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Potatoes and Peas: Learning to Learn to Garden, Part I

I don’t like the word expert, and I don’t like the word smart. I know that I could renew my teaching license but I also know that I probably shouldn’t because I would have to teach students how to learn using technology as the context, and I’m just never been that interested in tech. What am I interested in? The current answer to that question is gardening. My dad cannot be reached by phone from April through September until at least 3:30 in the afternoon, because he is engaged outside. Doing what exactly? I had no idea. Did he finish his to do list? I had no idea. I watched him somewhat closer after I bought a dog. My dog gave me a purpose I could define outside, walk the dog. By doing so, I was exposed to weather, and other details of nature constantly in flux throughout the year that my eyes were never trained to see before. I listened to my dad complain about his church garden committee. “I can’t believe what they don’t know!” he raved.

“But you don’t know how to e-mail. You have different experiences.”

“You haven’t heard their questions. Why can’t they just read the seed packet?”

“Luke left you directions for the DVD player and you had trouble. Those seed packets just end up raising questions, and the committee just needs reassurance that their analysis is correct. They’re nervous. This content is new.” He huffed and puffed. He looked me in the eye. “I’m going to garden next year, my own garden,” I posed. My dad squinted one eye. Was it disbelief? Was it lack of confidence? Was it dust from his soil marked hands?

“You could just work in mine,” he answered.

“No. I need my own.” I needed the space to discover my choices, unearth my lack of knowledges and maybe even fail. If I worked in his garden, his assumptions would smother any opportunity for growth much less my own understanding of the outcomes. I would teach myself how to learn to garden.

“What types of potatoes are we going to plant again?” I asked in March.

“Yukon Gold, Kenebech”


We walked in the field, spongy ground, cold ground. “Fair time,” he said. “Squish bugs,” he warned. “You hoe the weeds the first few weeks and then the plant gets up and you can hill it. Once it throws shade, you’re good,” he indicated with his hands. “Russets are not for Wisconsin.”

“You bought Yukon Gold. Oh so that’s the one I remember because I cooked with it. I’m going to have to ask this question again. Why potatoes?” I thought.

People love snow peas. I don’t like corn. Potatoes should be in by Good Friday. Today is March 15. The ground is too cold. Things rot if they’re in the ground too long. I don’t care what the date says. Catholics pay attention to the date. Methodists are more lax. We’re Methodists, and even more, with age I accept you have to let things go like the tulips that anticipate an early spring. My pen could not keep up.

“They’ll do as well in the ground as in the bag. I’ve never failed at potatoes,” he commented proud of his perceived expertise. I asked again for the third type. Pontiac. It shouldn’t have surprised me, because apparently this was not my first garden.

“I had a garden?” I don’t remember. “How old was I?”

“Eight or nine,” my dad replied. That’s old enough to remember. I guess it didn’t seem important enough at the time. I wonder why I failed at it, or really why I didn’t continue. What was the key to bridging seemingly isolated desire into habit or practice?

“Why these varieties?” It seemed an important question like why write a story versus a song or seed packet instructions.

“Kenebech and Yukon store better. Reds are good for saucing. They’re small.” My dad continued lecturing, but I didn’t have my notebook nearby. Once again felt like I lost a small fortune, coins flowing through a hole in my pocket I hadn’t thought to sew up, because what would I put in it on that particular hike? We were just walking the dogs in the cornfield, traversing steps we’d marked a hundred times. I was going to have to get better at paying attention, at knowing what to remember and which strategies worked. Six minutes became 60 seconds of text in my notebook when I reached the house. The factor working in my favor was that I knew he would continue to repeat information again and again. With repeated opportunities for engagement with the same information, I would undoubtedly get better with my questions and the management of his answers.

I cut out the potato description from the seed catalog. He read it aloud to me word for word leaning over the stove. For now, if he couldn’t talk slower, at least he could give me a reference point. Even though, it seemed in his application of content in his garden there was as much following “the book” as not. My most recent example was planting peas. It was his own decision to inoculate the peas. There were extensive instructions with lots of new words like “slurry” and old words like “drain”.

“I understand the process,” he assured me. “The importance of nitrogen. I know my soil has nitrogen because it’s green. Too much phosphorous/potassium would make it orange or rusty colored. Too little nitrogen would create a yellow discoloration.” It wouldn’t occur to me until weeks later while laying straw around my potatoes that he meant the leaves would show the color. It never occurred to me to ask a distinguishing question. He mixed the water and the store “seasoning” so to speak in a bag. It swished around by way of the water making a silty dirty broth around the pea seeds.

“The garden rests in a place where refuse coagulated and leaves died. It’s good soil. It has a history. It’s more loamy than sandy. There are bones from dead animals with manure. It has its own deep history. Working off of something that’s established is easier than something new. We never use any commercial fertilizer. I know my garden. I know my resources.” His voice was a constant thought process, an analysis of past experiences.

“He knows his history,” I thought. I don’t have this previous knowledge, not with gardening in general nor the specific context of this dark plot of land nestled between the old cow barn and the burn pile on a farmstead down a country road shaded in trees in southern Wisconsin.

“White. Yellow. Red. They have a nice flower. When they die down, they’ll look unkept, but that is when they are the strongest. Peas are next. You’ll have a lot of those.” He paused and I moved by him to serve my dinner. He was already done eating. I was done being able to listen for now. But, he didn’t stop discussing mapping and marking. His unending explaining caused my anxiety level to rise.

“I’m screwed,” I thought. “How am I ever going to remember this? All I catch of his conclusion is the following.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ll recognize them once they’re up. Except for the potatoes. You’ve got to dig down.” How would we ever work together? I had no idea what he was thinking. He had no idea how much he was saying and how much I was missing. Just because I grew up in this house surrounded by green did not mean I had instincts I felt I could trust to guide the actions that lie ahead.


I was a natural learner in school but because I excelled in school I took note of neither the nature of learning nor learning about nature. My self-analysis learning to garden raises key questions for reflection I continue to use to support struggling adult learners.

1) The notion of expert: What are you already an ‘expert’ at? How long did it take you to get there? Can you identify your most useful steps? Did you consider stopping? What made you keep going?

2) The interrogation of learning: What does it mean to learn? How have past experiences defined or devalued learning for you? What is the difference between ‘study’, ‘succeed’ and ‘learn’? Do you have a fixed or growth mindset? (If you don’t know, ‘mindset’ is a useful term to Google.)

3) The refinement of purpose: Why do you want to learn? Can you put your goals into words? (I would suggest Bloom’s Taxonomy as a starting off point for some example verbs.) What is your motivation? How important is your current learning goal in your life situation? What resources are available to support you? (For more of this discussion Google ‘clear goals’.) Do you believe you are capable of reaching your goal?

4) The selection of strategies: What framework can you put in place to ensure your success? What are useful habits you already possess? For this point, I recommend learning about metacognition, or thinking about thinking. Throughout our gardening experience my dad provided a list of his actions, but only when prompted by my questions did he make his analysis known to me. Seek that inner narrative from someone you see as an experienced practitioner.

To read more about learning to learn read Saundra Yancy McGuire’s text Teach Students to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills and Motivation

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