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What do good Farmer's Do?: Learning to Learn to Garden, Part II

I remember learning in middle school science that wind is caused by the air particles seeking equilibrium. They lilt, dance and sometimes shove their way to find balance between high and low pressure. Teaching and learning feel like that.

“Erin’s going to be a well-rounded farmer,” he says with pride. “Today, we accomplished something.” High pressure. A storm is brewing, and it’s one of nerves to meet expectations.

I’m not sure how I jumped from completely directionless, fumbling over my grip on the hoe to farmer in a matter of weeks. The only thing I could come up with was that, like the language learners I tutored in Guatemala, my dad saw my learning in black and white. Novice to expert somehow happened over one, albeit windy, night.

Of course he has all the lines and all the cross marks paced and half of the potato holes dug. Is it to guide me? Is it a lack of patience with me? Is it an accurate gauge of my own proficiency? It’s probably some of all three. This isn’t even his first round. His own garden is already planted. As I begin to dig, he’s alongside me.

“That’s right. Some over there. Clean it out. Not to China,” he instructs.

“Not to China.” Okay. I move along. I can tell he’s watching me, judging me, against people “from town”. He’s already called me a “farmer”. How could I possibly not fail to meet that description? My dad is so comfortable amid the rows. In his head it all makes sense and he has enough time left over to invent stories as we go. High pressure. The air swirls around me twirling straw.

“A rock,” he says with an Irish brogue, so relaxed he can joke. The seeds aren’t even in the ground yet, and he starts to lecture on about weeds.

We have 24 holes, and he offers me to start cutting the seed potatoes into sections. Hiding my own ignorance, I write but don’t say, “I had no idea the potatoes were cut.” Each seed potato, that honestly looks like any old potato is at least cut in half, but can be cut in smaller fractions. They are placed eyes up and the cut side down. A cat peers in the hole. I cradle the potato. I can’t find any eyes. I’m looking and looking. I’m still turning its roughness over as he continues about cold weather plants and warm weather plants and how they will drive our planting order across the weeks.

“Trestle. Mulch. Natural fertilizer.” I wrote those words and have no idea what they mean. He describes rows for carrots and how we will cheat with potting soil. Make what easier? But he’s already moved on to plucking grass. I’m back learning to speak Spanish, locking on to only a handful of words. Each nod of my head makes my stomach twist. When will this gale rest?

I fill in the hole, and cover up the potato. Step. Tamp the dirt. I hold the shovel like a three year old awkwardly grasping a pencil. The soil breaks apart easily. “We will wait a couple of weeks.” Today is April 3. My bigger question is not how many weeks, but how many times I will have to hear these instructions to remember them. Three. . . And counting. . .

A week afterwards I drove to Evansville and I read “onion sets and seed potatoes” on a billboard. I knew what it meant. Later, he speaks to me again, “onion sets and seed potatoes,” he says talking about cheap seeds. I know exactly what he means. The wind is shifting direction.

We started with potatoes and then peas because they were easier than the smaller contact seeds like carrots and lettuce. Was this intentional? We sprinkled potting soil that has the consistency and color of chocolate cake mix. When the drops fell from the watering can, they were plump orbs. Our feet guided the dry soil between their souls and our hands sprinkled the straw. Low pressure. I can breathe.

The onion rows are across the garden from the potatoes. Once again, the rows were ready for me to plant in. He had traced them straight and parallel, his hoe no doubt singing all the while. “Let’s meet in the middle,” he suggested. “I don’t know why we can’t share the work” The onions were spaced five inches apart. I pull apart the roots. It seems like I am too rough. I can’t be gentler. Maybe the work is not as delicate as I think. I place the onions in the rows my dad left for me. As I place them and pull dirt over the string-like tangle of roots, I smooth the ground. He trails behind me and pats the soil down. It seems they are all off to a rough start. “The little one might still grow better,” he says.

“Why did we buy onion sets,” I ask, excited to use my new vocabulary. All of our planting up to that point had been seeds. As we plant he editorializes, “Seeds are cheap. People buy squash, pumpkins, cucumber plants and one plant equals a whole packet of seed.”

“Wow! What a business,” is what came to my mind. Just because something comes in a standardized practice doesn’t make the “best”. As a teacher I know about that. As a learner, the garden rows are beginning to balance each other out.

