Digging into a virtual garden of discoveries

Root systems

When you’re asked to draw a plant, you start to see them in an entirely different light. Here, one of my lab drawings for a botany class on root systems.

There’s an acquaintance of mine who rolls her eyes every time I mention that I’m taking another online gardening course. I figure she just doesn’t know what she’s missing. I get that “gardening” and “online” may seem to go together like “fish” and “bicycle” but there are virtual classrooms out there offering amazing experiences that not only make you a more successful gardener, they can change the way you look at plants, see the world, and see yourself. Let me try to convince you.

LEARNING HOW THINGS GROW CAN MAKE YOU GROW

In my brick-and-mortar-school days, I was terrible at anything that involved math or science. So all those insecurities came rushing back when my first lab assignment for Botany (offered by Humber College‘s Continuing Education online courses program) explored diffusion (the action of molecules moving from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration). This involved cutting up an onion in two different rooms in our house and measuring the time it took for the smell of the onion to travel from one corner of the room to the opposite corner.

Screen shot paper

Learning about diffusion and learning that getting it wrong is half the fun.

What has smelling cut-up onions got to do with gardening, you may ask? Understanding how molecules move helps to understand how water travels up a stem and into the leaves and petals of a flower. So here I was, feeling a little silly, as I cut up onions in our bedroom and then, feeling increasingly anxious, attempting to calculate the rate of diffusion (speed) divided by cubic meters of air volume. [FULL DISCLOSURE: My guy is naturally brilliant at all things math and science. Thank goodness he was there to help.] You can see by the photo at right that I didn’t get full marks (teacher’s comments in red). But I passed. And with that paper, the awe-inspiring world of biology cracked open, just for me, and the young girl inside my head who hated math and science vanished.

ONCE YOU KNOW YOUR BIOME FROM YOUR ECOREGION AND YOUR PINNATE FROM YOUR PALMATE VENATION, YOU MIGHT BECOME MORE OF A BORE AT COCKTAIL PARTIES BUT YOU’LL ROCK THE NEXT WOODLAND HIKE.

I started another course at Gaia College thinking I was going to learn about native plants. And I did. But first I had to endure a baptism by fire otherwise known as ecosystem and plant identification. In hindsight, it all makes sense. When you’re standing in the middle of the wilderness, you need to understand what you’re looking at in order to identify individual plants. So this means learning to identify environments and which plants prefer which as well as identify plants by their own unique attributes. This also involves Google becoming your new BFF and getting really good at drilling through plant databases. I had no idea there was so much information about plants (native or otherwise) available. The trick is to know where to look. And now that I know a little bit about how to look when I’m out in the countryside, I feel like Dorothy stepping out of a black and white world into a full-on technicolour wonderland.

Profile of native plant

For this assignment I learned how to write up plant profiles. This one was on Gentianopsis virgata (Lesser Fringed Gentian).

DISCOVERING THAT THE SUM OF A PLANT’S PARTS CAN ADD UP TO, WELL, A WHOLE DIFFERENT PLANT.

During that same native plants course, I got very up close and personal with a variety of flowers, shrubs and trees. Students chose their own plants so one of mine had to be the shrubby flower with lovely purple blooms that thrived in the ditches lining the highway on the way up to our cottage. I figured it was going to be just a simple purple wildflower. By the end of the massive spreadsheet report we had to complete, I had discovered that:

• each lovely purple flower is actually a composite head–two flowers in one. The yellow centre is a grouping of disc flowers surrounded by purple, irregularly-spaced ray florets.

• the leaves are clasping, meaning that they are attached to the stem in a way that makes them look like the base of each leaf hugs the stem. This, of course, totally endeared them to me.

• the veining in the leaves is called reticulate tertiary which is a fancy way of saying that each leaf looks like a tiny green road map.

Needless to say, Gertrude Stein got it wrong. A rose is not the rose you think it is. You gotta look a whole lot closer.

I’ve also taken online courses on container gardening, gardening with annuals, and gardening organically. When the snow is blowing outside and your furnace is rattling inside, it’s a pleasure to hop online and be transported into virtual worlds of green and growing things. You might also find yourself transported into various composting bins, too. It happens when you study organic horticulture. But, that’s all part of it.

I’m going back to school next week. I start Plant Knowledge 2 – Ornamentals at Gaia College in Victoria, British Columbia, while never leaving my desk in Oakville, Ontario. I can’t wait.

Are you ready to give online gardening studies a try?

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