Planting seeds of interest


Mrs. Burton taught my class of hillbilly children the important lessons in academic life: cursive, long division, geography near and beyond the Ohio River, and—most memorably—tree identification. For years, her fourth grade classes at Ponderosa Elementary had compiled extensive notebooks full of fall foliage and all proper classifications. They were beautiful masterpieces that surely all pre-Pinterest mothers anticipated with great anxiety.

After receiving my assignment, I skipped the Saturday cartoons and left to find the most diverse set of leaves. I climbed high and scraped briars low, ruined my Keds sneakers, and definitely trespassed, but I still considered my collection a success. At home, my mom was tethered to the wall via the telephone cord. My dad and brother were gone, probably at baseball practice. How could I possibly identify all these random leaves?

Mom ended her long-distance conversation and made one more call to our older, outdoorsy neighbor. Hack affirmed he knew most of the leaves in my pile, information filed away in his still-sharp mind. Helpful Hack agreed to help me with my homework under one condition: we’d have to start over. Experience is the best teacher. Repetition is pretty great, too.

Fast forward twenty years, and I find myself in a similar situation. I’ve started in the local cooperative extension’s Master Gardener program, and this past week we wandered throughout the Western Botanical Garden in search of monocots and dicots, leaves that were opposites, alternates, or whorled, and so on.

Somewhere near the sunflower patch, my group and I began to struggle to remember our reading. I did what any prepared (millennial) gardener would do: consulted my smart phone. With untethered information at my fingertips, my group and I quickly identified several of the trees and shrubs around us and gathered the necessary samples for our assignment.

Though my group learned how to leaf through the botanical identification books, I’ve made it a point to memorize the trees around home. Armed with an awesomely-geeky new app for plant identification, my boys and I take walks and discover more about the world around us.  Maybe eventually I’ll teach them how to write the tree names in cursive, or we will explore what is beyond the river.

Experience is the best teacher. Repetition is pretty great, too. Just don’t ask me to do much beyond long division.

Neena is a Kentucky wife, mother, daughter, and beekeeper who does life in Owensboro. Her first novel, The Bird and the Bees, is a Christian contemporary romance set to be released in April 2020. Visit her at


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