Gardening in open learning environments

I spent most of yesterday in my garden, thinking about plants and how what I was doing in my garden might relate to my understanding of teaching and learning in open learning environments.

We have a large garden – ¾ of an acre. Over the years we have tried to organise the garden so that it is manageable. There is no way I can keep on top of it, even with help, and to be honest, much as I love my garden, and in particular the privacy it affords, gardening is not my first priority. The garden is too big for me to know what is going on everywhere and too big for me to manage all the plants. This is what one part of the garden looks like at the moment.

The Garden

Today I thought I would split some of the perennial plants and move them to fill up other gaps in the garden – such as the red and pink border plant (polygonum affine) you can see in the photo. But instead I found I spent my time thinking about dominant plants and how to deal with them, particularly Aquilegia, a deceivingly delicate, informal, pretty plant.

800px-Aquilegia-vulgaris-1020633

 Source of image

This year it has been all over our garden. I don’t remember ever planting Aquilegia in the 30+ years we have been living here. It seeds itself and pops up everywhere. But the problem is that it then, with its bushy leaf growth smothers every smaller plant around it and can crowd out even slightly larger plants. In other words it dominates and because it propagates itself, it is very easy, if you are not paying attention to your garden, to lose some lovely plants which it sits on top of. Aquilegia is the type of plant that is difficult to contain. It is everywhere. It is too much ‘in your face’! I spent much of yesterday either digging it up or moving other plants away from it.

The other plant I had to think about yesterday was Ground Elder. This is another plant which is everywhere is my garden. It is the worst kind of rhizome. What I really dislike about this plant, apart from the fact that it is almost impossible to eradicate, is that it springs up in the middle of another plant where it is definitely not wanted. This year I have had to constantly pick it out of the middle of my Hostas. To remove it completely from the Hostas, I would have to dig them up too.

Some plants seem to manage to seed themselves (or the birds seed them) and then grow into a self-contained shrub without causing too much bother to the other plants around them. An example of this that I really like in my garden and which is looking particularly lovely at this time of year is ‘sweet amber’ (hypericum androsaemum).

Garden plant

This plant is no trouble so long as you leave its berries alone, which are poisonous. If my children were still young I would be thinking seriously about digging it up too.

And then there are the trees. We have a number of large trees in our garden, such as beech and sycamore, which as they grow can create too much shade for other plants to thrive, but for me, they are much easier to manage than the Aquilegias and the Ground Elder. The trees seed themselves too, but it takes a long time for the seeds to get established, long enough to ‘nip them in the bud’.

So yesterday, whilst gardening I was thinking about the various approaches I could take to ensure that my garden thrives.

I could take a ‘hands off’ approach and leave it all to nature – let the self-seeding plants, rhizomes and trees dominate, take over and ultimately cause the death of many other plants. I’m sure the garden would survive, but what kind of garden would it be and what would happen to the diversity of plants? I’m not sure how attractive or interesting the garden would be as a result of this approach.

Or I could spend every waking hour, which is what I think it would take, to make sure every plant is growing exactly where I want it to, when I want it to. I think there is a lot to lose from taking this approach. First it would be a constant battle – nature has to be wooed rather than fought. And then there would be the loss of all those lovely unexpected surprises that a garden can bring.

But I think the only answer for me is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. If I took a ‘hands off’ approach I would question why have a garden at all, when I only have to walk into the nearby countryside to experience the results of letting nature take over. Taking a super-managed approach wouldn’t work for me either. I think it would quickly become boring. I want my garden to be a pleasure, not a chore, but I also want it and the plants in it to survive and thrive. To ensure that they do, I can’t allow a free for all in my garden. It does require some management. In particular I feel that it is my responsibility to manage those dominant, self-seeding plants and rhizomes, otherwise I might as well not have a garden at all.

Of course, the little I did in my garden yesterday is far from the whole picture when it comes to creating a beautiful garden. Nurturing plants so that they show us their full potential requires knowledge and expertise. It’s related to getting the balance right between structure and agency which I wrote about in my last post. A garden near us that seems to have really achieved this is Gresgarth Hall Gardens.  There’s a lot to learn from this beautiful garden.

Gresgarth

We only have to compare the photo of my garden with the photo of Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s garden, to see that there’s more to gardening than just management.

4 thoughts on “Gardening in open learning environments

  1. Gordon Lockhart September 6, 2015 / 8:24 pm

    Very interesting account Jenny and the high resolution photo gives a superb, detailed view of your fine garden. Our garden is about the same size as yours and much the same considerations apply. Super-management is out of the question now but we have thought about letting a part grow wild – although doing this without rhizomatic disaster seems not without management problems either!

  2. jennymackness September 7, 2015 / 8:30 am

    Many thanks for your comment Gordon. Gresgarth Hall Gardens has wild flower areas/meadows which work very well and look beautiful when in flower, but I suspect they take quite a lot of work – managed wildness seems a bit of a contradiction doesn’t it!

    Our solution over the years has been to only plant perennials and to put more of the garden to grass. We can now keep on top of it all in about 6 hours per week, but it is managed rather than gardened and it is nowhere near as pretty as it was before we did all this. Needs must though – and I still feel very privileged to be surrounded by planting all year round.

  3. sheilmcn September 15, 2015 / 8:55 am

    Hi Jenny – great post and what a lovely garden you have. I like the gardening metaphor for education and open-ness, in fact it was a key part of my OER16 keynote this year. I don’t have a garden but have some pots and really like the idea of guerilla gardening and transferring that idea to education so we can have pockets of open-ness under the radar so to speak.

  4. jennymackness September 16, 2015 / 7:43 pm

    Hi Sheila – thanks for your interesting comments. Is there a video of your OER15 conference keynote? I have looked and haven’t been able to find it, And re guerrilla gardening, I’ve always been in favour of doing things ‘under the radar’ if its the only way to get things done:-)

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