Harlan Holmes: Gardening Bodhisattva

Kate and I are taking a vegetable gardening class at Longwood Gardens, which is a little bit like taking “Figure Drawing 101” at the Louvre, I guess; you can see how that would kind of cut both ways. Maybe it’s more like taking “How to make Nourishing Stews” at a culinary institute renowned for creating giant, complicated pastoral scenes involving naiads and warthogs made entirely out of butter, or something. You figure they probably know all about stew, but on the other hand nourishing stew maybe isn’t entirely their, you know… thing.

The good news is that the instructor is not a professional horticulturist, he’s a “backyard gardener”, which is a little bit like calling Burt Rutan a “backyard hobbyist.” Harlan Holmes lives in Oxford, PA, and encourages us to “think like plants.” Some facts about Harlan Holmes:

  • He says that gardening is easy once you’ve learned to “think like a plant.” Which he does; he wears sandals, and props the doors to the classroom open on both ends to admit outside air: “Carbon dioxide buildup can kill, you know!”
  • He is a tall, upright, gray-haired guy with an accent almost like Kasey Kasem’s
  • He has five kids and had two jobs: a schoolteacher during the year, a house painter during the summer.
  • Like many schoolteachers, he’s a renaissance man: so far in the class, we’ve touched on:
    • Astrophysics, with a diagram of the analemma, the asymmetrical figure-eight made by the sun if you were to plot its position in the sky at noon through the year,
    • Chemistry: Anions! cations! pH, and the mapping of the pH scale to what farmers call “bitter” or “sweet”),
    • Physics: Root pressure, osmosis, and plough pans), and ancient languages (“Chelated iron, — from the Greek χηλή, meaning claw — means that the iron is bound up with another agent, so it’ll be available over a long period of time…”, and
    • Important Gardener’s Holidays: In our area, January 28th is the first day with 10 hours of sunlight, and marks the first of Harlan’s 17(!) yearly plantings.

Some other tidbits:

  • Harlan Holmes hates wood. He uses plastic lumber to edge his beds, and a plastic handle on the sledge he uses to pound rebar to keep the plastic lumber in place. “This stuff will outlast us all!” he says proudly.
  • To my mind, that’s a sign of legitimacy. Harlan is not a “back-to-the-land”-er, he’s a gardener, and he organizes everything along the axis of what’s good for the garden, not what’s, you know, made of indigenous materials or whatever. Amish farmers are the same way; they’re not anti-tractor, they’re anti-dependence. Amish farmers love translucent fiberglass roofing, for example.
  • He definitely prefers not to use water-soluble commercial fertilizers in his garden, though. For example, once our soil test results come back, we’ll be calculating the amount of alfalfa, soy meal, powdered greenstone, and other stuff to mix in to get the nutrient balance right. This is done, er… now-ish, and stored in plastic tubs in the garage over the winter.
  • Though on the other side once again, this guy is not averse to using technology in the service of the garden. He’s got a salt shaker that he uses to introduce trace amounts of boron to the soil when it’s needed. And he’s looking for a good source of molybdenum.

My favorite part is when Harlan showed his true colors as a 110% unrepentant, high school teacher style gardening nerd: he displayed slides of his “leaning stick”, a device he made out of a one-legged spring-tipped field stool and a Nordic Track hip pad, which he then rigged with a harness and strapped to his chest so he can lean way over in the garden and use both hands. He showed us a picture with this remarkable device attached, in which he looked EXACTLY like a confident Victorian gentleman inventor with his balsa flying machine: straps surrounding his shoulders, spring-tipped steel post protruding out in front. This guy is a sandal-wearing gardening cyborg, man.

In case it isn’t clear by this point, I’m enjoying the hell out of this class, not least because you get to go BACKSTAGE at Longwood, though so far I still haven’t seen one person doing any actual work. In all seriousness, it’s like the Wonka factory. All the work must get done between four and six AM, or something. And the classroom is an excellent throwback to middle school, with desk chairs that squeak when you deploy the folding arm, and an actual by-god transparency projector, which is such a nice change from Powerpoint decks delivered over a Proxima I can’t even tell you. Yes, Harlan! Cover up the lower half of the transparency with a sheet of paper so I don’t get distracted by the stuff you’re not talking about yet! Yes, by god, you annotate that xerox diagram with a sharpie! Hell, YEAH!

So both Kate and I are having a great time, though our to-do list gets longer by the day. I now have to go sharpen a shovel, and we need to order some planter’s paper, with which we’ll cover the sod in the area we’re going to plant in the spring. And we need to buy a min/max thermometer, and… and… phew! Lydia is having a great time planting bulbs, though, and she l-o-o-o-o-oves weeding.

So: so far, gardening hobby? Four stars. And we’d better learn fast, because after fifteen years of work, Harlan has reached 17% organic material in his beds, and a perfect balance of both primary and secondary nutrients. Next year, he’s going to try a system involving pats of hay, seeding the plants, and then basically walking away and letting nature take its course which you can do when the beds are perfectly tuned. At that point, I’m pretty sure he’s going to turn into a being of Pure Energy and become unavailable to teach classes, only appearing with a silvery nimbus to gardeners, his leaning stool sticking out from his glowing chest:

“Plastic lumber!” he will say in a chiming, ethereal voice. “It will outlast all of us!”

PS: I just went back and re-read the course description, which says that Harlan (“Jim”) will show you “…how to integrate gardening tasks into your busy life by spreading them over an entire year.” Ha ha ha ha ha! This is, of course, true for some definitions of “integrate.”

One response to “Harlan Holmes: Gardening Bodhisattva”

  1. Your instructor is clearly a saner version of our neighbor on Rabb Rd. in Austin, TX. (Your mom might remember his name.) He was a mad Brit imported to teach the rubes how to improve Texas soil by plowing newspaper and sewage sludge into it. He grew orchids in the live oak trees and created a garden-jungle in the common yard where you might find okra or a gourd or zucchini if you were diligent. Harlan trumps him for sure.


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