The Student Gardner

Recently my book club read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Our club is a collection of retired, or soon to be retired, friends who are artists, gardeners, musicians, health care professionals and scientists. We are concerned about our environment and our individual and collective responsibility. We found Braiding Sweetgrass to be a fascinating, enlightening, and heartbreaking read that challenges us to live consciously with earth, and to have a reciprocal relationship. 

What does it mean to enter our gardens with the concept of nature as the teacher and the gardener as the student in pursuit of a reciprocal relationship? The common approach to gardening is to read all the plant tags at the nurseries, Google best practices and attend workshops led by more knowledgeable and experienced gardeners. These are all wonderful resources, but a key component is missing. The key component is nature as the expert teacher. 

Many books on landscaping show manicured, perfect gardens as if they are the interiors of our homes with every piece of furniture perfectly placed. No dust bunnies in sight or in this case, nibbled leaves. We plant vegetables in perfect rows. We still use chemicals to manage insects without regard for the greater negative impact on our environment and by extension us. Remember, this is a reciprocal relationship! 

Our ancestors used to forage for their food before the dawn of farming, ate what they picked and only picked what they needed, (Braiding Sweetgrass). Compatible plants grew naturally together. We install lawns as a status symbol creating more work (mowing), water consumption to keep it green, and use of chemical fertilizers. Lawns contribute nothing of value to our well-being except for being, thankfully, green space. 

Nature as the teacher means we are students and not experts. We enter the garden as observers and listen. Are you hearing birds chirping? Bees buzzing? Frogs croaking? What do you see? Native plants? Water sources? Varied habitat as in graduated heights of trees, shrubs, bushes, flowers? Is there nesting habitat and wind protection? Are you seeing worms in your soil?

Why does this matter? Native plants to your area will grow better, need less care, and will draw bees and birds. The bees pollinate your plants (food), and the birds eat those pesty, destructive bugs diminishing the perceived need for chemical insecticides. Bugs are a major source of food for birds and contribute essential functions like soil conditioning, and pollinating, and they eat each other, (World Wildlife Spring 2023 issue). 

Let us go back to how we grow vegetables and look at the benefits of companion planting. Kimmerer gives a splendid example of companion planting in Braiding Sweetgrass using the example of corn, beans, and squash whom the Iroquois and Cherokee called the “three sisters”.  Each plant benefits from the other when planted together. A complex interaction occurs that is simplified here for expediency. You can find a more robust explanation in Braiding Sweetgrass, The Three Sisters

Corn seeds emerge first drinking up water and growing tall and strong. The beans root deeply and don’t emerge until the root system is well established and then uses the corn stock for vertical support.  The beans create some breathing room for airflow between corn stocks and allow for dappled sunlight. The squash, the last of the three sisters to emerge, spreads out over the ground seeking the sun. It functions much like mulch in that it holds in-ground moisture and impedes weeds. All three plants benefit and produce a healthier and more plentiful crop, and this does not even touch upon the microorganisms living below ground benefiting our soil by providing nutrients.

Direct Sow, Easy to Grow

Image credit: University of Illinois Extension

Nature as the expert teacher tells me, the student, when I am getting more right than wrong. We moved into our home 2+ years ago. The front yard was a gravel driveway, and the back yard was a blank slate all the construction work restoring our rotting wood house and clearing out debris.

We restored the front yard to green space, a garden. It was a nightmare. The ground was badly compressed from decades of cars and trucks parking on it, with lots of sand, rocks, and gravel. Raised beds became essential as the ground soil could not yet sustain any visible life, including worms (before and in progress pictures below). Many plants were murdered before I bought raised beds. The plants in the ground surviving, not surprisingly, are native plants. This is where I now get excited at seeing nibbled leaves. I have completely changed my entire view and philosophy on gardening, thinking in terms of a reciprocal relationship instead of adversarial one! 

Garden Planting

I risked planting a young redbud tree directly into the ground to be a future food source for bees. This season I noticed the leaves on the redbud have almost symmetrical scalloped edges. I reached out to a friend, Keith Delaplane, who is an entomologist (insect expert) and professor at the University of Georgia where he has responsibilities in research and public outreach in pollinator management and so much more! Keith at once informed me the scalloped leaf edges were the handiwork of cutter bees or leafcutters. Cutter bees are pollinators! These bees pollinate our beautiful flowers and food! It turns out cutter bees use the plant material to line their nest cells. How cool is that! I rarely saw any bees beyond carpenter bees for the first two years of living here. Now there is more biodiversity. There is also a noticeable increase in our worm population, and we are seeing snakes. Snakes keep down the pest population without traps or pesticides. 

There have been many misses too. The plants let me know if they are happy where I have planted them and get transplanted as needed. I am still a novice at being still, watching, and listening to the expert teacher, the living creatures and organisms of our planet.


---- Photos from Laureen Terese Niehaus-Beckner

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