The Biggest Little Farm

I am shameless in my love for gardening and nature in general. I have written before about how the act of gardening educates the human spirit.

We used to have a hobby farm years ago, on a piece of property alongside a large creek (what would be considered a river to people out west), with a natural spring elsewhere on the property, and a giant tobacco barn. I could not stand the house on that property, but I deeply loved the land. And I am missing having that kind of property these days, with a quarter-acre garden, an orchard, and fishing. There’s no stress about the systemic collapse of the economy out there.

View of the creek from our old property.

Anyway, we have been watching a documentary called The Biggest Little Farm that, apart from being generally inspiring, is an incredible thought-piece on exactly the kind of principles I approach gardening with. The soil is alive, so treat it like it is alive. Biodiversity is the solution to all problems. To work is to pray. Etc. I highly recommend watching it. You can stream it on Hulu.

Pruning and weeding as frames of mind

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.

George Washington Carver

Adam was a gardener, and God, who made him, sees that half of all good gardening is done upon the knees.

Rudyard Kipling

For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Luke 17:21

Pathology is a relatively easy thing to discuss, health is very difficult.  This, of course, is one of the reasons why there is such a thing as the sacred, and why the sacred is difficult to talk about, because the sacred is peculiarly related to the healthy.

Gregory Bateson, Ecology of Mind

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I have started reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s most incredible book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that the book is an inquiry into the influence of the idea of a garden and the activity of gardening on our souls. If some particularly important figure in western civilization has mentioned a garden, it is explored thoughtfully and in ways you might not have anticipated in this book. I’m not finished with it, but it is already one of my absolute favorite tomes. I’m not too modest to suggest that’s saying a lot.

As I am aggressively uninterested in the nonsense that is dominating current events at present, I have spent days tending my gardens. The tasks for today were planting fruit trees and pruning all of the dead growth that goes along with whatever passes for “winter” in Florida. The act of pruning gave me ample time to consider how perfectly gardens serve as metaphors for “the human condition,” as Harrison would say.

I loathe pruning, so it’s a good thing one only has to engage in the practice a couple times a year. Have you ever tried to prune bougainvilleas or rose bushes or fruit trees with thorns? My bougainvilleas in particular – though not very old – have thorns the size of sewing needles. You can pick whatever tool you choose to cut them down to size, but they will still inflict some pain. These plants fight back and it’s heroic.

Pruning is an essential activity, however. Gardeners prune for several reasons. One, to get rid of dead or damaged branches. Two, to create room for new growth. Three, to make the plant beautiful and pleasing to behold. And four, to have the plant grow on your own terms – to not damage your house, impede a pathway, and so on.

You can probably see where I am going with this. “Pruning” as a behavior is also essential to a healthy human existence. Like plants, human beings cannot flourish when constrained by dead ends.

I recently stumbled upon my neighbor out weeding her flower beds. Her yard is mostly a matter of professional landscaping and not flowers or vegetables that mean anything to her. I am helping her change that, however. It had not occurred to me until she complained that all she does is weed her yard that her idea of maintaining a garden is entirely limited to eliminating weeds. That’s unpleasant indeed.

She asked me how it is that I do not spend all my time in the gardens weeding. Do I have some secret? Are my beds lined with that plastic sheeting they sell in garden centers? Do I know of some awesome chemical?

I told her that her main problem is organic – that she doesn’t plant enough of what she likes. Have you ever thought about why you weed a garden? It’s the same logic as pruning – you are eliminating that which competes with positive growth for resources. The best way to eliminate weeds is to suffocate them with plants that you do like. Plants that fight back. I don’t have a lot of weeds because I have been known to plant 300 impatiens in a single afternoon. Weeds can’t compete with hundreds of flowers that derive their name from their impatience to spread and reproduce.

It actually requires less effort to be surrounded by beauty than it does to be surrounded by negativity.

I have adopted this practice in my life as well. I have become shameless in cutting off social relationships that fill me with anxiety, anger, or other toxic emotions. I don’t do social media anymore. I don’t hate-follow people or the news. As far as my life is concerned, all of these are just weeds and crossed branches that need to be eliminated.

