Saturday, April 30, 2016

Plants Teach Me Persistence

The plant shelf in action.
One of my yearly obsessions that comes to life every spring is my porch garden. Yes it's small- the porch is only about 6X8" total, but every year I fill it to the brim with plants. J.D. and I even built a plant shelf for more room!

I grow a mix of things from seed and from plants we buy at the garden shop. Over the years I've had several failed experiments and many things that grew despite my lack of knowledge in all things veggie. Growing things from seed is my favorite, as it's fascinating to watch a giant plant grow and give me tomatoes when I planted it initially as a tiny seed I could barely see.

Unfortunately there are a lot of factors that can destroy a plant before it reaches adulthood. I'm not just talking about over or under watering (which I was definitely guilty of the first year). I had to learn the hard way about soil fungus which can kill all of the seedlings in a matter of days. Their stems just shriveled up at the top of the soil and they fell over. Now I get fresh baked out seedling soil every spring.

I learned about good and bad bugs- the tiny green aphids or swarms of gnats were bad, but the creepy-looking red caterpillar-type things were good because eventually they'd be lacewings to guard my plants against the aphids. When I decided to grow broccoli last year (note: broccoli does not grow well in pots) I suddenly found myself pulling off and squishing dozens of green caterpillars per day before they ate all the leaves off. It's amazing how fast those caterpillars could eat and grow! I started to appreciate spiders and wasps more.

The thing I appreciated the MOST were the bees. Come to my porch, bees! Pollinate all of my pea plants and tomato plants and the tiny porch peppers! It turns out that I need at least three of each type of veggie in order to produce any vegetables. I made the mistake of only getting one squash plant a few years back and it had a great vine, but the flowers never made a single squash. Once the plants are there it then becomes my job to get the bees to show interest in my porch. It's situated facing a paved parking lot with no other flowering plants around so I try to find bunches of flowers that will bloom through the summer to act as a big neon sign to the passing bees. It seems to be working. I get more pollinators now that I've focused on the flowers!

The surprise perennial columbine plant means more flowers!
Every now and then my garden surprises me. We had a mild winter this past year and the chives, mums, and columbines all made it through to the spring. J.D. also found an African Daisy which blooms waaaay into the cold weather and is drought tolerant too! This year I'm trying out pea plants which I haven't grown in pots before. We'll see how it goes! One of my favorite parts about vegetable gardening is being able to eat a salad that I grew. :) I hope that when I get a yard someday I can grow even more!
Mmmm...porch lettuce!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Horse Sensibilities

This blog post is less of an outpouring of excitedness about things and more of a bunch of questions I have about horses. I've found that the more I'm around horses the more questions I have!

Harry has questions too, but they're mostly about whether you're carrying food.

For example, Beth brought a big red exercise ball for the horses to play with and each horse had a different reaction to it. Some ran from it, some went up to it cautiously, some bit it, and some didn't care about it at all. I know some horses like to play with things more than others (Miles, for example, was definitely in the "biting it" category). But what about the ones who were running from it or the ones who had no interest? Is there a sliding scale from "I am terrified" to "who cares" with curiosity somewhere in the middle? If a horse is paying attention to something does it usually mean that it's worried about what that thing is going to do?

Aspen seems to follow the "Curious-to-afraid" sliding scale very closely. Anything he's paying attention to is something that could trigger fear if it were any louder, closer, or weirder. (The exception in all cases being food. They'll all pay attention to food.) He's inquisitive, but even if he's going up to something he's ready to jump backwards at a moment's notice. Whereas Miles will go up to something and push it or bite it to see what it will do. Is it just personality?

"Is it gonna eat me or feed me? I can't tell. Let me look closer."

Nadiya gave me a good example of this conundrum today. I had the red ball and was slowly kicking it around near her. I wanted her to come over and sniff it since she was one of the ones fleeing from it previously. She seemed to be in a "I'm going to follow you around" mood, so I kicked it slowly away from her and she followed me toward it but stopped several feet away. I went up to it and patted it a couple of times to show her it wasn't eating me. She stared at it, and while she was staring a robin flew up and sat on the fence also a few feet from her. Although the robin was something moving quickly and close by she didn't even turn an ear toward it, while I noticed it right away and looked at it. Do horses tune out anything that isn't going to harm them? Or do they only sometimes tune it out when there's something more immediately threatening going on? Or is this just a Nadiya reaction and others would have noticed the bird?

