The Quiet Teacher

Gardens, no matter the size, can teach us about all sorts of subjects and about life in general. If one sits in the garden and observes what is happening he or she can learn that just because things look different they can still play nice and new and interesting things can happen. This is what happened with our tomatoes a few years ago and why we now have an orange cherry tomato plant. Seeds for that plant came about when two different varieties of tomatoes, a sweet red cherry and a gold pear-shaped cherry, were cross pollinated by a friendly bee. I then saved the seeds expecting one or the other variety. When the plant started producing tomatoes the following year (last year and this year) we had the orange tomatoes. I am now out of those seeds, which has led to a whole new process for me – cloning tomatoes in an attempt to get more orange cherry tomatoes; but more on that in another post (don’t worry, I am not getting into gene manipulation, I don’t believe food should have to be registered as a pesticide with a state). This also happens via the constant evolution through mutation that flowers and other plants go through to attract the attention of bees. Just look at the huge variation of flowers, even of flowers of the same species, to see how many different shapes and colors there are. Where would the beauty in the world be if everything looked and acted the same. Plant species survive through time because of variation, not because of being identical.

Gardens also teach us that cooperation is required to thrive. Even a tall, strong stalk of corn that does not need bees to pollinate, does need its neighboring stalks of corn to pollinate; without them it is a mere stock of lost promise – tall and strong with no purpose and greedily consuming resources that could otherwise have gone to cooperative members of corn society. For any of the other myriad plants, whether a tomato or flower, bees are needed to pollinate or it too will be a mere shell of lost promise. No plant is an island unto itself; it needs its own community, i.e. ecosystem, to help it, and with a balanced community not only that plant, but the whole community, will survive and thrive.

Gardens can teach us to plan and as part of that planning, how to research, how to correlate potentially unrelated facts to our situation, and math. We have already started planning next summer’s garden. We are thinking about what plants we want that we think will grow in our part of the world and where in the garden we will plant them. We have even planted a new plant for next summer, shallots, asparagus, horseradish, and all of our perennials, like apples, herbs, and berries. We have not tried shallots before, but we are optimistic and hopeful. Once we decide what general sorts of plants we want, then the research starts. For example, we know we want two types of onions. We know we liked one of the varieties we planted this year more than the other. I will scour seed catalogs to find the one variety that sounds best, for eating and growing. Once we determine what specific plants we want to try to grow we have to determine how many of each. This is where the math starts. How many plants per area? Will that be enough plants to yield what we want to do with them? If not, is there another variety of that plant that will yield more or area in the garden to grow more? It also leads into a bit of applied physics.

The tomatoes, peppers, and especially tomatillos needed staking this summer. Last year my faulty tomato staking lead to a reduced harvest. Although I had the general idea of how to stake, a variation on the stake and weave method, I used the wrong type of cording to support plants that got far larger and heavier than anticipated. The cording stretched and broke under the weight, allowing the tomato vines to sag and break. We progressed to the stake and weave method because the tomato cages we used the year before were nowhere near up to the task. So, the question was then how to support the tomatoes without the stakes being bent or pulled apart? A similar thing happened this year with the tomatillos. I had read they only get about 3 feet tall. Because of that I figured shorter stakes would be sufficient. I was wrong. The tomatillos grew to about 5 feet tall and as wide. The little stakes I used were being pulled down by the plants. Next summer I have to find a way to have strong enough stakes to support even more tomatillos (back to the planning ahead thing – we already know we will plant more tomatillos). Because of the stresses applied to the stakes and cord I have to determine the appropriate size of stake and cord as well as the location of the stakes so the tomatillos and gravity don’t win the battle again.

Where would a garden be without a bit of experimentation and risk? Would you want to plant the same thing year after year even if it did not grow well? I know I wouldn’t. Part of the fun of a garden is experimenting with various varieties of plants. Risking frost with early planting. Trying a new way to start seeds (this will be a big one for me this coming winter because I had so much trouble with my seed starts last winter). A few years ago, the first summer we got the garden going, we didn’t have any tomato starts of our own so we purchased a few tomato plants at the farmers’ market. One of the varieties they had was a black Russian. Not only had we never tasted a black Russian tomato we had never heard of one. They are now our favorite. Although I started four varieties of black Russian tomatoes from seed last winter for this summer, only two survived. I chalk this up to my issues with seedling last year more than the variety so they will all be tried again. The other variety we tried – risking our time and garden space for an experimental (to us) tomato variety, was what we now refer to as the Big Jake, aka Big Zac. The potential for a 4 pound tomato was too much to pass-up. We have not grown a tomato anywhere near 4 pounds yet. We have grown a few over 1.5 pounds though. That is a big tomato for us. So big that if it is not used for salsa it is hard to eat in one sitting even with a few people. No matter if you have only one tomato in a container or 1,000 acres, there is always a level of risk and experimentation with gardening, whether that involves trying different varieties, different water levels, different fertilizer regiments, where to buy seeds or plants. The big questions are whether we take the calculated risks and conduct the grand experiment and whether we learn something from those activities.

Above all, gardens teach patience. They are not an immediate gratification activity, unless you look independently at all of the small intermediate steps along the way – the planning, the research, ordering seeds, starting seeds, transplanting seedlings, start of real growth in the garden, the harvest, and finally the eating. All to start the process again, but this time with more knowledge and information. Without a bit of patience the sense of accomplishment from growing something from seed to harvest, and especially the harvest of all the great tasting produce, would not be possible.  Gardens, like life, are all about the journey; the little steps along the way that make things interesting. Our garden is one of the little steps that makes life just a bit more interesting. If only others could learn some of these lessons for modern society we would all be better off, because, like a plant, no man is an island and for the individual to thrive we need to cooperate, plan ahead, and have a little patience while we accept that it is our differences that make things interesting and that a balanced society makes this possible.

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4 thoughts on “The Quiet Teacher

  1. Bert

    Mark,

    Forgot to tell you I thought this was an exceptional piece. Philosophical, instructive and really quite meaningful. Nice going. Now I can dig into that rhubarb/blueberry chutney!

    Bert

  2. Pingback: The Wonders of Gardens | Smoketree Cellars

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