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The McGregor versus Martha Stewart Garden and Why It's Okay to Let me Fail

Almost summer, the air is humid, close. The post in the field looks like a faraway dock. There is a too much kind of skunk smell and droplets gather on the dogs’ coat as they move through the long grass. I don’t know how the blades got so long. It seems so all of a sudden. When I take off their collars, I notice the sticks my dad laid out on the counter for his perennials. We passed by strings for the grape vine on the picnic table just before we came inside. He is constantly performing nips and tucks that I don’t notice need attention. The dried grass is scattered across the gravel from the lawn mowing and the leaves are now ash in small burn piles. The garden is a rowed island, but no more nor less taken care of. The potatoes are large enough to touch across their valleys, and the lettuce and carrots are thick, balanced in time with the broccoli transplants.

I thought originally my main act of revision would be the harvest. It is but it isn’t. Revision is maintenance. Maintenance is an equilibrium of strategy. Both are weeding that occurs again and again and harvesting over time from plants that give and give again. Learning is an opportunity, not a requirement nor a chore. It is who and what you want your garden to be good for.

My dad wants, “something we can be proud of,” and he reminds me often. We finally thin the carrots, two inches apart, because sometimes even the best ideas aren’t quite right. I notice the beans. “You can see them breaking through like those planted in the field. When did we plant them?” I don’t remember doing it.

“You were gone. We’ll do the second planting together.” I’m glad he’s paying attention to what I’m not ready to see and often much less prepared to do. He’s structuring our interactions constantly. He weeds to wind down, like I read. It’s all habit, modeling, thinking aloud.

“My potatoes aren’t all the same.”

“They’ll catch up. They might have been deeper or had fewer eyes, but they’ll catch up.” The potatoes will be a kind of progressive revision. The next week we get the straw and in another we spread it after we hill the potatoes. The straw will keep weeds down and the moisture in. Or that is what my father says, instead of merely, “Spread the straw.” From emptiness and tiny pieces, everything is now so tall and straight. Hilling has become a common act whether it results in a more mountain like pile or an easy slope. For the potatoes, each hill means that they won’t burn. If they are exposed to the sun, they will turn green. “I’ve heard they will be poisonous and we can’t eat them,” he warns. “But I don’t know if that’s true,” he adds. No matter they wouldn’t store after being scalded by the sun. The sun is more damaging that I might have imagined. I believed it a simple element for growth. “Sun, soil, water and air” I used to sing with my students.

A month later the potatoes are monsters with the space underneath to lay the straw. Ironically I help my dad with his first. His straw is moldy and heavy. “Wash your hands when you’re done,” he warns. Interesting how that simple instruction doesn’t escape his attention, while others more assumed in the gardening experience often do. He sends me to fetch the straw for my potatoes and I find a newly purchased and plastic wrapped bale. Pulling fist fulls and spreading the straw feels like finger painting. The straw will provide us with three things. First, the straw increases microbe activity because of the decomposition and provides fertilization. Second, the soil stays cooler. Third, the straw helps to keep weeds down. Through his explanations, my strategies have meaning.

The potatoes will bloom soon. “Beautiful,” he breathes. “Then they fall, and we can’t weed as much.” Strategies towards progress are used in stages, picked up, set down again and repeated as needed. As a drill, he reminds us of which of the three potato types are where, but the white seed envelope is gone. Now what? “Just dig a little, like an archaeologist. They’ll show you their color.” He smiles.

“Why would I need to know?”

“Just in case, someone asks.” So he does envision an audience at the end of all this, after all.

Weeds. “Just some light weeding,” he encourages. In this way, he is my most important mentor, as his common mantra of a “bit at a time,” can guide almost anything I do. Still, when he asks, “Do you remember what I said?” my answer, of course, is “no”. However, I have a few bright spots. It seems to be automatic now that I set the hoe down correctly. I gaze at a spider creeping across the graying and split wood my hand reaches to grab.

