This summer I have spent countless hours outside planting, weeding, trimming, mowing, replanting, clearing, building and rebuilding areas of my yard. As I work the soil, tend to plants, harvest vegetables and care for the living things around my house, I am often struck by how many lessons we can learn from the soil and the process of caring for the living things that grow from it.
Below is a list of lessons for life and the classroom that I have learned from spending time outside in the yard. Sometimes the metaphors might stretch a little thin, but it modern life can cause you to forget how small we really are in the grand scheme of things. How intertwined our fates are with the grass under our feet, how the systems and balance of the natural world mirror the systems we build for ourselves and what we can learn from their thousands of years of existence and adaptations as well as how they have been forever changed by human interventions in ways we should pay attention to. As an educator and a mom, I often think about how important it is to guide young people toward an understanding of how their own existence plays a part in the larger community and the natural world, especially as we watch the effects of climate change unravel in real time. This is the world children today will inherit and that they already inhabit.
- Pulling up weeds when you first see them prevents them from becoming deeply rooted: Identifying issues when they are small makes them easier to manage and prevents them from becoming deeply rooted and harder to resolve. Sometimes we ignore the little things. Sometimes we don’t recognize them (see “getting to know things on a personal level” below) and sometimes things were growing there long before we arrived and we do what we can to ameliorate the problem. Sometimes, we learn from our mistakes and are able to catch something the next time before it grows unwieldy.
- Nurture what you want to grow and thrive: It’s not enough to remove weeds and unwanted growth–without nurturing, that which you want to grow cannot and will not thrive. Even when something is small and fragile, it has the potential to grow strong and thrive on its own. Still, it is important to watch even the strongest growing things in our garden. Sometimes issues start small and we can catch them fast enough to make sure they don’t take hold. I have dealt with mold on my bee balm as well as aphids and caterpillars eating my roses.
- Not everything needs or can even survive in the same growing conditions: The conditions must be right for each plant to grow and sometimes the conditions must be adjusted to assist in the successful growth and development of a plant. At times, modifications and accommodations must be made to assist in this growth. This might mean adding nutrients to the soil, staking for support or even growing plants in a container where soil conditions can be controlled more easily. How do we make our classrooms a place where each student’s needs are met to the best of our ability?
- Root systems spread far and wide and many plants propagate through these root systems: This can mean that helpful plants can set a strong foundation and sprout up easily. It also means that careful and regular tending and care is needed to manage the spread and make sure that it doesn’t encroach on existing plants. It can also mean that unwanted or unhelpful plants can spread and cause damage to existing plants or ecosystems and, left unchecked, they can spread so deep and widely that controlling them becomes very hard. Sometimes we can do great good in supporting the propagation of good things and sometimes we do well to recognize early when something is spreading and root it out to protect the rest of the community. How do we promote healthy, supportive aspects of our school community and “weed out” those that are harmful early on?
- Getting to know every growing thing on a personal level makes for an easier time tending for the growing things in your yard: Researching and understanding the properties and needs of each of the growing things in your yard will help you know what things you see are helpful and should be nurtured and what should be plucked out before it causes an issue. It also helps you know how to best nurture what is growing in your yard and helps you understand the underlying ecosystem. What eats what you are growing? When does it bloom? Does it need shade? Full sun? Knowing these personal details makes for a stronger ecosystem and a healthier yard.
- Diversity is important: Different wildlife need different growing things to survive and thrive. What you grow supports the larger living community. A diversity of living things is more interesting and more enjoyable and each brings its own quirks to your yard. I had no idea that the milkweed I planted would be neon orange and settle next to some yellow and purple flowers, but it was a beautiful surprise. Our communities thrive when diversity is encouraged and nurtured.
- Everything you nurture has a purpose: Birds swoop down and grab the raspberries in early summer and they feast on the seed pods of spent wildflowers and the seeds from my spent sunflowers in the fall. Bee balm and milkweed encourage and support pollinators like bees and butterflies (fun fact: you can stick your hands right into a bee balm bush and the bees will not pay you any mind–they only care about the flowers!). Birds also swoop down and pick up grass clippings and dead flowers stalks to build and maintain their nests. They have built nests in the ivy and honeysuckle climbing on my neighbor’s chimney. Snakes and rabbits use the large leaves of the pumpkin plant and other low-lying plants to hide from the sun and predators. How do we cultivate an understanding in young people that they have a purpose, even if it isn’t quite clear to them yet?
- No one is an island: What grows in my neighbor’s yard eventually ends up in my yard (bird poop is a great seed spreader!) and what grows in mine ends up in theirs. The plants and landscape I cultivate can control the flow of water around my property and my neighbor’s property and prevent water from unnecessarily escaping into storm drains. By supporting pollinators and local wildlife I help maintain the balance of the ecosystem in my community. Our actions, no matter how small, have ripple effects and we don’t live in a bubble. How do we help young people see how their actions affect the community and appreciate how others have an impact on their lives as well?
- Nature is a miracle: My 5 year old really wanted to plant a pumpkin and a sunflower. With her tiny fingers, she pressed two different seeds into the newly tilled, clay- filled bed I had just carved out in the front of our house. Months later that sunflower is over 4′ tall and the pumpkin is spreading out so far that I had to move a container plant to make room and buy small fences to protect the plants around it. In late May, I transplanted tiny tomato and pepper seedlings into a planter bed and in early June I took a handful of local wildflower seeds from a bag of seed mix and strew them in a section of the new bed where the pumpkin was planted. I now have SIX massive tomato plants and I have already harvested long hots and a bell pepper. Those wildflowers are now at least 3 feet tall and blooming a rainbow of different kinds of flowers. I have had to carefully stake and support them while also making sure that they didn’t encroach on the sunflower and the other plants around them. When we plant a seed in the right conditions and nurture it, we can watch the miracle of what it will become. I had no idea what would spring from those wildflower seeds, but they are now giving back to the bees, butterflies and the birds and in the fall, they will give back to the soil underneath to prepare for the next season. In some ways, the not-knowing was the best part of that process. Letting the flowers come up on their own and admiring what they had become. How can we provide the right conditions for others to grow into their own and “do their thing?” How do we nurture so that we can watch what we have nurtured give back over time even if we are not there to see it?
This book by Doug Tallamy was an eye opening way to look at how I could make even the smallest impact in my own yard. Now when I find insects in my lawn or see my grass covered with feeding birds I rejoice that my lawn and yard are safe places where birds and other animals can eat and live.
I wonder…how are we creating spaces in our lives and, as educators, in our classrooms, that recognize what others need to thrive and build an environment where they can grow into themselves and be themselves?
How do we begin to see our classrooms as part of the larger community and help young people discover how they belong and fit into that community? In this modern American world of radical individualism and human-centered existence, there is a place for understanding the delicate balance of sustaining life and communities. Natural systems have been working in unison for thousands of years. What can we learn from them?