Spring 2010 Sabbatical

My sabbatical titled “What can we learn from Gardens?” completed during the spring/summer of 2010 has expanded my view of how gardens and farming are connected to so much of our lives.  In addition to opening my mind to a “garden perspective,” I’ve become a more confident garden advocate and more knowledgeable organic gardener.  I have benefitted much from having the time to work in my own home garden and to complete several gardening classes, including the one proposed with David King at The Learning Garden at Venice High School.  In addition, I completed three one-day classes: Los Angeles  Arboretum class with John Lyons (April 10), Ocean View Gardens Biointensive class with Christy Wilhelmi (4/17), and a class with Russell Ackerman at the Santa Monica Library.  I was also able to participated in the inaugural LA Victory Garden Initiative,  a four week class taught in April at Venice H.S.

During my sabbatical I visited  many types of gardens from the first community garden in Santa Monica on Main Street (guided by Russ Ackerman), established in the 1970s, to school gardens throughout the city.  Samohi and Olympic H.S. gardens were visited and I was able to talk to the students who work in these gardens.  As part of the American Horticultural Society National Children and Youth Garden Symposium in Pasadena, I was able to visit several other school gardens, including 24th Street School near USC, which was designed by Nancy Powers.  One thing led to another, and I met with people from Cornell, the Huntington, and South Coast Botanical Gardens.  One of the most beneficial unexpected events was going up to the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens on the day when Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson was speaking on “Great Botanical Gardens of the World” (March 14).

I also visited gardens in Dutchess County, New York; Shelburne Farms in Vermont; and Nuestras Raices in South Holyoke, Massachusetts.  On this exciting journey, I’ve come to see that thinking like a gardener (or farmer) is of enormous value to us as humans.  To be human is to nurture, to care for the world, and to enrich the world in some way.  There is no question why gardening metaphors, such as “planting seeds” of thought and “putting down roots” are so common.  The world culture is part of the word, cultivate.  As a gardener, I may say to you, “Come see me,” and what I really mean is “Come see my garden.”   And if you do, you will probably find me on my knees, and you will leave with a gift of a plant, or seeds, or at least the desire to make things grow.  It’s natural to us to want to cultivate, to green the earth.

The benefits from my sabbatical to the college are many, as we are currently planning the SMC Organic Garden design with architects from Meléndrez Construction, Greg Brown, and students from Club Grow.  Beyond the objectives listed on the first page of my sabbatical, I’ve especially learned patience, a quality we can all agree is important to us as educators.  Because of my sabbatical, I feel more equipped to be patience as this garden comes into being, and to know it will change and grow over time.   I’ve also learned that the garden teaches numerous skills and values that we should not dismiss for our students’ lives, including long-term thinking, planning for future generations of students.  Some additional life skills, such as how to grow food, and prepare it, is knowledge we once took for granted, but this is knowledge my students tell me they want.  Watching as seeds we have planted with our own hands  grow into delicious foods that end up on our dinner table, and observing the cycle of life season after season is invaluable.  I’ve written about what a garden is in “Our Garden: An Essay” at Avantgarden.org, and it is at my web site, where observations during my sabbatical have been posted.

Though I have completed the objectives listed in my proposal written over a year ago, I have learned much more than I expected.  The value of professional development in this area was a dream come true for me, and it’s difficult to express my gratitude.  As I continue to teach at SMC, I will continue to develop my understanding of how the garden can be integrated into the curriculum through continued practice and conversations with colleagues in various disciplines.   This work is ongoing, never finished – as is gardening.  I’ve learned that the garden can be an amazing site for community to develop through observing community gardens, the work of David King at Venice H.S., and in South Holyoke.  When people work together in a garden, sharing knowledge and food, they change in remarkable ways.

My knowledge of organic gardening practices and garden writing has grown through reading, talking to other gardeners, and applying what I have learned in my own backyard garden.  One major lesson that I will continue to apply in my classes and encourage other to undertake is seeing a garden (or farm) as a site of cross-cultural understanding.  I’ve seen this demonstrated  in the community gardens I’ve visited.  For example, at the Nuestas Raices farm, La Finca, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Puerto Rican farmers developed a connection to an Indian family as a result of the small, tasty eggplants grown.  At first, the Puerto Rican growers couldn’t understand why anyone would want to grow such small eggplants, but then they tasted them and began growing them also.  Just observing what another grower does in the field often creates a conversation and a friendship develops.  Food, of course, is culture.  Many community gardeners share seeds and recipes, as well as growing practices, building strong relationships through common human activities.

In an effort to integrate the garden within my own discipline,  English, I’ve seen the effectiveness of adding readings and writing activities about gardeners of diverse ethnicities through use of Patricia Klindienst’s book, The Earth Knows My Name:  Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans (Beacon, 2006). I’ve written more about using Klindienst’s book on my web site, AvantGarden.org in the sections titled “A Window into Culture” (8/20) and “The Earth Knows My Name: Making an Argument for this Book” (8/14).

Many types of writing can use the garden as a subject and a focus.  Besides writing about the garden, students can write for the garden in practical, real-world documents that have the power to change our culture.  The multi-page Garden Proposal submitted to SMC Human Resources during the summer is an example of such a document.  Including multiple modes of writing, a strong purpose statement, argument, instructions, and suggested management of the garden for maximizing student involvement,  this document, inspired by the Harvard Garden Guide was supervised by me, and includes the collaborative work of several SMC students, including Samia Bano (introduction) and Natasha Gorodnitski who helped edit the document.  It includes a two-year plan as requested by the college as well as suggestions for how the garden can be constructed, planted, and managed.

