Here’s a story that you may not comprehend:
The parking lot will crack and bloom again.
There’s a world beneath the pavement that will never end.
—Dana Lyons, “Willie Says”
Gardening is whole-body learning, offering rich, multi-sensory, direct personal experience, unmitigated by media, from hands to head to heart. Explorer’s garden is not for show. At any given time it may appear abundant, or, on the surface, barren. But in the garden we learn to look deeply at the small things, things people generally pass over and ignore, and we watch the process as life springs up, unfolds and blooms. Our garden is a natural system, and we learn from it all—from the soil, bacteria and fungus, the insects, worms and squirrels, the weeds, seeds, sprouts and blossoms. In the garden we learn that we are one part of a beautiful whole, both mighty and minute, and everything contributes to that whole.
But what is holistic and orderly on a grand scale is often a big, ugly mess on the ground. Digging, planting, weeding, harvesting, cooking, teaching, learning, relationships—messy, messy, messy. Compost, when it is properly mixed and chemically balanced, looks and smells really good, dark and rich, like molasses. But when the balance is off, it smells as
ripe as a two-year-old’s diaper. That’s my signal that I need to bring the elements back into balance again, cut the nitrogen and add carbon, and stir it all up.
It’s the same with the human aspects of gardening—working, teaching and learning with my students. Some weeks, things seem golden. Lessons flow, the children love being outside making discoveries, everyone works in harmony. Other weeks, the squirrels eat the peas, aphids attack the collards, the kids throw dirt clods, no one will listen and I tighten the reins, trying to gain control. That tension—my stress about whether the garden program is doing well, whether the children are doing what they are supposed to—is my signal that things are out of balance. At those times, I need to step back, loosen up control, and let us all DISCOVER the garden anew. That’s hard for me. Chaos jangles my nerves. But when I can do it, something opens up internally, the proverbial pea-pods are shucked from my eyes, and I can see my students and the garden blossom together in ways that have nothing at all to do with my intervention.
I’ve been the Garden Coordinator at Explorer for two years, and each school year starts with confronting the garden’s explosive summer growth. The first year, the post-summer-vacation garden was a battle scene of woody, fluffy-topped weeds scattering their seeds in Santa Ana winds, and gargantuan zucchini plants that spilled out across beds like advancing glaciers. An army of fat and crafty squirrels had tunneled in, enjoying the bounty, taking advantage of broken garden-bed cages to eat their fill. The August sun blazed, traffic barreled by just feet away, and planes taking off overhead shook the air and made conversation impossible. Gardening was not a pleasant idyll. It was loud and hot and messy.
The second year I was proactive as I prepared for the summer. I was going to get the garden under control! I turned down the watering system to a bare minimum—or thought I did—and covered the beds with giant sheets of plastic to kill any weeds that sprouted. I dumped two truckloads of wood chips on the paths to keep weeds down. During the summer I came by once or twice a week to see if any of the native plants needed extra watering.
Strangely, nothing did. In fact, were those sedges growing in a veggie bed? Sedges grow in wetlands! And why was the soil so wet and weedy under the plastic? The plastic wasn’t killing plants, it was serving as a mini greenhouse for weeds! And what was that lovely smell? Mint! A misplaced mint plant that had grown to the size of a small hippo was in bloom, spraying seeds into the wind. The garden was out of control!
But both years, summer chaos produced a bumper crop of unexpected gifts. The first year, those gifts were curricular ideas that came from problems—lessons on the adaptations of weeds that sprang to mind as I yanked out yards of uninvited botanical guests, lessons on predator-prey relationships as I considered how to handle the squirrels, lessons on how to handle my own fears of incompetence with thoughtful action.
The second year the gift came in the form of community. At least a dozen parents volunteered the first weeks of school to pull weeds, repair vegetable cages, and help me figure out what I had done wrong with the watering system computer. We worked together, talked and shared. A Saturday workday in October drew four times as many families the second year as the first, as parents and children worked side by side to make the garden ready for students. Community had grown out of chaos. Relationships had blossomed from the weeds.
After maintenance is taken care of, curriculum is the first issue of the year. Developing curriculum ideas is never a problem. The garden is a fertile place for ideas. But implementing those ideas in a way that makes sense for students and classes is another thing all together. It’s important not to let ideas run the show. When I’m too caught up in program, I forget about discovery, and the garden loses its heart. But when the garden is only about discovery, students aren’t able to place new knowledge on the scaffold of previous learning. Finding a balance between program and discovery is part of my own learning process in the garden.
At the end of last year, I asked teachers to write down the sorts of things they were interested in exploring in the garden. Over the summer, I looked over the state standards for different subject areas to see how the garden might fit into various aspects of the curriculum for different grades. Taking general curriculum ideas that meet state standards and coming up with curriculum and activities for a variety of age groups meeting every other week has been tricky.
Some lessons have been successful because of good planning. The first grade lesson featuring the book, The Ox Cart Man, comes to mind as a particularly good discussion of the different ways people farmed in the past, and how they farm today. Other lessons were less successful due to poor planning. Harvesting and cooking lessons could have been much more successful if I had asked for more parent involvement. It takes a lot of hands to turn newly picked food into soup and salad with a minimum of stress!