It is time for the contact seeds, the tiny ones. Lettuce and spinach appear from his pocket first. He dug the row they would share. Both a grass like plant, they will come up together and be separated only by their growing time and meal preparation. They remind me of pink-gray shrunken seashells. The seeds stand out from the dirt sunk into cracks in his skin. His hands resemble the newly planted field behind us. He begins, as always, by modelling. His voice speaks his mind aloud. He tips the packet forward and sprinkles with sharp tap from the pointer finger. It isn’t going to be exact.

“If you get to the end of the row and still have seeds left, you can go back and add,” he instructs. The seeds respond rather well to my tap, more than the hoe. As always, I take the hoe like a child fingering a pencil for the second or third time, shaking and unbalanced. I must have better fine than large motor skills. After emptying the packets, I go back with the hoe to smooth over the crevice, pulling from both sides like closing shutters. A final tamp with my foot latches the window shut. Stasis in my mind. There will be no more rushing wind today to rattle glass panes or spill papers onto the carpet.

I refill the watering can from the collected rainwater. The droplets are transparent, their shape both rain and not. The dark stain of his water trail is much straighter than mine, but I can tell he enjoys my company. “Pay attention now or it will be rough later,” he warns about the carrots. I’m crawling on my knees. The soil is hot and rough under my hands. I tap little leaf like seeds and move along the trench. The shapes become an army of ant shapes in a row in the packet. All of a sudden they shift and it is like lemmings falling from a cliff. They make contact which is all they need. Some potting soil and water will help.

He continues to recap details from the day, talking even when I can no longer grasp what he is saying. I’m done. Like the rows we watered, I can absorb no more. He will have to wait and see what stuck, which of the seeds made contact. I think, “Shouldn’t we, couldn’t I do this with books in school like he does with gardening?” We finish by weeding rows from previous days. He waits, but only because I asked him to. I, as a learner who knows to narrate her own learning, am adamant to protect this opportunity for practice. Not all individuals do this automatically, think about their own learning. Like managing the hoe, it is a tool that must be taught.

“I follow his instructions.” I wrote in my notebook hours later. “We are not even a month into this, and I can’t seem to remember more than one step at once.” I dropped the potting soil when I should have been covering the seeds over and tamping and smoothing once again. I just flipped the white packet upside down on a stick like a flag of momentary surrender and moved forward. Something is just out of sight on the horizon, a second storm may be brewing.

“But, maybe,” he hopes. “It will miss us.”

Teacher Reflection

You don’t have to be Superman, nor always eat spinach to achieve learning goals. I thought I would be a great teacher because I was successful in school. However success in school and learning are different. Moreover, using a stock image of an identity like “teacher” or “learner” is not helpful in fostering a shared vocabulary between teacher and student nor in raising teacher expectations and student morale.

Leif Nelson and Michael Norton conducted a study involving Superman, intentional action and the identity gap. These psychologists assigned participants to either ten characteristics of a superhero or ten features of Superman. Here are their findings. “When invited to sign up as community service volunteers, the group that listed superhero features was nearly twice as likely to volunteer as the Superman group. Three months later, Nelson and Norton invited both groups to a meeting to kick off their volunteering. The people who had written about a superhero were four times more likely to show up than the people who had written about Superman” (Grant, 234-235).

Why was this? “When people think about the general attributes of superheroes, they generate a list of desirable characteristics that they can relate to themselves. . . But when people think specifically about Superman, what comes to mind is a set of impossible standards. . . No one can be that strong or heroic, so why bother trying?”

When my dad called me a farmer, a positive image became unsettling for me. I knew could not attain that. He is the farmer with sixty plus years of knowledge that seems impossible to match. However, labelling me as “careful”, “observant”, “patient” or “determined” define what he wants from me while allowing me to ease into a particular identity. Conversely, he would not accept the label “teacher”, because that is what I am. But words like “guide”, “scaffold”, “determine importance”, “construct the learning space” apply to my father.

If you check out my infographic then you know that I determined a great gardener has two characteristics (at least). He or she knows how to make “hills” and “trenches.” Phew, that’s a bit more manageable than 15 pages of random notes. This is why it is so important to define what “learner” and “teacher” means through strategies that a teacher and student co create. These identifies are not separate entities but a duality within each person throughout life. I have a handle on what it means to be a farmer, but my father and I continue to negotiate who we are as “teachers” and “learners”. That's what good farmers do!


Grant, Adam. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking.

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