Weeds and Words

Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

This purslane, an edible weed seen commonly between the cracks in sidewalks, found its way into both the Edible Wild Plants Discovery Plot (appropriately) and the Sun Garden.

“They called it a weed, but it was only a thistle.  If thistles were more useful than wheat, we should call them a crop and the wheat would be a weed.”  -from The Harvest, L. H. Bailey (The Background Books, 1927)

“Little children love the dandelions: why may not we?  Love the things at hand; and love intensely.” -L. H. Bailey, from Garden-Making (The Garden-Craft Series, 1898)

Purslane had found a couple of our interpretive garden plots when I visited yesterday, and by the end of the same day she had been “weeded” out.  But if she finds her way back, especially to the Edible Wild Plant Discovery Plot where we planted dandelions at the Groundbreaking, I’d vote to let her stay.

Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

a dandelion, one of the pioneers from our Groundbreaking planting, in bloom in the Edible Wild Plants Discovery Plot (which my mom has actually "weeded" twice this summer to help the dandelions grow)

Everyone recognizes purslane, or “pusley,” although few of us know the plant by name.  If you’re in the Midwest — I can at least testify for southwest Michigan and central Iowa — you’ve likely seen it growing through the cracks in the sidewalk.  It was recently introduced to me by my girlfriend, Rachael, who read about it on our friend Liz Clift’s food blog, Flexitarian Writer.  This common weed is edible — and tastes good in her warm purslane salad with garlic and raisins (her recipe, which I have tried and recommend, is available on her blog here).

Liberty Hyde Bailey

Figure 21, "Common purslane or 'pusley.'" from The Principles of Vegetable Gardening, L. H. Bailey, 1921

So I know purslane’s a weed; I know it will grow wherever it can around here (to the disdain of some lawn-tenders); but when I saw it growing at our garden I was touched, and when I began looking it up in the Museum‘s reading library I actually became a little emotional, truth be told.  It shows up in Bailey’s Hortus (the first-ever dictionary of horticulture), The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, Practical Gardener’s HandbookThe Principles of Vegetable-Gardening (of the Rural Science Series), and Ada Georgia’s Manual of Weeds (edited by Bailey in the Rural Manuals series).  In the Cyclopedia, which includes entries from many authors that Bailey brought together, the purslane entry was written by Bailey himself.  He clearly knew about the plant in a way that few horticulturalists probably cared to, but as he notes there and in Vegetable-Gardening, this plant was indeed under cultivation as a potherb.  The fact that the humble herb may have been more popular among poorer rural farmers than among the scientific establishment did not make it less important to Bailey, and in the full two pages in The Principles of Vegetable-Gardening dedicated to the plant he never refers to it as a “weed.”

Liberty Hyde (L. H. ) Bailey

a page from the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1930) devoted almost entirely to several species of Portuláca, or purslane, including the flowering "rose moss"

Now I see purslane everywhere, and it registers love.  Who knew I’d ever feel actual affection for this common weed?  Portuláca oleràcea, as the Cyclopedia names it for me; a relative of Portuláca grandiflora, the flowering rose moss of many brilliant colors that demands little in the way of growing conditions, but gives such a great show in sunny weather; an old friend who I’ve grown with my whole life, seen daily on the street, but never known by name.  Pick one that hasn’t been sprayed by pesticides, and raw it is “slightly lemony, slightly salty,” as Liz describes it.  I think a potted P. oleràcea might do well in my kitchen when I return to Ames in the fall, and maybe some rose moss could be added to the side garden; we’ll see.  The lucky students at North Shore will grow up better having known this friend by name, I’m sure.

Lastly, before I sign out, I want to send a shout-out to the South Haven Public Library.  We didn’t have a copy ofThe Practical Gardener’s Handbook until they recently donated their full collection of Bailey books to the museum — about half of which had been signed by Bailey.  What a great partnership, and how wonderful that South Haven’s public holdings of Bailey’s writings may now all be accessed in one central location.

Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

flowers in the Full-Sun Garden at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path


Posted in Bailey Garden Path, Bailey Museum, education, L. H. Bailey | 3 Comments

Pinks and a Movement

Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

pinks planted under the sign of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

“It is the first day of the buried hopeful year.  Through the snow I have waded to my garden of dianthus.  […]  Over the ground around the plants was placed an inch of soft old mold when the last blackbirds left us, and later the stalks from the Golden Bantam corn were laid lengthwise between the rows of pinks; and now the snow has drifted the spaces full and is on guard for me.  Yet here and there a blue-green tuft peeks through,–Picotee and Grenadin and Pheasant Eye from Enlgand, perpetual carnations from Germany, and I know that just there are maiden pinks and marguerites from France, alpines from Switzerland, choice things from other European lands.  Here are Chinese pinks that bloomed for me in the lost autumn from seeds sown in the open in May and that will flower again when the swallows come, more than two hundred kinds.