Instead, I try to fill as much of my daily life as possible with things that are beautiful and good. I devote time to reading good books, going hiking or kayaking, sitting outside with a cup of coffee and listening to the birds, teaching Elise how to play soccer. Just sitting outside soaking up the sun. It’s not that difficult to smother the bad stuff with good stuff.

The garden is an excellent metaphor for living because the Garden is the primeval classroom for human activity. It’s our holy education on how to exist well in this world and enter into a positive relationship to what is transcendent, beautiful, and good. It is the space, physical and intellectual, that routinely brings us back to first things – to “paradise,” which literally means and enclosed park.

Red Canna, Georgia O’Keeffe

Voltaire in the garden

There are a lot of great books about historical personalities who loved gardening. One of my favorites is Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. Another great one is Voltaire’s Vine and Other Philosophies: How Gardens Inspired Great Writers. (See Brains with green fingers.)

This morning, I referred ent to this delightful piece from 2005 in the New Yorker: Voltaire’s Garden. I figured it might be worth bookmarking.

The essay discusses how Voltaire’s exile turned him into an avid gardener, and the change in values and demeanor that comes with that:

He quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition—a version of the ancient Horatian ideal of escape from the corrupting city into a small enclosed country house. Pope had done the same thing when he built his grotto at his little house in Twickenham, and wrote about it as enthusiastically. Yet Pope’s grotto is playful, an obvious mock hermitage. Voltaire’s ideas were far more bourgeois; he wanted to play host to as many people as he could, and to build the sweetest garden he could, and, after renting the villa, he started shopping like Martha Stewart newly freed from prison.

There are few more premonitory or touching documents than Voltaire’s shopping lists. He demanded green olive oil, eight wing armchairs, rosewood commodes, and furniture covers in red morocco. He hired two master gardeners, twenty workmen, and twelve servants. He ordered the best coffee and crate after crate of wine (though, odd reminder of another time, he drank his Burgundies and laid down his Beaujolais). He decided to paint the trellises green, the tiles red, and the doors either white or “a fine yellow.” He wrote to his agent asking for “artichoke bulbs and as much as possible of lavender, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, rue strawberry bushes, pinks, thadicee, balm, tarragon, sariette, burnet, sage and hyssop to cleanse our sins, etc.” When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.

It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open, “simplicity” itself. “We have finally come to enjoy luxury only in taste and convenience,” he wrote in those years, in his history “The Age of Louis XIV”: “The crowd of pages and liveried servants has disappeared.” All that counted now was “affable manners, simple living and the culture of the mind.” Of course, it was a very Petit Trianon simplicity. As Davidson shows, though, it was deeply, emotionally rich: “He was enjoying real happiness, for the first time in his life.”

It was at this moment of delight and apparent retreat, of affable manners and simple living, that he began the series of crusades that eventually blossomed into the human-rights campaigns that came to dominate the rest of his life. It would be nice to say that Voltaire was a courageous man whom no amount of comfort could seduce. The truth is that, as his friend Condorcet wrote sadly, he was easily terrified, and often a coward: “He was often seen to expose himself to the storm, almost with temerity, but seldom to stand up to it with firmness.” And, of course, no man of fewer sublime feelings has ever lived; he was baffled by religion and spirituality, materialist and carnal to the core.

What motivated him, then, to start up? Partly it must have been that he so much enjoyed vexing stupid powerful people that he kept forgetting that stupid people who had gained power were never stupid about threats to their power. Each time he poked the silly tiger and the tiger clawed back, he was genuinely shocked. And then there is a kind of egotism so vast and so pleased with itself that it includes other people as an extension of itself. Voltaire felt so much for other people because he felt so much for himself; everything happened to him because he was the only reasonable subject of everything that happened. By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless.

