Something for this Good Earth

While I am still in the process of writing about my experiences with my master gardener training, the class itself is still in the process of being on hiatus as our instructor is on vacation. Deserved or not, he is away until next week, leaving me with the subsequent challenge of finding related topics to write about during his absence and the lack of new material to inform these messages. Therefore I have decided to lift my sights to an aspect of nature that is literally out of this world and reflect on an incident which took place when I was 18 years old and the whole world, the inhabitants of this good earth, were enthralled with the space flight program and the goal of reaching the moon before the end of the 60s as the late President Kennedy had encouraged us to do.

Christmas Eve, 1968, we were close. Apollo 8, under the command of Frank Borman, was the first manned flight to orbit the moon. And our communications technology was sophisticated enough to allow those of us with television sets to watch in awe as the passing lunar surface was visible through the window of the astronaut’s command module. It was during this mission that the famed photograph of the earth rising above the moon’s horizon was taken. It was also during this mission that a very touching and unsuspected moment made the whole endeavor, and indeed the entire space project, transcendent. With the moon’s surface in view, Borman read from the first chapter of the book of Genesis about the creation of the universe.

I was reminded of this event recently when I watched a documentary about NASA’s creation of Mission Control as part of the space program. The doc provided a brief history of the origins of the space program, born out of a sense of inferiority to the Russians and the firsts they were setting with their successful rocket launches, satellites, and manned flights around the earth. But the emphasis was on the Apollo program and its determination to land men on the moon and return them safely to an earth they would uniquely understand to be good in a way those of us who are earth-bound cannot ever fully appreciate.

Apollo 8 was the mission that brought us so incredibly close to that goal in a year when we needed the kind of peace on earth and good will to all mankind inherent in the Christmas season. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the riots outside the Democratic convention in Chicago and the increasingly divisive nature of the Viet Nam war gave Apollo 8 the chance to be a unifying achievement and Borman’s inspired message delivered on that promise.

Fifty years later we could use such an achievement and such a message again. The divisions within our society, which prevent us from celebrating anything but another’s humiliation, are no less tumultuous than the internal conflicts of 1968. And even though our technology today makes the 60s look like the proverbial Stone Age, we have no comparable missions to inspire and unify us as a progressive, optimistic and heroic nation of believers in America’s place of leadership among the entire community of nations inhabiting an earth, whose current moral rectitude is in doubt. So I will take this opportunity, and the control I have over these web log posts, to offer my own extraterrestrial message with the legacy of Frank Borman as my celestial guide.

Imagining myself sitting in the enclosed space of the command module, orbiting the moon for the first time in human history, my selection for a message to beam back to the people on earth would come from the same source as Borman’s message, but from a different section, written by a different author, who possessed a similar fascination with the magnitude of the universe. My choice would be the words of a Shepherd-King, who marveled at his place in the cosmos and wrote a song of praise appropriate for every NASA achievement, centuries before any of it was even imagined. He wrote of his own musings:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,

The son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

And crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

You put everything under his feet ….

Orbiting the moon fifty years ago, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were the embodiment of this dream. And with this thought in mind, I can think of no better ending than to cue Carly Simon to sing her own passionate anthem for us once again,  stating “Let the river run, let all the dreamers wake the nation.” It’s time and we have the need.

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The Take Away

Last week I provided a brief preview into the article I am preparing for a Wisconsin magazine on the topic of Horticultural Therapy (HT). This is a program where people who are certified master gardeners are encouraged to partner with professionals (such as doctors, nurses, counselors and physical therapists), who minister to people with special needs. The program is based on the principal that all of us derive a benefit by simply looking at a natural setting, which can be enhanced when we actually participate in planting, growing and harvesting the flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs comprising nature’s bounty.

On Friday I attended a workshop designed for Wisconsin Master Gardeners to learn about the program so that they might implement HT activities in their respective communities. It involved some lecture, some hands on activities and (to my chagrin) some intense roleplay, wherein some of us attempted to lead the rest of us through a basic gardening project. The catch was that each group to be taught had some form of impairment, which made the work for both the leaders and the group members a greater challenge than most of us encounter when we plant seeds, pull weeds, or create a floral arrangement. The difficulty the leaders encountered trying to work with those who were restricted by physical or emotional limitations prompted me not to volunteer to be a leader. Gardening may be regarded in some cases as not for the faint of heart.