I try to start on the onions. “Do what you have to do,” is his instruction. I want to throw my hands up. “Go down the middle and loosen the ground, what we’ve been doing.” I try with the hoe but my technique is poor. I can’t go between the onion plants. Their draping octopus tendrils are ever in the way. I use my fingers and the ground seems too hard. I’m pretty sure I’m going to pull them up or kill them somehow, but that’s what I thought about their roots too when I first planted them, and they’re still here. He watches me struggle. He lets me work through it. If he comes through the row again, he doesn’t let me know it. “Get me some sticks,” he requests, and he reminds me of Guatemalan women I knew a lifetime ago, who only ever asked jobs of me normally given to small children.

“Give everything a shirt. Pull it up and cover over the weeds,” he tries with me again, now on the potatoes. The visuals are helpful, especially when they do connect to things I understand. “The hoe will sing to you.” He had said this before. It is still on a tonal level unknown to my ears. That is our gap, our knowledge gap, but more our expertise gap that in better terms exists because of an experience gap. “We might have an hour’s worth,” he continues. But we never do. He always overestimates, and then I feel fast and skilled, even though it’s an illusion. Still, I think some of it is in the organizing. He has so many techniques he developed on his own. The potatoes for example, he narrates, “If you weed around the base then you’ll get some of the others in the process. You don’t have to hoe rough, just dislodge the weeds, come back to the middle and when you reach the other side, it’s mostly all done.” Since the plant space is interconnected, there is a means to minimalize your time and exhaustion, also your perception of the possibility of the task.

Sweat rolls down my forehead and my hair curls. I continue to be ever awkward with the hoe. “If you hoe the right way you’ll build your wrists. If not, you skim like a chicken looking for worms. You won’t get anywhere.” The work can be made easier but not so much that I do not need the stamina to work through it. My dad can give me strategies, but I have to do the work. “The trench in the middle gathers water,” he adds pleased. I’m watching him use a zig zag pattern. Does he notice, I wonder. It’s like he’s painting with its blade.

I pause and watch a cat bat at my hoe and dance between my ripped tennis shoes. When it’s my turn on the tomatoes, I hear it clearly as I break up dirt that feels like gravel between my fingers. “Hill it up. Water will gather.” For all the detailed packets turned upside down upon the sticks, struggling to maintain their grip upon the rows, that’s really all it is, the constants, the core. “Hill it up. Water will gather.”

Perhaps, his most effective attribute here is the framing of the weeding as a positive and not negative encounter. We are not trying to take something away or even fight its existence. We must simply move it to where it will create the most good or organize the space in such a way that the weeds’ impact is minimal. His goal is not to correct but make my actions more effective. This is encouraging and feels more like an opportunity to act than mistakes. “Weeds are good green manure. If we get them before they seed, then they are part of the plan.”

I’m hoeing down the back space between the potatoes and the peas to give the peas another advantage. “Watch out, there’s a sunflower I’m not sure I ‘want to get rid of,” is his response to my scuffing of dirt. “Leave the zinnias,” he cautions. “They do best here and every garden should have a few flowers.” In this case, nothing is a weed, if you really love it enough. I think I knew that all along. After all, we’re not competing for anything; we are learning. Why should we damage enthusiasm for want of a perfection that will never exist when beauty already does? It’s your work after all. Leaving in what you love, makes you proud to call it yours.

The lettuce look like folded cups. The onions are straight. The carrots are even. Peas are climbing tall on the fence. They will be easy to pick. Thanks to his structure, what we will be looking for will be easy to see. “Doesn’t the warm earth feel good,” he says.

“Check my work,” I say.

“I’ll get you on something else first.”

He selects the broccoli. “Hilling,” he repeats. Similar to the potatoes. I’m starting to recognize the common steps. He demonstrates. I watch but notice gladly no impact from my potting soil mishap didn’t change the outcome.

He checks the potatoes before we go inside. “They look good. Nice job. The straw is too light, but that’s not your fault. It was what I gave you to work with.” I disagree. He gave me everything I needed.

In what seems an instant, the peas are at two inches and then easily a foot. “You’ll have a lot to pick and more than we can eat,” my dad says. We’re still not thinning the spinach in early May because we don’t yet know what will happen. It may thin itself out. By Memorial Day I am picking bags a day and not staying ahead of it. I am recommending it to friends, carrying it to work.