But there was something else, too. His exile moved him away from court practices and court values, with their hypersensitivity toward status, toward family practices and family values, with their hypersensitivity toward security. (In these Délices years, he took in and later adopted a teen-age daughter, and began to sigh that he had never had children of his own.) As Tocqueville saw half a century later, home-making, which ought to make people more selfish, makes them less so; it gives them a stake in other people’s houses. It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally.

In those days, unspeakably cruel tortures were still routine in the French penal system. Condemned criminals were tortured by being broken on the wheel—that is, being bound on a scaffold to a wheel and then having their bones broken, one by one, with an iron bar. Davidson suggests (shrewdly and originally) that Voltaire’s sense of outrage may have been galvanized by the hideous execution in Paris of the would-be assassin of Louis XV, the mad Damiens, in 1757. Damiens was pulled apart alive, his limbs attached to four horses and the horses driven in different directions, for public instruction in the center of Paris. Voltaire was no fan of regicide. It was because he was for the execution that the public torture frightened him: it was a sign of how quickly civilities could disintegrate under threat. (“Enlightened times will only enlighten a small number of honest men,” he wrote. “The common people will always be fanatical.”) He coined his most famous phrase, écrasez l’infâme—“Crush the horror”—and began to use it, in jauntily (and evasively) abbreviated form. Historians have fussed for centuries about exactly what Voltaire meant by it—the Catholic Church? the Court?—but it’s clear. The horror was the alliance of religious fanaticism with the instruments of the state, and the two combined for torture and official murder.

It is against this background, of a garden built and the encroaching fanatics, that Voltaire wrote “Candide,” in 1759. 

Someone besides me is addicted to Monty Don shows

The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This article cracked me up, and I had to share it: The Unexpected Pleasures of Netflix’s Gardening Shows.

I can’t say that I share the author’s general love of Netflix. I don’t get into dystopian fantasies. Most of what passes for comedy these days annoys me. Normally, I would be a sucker for series on history, but even the historical content on Netflix is downright terrible. For example, I watched part of The Last Czars the other day, and it was disturbing from a meta perspective that such a show ever came to exist. For those unfamiliar with the series, it aspired to be something of a documentary about the Romanov family – a topic one would think does not require much embellishment. I mean, you have a story that already involves the occult, a brutal political revolution, and mass murder. Not exactly plain vanilla stuff. But the “documentary” turned out to be quite pornographic. They go directly from interviewing an academic historian to showing re-enactments of how each of the Romanov children were conceived and Rasputin’s orgies. And the producers did not even try to make the content historically accurate, because why would you with porn? You have scenes supposedly from 1905 that include Lenin’s mausoleum, among other hysterical errors. And don’t get me started on all the pseudoscience that Netflix cranks out.

The funniest thing about this is Netflix is funding all of these shows by issuing junk bonds in the financial markets. You know the economy is lit when that’s happening.

All that said, as a gardening fanatic, I am obsessed with Monty’s Don’s gardening shows on Netflix. I watched his series on the grand gardens in France and Italy, which I highly recommend. Now I am binge-watching Small Spaces, Big Dreams. And I didn’t even know about Alan Titchmarsh’s Love Your Garden, which is obviously going on the watchlist.

This is fantastic and accurate:

What’s important to understand, however, is that the appeal of this programming lies specifically in its utter lack of stakes. There is no sense of competition, no prize at the end—it’s merely a bunch of British people who are in it for the shrubbery alone. All participants have their own lives outside of the show, and absolutely zero intention of turning their appearance on the show into a career or a profit-making enterprise. They’re learning how to garden because they want to improve their houses, or they want a new hobby, or they want to cultivate and grow their own vegetables. Nothing more, nothing less. Over the course of an episode, participants (for they are certainly not contestants) learn to take satisfaction in the simple fruits of a job well done, of an effort made with their own hands that has come to, excuse the pun, fruition.

Each episode of Big Dreams, Small Spaces takes place over a year. You see two sets of people tending their garden and their gradual progress through the seasons. Let me tell ya, it’s slow going. Don visits roughly every few months, and in that time, participants manage to clear rubble, maybe turn their soil or create a compost bin. Sometimes they even manage to buy their new plants. During his visits, he gives advice, tweaks the layout of the garden, and leads the homeowners in a day of actual gardening. But the length of the process is part of this show’s appeal—it is long-term, a real commitment for the gardeners. There’s no rapid, cathartic transformation at the end; even after Monty Don’s final visit, the gardens are still presented as a work in progress. Such is life, am I right?

