As I watch my garden emerging from its winter slumber, a new batch of seedlings has made their way into my care. One is a student who is pursuing her degree in horticultural therapy from the New York Botanical Gardens and the other is a group of special-needs young adults from an organization called Ability Beyond Disability. They both share many characteristics in that they have a lot to learn, want to spend as much time with plants as possible and hope to develop good work habits and skills to become productive in their chosen fields. But as does a cactus and Venus fly trap, they have very different care requirements.
My intern from NYBG looks to learn about the craft of horticultural therapy and has been participating at my classes for months. Unlike my clients she scribbles down notes frenetically between exercises and activities recording my steps (and missteps). We chat before and after our sessions so that I can pick tips up from her (to improve) and she can ask me questions about why I did what I did during the class. Her learning is mostly via osmosis.
My other charges have a different challenge as they are attempting to become attentive, good workers. This is much harder for both of us as I am taxed to make things interesting for them as well as give them lessons that will sink in. Unlike my NYBG intern whose care is constant and regular, my ABD students have vastly different needs that can change within minutes.
“Let’s remove all of these types of plants from this area,” I say to one young woman showing her the plant I want her to remove. She nods but I’m not sure if it takes and while she starts working well within minutes she becomes distracted and tired of her weeding activity.
“What’s the problem,” I ask. “This is boring and I’m tired,” she replies.
“Well I know but we need to weed. How about you weed over in the shade and I will do it in the sun. And then when we are finished, I’ll let you mow the lawn with the lawn mower.”
“That would be great, let’s start,” she said.
I have found that these students do not absorb my lessons readily but rather require multiple catalysts and re-directions to become engaged in an activity. I also find that if I interrupt the activities with different lessons or observations it helps them remain focused on their respective tasks. I have shown them fiddlehead ferns, eatable weeds, toads, groundhog holes and other discoveries to break the potential boredom.
I pull a spent daffodil seed pod and cut it open revealing a tiny seed factory holding collections of little seeds in concentric rows. “You want to cut these pods off so that all the energy of the plant goes into feeding the bulb making it bigger so that it will give bigger flowers next year and possibly divide to produce more plants.”
The students from ABD look at the dissected pod with wonder. “That’s so cool, why does that happen?” I then discuss how flowers are fertilized and soon we are back removing weeds.
It’s that sense of wonder and surprise that I tell my NYBG intern is really important to impart on a class. “One of the things I always try to do is to surprise and even shock clients. Remember that everyone wants to have fun. Think of it as a joke: you always want to deliver a good punch line.” So for a class where we were making grassheads, I gave everyone Groucho glasses as a whimsical add-on. In other classes, I withhold a key piece of the activity so that become surprised or fooled about the activity they are about to take on.
“So that’s why you hid all the material for the grassheads,” she said. “You’re right it did make a difference.”
It’s good when your sprouts take.