“The spinach can be eaten now?” I ask. It might be undone or just short. There are always different kinds of finished, because there are a variety of finish lines. By the first week in June the peas are almost to my knees. Only a week ago, I thought I would pick and pick and pick spinach until the end of time, or at least the end of summer. “If you pick it, then the spinach will keep coming. If you don’t, it goes to seed.”

“Ah,” I mused, like my writing. I am always a better writer the more I write. Or learning, I muse, remembering an early literacy text. “Learning is compulsive.”

My dad built the garden for my success. Like the seeds, he made structural decisions that allowed me to get an advantage over possible obstacles. This made my energy and ability as a beginner enough to be successful. My job since the planting is to discover and interpret his strategies so that they may become my own habit. It’s easy to just not do something, especially when you know your teacher is keeping tabs on it. It’s easier to be distracted by binge watching TV series and enjoying a shift in schedule that opens up your weekend. He let me be distracted. I let him. Everything, as far as I was concerned, was just growing and growing and would keep growing and growing. Weeds? Sure there were, but I wasn’t concerned. After our initial start, I felt no urgency to put in my part. The base was there, I believed this to be enough.

Throughout the week he described the potato bugs. He reminded me to look out for them. He did most everything short of send me directly to the garden to find those guarded bugs, stripes running down like an upside down flag. They carry their own stars and stripes on their oval bodies in black and green. I didn’t bother to look until it was time to pick the sugar peas. He sends me to the potatoes first to weed. It is almost a magician’s trick, a slight of hand, to use the excitement of picking peas with finding bugs. He sends me into the potatoes to pull weeds and “take a look”. I see leaves. Some tall, some low. Lots of leaves, shapes undiscernible. “Go to the roots.” He pulls back the straw and showed the Achilles heel of the thistle. I have to search from underneath and not above. “After the next storm, they will be laying down and we won’t be able to reach the weeds.”

“Oh, I forgot to look.” As with the planting, as with the writing, weeding and editing function best with one type of edit at a time. “Have you seen any?”

“No.” Now I did feel tricked. He scared me with the threat of those bugs. I also felt relieved, like when I read my own writing looking for “error”, and am pleasantly surprised the work is not horrific, actually not even that bad, and that I have the capacity to continue on. The pea plants themselves rival me in height. Their leaves seem to be the generic type with the exception of a fractal like white dusting, some type of vein formation. Of course, the characteristic tendrils are like unruly curly hair. “How are you doing?” We are about a quarter of the way through the row when he asks.

“I can’t guarantee I’m not picking them too soon, but I’m trying.” I point out one I left. He nods in approval.

“That one might be ready in two days,” he replies. What I admit readily is how much I want to pick anything that isn’t obviously newborn. I fight against just wanting to say I went through and it was done in the same manner that I admit to speeding through final pages of a notebook while studying just to check the task off the list. Done. Revised. Let’s do something else!

“There’ll always be something here. Your refrigerator is never empty. Even when you go up and down the row, the pods hide in plain sight. You miss them. Try looking up from underneath.” The revision is seldom done; the plant will just stop producing. I know he doesn’t know how right he is, nor how disciplined. “You have to look close.” I finger the dried blossom on the end of a still forming pod. I smile. The plant holds many blooms too. “When you pick produce, pick weeds too. You’ll be surprised what an extra five minutes can do. A whole row can be thinned out.” It’s a process not a bullet point on a list, and the experience will be better if I experience it, and find what I like within it. It’s easy to identify the strategy, and more difficult to make it a habit.

“I’m not a marathon runner. I’m a sprinter. What you do, the writing, books, they require too much dedication.” My dad pauses. I open my mouth to interject, but he continues, “But then, I suppose you started with small pieces.” Yes, of course. Things get sketched out slowly, like hills and valleys.

We move onto the plot where the cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers are spreading into each other. “Lots came up. Do you see them?”

“Yes,” I say. “There’s finally something I would consider obvious,” I think. There are tiny propeller leaves in a row.

