June 29, 2016 by Jean
Last week was a busy one as I traveled out to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine (about a 90-minute drive from my home) on four separate days. So many trips to the garden in the same week were occasioned by the first two courses toward my Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture.
The first course, which ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on three consecutive days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) was a basic botany course called “The Life of a Plant.” This was a fabulous learning experience. The botanical garden tries to keep its class sizes to 18 or fewer, which allows for lots of interaction and individualized learning. This is the only course that is required both for the certificate program I’m enrolled in and for the Certificate in Botanical Arts, and our class was about evenly divided between those with a primary interest in horticulture and those with a primary interest in art. I think this greatly enhanced everyone’s learning because these two groups tended to bring different background knowledge and different ways of seeing to the course.
The instructor, Lauren Stockwell, is an environmental consultant who specializes in wetland plants and wetland protection. She was marvelously open to drawing on students’ skills and knowledge. (This meant, for example, that we all got the benefit of educational tools contributed by one student in the class who is a high school science teacher.) The overall flow of the course was from a basic understanding of plant structure and the essential life processes of photosynthesis and respiration, to a focus on flowers and the sex life of plants, to the study of seeds, germination and growth. Each class day began with a one-hour lecture, followed by a field session out in the garden to apply what we had just learned to real plants. After a lunch break, we went back to the classroom for a quiz to reinforce what we had learned, followed by more time out studying plants in the garden. Although I had taught myself some basic botany over the years, and my Master Gardener course this spring included a 3-hour class on botany, I learned so much from this course, and it left me eager to learn more.
I was especially excited about my one-day course with Doug Tallamy on “Gardening for Wildlife.” Tallamy is a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at University of Delaware. His book Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2007) was a mind-blowing experience that totally changed the way I think about insects in my garden. The argument of Tallamy’s work has four basic premises: (1) Gardeners in cities and suburbs can play an important role in reducing the habitat fragmentation that threatens many wildlife species. (2) Insects are a key, and often overlooked, part of the food web by which plants are turned into protein for the diets of animals. (3) If we want to sustain wildlife, we need to make our gardens insect-friendly. (4) The best way to do this is by growing native plants that are required by native insect species.
Tallamy’s class provided more depth to this argument. He focused especially on birds and on the caterpillars that are the only food they can feed to their babies. Some of the data from his research was amazing – e.g., that one pair of chickadees will feed one clutch of young 6,000-9,000 caterpillars by the time the babies fledge! Right now, I’m looking out at the oak tree outside my study window and noticing some holes in the leaves. Instead of feeling upset that some insect is feeding on my tree, I can feel happy that the tree is supporting caterpillars, which are in turn providing food for the birds nesting in my garden. One of my favorite quotes from Tallamy’s book: “A plant that has fed nothing has not done it’s job.” (p. 95). It’s not surprising that my oak tree is feeding someone; according to information that Tallamy provided to us as part of the course, oak trees are one of the top supporters of wildlife in my part of Maine, providing food for 434 different species of butterfly and moth caterpillars!
Driving back and forth to Boothbay four days in one week was tiring, but these classes were more than worth it and left me feeling excited and energized. When I enrolled in the certificate program, I imagined myself taking about 3 courses a year and finishing the certificate in 5 years. By the time I took my first classes last week, I had already enrolled in 4 courses for this year, putting me on track to finish the program in 4 years. Yesterday, I went on-line and enrolled in a 5th course for this year, a one-day class on propagating native plants by gathering seed from the wild. Learning new things makes me feel alive in a way that nothing else does!