“How lightly I name the countries whence they came as if they were only idle thoughts!  And yet I see the waysides where I have found them growing in these lands, the church with the old bell and the pinks hard by, the stile in the wall, peasants in the walks, green fields and backgrounds of mountains and temples beyond the bounds of Christendom.  And how lightly I name the kinds,–those pinks that have been evolved in some loom of mystery through a million years and whose destiny to change or to perish or perhaps to exist for a million other years is all unsuspected by me!  How worldly quick I am with contacts of men and mountains in a thousand lands that I myself have never seen, and how rich with suggestions so faint that I know them not!”  -L. H. Bailey, from The Garden of Pinks (1938)

The other day my mom planted a few humble pinks around the base of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path sign.  The planting was not simply decorative; Bailey’s mother Sarah, who died from diphtheria at the age of thirty-eight when Liberty was only five, cared for a garden of pinks at the Bailey homestead (the site of the current museum), and the memory of that garden stayed with Liberty for the rest of his life.  He published The Garden of Pinks, excerpted above, at the age of seventy as a part of his last book series.  At that point in his life, he remained committed to the expanding of horticultural knowledge, and would make trips to Central America to study palms well into his nineties, but he was also ready to dedicate some of his energies to the familiar old plants he loved.  Pinks, along with The Garden of Gourds, The Garden of Larkspurs, and The Garden of Bellflowers, rounds out that final series and illustrates that the true passion behind Bailey’s horticultural expertise grew out of love–not out of some hobby-interest, nor of the accolades, the “career,” or any sense of scientific domination.

The love of plants, like the love of anything, must be rooted in particulars and personalities.  Bailey loved pinks because they meant something personal to him–they symbolized the care for small, humble, but beautiful things, which would characterize his lifework and which he would always owe to the mother he scarcely knew.  And maybe he just liked the way they looked, smelled, felt during the planting and pruning.  Like the love for parents or partners, love is no science, and Bailey was more than a scientist.  But that love led to the kind of intimate and rewarding knowledge that he describes in the quote above, which links him to “men and mountains in a thousand lands that I myself have never seen, and […] suggestions so faint that I know them not.”  How few of us today can take a walk down our home street, let alone our own gardens, with the kind of awareness and sensitivity Bailey had!

To cultivate such love–which leads to learning–is a large part of why we are creating this garden path at North Shore Elementary in Bailey’s hometown.  Bailey heavily advocated for the evolving nature-study movement in the rural schools around the turn of the century, and went to pains to emphasize that “nature-study” does not imply mere natural science teaching.  It represents an entirely different perspective than the number-crunching pedagogy-obsessed curricular nightmare that Bailey observed evolving in some school districts during his day.  It begins with simple, direct observation of real phenomena, establishes inquiry, and lets the child learn first through discovery.  That establishes the particular, personality-driven love that allows for higher levels of abstract thinking.

In Bailey’s day as well as ours, “nature-study” in this sense replaces no existing curricular objectives, but it supplements curriculum by providing a way for the child to enter into the discussion.  Children don’t get “GLCEs.”  (Pronounced “glicks,” “Grade Level Content Expectations” make up the formulaic curricular system that Michigan has developed.  For instance, in fourth grade, S.IP.04.11 is a science GLCE that refers to “Make purposeful observation of the natural world using the appropriate senses.”  The fourth-grade teacher is responsible for 47 GLCEs in the science curriculum alone, as well as all the GLCEs for Social Studies, ELA [English Language Arts], Mathematics, Physical Education, and Health Education.) “GLCEs” can be helpful to remind a teacher of the material she needs to cover, but if she begins with the GLCE and presents the material as organized in the GLCEs, she is working with an abstract system and separates the student from the actual material–all before the student even has a chance to get interested.  Good learning stems from curiosity and self-discovery, not from abstract dictums passed from on high.  When I was a little kid growing up in the South Haven Public Schools, I wanted badly to be an astronaut, and I remember checking out as many outer-space science books from the Central School Learning Center as I could.  But I wanted to be an astronaut because I loved looking at the stars at night, not because I loved looking at handouts or books.  The stars came first.

That’s why we’re building the garden path, and that’s why so many of us in the community love this project so much.  Many people have remarked at the positivity and energy that this effort has generated in town.  (Shameless plug warning:)  If you’re interested in getting involved, shoot an email to Liberty.Hyde.Gardens@gmail.com, or feel free to attend tomorrow’s Brunch at the Baileys’ discussion, which I will lead, regarding the concept of nature-study in regard to our school garden path and a few of the implications it has for the current sustainability movement.  Also, if you are interested in the quote above, Bailey actually excerpts it from an earlier book, The Garden Lover (1928), and the museum is selling some lovely (very gift-able!) pamphlets containing some of the best excerpts from that book.  You can buy them at the museum for just $5.oo, or, if you’re too far away, negotiate ordering them by calling or emailing the museum.

(Of course, the opinions presented in this blog post in no way represent the official opinions or sentiments of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum, North Shore Elementary School, or anything or anyone else besides this humble writer.)

Posted in Bailey Garden Path, Bailey Museum, education, L. H. Bailey, South Haven | 1 Comment

Planting the Garden

Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

the new sun garden at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path, North Shore Elementary School

“I know persons who are musicians and yet have no musical instruments.  Some of them can perform on instruments and some of them cannot.  If they are performers, they miss the instruments the more.  Do not most of us, with high taste for music, secure our satisfaction in it from those more fortunate or more skillful than we?