The workshop concluded with each of us sharing with everyone who participated that day our one take away from the day’s instruction and activities. Since this was a program about how to work with people rather than how and what to plant in our gardens, I thought about the basic principles and methods shared as part of the program’s content. They were essentially the same as those I have employed throughout my management career, working with office staff, clients and customers. Only there was that roleplay catch that altered my appreciation for what it takes to respectfully work with those who require more time, attention and a greater demand on my patience when attempting to achieve a specific goal.

My role in the first session was that of a person who was totally blind and that from birth. I was wearing especially equipped goggles to help me block out all visual stimulation, so comments about color had no meaning for me. And when a question was asked of the six of us in my group, I had no idea who was being spoken to or if I should answer. In fact the noise level in the room, as there were four other groups close by actively engaged in their HT sessions, caused even more confusion than if we were involved in a more likely scenario of a trained leader working with one small group or even in a one-to-one session.

What I did have were the sensations of touch and smell and it intrigued me how even in that temporary roleplay activity those senses were heightened in me while I tried to cope with the frustrations of not being able to see or follow the conversations of those around me. The ability to touch and smell even proved to be distractions for me as I basically checked out of what was taking place within our group in order to focus on what I could enjoy.

As we discussed our experiences when we were gathered together once again in the large group, I felt sorry for those who had tried to lead in these challenging small group activities. Our program director had made it even more difficult by making sure each group had one person tasked with being a non-participant as part of their roleplay. In the second session he reversed this by having one person in each group be overly aggressive, the point being to create the type of surprises that await anyone attempting to work with a group of disparate people no matter what label they might bear as a group such as being blind, abused, autistic, depressed, incarcerated, or being an amputee with limited physical dexterity. We were, in fact, encouraged to lower the bar of our own expectations when implementing an HT program as it takes time for both the leader and the participants to learn to work together.

My take away, after all that I had experienced that day, was a heightened awareness towards the dynamics of any audience I work with as well as a greater sensitivity for the personalities of each individual within that group. Even the care required in the words we use for what is termed “person-first language” when discussing our experiences was impressed upon me as I listened to each of us stumble in expressing our thoughts.

That I may ultimately “volunteer” as a leader in a real time situation is a given. It is part of why I attended the workshop. The first goal may be confined to writing a magazine article. The larger, long-term goal is to use whatever knowledge and skill I may have to bring a little of the spirit of Eden into another person’s life for however brief a time.

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This week and next my master gardener’s class is on hiatus as our instructor is on vacation. So the lull in my educational endeavors will allow me to digress a little and write about a related topic, though one of my own making.

I am working on a magazine article to be published later this year. The topic is on horticultural therapy and the work of Mike Maddox, the Master Gardener Program Director for the University of Wisconsin Extension Services. This week’s message, then, is a brief preview of that article and what I am learning about this distinct approach for using our gardening knowledge as therapy for people with special needs.

Horticultural as a single topic is about the art and science of producing, using, and maintaining ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables. We do this often for our own enjoyment and the enrichment which comes from actually managing a small part of nature for the rewards that stem from creating beautiful, living ornamentation and/or growing the food we eat.

Horticultural Therapy (HT) is about utilizing such gardening techniques to provide an intervention program, whereby people undergoing some form of crisis are provided with an outlet for managing their fears and frustrations through cultivating the growth of various garden variety plants. Mike has initiated programs with hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons and even a tribal council to help their respective staffs care for people, whose personal challenges entail suicide prevention, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, the development of self-esteem in abused children, and the acquisition of certain life skills that help us all safely function within our society.

Mike’s HT training program is actually designed for the existing master gardener volunteers, who are already regarded as educators in the art and science of horticulture.  His goal is to establish a core group of volunteers who will go beyond the usual places where gardening is taught, such as classrooms and libraries, in order to assist professional therapeutic staff in the treatment of their respective patients.

Gardening, as many of us already know, is great for stress reduction despite our constant battle with pests of various kinds. It is also good for developing the type of discipline needed to establish and maintain a garden landscape of any size and design. It is also wonderful for creating a thing of beauty to be savored both by sight and by taste. So putting this type of experience into the hands of those who are struggling with demonic internal issues provides the type of therapy offered by the HT program in cooperation with the more specialized care of doctors, nurses and guidance counselors. And as a result the benefit seems to flow equally between the gardening caregiver and the recipient of their compassionate attention.

This summer Mike will be offering HT seminars at various locations around the state. His schedule can be found by accessing the Events link on the Master Gardener website, This is an opportunity to learn more about the Master Gardener program in general and Mike’s HT program in greater detail. You can ultimately learn to make your own Eden and extend its therapeutic wonders to others as well.

