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Family Engagement Produces a Garden Variety of Opportunity: Learning to Learn to Garden, Part III

“It helps to have a lot to do. Then you don’t have to do anything too specific at first. You can just practice. Then as you go along it comes to you,” my dad states definitively.

My dad compares and contrasts the two hoes. Then he gives me the better one with the more triangular and not rectangular blade. He models how to pull the metal over the planted rows, about an inch deep.

“Just rough it up and give the seeds a competitive edge,” he continues. I am glad to be in the “less dangerous” potatoes. The potatoes are forgiving. You can accidentally cut a head off and they’ll come back. Some are up higher and I can judge the space in the row. Soon it will be time to hill them. Even with all those points in my favor, it felt like I couldn’t get the grass out of the dirt. I try my own way, just pulling without the hoe. It doesn’t work either. I return to practicing my dad’s method.

“Just practice again and again,” he reiterates. I’m sure somewhere deep down he imagines my Master’s degree translates to using the hoe. I look over the rows, the peas matching about two inches of their wire’s height. He directs his attention to the lettuce.

“Where?” I’m not sure I’m seeing what he is seeing.

“You can’t confuse it.” I assure you, Dad, I can. I didn’t know which leaf was lettuce and which green was spinach. “You’ll know in time” he claims.

Still, sometimes it’s easier to learn with pieces already started like a book or song that can get the ball rolling. I think the broccoli plants my dad bought are like the story starter cards I love to use so much in story circles with children. My set of garden “story cards” consists of broccoli, tomatoes and peppers.

My dad describes, “Using transplants helps me know where I am and if I need to take out other plants in the garden. I can also use the richness of the garden as a starter for other flower seeds like zinnias and marigolds. Sometimes these extra plants will keep pests out, giving the others a head start.” It’s interesting to me, as an educator, that he mentions “head start” so often.

“You can also see by now where other plants didn’t work out like the carrots the cats dug up and transplants easily fill in those spots,” he finishes

For the broccoli, he drew the lines and dug one row before I got there. He models the process with one broccoli plant. First, pinch the bottom of the plastic container. Second, place it in the dirt. Third, cover the roots over with dirt. I plant half the row, before he reminds me of step four, the potting soil. I love being on my knees and the dirt in my hands. I am beginning to establish an emotional connection with the work, but my memory is still spotty. What actions would it take to give a gardener a head start versus the garden?

I cover the top of the plants already in the ground and then correct my mistake for the rest of the row. I improve my old record of remembering necessary steps, but I am still not quite catching them all.

“We’ll see,” he allows, permitting my practice and its outcomes to take their own shape. “We’ll see if that part of the process makes a difference.” It is a blessing for me that my father, while untrained as a facilitator, has the flexibility to be open to opportunities for a learner’s analysis. The green leaves of the transplants are like lollipops in the row with one exception. I added one Brussel sprout plant without noticing. For that one, he makes me go back.

“Does it really matter?” I charge.

“For the plant, no, but for the organization, yes,” is what I gather from the gaze beneath the baseball cap. I suppose there are some limits he aims to keep as constants. His final act is to insert the plastic marker that came in the six pack container.

Again we leave some indentation for water to gather. The liquid bubbles making suction noises. We pour water twice under the leaves. He leaves enough in the watering can to also go down the row and back. Again, we cover over the damp earth, lightly smoothing with the hoe. I find myself speaking gardening and teaching my hair instructor the same lessons weeks later.

“Water attracts animals. They dig because they think something is underneath.”

The onions are trying but they are growing slowly. The cool weather was a bit too much to ask. They withstood a lot, 20 degrees on one night. It took them awhile to get going, for their roots to assimilate into the ground from the clay they were started in. Sometimes a transplanted idea, doesn’t exactly know its place at first.

Lilacs and tulips are in full scent and color. It feels hotter than the 70 degree reading. I tiptoe through the potatoes. The peas are like three fingers wrapped around a stalk. I determine the lettuce and spinach on my own. I’m not sure the seed packets are readable anymore. The packet is run through completely by its stick, soggy and wet paper clinging upside down. Learning happens in bits like weeding. I know my dad is doing more work than he is admitting. Still, it makes my own tasks flow easier, as if he added topic sentences or cut out interesting words for me to use. Six weeks into this garden, I am still become lethargic in the heat and can easily distracted by my dogs tied nearby. Are they too hot? Do they have water?

“When you can, when it occurs to you, weed.” He doesn’t know how close to being a classroom instructor he is.

“When you can, when it occurs to you, read or write,” or sing, or role play with your child, I might have said to a parent exiting a library storytime or classroom conference. I know he will remind me until it becomes me who asks the question and starts the conversation. I turn back to thinning the lettuce.

It’s fast becoming growing season on the calendar even though the weather is often a resistant partner. If I have a setback, will I have the luxury of a do over? I can only keep moving forward to find out. The grass is fresh and full of water in May, almost like rubber. A fence of asparagus separates me easily from the dogs tied to the pine tree. They keep their snouts thrust downward in the pungent smells. Asparagus stalks are grass islands awash in straw to keep the weeds down. Not all elements of the garden are yet in, but this way of alternating planting is like having multiple learning activities at once. We plan and we write; we pick and we read. My father, more than myself, is in a constant state of revision.

We continue to fill in space. In a seeming afterthought we plant the cucumbers, but it’s really not an afterthought at all. He is rotating the position of the zucchini and the corn. We didn’t plant the cucumbers in hills like the directions said. He speaks as he works, “extra soil, need to dig to cover, four inches apart. We’ve got to get more in than I normally would in this space. They’ll come up and go their own way.” I didn’t understand “hill”, but I tried to follow along anyway. Those poor parents who sat across from me my first year teaching. I must have said so many “key” concepts for growth that they never understood.