“Read the package about “hills”,” he requests, having left his glasses in the house. I don’t believe I’ll actually find the word, because I convinced myself he made up that vocabulary word so crucial to everything he does. My eyes find it easily. I read, “4-5 seeds per hill, spaced 4’” I pause here. “4 inches? 4 feet?”

“One line?” he clarifies. I nod. “feet.”

“Four feet apart in all directions;” I continue. “Thin to three best plants.” I brush my finger over the crinkled and dirty envelope. It is warped and probably won’t last much longer. I wonder if he needs it to or if it is a symbol of support more than an active tool.

“I hate killing anybody,” he mutters. I know he has the understanding to revise with care, no with caring. “Well, we’re not going to do it exactly like that. Let’s see.” He begins to pull every other one and then stops, almost as if he can’t be as merciless as he planned to be even after deciding to hold back more than the envelope instructed. “We’ll consider these a hill. This is a big one,” he indicates a cucumber plant with his finger. “We’ll give them room to spread out. Now you do it.”

“You just did,” I say wryly. I absorb his thoughts. The humid air can’t take them away from me. He nods his head and we move on. As I walk behind him, I remember all the times he said this about his raspberries, his darlings to be sure. He must talk about it because it hurts him so much, this act of thinning. It bothers him as much as any author to “erase” seeds so connected to him he thought he would always care for. I don’t just hear his analysis as we work. He lets me know how he feels about his decisions.

The greens, “Pick because it will keep giving if you do,” but he can give me not suggested outlet as to how. Such is the school experience often times, but a learning community, a thinking culture can sprout up anywhere. I begin at the gym, but quickly realize that even the gym is not enough, one audience is too few. I find recipes for smoothies and kale chips that I can recommend to encourage consumption, but those conversations build. My trainer creates sample smoothie bags with all the ingredients included and looks up how to freeze the kale. A good friend is going on vacation, but “You can freeze the kale,” I inform her. These conversations, like the bees around the sumac flowers or a new word in read aloud, swarm.

“I don’t like harvesting,” he confesses on Father’s Day. “I prefer the maintenance.” I watch a lime green insect I cannot name crawl up my ankle while he continues on about the self-made crevices the carrots use to draw in the water he spills more efficiently. I glance in the paper grocery bag. I consider the multiple sizes of the broccoli heads I hacked at from multiple angles more than severed in a swift surgeon’s slice.

“It doesn’t matter. They needed to be cut before they flower. More will grow from offshoots to the sides,” he consoles my skill level. Sweat slides down behind my sunglasses, and he gives me one last glimpse of the future by way of the past. “It’s like archaeology. You can dig, more like scratch the surface and wipe away the dust, to know if it the potato or onion is the size you want.” They are not made to be stored. I know. Neither is knowledge. “I’m proud of you, for giving the food to people. I like that someone else can enjoy them or benefit from them.” Each of the vegetables are made to be shared. This is a sentiment not much different from a parent sending a child into the world with more than a skill, a strategy. These habits form around what a learner wants to achieve at any point in time, and not a uniform standard given by someone else.


Don’t correct. Create a culture of thinking. A culture of thinking means “a place where thinking is valued visible and actively promoted.” Ron Ritchhart, author of Making Thinking Visible, identifies two concepts in order to shift from a delivery of information to facilitating student interaction with ideas. First, create opportunities for thinking. Second, make thinking visible. In short, blank authors profess the following. “Group success is far less dependent on the academic skills of the group than the group’s ability to listen and respond to one another’s ideas” (37). Listed below are my top tips:

  1. Focus more on training an eye and a heart to be determined, to be resolved to improve versus score high on a test.

  2. Start your conversation with the three aspects the learner is currently most proud of or has done that day or week to take steps forward towards the goal.Work around those not the entire scope of improvement.

  3. Use reflective questions like “What makes you say that?”

  4. Don’t make the student guess.Tell them what is in your, the teacher’s, head.

  5. Clarify your own objective as an instructor before commenting on student work.Is your goal to teach or finish an assignment?For the learner to learn or to achieve a high score?

  6. Invite the learner to work on a piece of your work.Model confidence in your learner and show your weakness.

  7. Construct a learning space that is constant and not specific to your presence.

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