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Garden Stories: A Literary Garden

A black metal crow sculpture overs over a sedge plant, which is a mound of pointy grass.
Sedge (local) for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

“It’s impossible to teach Walden and talk about Thoreau observing nature in a cinderblock classroom without windows,” says high school English teacher Jennifer Tianen. This belief is what inspired Jennifer to bring her students outside and to start a literary garden at West Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, MI. “Even though our Walden unit took place in the winter, we’d still go outdoors and I just remember how surprised students were to see how much was still alive when they took the time to look closely. From there, the idea of a garden—a place that could connect students to literature in a way that makes it come alive—emerged.”

“Originally, we started with a neglected, weedy space” recalls Jennifer. “We began to ask museums, authors, and estates if there was anything that still grew at the homesteads or family homes of renown American authors that we could have.” And over the years, the Bloomfield HS literary garden has amassed an incredible collection of plants: lilacs of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Witman, a periwinkle from Alice Walker, harrison yellow roses from Emily Dickenson’s Amherst home, a viburnum picked out specially for the school by Josh Millerman, evening primroses planted at the request of Rita Dove, and sunflowers grown from seed provided by the Allen Ginsberg estate. 

Not all the plants in the literary garden are straight from the homes of great American authors. Some plantings are simply inspired by works read in Jennifer’s 10th grade Honors American Literature class and 12th grade “Points of View” senior elective. “We have local daisies to connect to the Great Gatsby. And a pear tree—we read Their Eyes Were Watching God and the discussions we have are so much richer if we’re outdoors sitting by a pear tree, talking about why these settings are so significant.” 

When Jennifer talks about connecting her students’ reading assignments to hands-on learning experiences through the garden you can sense her passion and excitement. “Having these plants here, it humanizes the authors, it let’s the students see what the authors were inspired by, it adds to their understanding of texts. For example, we also read The Fall of the House of Usher by Poe—he mentions sedge in this story and we have that in the garden. So we can go out there and consider: how does this one mention of this small plant contribute to what is so wrong with this house? When you see how the plant is rank and mottled, you get the sense that something is wrong, and you just know this is a house that is prickly and full of horror.”

Using the garden to achieve academic objectives isn’t the only reason Jennifer loves getting her students into the garden. “My priorities have shifted over the years. First it was the literature, the literature, the literature. Then I began to realize there are all these social, emotional, and health benefits getting outside. And post-Covid, I’m much more concerned with this social-emotional wellness piece. I want the garden to be a communal space where students can be empowered, and can reconnect with each other and with nature.” 

It’s these students that are essential to the success and growth of the garden. ”I think when the students wanted to start a club based on taking care of the garden and I was able to hand over control of the space to that club, that was a turning point,” shares Jennifer. “It doesn’t always run perfectly, but when they get fired up—to see that passion and to know there’s a committed group of kids every year with new ideas who want to keep the garden going—that’s so special.” And while the West Bloomfield High School literary garden has continued to expand year after year under Jennifer’s guidance and with the Literary Garden Club’s enthusiasm, she advises other English or ELA teachers interested in undertaking similar projects to start small. “Don’t try to do too much at first. I definitely learned that from experience! Start small, bring in a single pot of daisies. Look at what’s in your text, bring it in, and discuss why it’s symbolic.”

She notes that this advice—to carefully consider how much to take on before diving head first into a big garden project—isn’t intended to intimidate teachers. “You can have your passion, stay true to yourself, go for it, and you’ll inspire other people. I’m just a teacher who dressed up as different authors and acted out parts of books and now we have a whole literary garden! I just want to try to get the kids to see things from different perspectives and do whatever I can to make learning active and interesting.”

A sunflower with a deep black center. The petals are orange near the center and yellow at the edges. In the background is a brick building. The words West Bloomfield Literary are partially visible on a sign.
Sunflowers (seeds sent from NY) by request of the Allen Ginsberg Estate in honor of his poem “Sunflower Sutra.” The sunflowers are by far, one of the most popular flowers in the garden. Students and staff love coming back in August to the joyous riot of cheery yellow sunflowers ablaze in the Literary Garden. Certainly recalls Ginsberg’s lines: "A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!"

Yellow evening primrose flowers, along with green foliage, are at the base of a metal sign with a QR code. Other words on the sign are hard to read.
Evening Primrose: local, as requested by poet and essayist Rita Dove. Her poem “Evening Primrose” is the impetus for this request. Dove told my students via email that she is a night owl and often composes her work at night.

A ripe red pear, on a pear tree.
Pear tree, local, in honor of one of the central symbol of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

In April we recognized Jennifer and the West Bloomfield High School literary garden as one of six Kids Garden Month school winners. Having recently watched a PBS documentary about Ernst Hemingway, students in Jennifer’s Literary Garden Club were inspired to write six word stories that captured why they love their garden.