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A Thing or Two About Bees

My concept of bees is that there are only two types, honeybees and bumble bees. Well, yes, there are spelling bees as well, but my goal this week is to continue writing about the insect type of bee as part of my on-going series inspired by my participation in a master gardener’s program. I am still a student and still learning, with the scope of my ignorance being a perpetually expanding fact that is at the forefront of what I have learned thus far. And my concept of bees fits right in with this measurement of what I do not know.

There are a whole host of bee types and most do not make honey for human consumption. Most don’t live in hives either. In the last class session I found out that what look like small ant hills scattered around my property may indeed be bee abodes as I never see any ants scuttling in and out of them. It seems that a very large segment of the bee species are ground nesters and this not as a colony but as loners with a lifecycle that focuses on the collection of enough nectar to feed its young and perpetuate its kind. This may appear to leave us SOL when it comes to harvesting the type of abundance European honeybees so amply produce. But all bees provide a benefit for us as I was fortunate to learn.

Bees have two types of eyes, each type with its own distinct function. The smaller ocelli help them maintain their stability during flight, to navigate on their journey and to detect the UV color of flowers, which helps them to hone in on the best repositories of the desired nectar. The larger compound eyes, with thousands of tiny lenses, or facets, serve as their GPS system. So these guys come well equipped to do what their lives were intended to do. And while they may not be producing the delicious excretion we have come to cherish as a sweetener for everything we eat, they still provide a benefit to us, especially for those of us who are flower lovers.

Bees are masters at promoting the pollination process. Without them our lives would be less colorful, aromatic and diverse. Knowing what their likes and dislikes are can allow us to help them help themselves to a plentiful food supply, while they carry the much needed pollen from flower to flower.

Bees will visit a single flower type on a given forage flight. Planting large clusters of the same flower will facilitate this habit, while making sure that pollen is not wasted if the bees are forced to visit other flower types before being sated. Certain flowers make easy targets for the bees by having a literal bulls-eye at the heart of the flower, which is readily detectable with the bees’ keen UV detector system. And they like flowers with larger petals to serve as landing pads for them.

A compassionate gardener can take this information and put it into a landscaping design that will benefit the bees while creating a lovely, well pollinated garden fulfilling the gardener’s passion. But there is one more factor to keep in mind if helping bees help you is a goal. The best flowers don’t bloom all season long. So one more element to include when devising your own personal Eden is to plant a variety of flowers where some bloom in the spring, others in the summer and still others in the fall. This will give the bee a season long opportunity to feast, while keeping your garden colorful with blossoms that add a rich variety which is pleasing to the eye. Then we will learn that working in harmony can make the sweat equity of bee and human alike something sweet and well worth the effort.

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This week’s insights from the master gardener program concerns a different type of pest than the insects I wrote about last week. This concerns the mostly green invaders of the territory we wish to keep pristine in a god-like attempt at creating Eden. In our quest it has become the received wisdom that any plant (or tree or shrub) growing anywhere that a human thinks is “out of place” is considered to be a weed. Even those flowers and shrubs we might otherwise prize if they had the decency to locate themselves among the proper border, flower bed, grove or water feature can be subject to the most brutal form of extraction for being in violation of a gardener’s landscaping plan.

There are other distinctive characteristics for those plants we generally agree are weeds, but the human perspective – once again – reigns supreme. And this week’s rambling, though it may seem out of place itself, keeps me on target for writing and posting a weekly message with the current theme being about my experiences as a student in a master gardeners program.

Weeds are sexy. That is they procreate with a rapidity even a rabbit would admire. They are nature’s equivalent of a champion speed eater, being highly competitive when it comes to consuming the soil’s nutrients and water. And they can willingly thumb their pointed little noses at any immigration laws, being very proficient at invading and soon dominating any neighborhood in which they wish to live. Lawns, gardens and more often those large open spaces we call state and national parks tremble at the arrival of any non-native vegetation and pray to the gods of the gardening world to intercede on their behalf.

Like the insects I wrote about last week, weeds can be managed though rarely ever totally eradicated. Their progeny can rest perfectly content several inches below the surface soil, patiently waiting for the day when some dufus farmer or gardener tills the grown, bringing them to the surface once again. There, in the warmth of the sun and the splendid buffet of food and water, they thrive in a world where lesser developed plant life lulls in complete oblivion of their vulnerability to a superior species. Weeds rule until they are curtailed by the most advanced invasive species of them all – humans.

