What are you curious about in your garden? What are you hoping to learn this season?
You might be signed up for something you didn’t plan to learn.
Maybe you’ve always been a flower gardener, but then somehow you discover the joy of growing your own garlic.
Last year, you grew your own tomatoes to great success. This season you may question why you even bothered.
Maybe you didn’t like pulling weeds for your mom, and now she’s gone and you suddenly want to have a garden of your own.
Our gardens are classrooms. And those classrooms are filled with many teachers or Upah Gurus.
Upah Guru is the Hindu word for the teacher next to you at any moment.
The Upah Gurus in your garden this year might be the seeds you just ordered, a mystery plant that you inherited, the hydrangea that refuses to flower, the rose that won’t give up.
One of the things that can happen to gardeners is that we can focus on the teacher, not the teaching.
What if this season, your mindset is simply to be a good student. You don’t need to get straight A’s in the garden - no one is putting that pressure on you but yourself. You’re simply there to learn. To focus on the teaching. The teaching is what makes us better gardeners.
Today we remember a phenomenal woman: Maria Sibylla Merian.
She was born on April 2, 1647. As a frame of reference, Isaac Newton was only a few years older than her. Unlike Newton, Merian’s work was largely forgotten. However, over the past century, her work has made its way to us.
Merian has the it factor. In 2011, Janet Dailey, a retired teacher, and artist from Springfield, Illinois, became so captivated by Merian’s life story that she started a Kickstarter campaign to follow Merian’s footsteps to the mecca of her best work - Surinam, in South America. In 2013, Merian's birthday was commemorated with a "Google Doodle.”
Merian would have delighted in our modern-day effort to plant milkweed for the Monarchs. The concept that insects and plants are inextricably bound together was not lost on Merian. In her work, she carefully noted which caterpillars were specialists - meaning they ate only one kind of plant. (You can relate to that concept if your kid only wants to eat Mac and cheese; they aren’t being picky - they're specialists.)
Before all these social media and high tech, drawings like Merian's were a holy grail for plant identification. One look at Merian’s work and Linneaus immediately knew it was brilliant. Merian helped classify nearly 100 different species long after she was gone from the earth. To this day, entomologists acknowledge that the accuracy in her art is so good they can identify many of her butterflies and moths right down to the species level!
Between 1716 and 1717, during the last year of her life, Merian was visited multiple times by her friend, artist Georg Gsell - and his friend Peter the Great. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for THAT meetup.
Gsell ended up marrying Merian’s youngest daughter, Dorothea Maria, and Peter the Great ended up with 256 Merian paintings. In fact, Peter the Great so loved these pieces that when Merian died shortly after his last visit, he immediately sent an agent to buy all of her remaining watercolors to bring them home to St. Petersburg.
Here’s a fun story for you. On the Maria Sibylla Merian Society website, the feature a video that shows writer Redmond O’Hanlon flipping through an original Merian folio (with gloveless hands!) Now O’Hanlon is a scholar and explorer himself. He is known for his journeys to some of the most remote jungles of the world. At one point in the video, he becomes speechless. Then, he just lets out this big sigh and says, “It’s so simple. Without the slightest doubt, she is - she was the greatest painter of plants and insects who ever lived... I mean just between you and me, she’s the greatest woman who ever lived. You can keep Catherine the Great. Maria Sybilla Merian is the real heroine of our civilized time."
On this day in 1513, Juan Ponce de León claims new land for Spain. He names his discovery La Florida; in a nod to the Easter Season, which the Spaniards called Pascua Florida (Festival of Flowers).
In 1819, the first successful agricultural journal, American Farmer, was published in Baltimore.
Today, in 1711, Job Baster was born. Baster was one of the first Dutch nature researchers to use a microscope to look at flora and fauna. He wrote down his findings in a book. He also wrote an excellent translation of Philip Miller's work on horticulture.
In 1758, Baster was given a beautiful property loaded trees and two large ponds. He called it Zonnehof (Sunshine Farms). As a new pond owner, Baster decided to try his hand at breeding Goldfish. A versatile scientist, Baster exchanged letters with leading biologists of his time, and the first twelve fish arrive thanks to a contact in England. Unfortunately, all the goldfish die. The following year, Baster gets eighteen more fish. Two die, but the rest survive. Thirteen years later, Baster owned more than a thousand goldfish. When Baster died, an inventory of his estate showed that all of his goldfish had been sold - raising over seven hundred guilders (not a small amount at the time). That’s Job Baster, the man who introduced goldfish to the Dutch.
Baster also drew goldfish and then hand-colored the images. I’ve seen these images, and I’m telling you they have that iridescence that makes them look like someone just laid out real goldfish on the page - they are that life-like after all this time.
Baster had a large collection of shells. At the time, adhering shells to furniture was a fad in Europe. Baster took the fad and ran with it, covering a buffet with European and Tropical shells. At the bottom of the buffet are the coat of arms of Baster (jumping greyhound) and his wife Jacoba Vink (climbing lion) - all made out of shells. After seeing the Baster buffet at the Royal Zeeland Society of Sciences, one sightseer commented, “one can almost hear Baster’s wife, who donated the piece to the museum after his death, saying, “Job, will you do something with all those shells!"
To honor Baster’s work with mollusks, there is a floating snail named for Baster, and the Dutch Malacological Association's scientific journal “Basteria” is a nod to this versatile explorer of the natural world.
A pineapple in Merian’s own words:
“This is a ripe Ananas (pineapple), which must be peeled to be eaten. This fruit tastes as though one had mixed grapes, apricots, red currants, apples, and pears and were able to taste all of them at once. Its smell is attractive and strong.
The caterpillar which sits on this pineapple I found in the grass beside the pineapples in 1700 at the beginning of May. It was light green with red and white stripes along the whole body.
On 10 May it changed into a chrysalis, and on 18 May, a very beautiful butterfly (Philaetria dido) emerged decorated with luminous green flecks, which is shown twice, resting and in flight.
If the butterfly is observed through a magnifying glass, the ‘dust’ on the wings resembles fish scales with three branches on each scale, covered with long hairs. The scales are so symmetrical that they can be counted without any difficulty. The body is covered with feathers interwoven with hairs.”
Researching Merian, lead me to the poet Allison Funk’s fantastic book Wonder Rooms.
In Wonder Rooms, Funk has a series of 8 poems called "Maria Sibylla Merian's Metamorphoses”. Each poem captures moments in Merian's life between 1647 and 1717. The poems are nested like Russian dolls. The first poem Is nested in the second poem; the second poem is nested within the third, and so on.
Today's Garden Chore
Today’s garden to-do is to get ready for starting up your irrigation system.
Order the parts you like to use and frequently need to replace them.
New emitters always come in handy and maybe add some misters for your garden visitors.
And don’t forget, that when it comes to irrigation, your ears - not your eyes - can help you sleuth out leaks.
to revive the little botanic spark in your heart
After you turn on your irrigation system for the first time, walk around each zone and LISTEN - for gurgles, bubbles, the sound of running water. You’ll often hear it before you see it.
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