It’s fun to watch a person with zero skill attempt something poorly. But there’s an even deeper satisfaction to be found in watching a person with a great deal of skill pass that knowledge on to others. Monty Don, in all his absurd, suspenders-wearing Britishness, and in clear, measured tones, demonstrates how to plant a tree and how to determine good soil (dig a hole and fill it with water—if it doesn’t drain by the evening, you have an issue). He’s patient and kind, guiding the participants through the process of gardening in a mildly paternal fashion. He offers them advice, pragmatism, and help, but ultimately, it’s down to the participants themselves to do the bulk of the work.

There is no real time crunch, nothing to win and nothing to lose. It’s the exact opposite of a zero-sum game. It’s slow and painstaking, and quite often, rather dull. But that doesn’t stop it from being compelling. My favorite episodes are the ones where the garden is decidedly incomplete at the end, in abject defiance of the usual narrative of makeover shows. After all, what even is a “complete” garden? By definition they change daily, growing and evolving over time. It is a process, a hobby that lasts over years and decades. “Think about today,” Monty Don tells a couple of gardeners. “That is the mentality of a gardener.”

Quite deep in this TV hole by this point, I’ve decided to look at the world with the mentality of a gardener, and it’s not bad. We’re all perfectly aware of the dangers of racing forward, not considering how we feel in the moment, and trying to reach some nebulous goal, regardless of whether it can be reached at all. Gardening, like any repetitive activity, focuses the mind on its task, preventing those who do it from wandering into other avenues of thought, giving them a break from the monumentally difficult task of simply existing in a world that provides an unending series of distractions and options. The key thing is to remember that, more often than not, the best way out is through. You need to work slowly, carefully, and patiently to make anything. You need the support of your friends and family when they can spare the time. You need to tend to your garden.

A lovely little reference to Voltaire at the end there.

Another wonderful aspect of Monty Don’s shows are how they showcase Great Britain. I think we are accustomed to seeing mostly London, and his shows take you everywhere. You meet two men who moved to Wales and they learn to build a garden into the rocky cliffs their house clings to. Monty gets them interested in collecting alpine plants that can survive in that environment. You meet people who live on unforgiving northern seashores. You meet amateur farmers. The only thing the participants have in common is they break for tea a lot.

In every episode, you meet a family where the people love each other and want to spend quality time together. There are no smartphones. Kids are out in the yard getting their hands dirty and soaking in the sunshine. Folks who just moved to an area get to know their neighbors through gardening. The men who moved to Wales built their garden for next to nothing because they put a box on the garden wall that said “will trade flowers, preferably alpines, for eggs.” They were inundated with flowers over the weeks. One neighbor explained that they did not think the guys were going to be tough enough to make it work in Wales (“they don’t even have beards,” he explains), but his is proven wrong. They don’t leave the rough landscape; in fact, they much improve it. They started keeping a book with pictures and details of all the plants they were learning.

Compare that with the inane, materialistic garbage on HGTV these days: A throuple learns about subway tile! Entire series have the same fake drama of something going wrong after the second commercial break in every single episode.

I wish there was more of this sort of content on television. I think the world would be a happier and more optimistic place for sure.

A nifty gardening blog

One of the perks of my excessive gardening is having a lot of hummingbirds and butterflies around. For the most part, I have not been deliberate about what I plant to attract them. But I like bright tropical colors, so I am probably naturally selecting plants that pollinators also like. And I am militant about organic gardening, so our property is an island of safety in a sea of routinely chemical-bombed Florida golf course lawns.

Even so, I started thinking about ways I could attract more of these creatures this morning. One of the articles I read mentioned providing shelter for bees and hummingbirds within your garden. And that had me reading about bee hotels.

