Garden as Teacher
by Katherine Shedden
“This plant just isn’t happy here,”
I told him. Voicing my opinions on Canadian gardening has not been deterred by living with a real horticulturalist. Secretly I was thinking, what can a South African man know about zone 5B? His usual response was from the following list: too dry, too wet, too sandy, too shady, too sunny, too rocky, too crowded, too windy, too cold, too close to the trees, too much clay, too something.
“What do you think it needs?” came the voice from the other garden bed. “I think it’s lonely,” I replied. “It reminds me of some of my students who ask regularly if they can work with a friend. Even when they know what to do and are capable of independent work, they just feel better when they can work beside somebody. They’re lonely. I really believe this plant is lonely.” “Hmmm . . . ,” from the plant expert. “Probably too much shade. Or it might need some fertilizer.”
“Just like my kids,” I continued. “Did I tell you about that little guy who needs to be near the window? I thought he just wanted to look out, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought he probably needs more natural light. And come to think of it, I’ve got one little guy who ‘gets it’ the minute I give him oneon- one instruction.”
Kids are like plants I decided, and the more I studied the plants in my garden, the more I thought about teaching and learning practices. I can read or watch television for hours and the minute Mr. Hort gets home from work, I want to be working outside in the garden right beside him. We learn from each other even when we do not say a word. I notice how far down he plants the roots, careful not to smother the “eye.” He gives a laugh when I put some object d’art next to his new hosta.
When we get a good rain, I liken it to the main lesson. Moisture is essential and most plants will get along just fine without extra attention. But it is when I tend each plant in each bed that I best get to know their individual needs. I take away dead leaves and spent flowers, give the leaves a nice blast of rhubarb water on both sides and then gently give it a drink of “magic juice.” I study its location and growth—basically, its happiness. I make notes in my garden journal about what it might need: Move? Cut back? Get more? I often get out my Plant Atlas to read about the history of a particular plant to see where it came from and what I might learn from its past. Mediterranean plants might not need a lot of water. South American plants could be happiest under a canopy. The driest part of my garden will produce the best flowering gazanias. I moved a globe thistle from its wet clay home to the high and dry and you would have thought it had moved back to highlands of Scotland.
When Elaina came to me asking to be moved, she looked me in the eye and said, “I cannot do my best in that group. I am distracted, I cannot complete my work and basically, I’m just not happy.” She needed different surroundings. Sure, kids need to learn to work in groups, but some need to be alone. There is one student I will never forget; she can best be described as a runner. She needed to take off. I have lots of plants like that: mint, creeping jenny, ajuga, ivy—you can try to stop them, but honestly they just need to run. Once I understood her basic nature and gave her more opportunities to run, she was quite happy. She could now stay in the class and go for a run when she needed it. She chose the container and it gave her freedom. Irony is everywhere in the garden, too.
When I retired from my teaching job last year, no alarm was directing me to get out of bed and organize myself to get to work. Yet the minute the peewee started his call, I sprang from bed, threw on my gardening outfit, brewed a single cup of coffee and began my morning promenade. No rush, no stress when I saw the weeds. I have all day to tell Mr. Hort about the new day lily that had opened. I have all week to tackle those weeds. I have all summer to record what plants to move or divide. I have all fall and winter to start reading shelves full of gardening books.
I returned to my shaded deck and selected a tiny book called In My Garden by A. Cort Sinnes. I slowly turned each page and marveled at his exquisite water colours. That little book stirred something in me. Could I write a little book about being in my garden? Filled with curiosity, I wondered whether my garden would be able to teach me who I am when I no longer define myself as a teacher?