Knowing the type of weed or weeds you are dealing with can determine the best method for their extermination. Weeds, like flowers, insects, and all other animals, including humans, have life cycles. Knowledge of the characteristics of each weed’s life cycle means power and power, as we all know, kills. Death can come by mowing, pulling or poisoning as determined by what we know of our adversary and our own need to derive a certain satisfaction from how we annihilate the enemy.

Then again for those of us whose personal life cycle is defined by a tendency towards laziness, we can adopt my father-in-law’s attitude towards weeds, which simply stated was “If it is green, leave it alone.” His approach was to keep his lawn mown short so that no passersby could see the telltale signs of what were weeds and what was grass. Following his philosophy meant, with all due respect to a certain celebrity frog, that it is indeed easy being green.

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Outer Wear

Outer wear – it’s the designation given to a certain type of couture dominated by such brands as The North Face, Patagonia and L.L. Bean. Think parkas, insulated bibs, boots and gloves and you’ll know the kind of manufactured protection I am thinking of. Meant to help us survive the harsher environments of winter, if we are dumb enough to think of blizzards as playgrounds, outer wear still must submit to the same trendy rules as anything else in the way of decorative clothing. To be seen in the latest fav brand is oh so chic, while sporting last year’s model, which is doable because of its durability, is to advertise that your sense of styling in outer wear is outdated.

Then there is Under Armor. This is a brand name, but it is also a misnomer. Under Armor is still a type of outer wear, this one specializing in the proper attire for the more sensible fair weather sports; the ones that do not require an insulated jock in order to survive the elements. Tops, bottoms, shoes and everything in between can be found in their catalogue. And while the clothing brand may not make you the best athlete, you still might be the best eye-catcher on the court, links, bike path or diamond. Of course it helps to already have the desired physique on display underneath the latest glam treatment in sportswear. (Let’s face it, if this was just about functionality, you would still look like you had just suited up for your high school gym class).

When it comes to the best outer wear, however, we are millennia behind the ones who have modeled it best – insects. This week’s lesson in the master gardener program I am attending is entitled Entomology, which is the educated way of saying the study of these little beasts. Informed estimates place the current number of species at more than one million around the world, which is a rather intimidating number when you must pass a final exam in order to earn your certificate as a master of the garden. Still, there is some reprieve from buggy oppression in the fact that there are merely a hundred thousand species in North America and even far fewer in residence here in Wisconsin.

Our goal in our study of insects is to learn how to manage our shared place on this planet. For the home gardener this means mostly coping with them since 99% of insects do no harm to the garden. Therefore the humane thing for us to do in return is little or nothing in a managed, peaceful coexistence for the benefit of both our tribes. Intervention strategies addressing the remaining one percent, however, is necessary and calls for a surgical precision worthy of any special ops force on a mission of death or extraction. And this brings us back to the topic of outer wear.

An insect’s skeleton is on the outside of its body. Called an exoskeleton it is essentially a hard outer shell, which serves many purposes. It is in truth its outer armor. It protects them from their adversaries, prevents them from dehydrating, and allows oxygen to be absorbed into the body through tiny holes called spiracles. It also keeps them small by confining their growth. Despite what those really cool sci-fi movies of the 50s showed us with their terrifying scenes of giant grasshoppers, ants and other mutant ninja insects, these little guys are destined to stay small. Their outer wear defines the outer limits of their ability to grow. But like they care! Insects preceded and outlasted the large lizards we call dinosaurs. So maybe in the claim that size matters, diminution has proven to be the preferable condition after all.

What does matter in the lawn and garden wars on the home front is how to protect our most precious plants from the ravages of the one percent of the insect world. Not that we are necessarily bug-o-phobic. But for those of us who do want to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of our labors, or to see our flowers bloom with the coming out beauty of any debutante, some means of intervention must be employed and that is where knowing about the insect’s outer wear, as well as the design of its mouth and method of eating, is of value.

Insects do have an Achilles heel, or should I say heels since they have three pairs of jointed legs? The protection of their exoskeleton can be compromised by using an insecticide soap or oil that plugs those spiracles through which they get oxygen, causing them to suffocate. Other insecticides are lethal when ingested proving that even with insects gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. They are even vulnerable due to their sexual proclivities, but, then again, who isn’t?

Bottom line, when all else fails, we can simply crush the little beggars. We are, after all, far larger and stronger than they are. And there is a simple delight, even if it is puerile in nature, in hearing their little bodies crackle under the vice-like grip of their homo sapien adversaries. Being born with the outer wear of a natural body armor has its advantages. But having an opposable thumb is even better.