Bee hotels are essentially a mass of hollow reeds (like bamboo) clustered together to be used as homes for solitary bees. I’m not sure that I am actually going to get (or make) one of these, as I can see it attracting things that I do not want around our house (like wasps, or any of the dire insects Florida is famous for).

My research on bee hotels led me to a most fascinating gardening blog that I thought I would share here: Garden Myths. This blog is like the show Mythbusters, but with gardening. The author experiments with or investigates all of the random claims about gardening that dart around the Internet. For example: Does planting seeds in ice cream cones work? I have seen this suggestion on so many DIY sites and thought, um, wouldn’t the cone melt as soon as you water it? Turns out, it’s an even dumber idea than that… Imagine all your seedlings covered in thick mold.

And then there is this fun post on all the various illnesses gardeners can pick up from working in the soil. It’s endless entertaining (and very informative) reading.

Orare est laborare, laborare est orare

An 8th-century copy of the Rule of St Benedict.

When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, he didn’t know what to do with himself.

He came from an upper-middle class family, and his parents likely would have pushed him into college had he not been drafted. He tried attending classes under the GI Bill, but the transition from stomping through the jungle – clothes soaked from the humidity, eyes constantly watching for booby traps and some of the most venomous snakes in the world, bracing for enemy fire at any moment – to listening to a professor, not much older than himself, drone on and on about how to write an essay was impossible. I’m sure he did not want to listen to anyone who spent the war on campus talk about Vietnam either. “Please, hippie, explain how the world works to me.”

He worked for his favorite relative – his uncle, a contractor – for a while. He developed many practical skills and apparently learned a lot about how to get along with people and run a business. Then he discovered an occupation that he truly loved: drilling municipal water wells.

I think part of the appeal of the water infrastructure industry was the danger. Not unlike working on an oil rig – in fact, oil and water rigs share some equipment – water wells run deep into the Earth. You have to be both strong and fearless to work on them, much like surviving in a war zone. People did die occasionally by falling into the pit, which happened one terrible day to one of my father’s friends.

But I think the greatest appeal the job had was that it was hard work being done entirely outside. The activity and the sunshine had a restorative effect on a man who had been all but destroyed by the experience of war.

He worked his way up through the company, through various acquisitions, into management. In addition to the physical labor out under the hot California sun, my father loved the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as an intellectual project. When I eventually went into public finance, many people would ask me how I knew so much about civil engineering. This was our dinner table conversation when I was a child. I could diagram a desalination plant when I was seven. We were geeks, but a special kind of geek – the sort who wanted to be out in the world and learn how things fit together.

My father would eventually give this gig up when he grew older and returned to working as a contractor, as his uncle had taught him originally.

I bring this all up, because it has become somewhat fascinating to me how people talk and think about hard labor and the perceived value of blue collar workers in our society.

I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend working out in my gardens, which is fairly typical for me. And I usually talk to everyone who passes by while I am doing it.

Yesterday afternoon, I was kneeling on the ground planting dozens of deep purple petunias and French marigolds in a flowerbed. An Amazon truck pulled up, and the delivery man walked up the path toward our front door with a pile of packages. I waved at him and he asked me how I was doing.

“It’s a beautiful day to be outside,” I said, and I meant it. I was enjoying watching butterflies dancing around my garden in early January. It was marvelous. And I loved the contrast of yellow and purple I was putting together.

“You know you could pay someone to do that for you,” he shouted, and then climbed back into his van.

Why would I want to pay someone to plant flowers? Actually getting down on your hands and knees and digging in the dirt is sort of the point of gardening as a hobby. So is feeling the warm sun on your skin. People who don’t physically tend to their gardens are not gardeners. They are just people who happen to own gardens. Their relationship to their garden is not any different than their relationship to their television or their grandfather clock. It’s a possession, not a pastime.

