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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

For the first time, all six of my kids will be going to school. With two in high school, one in Jr. high and three in elementary school, I'm looking at a huge back to school shopping spree. I talked with my wife and there are plans to head down to St. Cloud (a larger city in Central Minnesota that has a Chipotle's (awww yiss!)). The plan is to swoop into the many quality thrift shops to fill out our kids shopping list (and then eat burritos).

Not a bad plan. Shopping at thrift stores is a great way to shorten the loop. But I read something the other day that makes our day trip down to St. Cloud look like a drop in the bucket. You see, the average US family will be spending almost $700 in back to school shopping this coming year. That's money that will be spent on new books, nose tissues, pencils, clothes, backpacks, and all the other necessary materials to set kids on the studious and straight path. With an expected 50 million plus children entering the school system this year, that adds up to a LOT of crayons.b2ap3_thumbnail_935283_10201244124966785_199748450_n.jpg

However, I was curious to how parents were spending their back to school budgets. Were they just going to the big box store? Reusing from last year? I went to our friendly neighborhood Google search. What I found out wasn't too surprising.

Over 69% of school shoppers will be using online stores to fill out their kids material sheets. And 72% of that group state they are choosing online stores that have free shipping, 71% if they have sales, and 68% if they accept coupons. There's probably some Venn diagram that would show this, but I'm not sure a store that would fill all three metrics exists.

On top of that, a cursory glance at the top qualifiers to a "Back to School" Google search indicate that price is the number one concern. "Cheap", "coupon", and "sale" accompany the search more than any other qualifier. Think about that. These qualifiers are used more than "backpack", "WalMart", and surprisingly, even "Rodney Dangerfield".

So, what does this mean? Wanting to save money is not a new thing, especially in these difficult economic times. I think that what it shows us is people are moving away from what has been a traditional tried-and-true method of shopping; the idea that using what you have and only buying when you absolutely need to is giving way to the buy whats on the list at the least expensive way possible. Is this a consequence of smaller school budgets (and therefore fewer supplies donated by the school) or possibly because of lower quality products being cheaply made, (and therefore forcing families to repurchase every year).

b2ap3_thumbnail_3383286713_22b7ac8efb_m.jpgEither possibility aside, the best way to save money is to only buy when you need to. Nothing is cheaper than being already owned. So, here's a few tips that will make your school shopping trip a quick and inexpensive one.

1) Know what you have. Take inventory. If you already have several boxes of pencils, tissues, or loose-leaf paper, then make sure to use that first!

2) Buy clothing that can last the year. For instance, sun dresses work very well in all climates and seasons when paired with leggings or cardigans.

3) Be willing to pack your own lunch. Hot lunches have been increasing in cost (and to be honest have been decreasing in value). Cooking a large meal and freezing many lunch size portions for future use is a great way to stretch a budget and an even better way to know for sure what your child is eating.

Going back to school doesn't have to hurt...the students. (I know that I look forward to them being forced out of the house as early as the fourth of July.) There doesn't have to be mutually exclusive pairing between shopping local and saving money. You just have to plan ahead.

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

Yesterday, some of the staff ventured out on yet another thrilling phenology walk!  In case you weren't able to join us, or even if you were there and already need a refresher, here is a little re-cap of what we discovered.


Our walk began with some new flower faces for us to identify along the edge of the woods.  We found some Prairie Coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) and a Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), both native perennials in the Aster family (above, left and right respectively). The prairie coneflower is identifiable by its droopy, bright yellow, notch-tipped petals around a thimble-shaped cone. The elongated cone and shorter height (1-3 feet) make it different from the gray-headed coneflower, which looks very similar.  The cup plant is identifiable by its large, lance-shaped leaves that unite at the base to form a cup around the stem, hence the name.  These cups often fill with rainwater, which is used by many animals, including birds and tree frogs. Also along the forest edge was some flowering Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native perennial grass (below) with roots that can grow 10 feet into the soil! In addition to being a great soil stabilizer, big bluestem provides food for wildlife and livestock, habitat for birds and insects, and the Chippewa Indians used the root as a diuretic and to alleviate stomach pains.

We journeyed into the forest here on the HUG campus, which has recently been categorized according to the MN DNR Ecological Classification System (ECS), using smaller ecological units called Native Plant Communities (NPCs).  These units have a code name indicating general characteristics of the type of land.  For example, here on campus, our forests fall into two different NPCs, FDn33 (Northern Dry-Mesic Mixed Woodland) and FDc34 (Central Dry-Mesic Pine-Hardwood Forest). If you know how to read these codes, you can tell quite a bit about the landscape before ever even stepping foot on it.  The capital letters at the beginning indicate the type of ecological system, which in our forest, "FD" stands for fire dependent, indicating that historically crown and surface fires were common in these woodlands. The smaller letter in the middle indicates the floristic region of the state, so the "n" would be for northern and the "c" for central, telling us where in the state this system can be found. The two numbers at the end indicate the general moisture and nutrient levels (respectively), with 0 being the most dry and poorest in nutrients and 9 being the wettest and most nutrient rich environments.  So both of our NPC types here on campus are relatively dry and low in nutrients. While both forest types are dominated by red pine, white pine, quaking aspen, paper birch, jack pine and/or red pine, the FDn34 system seems to be differentiated by noticeably more northern red oak and bur oak, evident on our adventure through the woods!

