Volunteers, “Weeds,” and Heirlooms: What Gardening Teaches Us About School

As a weekend gardener who loves to grow my own hot peppers, herbs, tomatoes, and more, I spend a lot of time looking at dirt, seedlings, vines, and flowers blooming. I pay attention to insects of all varieties: helpful pollinating bees and ladybugs, harmful aphids and mites, and rare praying mantises and monarch butterflies. I seek out the unusual, the strong, the complementary, and the beautiful. I proudly harvest all of my produce: that which is bountiful, that which is imperfect, and that which is serendipitous. 

This year, tomato seedlings popped up all over my garden, and in gardening nomenclature, seeds that germinate but that you didn’t plant are called volunteers. Most of the time I pull up the volunteers as they can be weaker, can harbor disease or pests from the previous year, or generally not meet my vision for what I want to grow. This year we kept three volunteer tomato plants (which turned out to be heirloom striped cherry tomatoes and plum tomato plants) and several squash plants (maybe a cheese and a snake gourd?). All of these volunteers have been equally or more vigorous than our nursery-started seedlings. The squash vines in particular have seemed to make growing a competition, displaying vines twenty feet in length! 

My family has been quite interested in foraging for food, especially food that many deem weeds. In gardening, you have to weed to give your plants the time to outpace the more aggressive weeds: dandelions, clover, purslane, lamb’s quarters, chickweed, and plantain. The great thing is, all of these “weeds” are edible by either simply washing, chopping, and adding to your salad, or by processing through blanching, roasting, or drying. It feels very much like a win-win moment to weed the garden, which in turn gives more room for the cultivated plants and feeds the family at dinner time. 

Of the many great things about the “farm to table” movement, the rediscovery and appreciation of older varieties of native and heirloom plants sits close to the top for me (along with natural fermentation, local meats, and CSAs). As I mentioned above, the red and green striped cherry tomatoes all over our garden are a testament to the beauty and diversity of the fruit and vegetable world. So, too, are the local raspberries that took over a slope in the front yard, as well as the newly planted asparagus starting to develop in the back yard. 

So, what does all of this have to do with education? In a Quaker school, we have a mission to look for the inner light in all of our students, colleagues, parents, and friends. The careful looking, thinking, researching, and caring of a garden speaks to the intentional and deep way that we cultivate the inner light in a school. As we begin this new year, I plan on taking this thoughtful and varied approach to growth with me as a guiding principle for working with all Friends Select families.