Is this why sometimes horses show absolutely no outward sign of being friendly with another horse but will just stand next to or follow another horse to show friendship? Because they don't display interest in things that are already "safe"? I'm so used to animals like dogs or cats showing affection by actively DOING things with a friend, like play-wrestling or licking. I guess sometimes I see the horses nipping at each other or chasing each other around but they seem to do this indiscriminately without regard to "liking" the horse they're chasing around more than the others. The closest hint to friendship I see is between Mia and Cyd or Chuck and Harry who just stand next to each other a lot. I rarely see one without the other. Maybe this is what horse friends do to show they are friends? These are my horsey questions for today. Hopefully I will be able to find answers to them!

Thursday, April 7, 2016


 Here we see some happy little galaxies, and by happy little galaxies I mean two unimaginably huge masses ripping each other apart with the force of gravity.


I've been obsessed with outer space for a long time. When I was little I would get books from the library about the Voyager missions and all of the cool things that Hubble was discovering. . Exoplanets (planets around other stars) were discovered in my childhood. Mars was being explored with rovers and the Huygens probe touched down on Titan, one of Saturn's many moons. What an exciting time to be alive!

One of my favorite abilities of Hubble: Looking into deep space and seeing billions of galaxies. This one in the middle has literally warped light around itself which is why you see stretched-out galaxies around it. 

I didn't know back then I'd be working for NASA. I ranged through everything from wanting to be a dentist to wanting to be a cartoonist, but I did always enjoy my science classes. In graduate school I had an opportunity to take classes in Planetary Science and Stellar Astrophysics as electives, and I still use the random facts I picked up from those classes when I go to visit students at schools and outreach events.

Dust devil on Mars

I think my favorite thing is sharing the excitement of space with other people. I like talking to elementary school students best because they are always so amazed at everything! Did you know that the entire solar system started out as dust? How big do you think Jupiter is? You could fit 11 Earths across its middle! There are moons that have OCEANS under their icy crusts!!! THIS IS SO COOL YOU GUYS. A sun exploding can outshine its entire galaxy! And there are billions of stars in each galaxy.

So yeah, something as vast and extreme as space is something I'm going to geek out about a lot. I'm so excited to be building the things that go explore it!

The famous "Pillars of Creation" by Hubble. A nebula cloud full of baby stars.

Friday, April 1, 2016

I Can Be A Horse's Hero

Today was one of those weird spring days when the world changes rapidly from the beginning of the day to the end of it. I woke up to drizzling rain and assumed that afternoon I would probably be dumping feed in horses' troughs and brushing them as the extent of my horsey activity. However, it got sunny and very warm by mid-day, and by the time work ended it was perfect for taking the horses out to the ring to walk around. There were several volunteers there so we ended up taking Harry, Abby, Presley, Aspen, and Nova all out together, just walking beside them and taking them around obstacles like traffic cones and trotting poles. I was walking Aspen and he was doing very well with his friends also in the ring around him. The pig was less scary when he was surrounded by other horses and no one else was paying Pepper a bit of attention. It also helped that there were a bunch of cones set up right in front of where he usually stops to stare in terror at Pepper, so it kept his brain occupied with weaving through them.

Pepper Pig: Cutie pie, or TERRIFYING BEAST?!
(This is from when she first arrived, hence the poor sad hooves. They're slowly improving.)

After awhile two of the volunteers had to leave, so Harry and Nova went in, then Presley and Abby also left the ring and Aspen was left all alone with this silly human (me) who obviously didn't know that being alone is NOT ok. He tried to follow Abby right out of the ring, calling after her even after we stopped. I tried the normal stuff I do- I kept tension on the lead rope and clucked at him to move forward, I put my hand up to try and get his attention, I moved him in a circle. He didn't calm down much though and kept trying to pull me toward the gate.

I don't know exactly why things clicked for me. Maybe it was because I got more sleep than usual, or had just done really well telling a bunch of little kids how to empty grain into feed buckets, or because Bopshe wasn't there that day to tell me what to do to fix things, or maybe it was because of the really dramatic sky this afternoon but things shifted around in my brain-meats and not fully thinking about it I blurted out "don't worry buddy! I'll protect you!" And I realized that that's what he was really looking for- his herd had left and he didn't think I was going to keep him safe. So I tried moving us forward again but this time I thought about everything, real or imagined, that might be out to get a lone horse in a sand ring and mentally vowed that I was going to beat it into the ground if it messed with us. We were going to be unstoppable. I was going to protect this house! er horse... and I set out across the ring in a dictator-ly march. Amazingly, Aspen believed me. I swear to goodness. We went between cones. We went over wood bridges. We WENT PAST THE PIG. All without stopping to even look at them. (Ok, maybe he glanced at the pig, but I was so busy internally destroying all in our path that it was only a little glance.) When I stopped at the gate he stopped right next to me. I don't know if this is a thing that will ever happen again, but I am super glad it happened today. Maybe he will feel a little safer, be a little braver... and someday in the future maybe he'll even trot over to say hello to Pepper, the terrifying horse-eating beast.