In meetings with my core interview subjects, David Mas Masumoto, Patricia Klindienst, Antonio Solario and Marsha Guerro, director of the Chez Panisse Foundations’s Edible Schooyard, I collected ideas about projects to integrate the garden into the curriculum.  Masumoto has visited numerous schools, including Santa Monica High School last spring.   Some highlights of their suggestions follow:

  • Masumoto suggests sensory writing in the garden to help students learn to slow down and listen, as well as time-lapse photography projects of plants growing.  His book, Harvest Son, is an excellent memoir of his experiences as a young man on the family farm near Fresno.  In it he returns to Japan to visit his relatives.  This book is often included in garden-based learning courses.
  • Klindienst suggests writing about earliest memories of gardening, oral history projects (interview a gardener/farmer), memories of celebrations involving food, and a class cookbook with essays about food and cultures.
  • Solorio suggests having everyone plant seeds to experience new life, the potential in something so seeming insignificant.   Simple and stunning, making a choice to nurture life and experience its potential might be the most important metaphor of all.
  • Marsha Guerrero, Director of the Edible Schoolyard, helps guide schools who want to establish a sustainable garden/kitchen program.  The Edible Schoolyard, now in its 15th year, sets a high standard for bringing the garden into the schoolyard.  Each 6-8th grader learns to grow and prepare food with classes in the garden and the kitchen.  The curriculum for these classes has been developed by staff of the Foundation inspired by  Alice Water’s goal to teach these students life-long lessons in nutrition.

Garden Projects suggested by the Edible Schoolyard:

§  Writing and drawing in Garden Journals,

§  Collecting insects, identifying them and researching what role they play in the garden (science),

§  Saving seeds, designing seed packets to store them in, and calculating germination rates (botany, art, math)

§  Creating a solar oven out of pizza boxes

§  Creating healthy snacks from garden produce to replace fast food snacks (nutrition)

§  Field Trips to the local farmer’s market

§  Field trip to local grocery stores:  SAFEWAY—a supermarket giant, Whole Foods, and a small family-owned market that specializes in local, organic produce (in Berkeley, Monterey Market).  Prior to the market visits, students are asked to name food products used regularly in their households.  With a list of the most commonly used items, students divide into 3 groups to visit one of the stores.  Students record prices, nutritional information, and product origin, and compare costs between organic and conventional products,  Then they regroup with staff to share their information and observations. Students compare the data they gather, and make recommendations for purchasing groceries.

§  Planting the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash.  The three sisters form a symbiotic relationship in which each plant plays an important role in the health of the other plants.   At MLK Middle School, these plants will be harvested by incoming 6th graders—the new students on campus. Begin with 6” corn seedlings, bean seeds, and squash seeds.  Corn is planted in a circle of four, each about one foot in diameter.  Between the newly-planted corn, place bean seeds in shallow holes where they will fix nitrogen and climb the stalks of the corn.  Finally, plant winter squash seeds in open spaces between the circles.  Over time the vining plants cover the open soil, preventing weeds and retaining moisture.

I was able to visit several school gardens, as I stated previously.  One of the most fruitful unplanned visits was part of the workshop I completed at the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley.  We spent all day Friday at the John Muir Elementary School in Oakland.  Their garden was built 30 years ago around a amphitheater and boasts a beautiful redwood tree.  Participants cooked strawberry jam and experienced the differences of taste in strawberry varieties.   We wrote poetry about strawberries and making jam, worked in the garden, and transplanted strawberries into pots.  At the stage level of the amphitheater an outdoor classroom was the focus of garden instruction.  The design of the space at this school was inspiring, lush with a variety of flowers, vegetables, berries, and other fruits, and four chickens (June 23-25).

My sabbatical has ended, but I feel that my work is just beginning.  As I continue to speak for the garden, encouraging faculty and students to commit to this important project, my motives for beginning this project are confirmed and I see that this garden has the potential to bring together SMC goals related to global citizenship and sustainability.  I was able to make a brief presentation about the garden on September 7, 2010, at Bill Selby’s Introduction to Environmental Studies class.   I talked about the history and progress we’ve made with the garden and introduced the Club Grow president, Johnny Torres, who is also a student in that class, as is Justine Rembac, the A.S Director of Sustainability.

Having the time to focus my attention on gardening and “the garden” during spring semester was a priceless professional gift; however, the announcement by Bob Isomoto that the college would finance the garden as part of the bond issue was the key event of my whole year.  That has changed everything, so that we now have confidence that this garden will be institutionalized and constructed as a permanent part of the campus.  We know there is much more to do as we help guide this project to engage as much of the college community as possible.  By working with Club Grow members and Associated Students for the last four years, I’ve gotten to know some very passionate students who believe in this garden as a very special place to learn to grow our own food, a place for hands-on learning outside of the four walls of the classroom.  My life was changed because of two inspiring young women, Melody Overstreet and Natasha Vokhshoori, who asked me four years ago to be the faculty leader for the garden.  Inspired by the potential of their vision,  I had no idea of how all encompassing that vision would become for me.  It has become central, and I’ve come to see that a garden, our garden, has the potential to change everyone who gets involved.


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