Putting It to Bed


With November just over the horizon, we’re approaching the third anniversary of this blog. When you’ve done a buck and a half of entries, it’s inevitable that a bit of repetition will occur, partly a function of living a blessedly undramatic life and partly the result of age-related factors. So, forgive me if I write again about my garden.

You may remember that Rosellen and I have two 10X10 plots in a community garden where about 100 other gardeners do their planting, growing and weeding. Just yesterday, we completed most of the preparations for putting one of those plots to bed for the winter. This was the plot which contained our frost-sensitive plants – tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, basil. Although there hasn’t been a frost yet, and none is predicted in the next ten days, growth and ripening has come to a virtual standstill, so this feels like a propitious time to shut it down.

I’ll describe that process in a moment, but first let me say these pleasant temperatures are actually a source of great concern. Global warming is causing sizeable changes in the dates of first frost and first snowfall. There may be aberrations in the pattern, but the long-term trend is clear. When we gardened in New Hampshire, we could anticipate a frost by mid-September. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re now later by 4-5 weeks too. It’s difficult to fully enjoy those warm days when you know that each one is a bell that tolls for you and for later generations.

In any case, our ritual for closing down goes like this. We pull up all the dead and dying plants and cart them off to the garden’s compost pile where they will prepare to enrich next spring’s plantings. Then comes the most physically challenging step of turning over the whole plot and removing the roots of any invasive plants that might take hold when the weather warms in the spring. The tool I use is a mattock; it’s been with me through close to fifty years of gardening. I don’t remember how we came by it, but I remember being told that it had belonged to a laborer who used it in the road work that put food on the table for many waves of immigrant workers. Each swing bites deep into the soil to expose what lies below the surface, including the roots of weeds no longer visible up top. Then we cover the plot with either burlap sacks or newspaper, followed by a thick layer of straw to cut off the sunlight to any weeds seeking to establish themselves before the next planting cycle.

This is strenuous work for an 83-year-old guy and Rosellen and I have discussed the possibility of cutting back to just a single plot for next year, but on completing the work on the first of our two plots yesterday, I decided that I can still do most of what I’ve always been able to do; it just takes considerably longer. I found myself pausing after every three or four swings for a breather in my slow march across the plot. To my amazement, I wasn’t even sore after a couple of hours in the company of my mattock friend, so barring being struck down by some unforeseen disaster. It will be two plots again.

Meanwhile that second plot isn’t ready for bed yet. It contains the green, leafy plants like kale, chard and arugula that can stand up against a light frost and maybe even improve their flavor as they battle the cold. After the first hard frost, whenever that comes, we will repeat the above process on the second plot. Apologies for the pun that’s coming, but our garden has kept us grounded, both in our urban and rural years. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the disorienting aspects of contemporary life is the result of becoming uncoupled from the natural cycles of nature which governed the lives of our ancestors until just a couple of generations ago. Gardening forces us to reconnect with those cycles, which are ignored at the peril of failure [that]which once meant starvation, but which are now more of an aesthetic flop. So, we’ll try to stay in sync with nature’s cycles as long as our bodies permit.

I want to switch to my day job identity as educator to speak about something that is troubling me. Yesterday, Chicago Public Schools announced that it would not be renewing the charter for the two campuses of Urban Prep. The schools presented an interesting model for educating Black young men, a most endangered population on their single sex campuses. The reasons given by CPS ranged from gross fiscal mismanagement to charges of inappropriate sexual behavior by the school’s founder. I’m not interested in adjudicating these charges. I’m not qualified to do that, but I am interested in CPS’s decision to keep the schools alive by taking over their management and consolidating them into a single campus. What’s impressive about the decision is its acknowledgement of the value of the original concept on which the school was founded.

In contrast, I have been following the demise of the Mission Hill School in Boston, which was shut down by the Boston School Committee. The school was founded by the great educator Deborah Meier and embodied principles of choice, project-based learning and a deep belief in the importance of relationships in student learning. The school was filmed and written about over the years and became a model for similar ventures around the country.

Beginning several years ago, some parents lodged complaints about the school’s failure to address bullying issues which were traumatizing some children as well as the failure to provide required services to students with special needs. Some teachers and administrators were removed, and the school district hired a law firm to investigate the claims and make recommendations about the future of Mission Hill. Their report recommended immediate closing of the school, which was clearly the intent of the Superintendent in any case, despite the fact that many parents continued to speak highly of the education their children were receiving at Mission Hill.

Once again, I’m not passing judgment on the accusations made against the school. Instead, I’m focusing on the decision to exercise the nuclear option and make the school disappear. Unlike the Urban Prep decision there was no effort to recognize and respect the model the school represented by finding ways to address its problems and allowing it to continue to stand as a model of effective teaching and learning.  There is an element of vengeance in the school committee’s action. It’s the equivalent of expelling students for their actions rather than seeking ways to recognize their virtues and helping them find a way to capitalize on them.

Because of that mentality we lost an educational gem in Boston while still holding on to something of value in Chicago. It may not pan out in the end, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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