The Strawberry Leaf Parable
A few years back I sat in our county extension office Master Gardener classroom. It was a simple space. A few long windows shrouded in dusty shades dimly lit the front of the room. The laminate tile floors supported lab-type tables wide enough to accommodate two people, which were lined up in three columns from the front to the back of the classroom. Posters with bugs, ants, flowers and water conservation reminders graced the walls in a haphazard manner.
As I sat next to the friend who had convinced me this was a good idea, I watched our classmates file in. My first observation was that 26 year olds like myself were not the target market for this class. When my turn came, I timidly introduced myself as a homemaker with an enthusiasm for gardening and a love of learning. Others carried with them the titles of landscaper, designer, horticulturalist, teacher or lifetime gardener. I felt small, and very self-conscious, knowing myself under-prepared for this venture. But as this and subsequent classes began, I found myself soaking up the material. It all seemed relevant to my small new garden spaces at home and I sought out every opportunity to utilize my new-found knowledge. After almost 3 months of copious note-taking, I was starting to enjoy increased confidence and even mastery of some of the concepts. I was delighted by my thriving plants as well as my correct answers. Though still intimidated, I had also developed some comfort with my classmates; many of whom had decades more experience than me and intricate, beautiful knowledge about nature that I only dreamed of. This perceived acceptance left me feeling brave enough to take in my very first leaf. You see, in a Master Gardener class, time is devoted each week to seeking the advice of experts in contemplating possible plant ailments. These soil sages would offer diagnoses and information on rehabilitation when you would bring them a piece (leaf, stem, fruit) of your floundering plant. My very first leaf was a heart-shaped, rough-edged, deep green strawberry leaf. It had become mottled with tan dots and had shadowed with patches of maroon. Certain that I could be assisted in saving the plant, I carefully cut a few leaves, gently wrapped them in damp paper towel and sealed them in a small plastic bag. When the time came to withdraw them and present them for diagnosis, I hesitated only for a moment before thrusting them into the hands of my trusted tutor. He took one look at them, front and back, handed them back to me and told me the plant was merely dying because it’s growing season was over and the weather was too hot. Certain he misunderstood the variety I was dealing with, I explained to him that I had only just planted these strawberries a few months before and that I expected them to bloom and produce fruit through the summer. He smiled and explained that in this southern climate, strawberries are to be planted in November, kept warm during winter and only expected to produce fruit through about May. He reiterated that my plant was dying and went on to the next leaf. This edict came at a time when I was struggling daily under the weight of several heavy burdens. So when he issued the advice, instead of simply making a gardening note in my November calendar, I submitted it to myself as further evidence that I was out of my league, didn’t belong here and would never be able to learn all the information requisite to be the kind of graceful gardener I had hoped. It was fortunate for me that I sat in a room with some seasoned folks who regularly offered the following advice: “You have to kill a hundred plants before you can become a master gardener.” For perhaps the first time, my mind opened to the realization of how much one can learn when mistakes are considered valuable.