Arboretum Workshops: Ice Dying and Manure Worms

If you ask me what my favorite part of Swarthmore is, I’ll probably answer “the people,” but the Scott Arboretum is also very high on my list. The people of the Scott Arboretum and the Swarthmore College grounds crew have made my connection to the arboretum immeasurably stronger. Yes, I love the gorgeous plants and trees all over campus, but the people who work with these plants and connect students with the arboretum have been so engaging and welcoming that I have learned a tremendous amount about the plants around me and gotten to know some of the people who maintain our campus!

There are several aspects of the arboretum that have become part of my life. I love the hubbub of the Welcome Back Plant Bash event each fall, it is always exciting for the first-year students to plant their class tree together during Orientation, and I have really enjoyed my campus job working with the gardeners on the grounds crew.

A highlight among these are the activities, workshops, and gatherings organized by the one-and-only Sue MacQueen. As the Campus Engagement Coordinator for the Scott Arboretum, Sue organizes events and workshops for students, supports the student-run Good Food Garden, and provides opportunities for us to learn about the trees, shrubs, worms, butterflies, and many other plant-related things surrounding us! Here are two events at the arboretum that I really enjoyed!

Ice Dying Workshop

This workshop was really cool! Sue often brings in campus faculty or staff to lead workshops and share their knowledge with us. A member of the Costume Shop in the Theater Department led this workshop. We could bring any light colored cotton items we wanted to dye. I didn’t have anything in mind, so I just dyed the pair of white socks provided to each person at the workshop! (All events at the arboretum are free to students as part of Swarthmore’s cash-free campus!)

After soaking the socks in a bath of soda ash (soda ash acts as a mordant — a substance that helps the fabric retain the dye), we layered ice, powdered dye, and fabric into a glass jar until the entire pair of socks was in the jar. I carried the jar back to my dorm and when the ice melted, I rinsed out the socks.

My pair of socks stuck out of the jar once all the ice was in there so I pressed my sketchbook pages against the top of the jar to use up some of the wet dye.

Something I love about the arboretum workshops is that, as with many places and events on campus, professors and students come together to learn side by side. I saw my education professor at the dying workshop, and the next week, she brought the scarf she dyed into our education class to use as a tablecloth for snack time.


Manure Worms

I love dirt and thus was very excited for the manure worms event. A local horticulturist came in and shared what he knows about manure worms and explained how they differ from earthworms. He showed us how he cares for his population of manure worms and then he gave us worms that he had prepared just for us! We each went home with a Tupperware of worms! I was incredibly excited. Some of my friends were just as excited about my worms, and other friends were skeptical.

Here is a picture of my manure worms in their home. They live in the middle-ish vertical region of a container with holes to let air and moisture through. The container has no dividers in it, but over time the bottom of the container starts to accumulate worm castings (the term for worm “waste,” to put it politely); the middle, where the worms hang out, contains food scraps and leaves, and the top stays covered with damp paper/cardboard scraps. The paper scraps help contain the smell of the food scraps (the worms themselves actually aren’t very odorous) and keep everything at a good humidity.

I passed my worms on to a friend who was staying on campus over spring break so that he could worm-sit them for me. When the semester ended, the worms got released into the outdoors. We learned in the workshop that manure worms do not survive the winter outdoors on their own, but they can survive in warmer weather. I hope that my worms are happily wiggling around outdoors somewhere, munching on dried leaves and grass clippings and leaving behind them, as worm castings, deliciously nutrient-rich material.

I have loved every single event the arboretum has put on. Recently, I found an old email from Sue MacQueen about a hunt for fungi in the Crum Woods with a local gardener, and I am so bummed that I never went to it!

I have made a promise to myself for my Swarthmore life going forward: drop, cancel, or miss anything to attend arboretum events, because no matter how I’m feeling when I arrive, I learn something new and I leave happy, excited, and refreshed.