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Post It

Here in Wisconsin we have a law for just about everything. Our elected representatives, in their drive to make our state the world’s first utopia, have determined that laws make perfection. Paradise, therefore, is just another legislative session away, or so we dream. In the meantime the future residents of this proposed Nirvana ignore stop signs, run through red lights, put their trash in recycle bins, jaywalk, speed, and hold grudges of various dimensions against their neighbors despite their neighbors’ protected status. Laws pretend to make us civilized. Being human, we pretend to obey them.

One law we have on the books, which affects our gardening habits, is that leaves, grass clippings, brush, twigs and small branches cannot be dumped in our landfills (aka garbage dumps). This is not a problem for me. As a landowner of even modest proportions, I have a use for such things to help me replenish the earth that I make use of in establishing my own Eden. What doesn’t warm my passive sense of well-being of an evening by being consumed in my homemade fire pit is stored in a compost pile for future use as rich, organic material to amend the composition of the dirt I wrote about last week.

The current lesson in my pursuit of becoming a master gardener, as defined by legislative fiat, is about composting. It is something I have been doing all along. But having read the latest assigned chapter, I can now do it better by virtue of being better educated; a certificate in composting will be in order if I pass the exam as I expect to do.

Putting those leaves, grass clippings, and small twigs as well as food scraps (non-meat or dairy), coffee grounds, paper and manure in a heap and letting it all percolate for a while provides multiple benefits. Besides maintaining our status as law-abiding citizens by not putting such things in the landfill, our creation and use of compost saves us money since we do not need to buy expensive fertilizers, improves our lawn and garden soil structure, promotes plant growth through the provision of added nutrients, and helps the soil’s cation exchange capacity. That last item, or CEC, refers to dirt’s ability to hold nutrients for future use. And just knowing that such a function exists makes me feel smarter about my own gardening knowledge exchange capacity, or GKEC, which is an accolade I just made up.

My compost piles are just that, heaps I create in a suitable location without the benefit of any formal structure to confine the various ingredients which comprise my compost composition. But people of more affluent sensibilities invest in constructing or buying compost bins in order to show off their decomposing wealth. Bins can be constructed from wood or plastic frames and wire mesh, although the extremely committed go so far as to erect a block structure as their monument to composting. I prefer space. It comes cheap and I have sufficient quantities of it to meet my gardening needs.

Composting is as simple as what passes for cooking these days. Just add water to whatever ingredients you have on hand, stir, and wait. The only drawback is instead of the usual six minutes it takes to cook or microwave, a meal, good composting takes about six to twelve months in order to achieve the ultimate in composting flavor. And just like good food, good compost will have the right appetizing color, aroma and texture to appease the palate of every lawn and garden of every size, shape and density.

One added feature of composting is that you never do it alone. Worms, beetles, mites, centipedes and various other creatures of diminishing size will help you in your labors. You will be feeding them and their gratitude will be amply expressed in their castings – a polite way to indicate the waste products they will create in their pursuit of gluttony – which will add nutritional value for the ultimate benefit of plant and lawn life. This makes composting a charitable endeavor, which is far better than any act of any legislative body.

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Down and Dirty

This week’s gardening lesson was entitled Soils. My preference for an alternative title is to simply say dirt, something I have known about since childhood. Besides, in my mind soil is a verb. It is what old men do to themselves when they are incontinent and I have not reached that stage in life just yet. So today’s message is about dirt.

The diss on dirt is just that; it is dirty. To most people that implies filth, which is something we expend a great deal of time, energy and money to avoid it if possible and eliminate when we become contaminated. The stain on our skin and on our clothes is seemingly nothing compared to the corruption of our self-esteem when we believe that others are judging us for our inability to be sufficiently sanitized to attain hygienic sainthood.

Dirt is a marvelous thing. People who study it tell us that it is a composite of decomposed rock (in the form of sand, silt and clay) and organic material. Plants of various kinds thrive in it based on their compatibility with its nutrient value. And we in turn rely on those plants for our food, clothing and shelter. The child in us, however, is primarily concerned with only one thing; how well does it hold up to the games we wish to play, whether that means making mud pies, constructing roads and tunnels for our toy trucks to traverse, or its suitability as a baseball diamond. Too many rocks spoil the trajectory of an aptly named ground ball.

