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!
I like that: “A plant that has fed nothing has not done its job.” (Apparently I have some very hard-working plants!) Compare that to the pristine perfection shown in most gardening books/magazines, though—a little sobering. I haven’t been able to track down the info to verify it, but I’ve heard that our native cottonwoods support something like 200 species, and the invasive salt cedar (tamarisk) that is crowding them out supports 4.
Your courses sound wonderful, Jean—not just interesting but really well-designed!
Stacy, Your comparison of the native cottonwood and the non-native tamarisk are very much in line with what Tallamy and his collaborators have found in the east. In one part of his class, he addressed the question of how long it takes a plant to effectively become a native by citing one plant (I can’t recall the specifics and sadly didn’t write it down) that has been in North America since the 17th century, and only a handful (3 or 4?) of caterpillar species have adapted to feed on it in all that time.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Garden classes are very well designed. The 3-day botany course was especially so, and I’m looking forward to taking another multi-day course next month.
last time we were at Kirstenbosch, we watched two women collecting seed from erica. Tiny seed. Very fiddly. Bagging up the different species.
Diana, I’ve never learned how to save seeds or been very successful starting plants from seeds. I’m hoping to change both those things in the coming year.
Jean, you have shared: “Learning new things makes me feel alive in a way that nothing else does!” I can ditto that… and many times over, too. 🙂
Sue, I think that puts both of us in the category of “lifelong learners.”
That is so true. I believe that discovering what makes you “feel alive in a way that nothing else does,” AND participating in such for as long as you can, just may be the best “youth elixir” you could find. 🙂
I, too, love your quote: “A plant that has fed nothing has not done its job.”
I’m still amazed and impressed on how much study and knowledge it takes to get certificate.
Jean, that quote really captures the essence of Tallamy’s attempt to move us away from the ideal of pristine gardens and plants to functional ones.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture is intended to be a serious horticultural credential. Although I don’t particularly care about having the credential (I’m not going to use it to look for a job!), the training will make me both a better gardener and a more knowledgeable Master Gardener Volunteer.
When I first went to college in the 1970s, my focus was botany and horticulture. Although one course was offered in organic gardening, the horticulture emphasis was on commercial production with pesticides. So, it’s heartening to see so much recognition now of the importance of insects in our world. But we still have far to go. Your courses sound wonderful and I agree with you–there is no feeling quite like learning new things.
Brenda, I still see a little of that emphasis in the University of Maine programs. It drives me crazy that, when I send my soil samples off to the soil test lab, there are a zillion different codes for various types of conventional crops and gardens but all organic growing is lumped together. The result is that the recommendations for soil amendments are often not very useful because they’re not tailored to what I am growing. On the other hand, the Maine Board of Pesticide Control is now focused almost entirely on educating people not to use pesticides (“Think first, spray last.”) Their Yardscaping program is an impressive attempt to move homeowners away from turf grass and toward gardening with native plants.