“We always overplant, because you never know,” he continues. I look in to describe the seeds and see the flat footballs staring back at me that I am familiar with from my salads. Of course, it’s cucumbers, just a different package. It’s my turn next. We plant one row a piece but he gave me the easier dirt. He finishes, as always, by marking, only this time we steal from the corn rows. “Because now they’re obvious.”

The final section is comprised of the second planting of beans and the warm weather seed, the squash. It’s funny to think of squash as warm weather when I only eat them in cold months, but warm doesn’t really refer to how they’re cooked. The beans go into 1.5 inch rows. “Corn or beans,” he says. I didn’t care to plant any corn in my garden, but it’s nice when knowledge crosses over. We pull the straw away from last year. The dirt is enriched and it’s crumbly like flour. He carves out a row and then I do the same. It feels like pulling my toe through the sand.

“The raspberries,” he interjects. “Too many. I might have to cut some down. It’s going to be too much. They got away from me,” he laments. He is what he loves best though, hot, sweaty and constructive. I plant my row. I fight mini landslides caused by my knees and knuckles. My hand is dark and spattered, but not by blood. It’s inky from seeds and water. The seeds are white and pruny like thumbs in the water too long or alien veins. I plant and he goes elsewhere to work.

“You’ll always get a crop. It might be smaller. No whining about that. When it’s time, it’s time.” When he returns the confidence took a more direct form as he reflects on my beans too uncovered. “What do you want to do? Give them a sunburn?” At least I left the hoe down correctly, safely. It was an accident, but he compliments me for it. I remember doing that as a teacher coach. It helps the positive action to happen again, only on purpose.

It is so very “close”, as my dad terms humid, that last week in May when we plant the squash. It is time once again to make hills. He shows me one and says “go.” I’ve been using the hoe, but I feel like I am back at the beginning and it is all new again. It seems that such is learning when your experiential base is weak. I’m lucky that my parent is so engaged is this process. Around in a circle I hoe.

I’m “dainty,” he comments. “DIG!” he says. I try to rake like leaves, but there are swirling dust storms and smoke that billows. The hoe turns around corn cobs and grass bits that are soon pushed inward with my foot. The part I watch twice is the tamping down on top for a flat place. Yet again certain instructions escape me. The top of the hill lies flat for planting and the hills are like bird nests.

While I’m working he sprinkles the pumpkin seeds into the shallow crack. They were a gift. He thinks them too old, but he’ll give it a try anyway. We lose count and placement of the squash. He gave me two kinds to plant.

“But aren’t they all squash?” I reason when I realize that I misunderstood or forgot which and how many were which. “Can’t they be together?”

“Let them sit and we’ll see.” We don’t have much choice at this point after I have grabbed each seed between my two fingers and thrust it into the ground. How would I find them? The dogs are panting and their leashes are twisted. Motorcycles roar past. I was distracted.

“We’re officially planted!” He is enthusiastic despite the misadventure on this last day.

“You put the hoe down correctly,” I notice, and I note the word “grape” for the orioles’ jelly written on his hand.


While I have read a variety of articles about Family Literacy, a webinar from the Harvard Family Research Project about Family Engagement spoke even more inclusively around the key tenants of an effective learning community. According to their website, Family Engagement is a matter of equity. Its definition requires: 1) shared responsibility, 2) work across settings, and 3) that the work be continuous. In our work in the garden, my father exhibits all of the characteristics that a parent as equal teaching partner might provide for a child. However, I know in his own words that he does not identify himself as such a teacher. This is the unfortunate expertise gap upon which I have blogged previously.

Harvard Research Project lists four “c” areas in order to build capacity for staff and families. As an interested teacher, I am motivated to identify myself in various roles and contexts as a learner. I challenge you to find examples in my father’s actions in the gardening essay above.

1) CAPABILITIES (skills and knowledge)

This is a case where less is more. Stamina will increase with practice, but there must be a space constructed for practice that prevents burnout. My dad moved the work forward in the garden while providing enough opportunities for me to repeat key skills.

2) CONNECTIONS (networks)

This means knowing other people who are doing the same thing you are and who want what you want. These people may not be in the places you expect. I found while learning to garden the more I talked about it, the more I found other people who could enhance my understanding because they knew more, or people who allowed me to practice my understanding because they knew less and I became the teacher. A parent may know a particular action like “reading” is important but not be able to connect the child to opportunities for meaningful practice or outcomes that prove its benefit.

3) COGNITION (beliefs, values)

Words are socially constructed. While a word like “hill” begged for definition, “good reader” or “practice” may not. However, when these educational terms are interrogated, we can find many more hours in our day to support learning and critical thinking. No education school would add points to my license because I learned to garden. However, it was a meaningful process experience to work through the construction of a teacher/learner relationship around a particular type of literacy, gardening.

4) CONFIDENCE (self-efficacy).

This is where the system education most fails parents. The core knowledge presented by teacher “experts” devalues a parent’s view of his or her actions. My dad assumed that in the teaching and learning equation, it was my professional mother and not himself that could add value to my skills. Over time we have deconstructed the worth and assumptions around various “academic” definitions of “smart” which I continue to find exclusive and lacking. My father does not identify himself as a teacher, but I do. I believe all parents should do the same.

To read more from the Harvard Family Research Project go to

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