Then we ran into a very interesting plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a native perennial in the, well, Indian Pipe family. This is a very unique forest plant identifiable by a single, waxy, white bell-like flower on a white stem. The white color indicates a lack of chlorophyll, meaning this plant does not photosynthesize and must rely on a mutually beneficial fungal relationship (mycorrhiza) to obtain nutrients from dead or decaying plant materials. Some believe that it may be parasitic, feasting off of, and eventually killing, living host plants. Because it does not need sunlight, it can often be found even in the shadiest areas of the forest floor.

Left: Rose hips - not ripe yet. Center: Inedible bush honeysuckle. Left: Edible chokecherry.

We also found quite a few plants with berries that were ripe & ready to eat! Although the wild blueberries have passed, you can still harvest some raspberries if you get out there soon! In the mix of the raspberries we found a wild rose plant, with unripe hips (fruits of rose plants).  All hips are edible, but they are very bitter and riddled with small, hard seeds. Our group passed right by the inedible berries of the bush honeysuckle and instead had a little tasting of some ripe chokecherry berries, which are very astringent when eaten raw. Apparently, they become more delicious in jellies, syrup, preserves, pies and wine. The pit, contains a toxic hydrocyanic acid, but this can be avoided by carefully not crushing the pits or by cooking the berries. Next we were able to sample some black cherries (below, left), which look very similar to chokecherries but can be distinguished by the fine, reddish hairs at the base of the midrib on the underside of the leaves.  These berries have the same hydrocyanic acid in their pits, so the same precautions should be taken.  Our berry tasting ended with some bunchberries (below, right)- round, bright red drupes growing in a cluster from the flower stalk, surrounded by a whorl of four to six leaves.  They can be eaten raw (good survival food to know!) or cooked into jam, jelly, or sauces.


And we were not the only ones eating what nature had to offer! We found quite a few piles of scat out there - one filled with seeds from berries (raccoon?), one filled with bones of small rodents and feathers from birds (fox?), and one filled with insect exoskeletons (sunk?)! Other nature signs we noted were the various kinds of oak gall present. We identified Oak Apple Gall (below, left) and Oak Bullet Gall (below, right), both growths caused by gall wasps of the Cynipidae family.  These wasps lay eggs in the tissue of oak during the fall and when spring comes, they cause an increased production of normal plant growth hormones, resulting in a large, swollen area of plant tissue. The larvae hatch inside the gall, which serves as a source of food and protection until the larva is ready to transform into an adult and chew its way. Although galls may have been growing since spring, they are not usually noticed until they are fully formed, so now is a good time to get out and find some galls.  The bullet gall is more common on bur oak and white oak, while the apple gall is more common on red oaks.


The weather for this weekend looks beautiful, so get outside and take a look at nature!  Grab up some delicious wild edibles while they last and before the wildlife get to them (but remember, NEVER eat anything you find unless you are absolutely sure that it is safe)! There are some signs that fall is already approaching... but we don't need to talk about those phenological records just yet. ;) Enjoy summer!

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

While the heat of summer weans, for many, the thought of school just around the corner hammers our nerves and sense of freedom even more. So, why not make the most of it? Look forward to the new year of classes. Now add to that a hint of green thinking, and it might just be the best school year ever!

Let’s focus our sustainable minds on the products college students need. To make sure life in the dorms is as comfortable and efficient as possible, there are a few key areas to address: technology, clothing and school supplies.


Technology b2ap3_thumbnail_vaio.jpg

Unlike the school days on campus that your parents reminiscent over (perhaps way too frequently for your taste), today’s supplies include some high-tech gear. While laptop computers, MP3 players and tablets are energy sinks, they do offer some sustainable benefits. Most notably, these products are eco-friendly in that their existence makes other products unnecessary.

One can take an endless amount of notes in class, thus limiting the necessity for notebooks. The fewer notebooks used, the fewer trees cut down. And, if you want to take it one step further, read how to find the most energy-efficient laptops. The same goes for MP3 players: One of these puppies means you don’t need to buy CDs (if anyone even does that anymore). No CDs, no plastic discs, no packaging, no paper booklets. And, lastly, one Kindle requires a lot less material than a library of books — textbooks, novels or otherwise.



Along with a new grade level, every person needs some new stitches for the year — it’s the American way. That being said, think about how much you might really need that new hat or belt that you’ll wear… oh, maybe three times. One of most common “green” challenges these days is making something new with something old — by altering some of your least favorite clothing into a new, fashion-forward and not-so-harmful-to-the-earth style. And hey, if you mess up then you just have a new set of rags to wash your car with on the first day back to campus.

However, if you're like most people, you'll end up purchasing at least a few new pieces. When doing so, look for clothing that comes from sustainable materials like bamboo or hemp. Again, unlike our parent’s generation, today’s clothing made from such natural materials can actually look stylish and most importantly not be so itchy. 



b2ap3_thumbnail_banner_school_supplies.jpgToday’s university bookstores offer a much wider selection of products than the simple notebooks and binders of yesteryear. Think spiral notebook with post-consumer recycled paper, pens that utilize soy-based ink and planners that combine both green-thinking practices. The pen-and-paper medium is quickly becoming obsolete, but in the interim, those supplies we still find necessary can be as sustainable as possible.


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