“I know poets who do not write poetry, artists who do not paint, architects who do not build.  I know gardeners who do not garden.”  –Liberty Hyde Bailey, from The Garden Lover (1928)

Coming from Bailey, the man who revolutionized American horticulture by bringing the science of botany to the common gardener and farmer, this quote comforts me.

I don’t garden, really, or I hadn’t until the other week.  On June 30, at promptly 7:00 PM, I joined my mother and four ladies about her age as we descended upon a dirt bed, raised with railroad ties, at the site of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path.  Cindy Murphy, a local horticulturalist and master gardener from Huntree, came with a color-printed plan based on the plants people had agreed to donate via email listserv the week before.  I fell to weeding with some of them right away — a task I could do, had done for my parents growing up, to get my confidence up — but I was nervous when someone first handed me a trowel and a potted plant and pointed to the spot in the soil where it would go.

Liberty Hyde Bailey Interpretive Garden Path

the path, before Bob and his crew constructed the plots

The garden path rests between the school bus parking at North Shore Elementary, where Mom teaches during the school year, and a quiet stretch of North Shore Drive, a road that leads into the nexus of South Haven’s part-year lake home crowd.  Bob McGuinness, a kind and dynamic guy who works as a horticulturalist/landscaper with Brickman and Associates in South Haven, has set up three plots in the grass field visible from the school, and the path connecting them winds into the woods and out into the weedy field beyond.  The final plan, which Bob drew up, includes 15 plots, each with a different educational focus, which students will be able to wander through and explore, guided by teacher-led activities or by the instruction to go find a question.  The point is to promote natural learning through discovery, by putting students up against the real and tactile world that they actually inhabit — which is not a classroom.  Learning then progresses from the concrete to the abstract, and studies at the elementary level have repeatedly shown that this works best.  It probably works best for all of us, but once we’ve progressed far enough in our education we can elect to delve into the abstract studies that interest us most — these kids, of course, don’t have that option, so they need a way in.  Bailey promoted this at the turn of the century under the moniker of “nature-study,” along with other promoters of that movement like Anna Botsford Comstock, and it’s still being championed by educational scholars like Richard Louv in his modern classic, Last Child in the Woods (an overview as well as a resource guide can be found here).

Anyway.  Here we were, a somewhat unlikely group of gardeners, a couple teachers, and a twenty-something Bailey dork home for the summer, following a dream that a few of us started piecing together a year ago.  As I became more adept at tapping root systems cleanly out of pots, following the instructions of my mom and of Dee, a teacher who I knew as an eight-year-old in this same town, I recognized myself as the “gardener who does not garden,” just another worker-steward caught in the collective vision of a community, trying to care for, to raise, a living project that no one person could ever create.

This blog, for the time being, will serve to document the garden path project from the curious perspective of the summer-break student, the son of the project leader, and the summer’s Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum intern.  It will also satisfy a requirement for the fieldwork portion of my MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University.  I would love any comments or suggestions that would make this blog more interesting or helpful for you, so feel free to leave those below or let me know.  My working tagline for this blog is “Student in the Real World,” with the hope that after my fieldwork I might continue to post updates about the intersections of my studies with the “real world” experiences of everyday.  The goal, I think, resonates with Bailey’s whole life work as well as with South Haven’s current garden path project — to demystify graduate-level academic study, cut the crap, be real, and connect with people.  If nothing else, it should help me figure out what I’m doing with my life in this broken economy and environment, in this turning world.

I’ll end this (t00-long) first post with a poem by Bailey, from the book that I used to swipe this blog’s title.  John Stempien, museum director, recently shared this at a Brunch at the Bailey’s discussion, and I think it’s appropriate here.  It’s the second-to-last poem in his only full book of poetry, Wind and Weather.


From morning till night and everywhere
My days are full of their effort and care;
Full of labors to drive and schemes to test,
Of work to finish and knowledge to wrest;
And the known result of this noise and strife
Is what men and the world all call my life,–
This is the meed of the work that I own
Outspread on my life as an overtone.

But ever there runs through the work I own
The all-silent stream of an undertone.
This stream is myself as my life I live
And out of it flows all the strength I give.
It’s the tone of the hills and calm of the plain
The smell of the soil and the touch of rain;
‘Tis a careful thought of the calm sweet grass
An abiding joy in the birds that pass
In the mite that lives in the growing shoot
And the changing tints of the leaf and fruit;
‘Tis the melting snows and the morning sun
And the soft gray days and the marshes dun;
‘Tis appeal of frost and the fragile dew
Of the passing clouds and the depths of blue;–
Then a quiet heart that can give no sign
Of the sacred calms that are only mine,
Or the gentle sins that are part of me
And the silent twigs are part of the tree,
Or memories deep I cannot express
Any more than the tree in its wild’rness.

The peace of the winds is my undertone–
I move with the crowd, but I live alone.

Posted in Bailey Garden Path, Bailey Museum, education, L. H. Bailey, MFA Program, South Haven | 2 Comments