(Somehow this reminds me of a most painful biography of the socialite Bunny Mellon I read years ago. She tried to make herself famous as a “gardener,” but she had legions of staff to maintain her gardens. Her idea of gardening was waltzing around in her Givenchy gowns and clipping a rose here and there. Even that lady’s own children loathed her. Her biographer made a point of discussing how she left only some stupid ceramic cabbage to her estranged son in her will, which he smashed on the rocks along the shore as an act of catharsis. That woman was miserable to her very core. And she kept a picture of disgraced politician John Edwards on her nightstand, which was totally creepy, but I digress.)

Then today, I spent a couple hours working on Fern Dell. If you recall, we cleared out a massive tangle of vines (massive by the standards of a Florida transplant) to build a primeval-looking garden that we’ve nicknamed Fern Dell. It was no small feat to clear all that vegetation out and free up the trees to live their best lives (and as I mentioned before, I had help). But it has also been a feat to prepare the soil and plant the ferns and whatnot because there are so many established roots. And we hauled in a lot of stone to build a path through the new garden.

My old neighbor came walking down the trail behind our house and saw me working out there. “How did you get all that planted? Was it difficult cutting through all that?”

I explained that I had to use a mattock in places, and it eventually got the job done.

“What is a mattock?”

“It’s a tool, sort of like a pick-ax, but with a different shape.”

She was dumbfounded that I would get out in the backyard and swing an ax for the sake of building a garden. She was looking at me like I was some sort of alien with strange customs like drinking milk through my finger.

Only an hour before that conversation, we were loading the stones for the path into the back of my SUV at Lowe’s. The gentleman we have to mow and edge our lawn (we do hire someone for that, my plants are a part-time job in themselves) happened to be walking through the parking lot back to his truck and saw us. He ran over to our car and started helping load the heavy stones in. He didn’t even ask if we wanted help. He just started doing it.

We are really good friends with him and I took the occasion to invite his daughter to our daughter’s birthday party. But it made me think how he’s probably treated as some sort of untouchable in our town because of what he does for a living. I mean, even the Amazon delivery guy looks down on yard work, and it’s not like he’s jetting off to Davos to talk about trends in macroeconomics to corporate elites anytime soon.

I started this post off with the Rule of St. Benedict, who insisted that “to pray is to work and to work is to pray.” To be autonomous, to exert great effort, were for St. Benedict cornerstones of a contemplative life. You don’t just work because you have to. You work because there’s ultimately some form of wisdom in it.

I can certainly say this was true for my father coming back from Vietnam. For him, he had glimpsed some life-altering truth in the jungle and it was the suburban rat race that required not thinking too hard about anything. I mean, that’s the essence of a mid-life crisis, isn’t it? You look around at all the crap you’ve bought and the meaninglessness of the “work” you performed to obtain it all, and you ask yourself “For what?” People who engage in hard physical labor tend not to have that sort of restless energy. There’s also something about physically creating things that makes you not question your dignity or purpose.

St Benedict’s ideal used to be omnipresent in American society, but here it was described as the “Protestant work ethic.” There’s no Protestant work ethic anymore. In modern western societies, labor is not regarded as a contemplative or essential character-building activity. It’s the occupation of people who didn’t have the upbringing or financial resources to jump through the necessary hoops to have a “better” life. No one chooses to do it. They do it because they have no better options.

I listen to “liberal” politicians nowadays who used to invest a lot of time sucking up to blue collar workers speaking with open contempt about hard work. Hillary ran an entire campaign on such elitism – to be blue collar meant you had bad values. Biden recently advised coal miners to “learn to code.” Of course, “learn to code” has become a euphemism for this specific sort of disdain. If you have to work hard to get by in this world, it’s your fault. Nevermind the fact that this phrase is being used by aging politicians who probably unplug their computer every time they have a problem. “Learn to code,” they say, as if it were something they could do themselves.

Is this supposed to be progress? Can you imagine the people who settled New England listening to the people who live in New England now? They’d be like, “WTF, you sound like the vapid, self-absorbed, antisocial aristocrats we came over here to get away from.” (I’m sure many of them do think these things, right before they move to Florida.)

