First Day Of Master Gardening Class

January 7, 2011

Grab a cup of coffee – this is gonna be a long one.

There is a tradition in our home of always making a photograph of the kids with a sign reading “First Day of (whatever) Grade” on the first day of school. This morning, when I came downstairs, I found Tony had made such a sign for me – and told me I had to stand for a picture. I could not stop laughing, which is why the photograph is so terribly flattering. Eliza, now at Theatrefest, will love it.

After a good hot breakfast (poached egg and toast, thank you, Tony – do you see why I love that man so?), I picked up my lunch (ham, romaine lettuce, yogurt and Granny Smith apple), packed up my 40-lb (not really, but almost) manual and notebook and left. It took me only 20 minutes to get to the Will County Farm Bureau office and when I pulled in (twenty minutes early – I was afraid of hitting traffic), the parking lot was already jammed. Apparently Master-Gardeners-to-be are an eager lot. Walking into the building, I followed a woman dressed in a fur coat, which seemed to me at odds with the MG personality, but who’s to say?

There was a big happy whiteboard in the lobby, decorated with brightly-drawn flowers and declaring “Welcome Master Gardeners.” Well, they are assuming we’ll all make it through, which is a very nice thought. I hung up my jacket, visited the ladies room, signed in, took one of my name tags off my peel-n-stick sheet and headed into the auditorium.

Wow. Eliza was right. Most people were sitting in groups or camping out spots, reserving seats. Master gardening classes are not done solo, I see. The tables were set up end-to-end in 3 long rows and I, of course, chose the wrong place to sit. (I will correct that next week, arriving a little earlier – but Tony says that will ruin the whole seating arrangement which has now been established by the six hours we shared as a group today. He may be right, but I’m moving anyway. I want to look at the screen without my chair being in an awkward position all day. My right arm went all tingly. But I digress – as usual) As the room filled, I saw moms and daughters, groups of friends, sisters, more groups of friends. I heard one solo woman mention Tinley Park, so I said hello and we chatted for a few minutes – until the rest of her group arrived. SIGH. I was not the youngest person – there were some very young 20-somethings – and most certainly not the oldest. Out of a roomful of about 45-50 people, only two of us were men. Interesting…

The coordinator is a woman named Nancy, as earthy and energetic as you can get, a personification of Mother Nature, vibrant and warm. She is excited about her program, sharing the love of gardening, of volunteerism, of people – with humor, respect and honor for this opportunity. She told us that MGs are among the most trained and knowledgeable volunteers there are, that most are bitten by the bug and continue to learn, to share and to become part of a family. She stressed that this is not about learning everything, it’s about learning how to look for answers.

Then Ed Asner took over. Not really Ed, of course, but similar enough to be his brother. Another warm personality, dressed in a shirt with the U of I logo on his pocket. Greg took us through the subject of Botany today and within minutes, I pitied those who hadn’t seen the manual until this morning, or who were silly enough to pick it up and not read it. And I pitied myself for not reading the chapter through another three or four times. One of the first get-us-going-questions he asked was “what is an autotroph?” Now, in a split second, I wanted to weep, but then felt that this was a vaguely familiar term, something I may have read in the manual or perhaps encountered in a crossword puzzle. Before I had a chance to complete the thought, the woman across from me shouted out, “An organism that makes its own food.”

Well, crap. Really? One of THOSE women? (I was secretly happy when we got to life cycles and she shouted that dandelions were a winter annual – HA! I knew it was a perennial!) I strengthened my resolution to sit somewhere else next week.

Halfway through the morning session, I nearly cried at all I didn’t know. I felt worse at lunch when the Autotroph Woman mentioned she’d recently taken a botany course and a biology course at Joliet Junior College. She seemed nice enough, but rather condescending (oh, the autotroph answer wasn’t her only pedantic moment). Really, I’m so damned unreasonable.

Throughout the day, things started getting a little clearer. At times, I even knew the answer to Greg’s questions, although I never shouted out. (I did groan aloud – as did most of the class- when Creeping Charlie was mentioned. Quite a violent response universally.) Things started snapping together, making a little bit of sense, becoming part of a pattern.

I learned why my watermelons failed – the male flowers (who knew there were male and female flowers?!) emerged earlier than the female flowers (they were the ones with the little swellings – ovaries – behind them) and did not pollenate enough of those females. So the females then aborted their ovaries. WOW.

I learned how to “read” a twig. I learned that brussel sprouts are lateral buds. I learned that the auditorium is freezing cold all day and a t-shirt and flannel shirt were not warm enough.

I learned that corn is a self-pollinator and so are tomatoes. I learned that apples are cross-pollinators but still don’t understand how a Gala can’t be pollinated by another Gala, but must be pollinated by a different specific, such as a Red Delicious but will then bear fruit that is entirely Gala. No good answer to this question from Greg, who told me that the variations are in the resulting seeds, but not the fruit. Well, why not? If you need the pollen to start the engine (so to speak) the pollen must be contributing SOMETHING genetically, correct? (I called Rich on the way home and he couldn’t answer it either. He started talking about algae hybridizing, but I had to rein him in – that was NOT the question. Rich said he’ll drop me a book about this tomorrow. I’m thinking of emailing Dominic’s new science professor at Loyola. I want the answer to this.)

I learned what I’ve been doing wrong every single time I try to start seedlings indoors. I learned that a tree’s root system can extend more than 3 times their drip line. I found out that those charts that help you identify things are called dichotomous keys and I discovered it’s truly geeky to love them – and so found out I am truly a geek because I adore them.

I learned sugar maples can respirate 70 gallons of water on a hot summer day. I learned that roses have prickles, not thorns.

Tomorrow, there are many things I want to look and examine at in the garden. I want to cut a branch from the lilac bush and examine the inside of the buds – I’m told there are actually lilac flowers in there, all ready to bloom, purple and fragrant. I want to look for the stomates on leaves, the adventitious roots on the trumpet vine.

One of the most significant things I learned today is that knowledge and wisdom are different. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is really a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

And yes, I did buy cheese today.

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