October 29, 2018

Thank you, Dorothy Jasiecki

This is a blog about gardening, which can be reasonably defined as growing, nurturing, caring, and cultivation.  However this edition of the Principal Undergardener will not be about the gardening of flowers or vegetables but, rather, the nurturing of young people's minds, the cultivation of their intellects, and urging the growth of their curiosity.  More specifically, it will be about a very special gardener of young minds: a teacher named Dorothy Jasiecki.

Me in 1967.  The less
said, the better
I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride.  For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past 13 years.  The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice.  Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel.  The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up. 

This blog is my equivalent of an etude.  It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine.  Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.

Me, as I look these 
days. The less
said the better
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words.  She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a spanking new school, Miami Springs Senior High .  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.

Dorothy Jasiecki circa 1968
Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests.  What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction.  She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds. 

Our reading list was designed to
stretch the mind
Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses.  She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made.  We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.

The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading.  To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it.  And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes.  (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)

All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor.  The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows.  These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.

Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader.  I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class.  But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her. 

She was recognized for her skills.  Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class.  My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.

At the 2007 reunion with Ms. J.
That's classmate Jane Greer at right
I last saw Miss Jasiecki eleven years ago at my 40th reunion and spent much of one evening doing nothing but listening to her reminisce about her years in the classroom.  Time had taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind.  It turns out that her best memories were of her first years at Miami Springs and at her predecessor school, Norland High. 

She passed away in 2015.  Were she alive, she would have turned 93 on October 30th.  And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2018.  She touched thousands of lives and, for a certain number of them (including mine), she left an indelible impression that transcends time.  She still looks over my shoulder as I write; ‘tsking’ at lax grammar and use of ‘easy’ adjectives.

Ms. J circa 2015
We did not all become writers or poets.  We went into computer science, sales, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military.  But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.

Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other.  I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education.  But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me.  I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki, and thank you for being the teacher you were, and the inspiration you still are.

October 21, 2018

Farewell to the 2018 Gardening Season

What can you say about a gardening season that was perfect for growing… weeds?

The detritus of our 2018 garden
makes its way to the transfer station
New England summers are notorious for being fickle.  May frosts, monsoon rains in June, July droughts, humidity festivals in August.  You name it, New England can deliver it.  And, this year, boy, did it deliver.

The lettuce, spinach, and beet seeds we planted in early April were washed away.  We replanted, and it was so cold that nothing germinated.  In mid-May, we had a 600-square-foot garden that was barren except for a large patch of dill that sprang from self-planted 2017-vintage seeds.  We were so desperate to show progress in the garden, we left it in place.

Our first square of corn was also a no-show for three weeks, even though we covered the area with netting to dissuade marauding crows.  Finally, in mid-June, we had sufficient sprouts that we could assemble a passable seven rows of corn – from the ten we originally planted.

Our vegetable garden
was under row covers to
keep out bugs
Because of the rains of May and June, we tented everything with row covers.  Our garden began to resemble a refugee camp.  Eggplant, zucchini, green beans, and winter squash were all sequestered until they burst out of their covers… whereupon the squash borers and Mexican bean beetles descended on the plants.

Some vegetables were a bust.  Five pepper plants mysteriously became three.  In the end, we harvested four usable peppers.  Our re-planted lettuce crop bolted so quickly we picked enough for perhaps half a dozen salads and I never did harvest any spinach.

All was not lost, of course.  Eight tomato plants thrived in the midsummer heat and began producing prolifically.  Our corn, not quite ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’, grew like a teenager in July and early August; so much so that our first and second squares of corn looked identical despite having been planted 20 days apart.  A modest-sized third square produced enough September corn to be worth the effort to cajole it along. 

It was a banner year
for tomatoes
The weather was, apparently, perfect for cucumbers because we handed out dozens of them to our neighbors.  Our zucchini exploded between mid-July and mid-August to the point we had to pick twice a day lest they turn into baseball bats between sunrise and sunset.  We had our best crop ever of fennel, and harvested enough green beans before the bean-beetle onset to feed us through the winter.
We also had a bumper crop of weeds.  They grew everywhere, cozying up to plant roots, hiding between rows, and boldly popping up in pathways.  When we pulled the row cover off our second crop of green beans, the weeds were higher than the surrounding vegetables.

I have spent the past two weeks taking apart the garden - hauling it to the transfer station by the carload to ensure the hitchhiking bugs and diseases do not have an opportunity to burrow in for the winter – and, now, much of the garden is again bare ground.  The late arugula is thriving and I have hopes some late tomatoes will ripen. 

You might think from reading this that I’ve begun to despair of gardening.  Not for an instant.  It took three years to figure out how to grow fennel in our garden and, now that we’ve mastered it, we will enjoy its unique flavor for years to come.  We just enjoyed the last of our corn and marveled at its sweetness. 

Give up gardening because of a little rain and a lot of weeds?  Not in a hundred years.  Once it’s in your blood, it’s there forever.