But what’s funny is how little material wealth people have to have in order to start talking like a spoiled heiress. You see this even in children who do not come from wealthy families but are accustomed to getting everything they want. How do you reverse this sort of behavior once it sets in? Do people have to be humbled by some great economic disaster? It’s a profoundly strange phenomenon to me.

A homeschooling botany program (fun for curious adults too)

I have set aside a few books for studying botany with Elise (which I may or may not include in the upcoming academic year). As much as I love specimen gardening, this should be a mutually enjoyable unit for us.

As spines, I expect to use Botany in 8 Lessons and the Botany Coloring Book.

But this afternoon, I found myself strangely immersed in Carolyn Fry’s book, The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World’s Greatest Botanical Explorers. I am definitely going to work this history book into our botany unit.

We take it for granted now that our nurseries and garden centers have plants from all over the world available to buy. In our Florida garden, I have tropical plants from Indonesia, India, Africa, South America, you name it.

This book describes all of the historical expeditions that led to plants being brought back from all of these regions, often at tremendous personal risk. These would be plants used in medicine, spices, and just interesting and beautiful specimens desired for extravagant gardens and scientific study. The book also includes portfolio inserts that are reproductions of historical texts and drawings of plants from each period.

I feel like the fact that we have many of these plants in these stories growing in our gardens at home should make the historical information a lot more interesting to a child. Although these folks were all serious adventurers, so the content is not exactly dry.

Topics include:

  • Queen Hatshepsut funding explorations to recover incense trees and other plants (although not mentioned in the book, some of these plants were used to manufacture the chemicals used in mummification, another fun topic for kids)
  • Ancient Egyptian pharmacists
  • The origins of agriculture
  • How pepper, nutmeg, mace, sandalwood, cinnamon, and clove drove exploration
  • The development of physic gardens in England for cultivating herbs used in medicine (Nicolas Culpeper)
  • Carolus Clusius and Tulipmania (also a great lesson for discussing financial bubbles, not unlike stock market or real estate crashes)
  • The elder and younger John Tradescants, the first professional plant hunters
  • The gardening craze in 18th-century Europe, which led to the construction of massive formal and specimen gardens among royals and aristocrats (also pretty cool on this topic – Monty Don’s BBC documentaries on famous gardens in Italy and France)
  • Carl Linnaeus
  • Sir Joseph Banks and how the search for breadfruit as cheap nutrition for slaves led to the mutiny on the Bounty; Banks’ Florilegium
  • Alexander von Humboldt
  • Expeditions into the Amazon
  • Carl Per Thunberg
  • Lewis and Clark’s specimen-collecting
  • David Douglas
  • Joseph Hooker in the Himalaya
  • E. H. Wilson’s expeditions in the Orient, which brought us azaleas and clematis
  • The cultivation of sugar cane in the Caribbean and the slave trade there
  • The East India Company and the opium wars
  • How the cultivation of plants in certain regions contributed to colonialism
  • Robert Fortune and the cultivation of tea
  • The search for plants to use for rubber (could also talk about Thomas Edison’s home gardens – in addition to beauty, he was personally trying to cultivate plants that could be used for rubber and testing their attributes)
  • Orchid hunters
  • The illustration of new plant species as an art form (Codex Vindobonensis, Highgrove Florilegium)
  • Invaders of the plant world and the historical origins of conservation efforts
  • Modern plant hunters

Another fun and loosely related topic would be floriography, or the language of flowers. I am looking for a good children’s book (or very accessible adult non-fiction) on the history of floriography. I started thinking about including this after some Love Lies Bleeding (amaranth) seeds I had ordered arrived in the mail. This plant, a grain, is native to Central and South America and was used as a regular food source for Aztecs. (It was also used in religious rites, particularly one where the Aztecs would fashion little dough figurines of their gods and then eat them. The Spanish Conquistadors banned the practice, as it seemed like a twisted version of the Eucharist.) Anyway, amaranth has beautiful red-pink plumes and came to symbolize hopeless love for Victorians. I fell into a floriography rabbit hole trying to find out how it got such a gory common name and thought, man, I need to incorporate this into some random homeschooling unit sometime. If not botany, there’s always Shakespeare.