Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Let it be a challenge to you

Fringecup and woodruff are undaunted if not impressive underneath the double whammy of magnolia and spruce.

It's a durable teaching cliche--my mom heard it in the '60s when she was getting her credential, and I've heard it a time or ten myself, though with the fashion changing from paternalistic to collaborative leadership, it's gone out of style a bit.

Let it be a challenge to you. Did your class swell to 34 tenth-graders for your 28 desks. Are 8 of them basically illiterate, not counting the 5 who are still learning English? Do they all have to pass the WASL to graduate? Let it be a challenge to you (not to mention to them).

Actually, the last time I heard that phrase in person was a decade ago when I was teaching a credit makeup class for at-risk high schoolers. Two of them had been on opposite sides of a fight that had ended in hospitalization for one and a no-contact order for the other. They and their gang wannabe cohorts in the class were supposed to spend 80 minutes together in a pint-sized classroom, peaceably working on their English and history credits. I asked my principal how to accomplish that and he suggested I let it be a challenge to me. I wish I could say I rose to that challenge in Freedom Writers style, inspiring the whole roomful to find their common ground. More prosaically, the young warriors skipped school often enough so they were seldom there together, and both did somehow manage to graduate. One went on to thrive in life; the other stopped by my house a couple years ago, understandably jumpy because he had several outstanding warrants, and we had a long talk. At the end he thanked me for listening and shambled off. Last I heard he was back in jail.

But I digress. I was actually thinking about my southeast garden patch, aka Where Plants Go to Die. Yesterday I came across a book of lists for Pacific Northwest gardeners. One list was of Trees Impossible to Grow Anything Beneath. One was a Magnolia grandiflora; three others were spruces. Guess what shades that patch: a gorgeous big magnolia and a blue spruce. My neighbor has the trunks but we share the branches, and more to the point, the aggressive, matted root systems. "Test your plant growing abilities with these!" say the authors. In other words, let it be a challenge to you. Since that patch is the view out my dining room window, I'm motivated to get something going.

I can tell you some things that don't grow there: maidenhair ferns, Japanese painted ferns, mountain laurel, lace cap hydrangea (still clinging to life, but not a happy plant), astilbe (same as the hydrangea), red osier dogwood, various spring bulbs, and other sacrificial victims whose names have gone unrecorded.

It's probably not surprising that most of the keepers so far are Northwest natives who are used to the shady, competitive life of the undergrowth. Plus sweet woodruff, of course, which is sort of a starling of the plant world--attractive and adaptable and altogether too much of a good thing. I've got reasonably happy goatsbeard, fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), shooting star (Dodecatheon), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), wild ginger, and native bleeding heart. A native flowering current may also make the cut; it's too soon to tell. So it seems possible that spring and summer will look welcoming out there in another year or two. I'm still looking for small evergreens that can take the punishment and provide a view in winter.

Next school year when I'm sitting at the table working on curriculum, trying to figure out how to connect my students to literature and to each other, I'll be looking out at that patch. Chances are it will be dark out there, but I still want to know that something has taken root, that "Impossible to Grow" is just another challenge.


Mr. Green Genes said...

One other little native ground cover you may want to try (and which may survive or may not)is the False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum dilatatum)...

Lanester said...

I do have some of that in another difficult part of the yard, and it's doing pretty well. Also, I'm happy to report that the bunchberry plants are thriving.
My friend and gardening guru Binda Colebrook tells me they can be tricky, so I'm pleased.

Mr. Green Genes said...

It seems that, once established, it takes off like a wildfire in Southern California...
I have some growing across the road from my house and it increases rapidly each year. I transplanted some out to Toad Hill about a week ago, and it has already begun to multiply... maybe a good sign, maybe not!