Teaching in the Garden

When I tell people I teach plant ID the first thing they ask these days is, “Can you even do that remotely?” While I guess it’s possible, it will never be my first choice. Since last spring I’ve racked my brain for ways to teach this topic while protecting my students’ health. If this class were just a lecture it would be a simpler task. There have been impressive advances in audiovisual technology since I was a student, but it’s just not enough. A plant is more than its picture. It is even more than the detailed botanical description (though many of them might seem like a thousand words). 

The first day of class I tell my students, “don’t just look at the plants. You have other senses. Use them all!” Yes, we prize ornamental plants for their beauty, but there is so much more to them. Close your eyes and listen in the garden. We call Baptisia australis blue false indigo, but an older name is rattlebush. We enjoy the blooms in spring, but I wait impatiently for the late summer days when the dry seed pod “waves in the wind” (a literal translation of aliwotuheski an even older name from Cherokee). 

  • Though the bright colors of marigolds catch the eye, you know them by their scent even before you see them.
  • When you stroke the soft fuzz of a Stachys byzantina leaf you understand why they are known as lamb’s ear.
  • When you discover for yourself that ornamental pepper is the same species as jalapeño (Capsicum annuum), that’s a lesson you, and your tastebuds, don’t quickly forget. 

In the garden we experience our subject in rich context that no photo or video can ever hope to match. 

The department always included a garden for teaching. The Allen Centennial Garden opened in 1989 to fill the space left after the teaching gardens outside Horticulture and Moore Hall (pictured above, 1979) were bulldozed for the Plant Sciences additions. Although the Department of Horticulture built and manages the gardens they have always welcomed classes from all over campus. Students in Plant Pathology, Entomology, Landscape Architecture, art, writing and the UW preschools are just a few examples of those who enjoy the experience of the gardens. 

This fall I insisted that without in person access to plants it would be better for us to put off teaching about Herbaceous ornamentals. Fortunately, we found a way. UW allowed classes to return to in person instruction if we could follow safety guidelines. This solution has meant extra work for me and my colleague Dr. Laura Jull. I’m hugely grateful for her willingness to join me teaching this fall. While she teaches half our students about plant culture and care via zoom lecture, I work with the other half outside in the garden with the plants – in small enough groups to be close to the plants without crowding each other. Later in the week we switch so the students can meet with both of us. 

And it’s been worth it. For two weeks in September all UW courses went entirely online. During that time we replaced our walks in the garden with video and photos. It just wasn’t the same. While the students worked hard to learn from home, we were all extremely grateful to get back to the garden.  

If a picture of a plant is worth a thousand words, what is the value of a garden?


Johanna Oosterwyk | Interim Director of the Garden