Other lessons have been successful because I did nothing and let the garden do the teaching. The first-fifth grade buddy class, Butterfly Garden, started off on an excellent note when students discovered Monarch caterpillars eating our milkweed plant the first week of school. Over the next few weeks, students watched them transform from eggs to caterpillars to chrysalises to butterflies. Releasing the Monarchs into the afternoon breeze was thrilling! The discovery gave meaning to our later project of planting wildflowers to attract butterflies.
One slow week, I took a group of Butterfly Garden buddies out for an informal “critter count.” We discovered 21 butterflies in various stages of development, from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, with five different species of butterflies. We found giant orb weaver spiders, a green Lynx spider with bright yellow knees, and several brown widow spiders, relatives of black widows, but shyer, less potent, and less able to penetrate skin, and their spiky egg sacs. The garden was a thriving ecosystem with predators and prey all coexisting as a tiny, balanced system of life. It was perfection on a micro scale.
The presence of brown widows was disconcerting, however. Not knowing how safe, or unsafe, the widows were, my Master Gardener suggested I take one in to the County Vector Control office for assessment. The biologist I spoke with there said that the best way to control brown widows was through awareness—teach everyone how to spot them—and to clean up messy areas such as wood piles, where they might like to breed. Pesticides were not an option at a school, he said, but they could be controlled through careful clean-up. He also said, rather alarmingly, that “I won’t tell you that a brown widow couldn’t kill someone,” a message that turned out to have harsh and unintended consequences.
I brought the brown widow back to school and stationed her and her egg sac in a jar in the science room for everyone to get to know. I relayed the messages that the Vector Control man had told me—over-alarming, as it turned out, according to arachnologist Jim Berrian of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Berrian later told me that brown widows will do anything to avoid people, and are slow moving and easy to spot and kill.
The following week, the Butterfly Buddies did another critter count. This time we found…nothing. Not one butterfly. Not one spider. The orb weavers in their big round webs were gone. The green lynx spider had vanished. Strangest of all were several chrysalises hanging black and dead and unhatched. It was as if the tiny, balanced ecosystem had been hit by a mysterious plague. While on the surface everything looked the same – the plants were still thriving in the garden—everything in the animal kingdom, save a few pill bugs and worms, was gone. It was strange and chilling.
I made light of the strange conditions to the students. Perhaps the season was changing, I said. It was getting colder. Maybe cool weather had sent all the animals packing. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what had happened.
Later that week a teacher happened to mention, “I hear they sprayed for spiders last week.” Suddenly, the whole Dead Zone scene made sense. Fearing the brown widow spiders, and fearing for the safety of students and staff, a decision was made to spray the area around the garden. While the garden itself had not been sprayed, Cy-kick, which had been deemed
safe for use in food service and schools, was sprayed on fences and structures around the garden. Drift happens.
I cried for two nights running at the losses in the garden. I’m not a sappy soul, in general. I’m fairly level-headed. And many may wonder why someone would grieve over the loss of some spiders and insects. But really, I was grieving over the loss of the immeasurably beautiful unified whole that the garden was becoming—and over how misunderstanding of nature can lead to catastrophic loss, even on a tiny scale.
I was too upset to speak about it to the Butterfly Buddy classes. In class, I attributed the sudden losses to the change of season—and some of those losses may indeed have come from the move toward winter. I did not want anyone to feel blamed for a decision made with legitimate concerns for safety in mind. I also wanted to see how long the Cy-kick would last. Perhaps by the time winter was over, the pesticide would have worn off. I decided to take a “wait and see” approach, internally debating whether I was being dishonest with the students or whether I was missing an opportunity for a lesson on the unintended environmental effects of our well-meaning actions. The Butterfly Buddy classes moved on to creating beautiful hard-scaping for the garden, creating a butterfly mosaic footpath.
Three and a half months after the garden was sprayed, I saw my first large butterfly drifting over the herbs on the opposite side of the garden. It was a Monarch. A week later, an Anise Swallowtail swooped in while I was pulling some weeds. Yellow and black, with a wingspan of at least three inches across, it found the anise we planted from seed in the fall, curled its abdomen under, and laid four tiny eggs. The next week the Butterfly Buddy classes went into the garden for a critter hunt. This time we found a Katydid, several large Golden Garden Spiders, Fiery Skipper and Melissa Blue butterflies, ladybugs and their larvae and pupae, and a colony of aphids. We spent a half hour rooting around in the garden beds, peering between pea plants at orb-shaped webs, oohing and aahing, and reacquainting ourselves with the wonder of the ecosystem we care for. Whether the insects’ and spiders’ reappearance has more to do with the coming of spring or the wearing off of Cy-Kick, I don’t know. But life is springing anew.
Maybe that’s the biggest lesson the garden has to teach us. Life endlessly renews itself. It cycles: life-death-life-death, order-chaos-order-chaos. Over and over. Life gets injured. It heals. We make messes. We clean them up. We hurt feelings. We say we’re sorry. Over and over. And it all works out in the end.
At each grade level, Explorer children have created garden journals that they use for writing, math (graphing, measuring, etc.), art, and social studies projects related to the garden.
For more information on what’s being done in Explorer’s garden, see the garden blog at http://explorergarden.wordpress.com