Teaching moments abound in a garden plot

Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 5:12 p.m.

Recovering from knee replacement surgery, I find myself in the garden in a new way, as observer instead of gardener. This past weekend, I leaned my crutches against a post anchoring the grape trellis and soaked up sunlight from a chair in the middle of the garden while Marjorie pulled blight-infested tomato vines out of the ground.

A potted sweet pea vine grew near my chair, its wiry tendrils grasping thin strands of the deer fence it climbed. The vine displayed a few bright pink flowers at the tip of each stem. Immediately below these flowers were miniature pods, the ovaries of last week’s flowers successfully pollinated and now swelling, the work of bees, I thought, and then caught myself, remembering the hummingbird I had watched a week earlier foraging among sweet peas in another garden. Might pollen dusted on the forehead of a hummingbird have initiated the swelling of these pods?

Angled sunlight passed through each immature pod to silhouette the embryonic seeds inside. Moving down the vine, pods became larger, the seeds they contained more prominent, and pod color changed from green through tan to dark brown. At the bottom of the vine, the oldest pods no longer transmitted light, so I opened one to find seeds mature in size but still green.

And then I noticed something new: Pods at all stages of development are covered with silky hairs.

This observation got me on my feet and, with help from the crutches, over to a garden bed where late-sown edible-podded garden peas still grew. No hairs on these pods, but most had been chewed on by a beetle, slug or other herbivore.

Back at the sweet pea vine, no signs of herbivores at work. Conclusion: pod hairiness deters herbivorous activity in sweet peas.

If Marjorie had looked over at me at this point, she might have detected a smidgen of smugness, but certainly a smile and perhaps a look of astonishment. It was, as teachers know it, a teaching moment, but, alas, no class, no students.

Still, this teaching moment was not wasted. It made me realize what the gardener misses when too much time is spent doing, not enough simply observing. And it made me realize the tremendous potential of the garden as an outdoor classroom spanning the entire curriculum, K-12.

While taking the first trimester off from teaching to recover, I am working with a group of other teachers, school administrators and Eastport community volunteers to create a “schoolyard garden” on the shared grounds of Eastport Elementary School and Shead High School in Eastport. It will be an edible garden, students producing food for the school cafeteria, and it will be a teacher resource, linking food production systems with curriculum and with student service learning requirements.

Students will sow the first seeds in their schoolyard garden next spring. Nothing could have clarified my vision of this garden, its purpose and potential, better than these few minutes with a sweet pea vine. I imagine students in art class drawing the hairy pods and the seeds within, science students using their observations of differences in pod hairiness as a springboard for learning about Gregor Mendel’s work with garden pea genetics, students researching the nutritional value of garden peas, or the co-evolution of herbivorous activity and defenses against it.

After studying the sweet pea vine to its satisfying conclusion, I turned my attention to a small violet growing on the edge of the garden path, a volunteer seedling from one of last year’s containers. For the first time, I noticed that the mature seedpod of a violet opens to reveal dozens of tiny golden seeds stacked with precision inside each pod section, but that the seeds remain attached to the pod sections, almost as if they were glued together. They would not fall out, even when I turned the pod upside down.

I wanted to look up and see a dozen wide-eyed faces, each anticipating the question: Why?

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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