were to take a closer look at the leaves and the structures themselves, you’d see that the shorter one has much darker, more turgid leaves (Figures 4 and 5). The lighter green leaf color of the taller plant is a potential sign of nutrient deficiency. The turgidity of the leaves is also important. The taller tree’s curl up around the edges, and exhibit moderate wilting. This contrasts with the leaves of the shorter tree, which have the ability to remain firm. This is a result of the tissues of the shorter tree being filled with water.

Figure 3
Figure 3

These differences derive from their original growing conditions. The shorter tree started in a soil medium, and the taller tree began in a water medium. The oxygen concentrations in these two types of media are very different. The water would have had a much lower oxygen concentration than the soil, which has many pores filled with air. Plants, like us, need oxygen. In their case, it’s important for their root and root hair development. In the absence of oxygen, plants can experience poor development of these underground structures. As a result, plants with these characteristics will have a hard time taking up water and all of the nutrients dissolved in that water.

Figure 4: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)
Figure 4: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)

If you don’t care about any of this science stuff, I totally understand. You’re probably wondering ‘when can I make guac?’ Well, funny story. Neither of the avocado trees may ever produce fruit, and if they eventually do the fruits will probably be very oddly shaped. They probably will not be like the ones you see in the supermarket or even the ones you might find at Aisha’s house. This is a trait particular to avocado trees and some other tree species as well. Avocado trees cannot self-pollinate to produce fruit, so they must out-cross given the pollen of a complimentary avocado tree type. So, although, the avocadoes from which I obtained the seeds, in the first place, were normal-looking, the trees that they are developing into are unlikely to produce your typical looking avocadoes.

Figure 5: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)
Figure 5: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)

There is a way to evade this biological characteristic of avocado trees that farmers use all the time. It would be through of an ancient practice called grafting. You can think of grafting as a way of gluing the canopy part of one type of avocado tree, which produces desirable fruit, to the branch of another avocado tree variety that does not produce desirable fruit. The outcome, then, is a tree that produces desirable fruit.

That would be way too much work though. Unfortunately, I’m too broke and busy to do that. So, I’m hoping, however, that (without any sort of modification) if the trees do fruit, I hit the genetic lottery. Ideally for me that would mean a tree that produces seedless avocados. But the chances of that happening are probably around 1 in billions. Wish me luck!

Five Tips on How to Not Kill Your Houseplants

Kamil in the greenhouseDo you have a black thumb? Don’t worry because killing houseplants is a talent that many possess. Plants are living things, making them capable of being temperamental. But just because they are alive doesn’t mean they can cry or bark at you when they’re upset. Growing plants is really just about mastering body language and learning about the plant’s personal preferences. Growing a green thumb isn’t as hard as it seems; all it takes is some TLC and some 411. Here are some tips to avoid a crispy spider plant or a moldy barrel cactus:

  1. Don’t be lazy, do some research.

Before you even set foot into your local garden center or flower shop, look up what can grow in the conditions you have. Plants can tolerate many different environments, but that doesn’t mean that something from a tropical rainforest can survive on your window sill above a scorching radiator. Look for plants that can tolerate your growing situation. It is easier to pick the right plant for your current environment than it is to change the growing environment.

  1. Most plants can’t swim.

One of the most common culprits of houseplant murder is over watering. It is usually a common practice to let the soil surface dry out in between watering. This assures that you aren’t drowning your poor photosynthesizing friend.

  1. They can’t get up and drink out of the toilet bowl.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, under watering is another common factor in plant homicides. Even if your plant is ‘drought tolerant’ or a native to the Sahara, it still needs water to survive. Most plants need a dose of water at least once a week, but it’s best to assess your growing environment and your plant’s needs, before creating a watering schedule that fits Continue reading

‘In the Spotlight:’ Horticulture Club Takes on the Connecticut Flower Show

Horticulture ClubIf you ask the average student at UConn what they know about horticulture most likely you will get an unclear response. Today, a large part of society has developed a true disconnect from agriculturally related fields. Trees and plants, including ones we eat, are often taken for granted and are often under appreciated. The field of horticulture deals with the art, science, and business of growing plants. It is an industry that encompasses the cultivation of plants for both food and ornamental purposes. In Connecticut, agriculture has very mature roots. Much of the land was farmed for vegetable production in the days following settlement. At one point in time the State was a large producer of cut flowers before the market was driven south. Currently, Connecticut still boasts a large green industry, with over half of the State’s traded agricultural commodities a result of the nursery and ornamental plant industry. In today’s time the major itself at the University is very trade-oriented with a direct connection to the community.

Horticulture ClubThe ornamental horticulture industry is really focused on aesthetic, visually attractive, practical, and functional characteristics. Plants truly do serve as visually appealing pieces whether they are in a landscape, on your window sill, or even in a parking lot. Because of this reason, the best reason to showcase a product is not ‘let me tell you about..,’ but instead it is ‘let me show you.’ And in an effort to reach a broader customer base visually, the plant show was born. Flower and plant shows have really grown to become a horticultural tradition. The Philadelphia Flower Show was first held in 1829 by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and to this day remains the nation’s largest and longest running horticultural event.

This February, the Connecticut Flower Show was held at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford for the 35th time under the theme “In the Spotlight.” The four day show has grown to encompass over 300 booths filled with horticultural vendors, countless hours of educational seminars, non-profit and learning exhibits, floral displays, and over an acre of traditional landscape competition exhibits. This year, the Horticulture Club at UConn was invited to construct a 700 square foot display garden. The Club had historically participated in the flower show for many years but had taken a break for a few years until 2016. With none of the current members having previous experience with working a flower show, it truly proved itself Continue reading

Wait…This isn’t the Orchards!

Story of my internship career path:

During my orientation session, I was talking to my Turfgrass and Soil Science advisor about our course requirements.

Evan at National Golf Links of America
Evan at National Golf Links of America

One of the requirements was to complete an internship during the following summer. Right at that moment my advisor looked at me and said “Lyman’s (Lyman Orchards) does not count.” At that point, I had been working on the Lyman property for about seven seasons. My first thought was, well I just found the hardest thing I am going to have to deal with. The fact that I was going to have to call to other golf courses, and talk to other bosses that I have never met before had me feeling very nervous. So, I took the liberty to deal with that feeling which is… to put off looking for an internship until the last minute.

March 2013 I was receiving many emails that said how I needed to find an internship soon or else I would not receive credit. I was shown the job board full of postings for me to pick. After 3 seconds I picked up the first flyer I saw. I called the assistant superintendent, Jonathan Wilber (’08), and we picked a start date. All I knew was I had picked a golf course that is private, and out in Long Island. What I didn’t know was I had decided to spend my summer at the National Golf Links of America, what many golf publications depict as being one of the best venues in the world! My only thought is Continue reading