Dirt is literally beneath us. It is up to us each one to decide if that imparts some kind of indignity for its being so lowly. As a child it was in the perfect place for me to get down and dirty. Playing in dirt was therapeutic and I wore the evidence of my therapy sessions well. My mother liked to commiserate with her friends by telling them that her devil-may-care son left home each morning dressed in clean clothes only to arrive at school a short time later besmirched with either dirt, mud or grass stains (or all of the above) obtained on the short walk to my elementary school. That made me a dedicated participant in the ways of a dirt devil.

As an adult not much has changed. Dirt is still beneath me, which means I still enjoy getting down and getting dirty. At this stage of life, though, my pursuit is one of enjoying the aroma and textures of lawn and garden, which I continue to wear well. My role play as an amateur horticulturist is a little more informed (as the name implies) than it was in my youth, leaving me with my only complaint. Getting down these days contains the difficulty of getting back up again. Otherwise dirt and I are good friends as demonstrated by how enthusiastically it still clings to me and me to it.

I do bathe and I do my own laundry. I still start my day by going outside wearing clean clothes and a passion to improve on their appearance a short time later with the ample marks left by the oh-so-good earth.

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Backgrounds and Foregrounds

I just learned this morning that I passed my criminal background check. The flowers and veggies in my soon to be planted garden will be pleased to know that they are in the hands of a non-felon. Their growth will subsequently be a more blissful experience since all they will have to fear is the prospect of drought, blight, invasive species and hail storms. I will not be included in their worst case scenarios unless they have any lingering doubts about my fidelity in keeping them properly bathed in both water and sunlight, which is not an issue when it comes to criminal investigations.

The reason for my being subject to this type of intrusion into my previously veiled and oh-so-exclusive past is that it is a requirement of the Master Gardening Program I am attending. It is a presentation of the University’s extension service and from their perspective the subject is not roses. Rather their whole point in making this investment of knowledge into a gang of amateurs, meaning my fellow classmates and me, is that they want us to volunteer in their community outreach programs as a means to reach a much broader audience by sharing our new knowledge with others in our respective communities. And for some reason they perceive that a criminal mind is not conducive to planting the seeds for a bountiful harvest in community relations.

I am technically free of a criminal record but that does not keep me free me from guilt. Fortunately there is a limit to what they can do when foraging through my background while I study foregrounds in the form of learning about soil composition. Dirt does not seem to care about your filthy conscience. If there is any blood on your hands it might help to improve the soil’s pH balance, making life and growth better for all concerned. And there is some justice in this week’s lesson, which will cover soil testing. So, just as my background was subject to examination, so it will be with the foreground that comprises my property. It will come under some scrutiny before I trust it to nurture my vines, shrubs and bulbs.

One can never be too careful when cultivating soil. You never know what lies beneath until you get your hands dirty. And in this case dirty hands are the gardener’s playground digging in foregrounds while ignoring one’s background.

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The Accidental Master

Horticulture is the art and science of producing, using, and maintaining ornamental plants, fruits, and vegetables.

With those words I am launching on a new adventure. Not as the author of such a statement but rather as the student. I have enrolled in a class offered by the University’s extensive service, which is entitled the “Master Gardener Program.”

I have enjoyed gardening to a very limited extent, the limitation coming primarily from time, energy, space and money. It has also come from a lack of knowledge in the science and art of anything let alone gardening. But now that I am firmly rooted (pun intended) in the category of being a retired professional, I have the time and the inclination to pursue a hobby to the extent of being well informed.

If I wince at any aspect of this program it is its use of the word Master. It is a little intimidating in its application since I really don’t want to get so immersed in this topic – in order to merit the title master –

that it overwhelms my life like a yellow squash plant gone rampant. I am okay with it, though, as I have been assured by the instructor that we will in no way approach the august image implied by this one word. The final exam will be open-book, after all, so who can lay claim to such a vaunted title as master when they do not have to know their topic well enough to avoid copying from a book, a neighbor, a crib sheet or one’s cell phone conveniently linked to a horticultural web site?

Classes start this coming Monday. I am reading ahead in the assigned textbook and know already that I am doomed to be lost in a whole new jargon surrounding plant life, root structure, soils and past management. If I master anything it will likely be the art and science of staying awake as we learn about xylem, phloem, cultivars and meristems.

If nothing else my garden will be better appreciated for its academic pedigree even if I get no further than knowing to press a seed into the soft soil and adding water on an occasional basis. The master in me will be providentially accidental. And that is something I can confidently know for sure at the outset.

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