2018 Budding Botanist Winner Rosemead High School
Students working in Rosemead High School’s Best of Thymes Garden are taking a very different approach to plant selection. In her interview with Los Angeles TV station ABC7, Kaitlyn Ly shares, “We’re introducing weeds into the garden because we want to change people’s mentality towards weeds. Weeds are actually more beneficial than people would recognize. Many weeds are edible and medicinal which means they have medical-like qualities.”
Planting weeds? Really?
The Best of Thymes Garden is located at the edge of an urban campus in one of the most densely populated areas in Los Angeles County, California. Five years ago, Rosemead teens established a program to replace water-intensive landscaping with xeriscaping. Teacher and Garden Advisor Joseph Vasquez recounts that “almost immediately, the garden became a catalyst for other school sustainability projects, involving nine classes across content areas that integrated garden learning in Biology, Chemistry, English, and Art.” Each year their program grew in size and scope. Some of their most recent garden projects include a vertical garden demonstrating a space-saving and interesting ways to grow herbs; and a Hugelkultur garden where students learn about wood recycling, carbon sequestration, and gardening without irrigation or fertilization.
The latest addition to their program, the “Wisdom of Weeds” Garden, was designed to challenge their students to think critically. “It is counterintuitive to welcome weeds,” notes Mr. Vasquez, “But this project intends to do just that. While designing, planting, and maintaining the garden, curriculum will engage students in higher-order thinking. Teens will reach beyond the simplistic ‘get rid of it’ solution — and wrestle with definitions: ‘Is this a weed?’ ‘What do we do with it?’ They will consider the relationship of whole to part … they will explore the relationship between structure and function — how changes in activity lead to changes in function. They will engage in systems thinking — how the parts coordinate and what is made up as a result. We have set aside new space to for our weed garden, but once it is established, students will move on to consider weeds in the context of our existing garden.”
Although some weeds are truly invasive “exotic” (non-native) plants introduced into the environment, other things we often classify as weeds are just hardy natives that are well-adapted to local conditions with the vigor to compete with our chosen garden plants. Some of those plants that we try regularly to eliminate from our gardens are actually beneficial to our local ecosystems by providing food for pollinators, offering stability to soils to prevent erosion and water runoff, and can help beautify our landscapes while needing minimal water or care.
Mr. Vasquez explains it well as he says, “even within our urban environment, weeds create habitats for pollinators. Certain plants increase the population of beneficial insects, reduce pest damage, and benefit the production of healthy, delicious, ripe fruits and vegetables. Early spring-blooming weeds such as dandelions and purple deadnettle attract bees; summer’s thistle is great fodder for birds and milkweed attracts bees and large butterflies; autumn’s late bloomers, such as aster, feed native bees, flies, and small butterflies. Weeds have been called ‘plants out of place.’ Students in this garden project will learn to optimize the benefits of weeds, thus promoting sustainability and biodiversity.”
Instead of immediately eliminating volunteer plants in their garden, students at Rosemead will learn to consider horticultural and ecological purpose when deciding a weed’s fate by asking some of the following questions:
- Is the plant invasive? Aggressive? Once planted, does it become too difficult to control?
- Does the time, effort, and soil disturbance to remove a weed outweigh the damage the weed is causing in the garden? What non-toxic methods of weed control could be used (hand pulling, digging, shading)? Or can the weed be ignored and left in place to grow?
- Does this plant offer the garden any benefits? Does it promote mycorrhizal activity for healthy soil that improves nutrient availability to plants and stores organic matter (carbon) in the soil? Does it support bees and wild pollinators with safe, poison-free food by orchestrating year ‘round blooms that support native species?
- Can the plant be consumed by humans? Common weeds like dandelions, purslane, plantain, and more to bring a flavorful touch, vital nutrients, and salt-free variety to diets.
Through this garden, students will learn a very important lesson. “Things are not always what they seem!” exlaims Mr. Vasquez. “In the “Wisdom of Weeds” project, students are dared to consider their assumptions — things they had previously learned and do not question. This often requires a total paradigm shift… a different way of looking at the situation, in which a common assumption is critically challenged, on purpose. Ultimately our goal is to change perceptions people have of gardens, and maybe even question other perceptions they have about things that, like weeds, seem out of place or useless.”
What a great skill to take with them as they move through life! Through this program they will learn to see that all living things in an ecosystem have a role to play and can help provide balance. They will also discover the importance of not being confined by common practice, but rather be encouraged to always search for better solutions. They will be inspired to investigate the world around them in a new light. This Budding Botanist winner is creating imaginative and innovative ways to grow the next generation of environmentalists! The Budding Botanist grant program is sponsored by the Klorane Botanical Foundation.