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Beyond the Farm: In the Garden with Dr. Jennifer Stonaker

By Angela Becerra Vidergar

This quarter, one of my student’s presentations starts with the now very common and exigent question: “What is your pandemic hobby?”

Certainly we are familiar with the standards: making sourdough, knitting, and my personal favorite, gardening. I have grown up around beautiful gardens both big and small since I can remember, from exotic equatorial plants in Colombia to my mom’s tenacious, colorful landscaping creations that somehow survived blistering Texas summers. 

I always felt a little disappointed that despite my own mother’s resplendently green thumb, I seemed to have, at best, a brown one. I won’t enumerate the many innocent plants I have murdered. But faced with the anxieties and isolation of the past year, I gave gardening another shot.

Joy of joys, it turns out that with some care and dedication I was in fact able to grow my own potted beauties, some edible and some just for looks. The happiest side effect of these horticultural exploits, however, is that gardening provided a very special avenue for maintaining a connection to my dear friend and our resident plant expert, Dr. Jennifer Stonaker. In addition to her excellence teaching PWR and in particular her expertise in science communication, Jenne is a plant biologist. Recently I had the great pleasure to interview her about her relationship with our leafy friends:

Is gardening new for you, or have you done it since your early years?

I would say I definitely have done it since my early years. I have memories of my mom having us help her in the garden, like over spring break when we were kids. I know one year we hauled gravel that had been delivered into our front yard into the backyard. We got an aquarium out of it for our hard work, with some frogs actually. 

When I was in graduate school, my research involved planting a lot of corn every year by hand. We'd go out to our field site and we would plant our corn, fix the irrigation lines, weed, and put nets over the corn so that the birds wouldn’t eat it as it was growing out. 

Now we are fortunate to have a very nice yard here, so gardening has become more of a year round activity. In our front yard we grow plants in the summer to eat, but we also grow stuff all year long. In the rest of the yard I spend time keeping the gardens, the flowers and the shrubs and all of that really nice, which is something I had never really done before.

You mentioned graduate school. How much is your love of gardening connected to your decision to be a plant biologist? Are those separate things to you or part of the same activity?

They're part of the same activity, but they're also very separate.

I used to joke that just because I'm a plant biologist doesn't mean I have a green thumb. I might know why my plant is dying, but I won't necessarily know what I need to do to fix it. I know about the mechanics of how the plant works, but I'm really bad about knowing the names of different plants. People always say “Oh, you're into gardening! What's this plant?” But I definitely have gaps in my knowledge. The things that I know about plants are not necessarily always useful for gardening.

I think in general enjoying plants, working out in the field, and doing that kind of outside work--there's a real connection between that and gardening for sure. 

Has gardening taken on a new meaning for you during the pandemic? 

It definitely has. Again, I feel super fortunate that we have a yard and a place where we could be outside of our house but still sheltered at home. Early on in the pandemic, playgrounds were closed and we couldn't go to the park. So having our yard here, where the girls can go play outside and like I could do things to take my mind off what was going on was definitely really helpful. 

I also panic-bought a bunch of seeds, like people hoarding toilet paper. I bought seeds in March because I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to get to the nursery to buy plants and get vegetables for this summer. I thought, “The world is imploding and I need to be able to feed my family.”

So I ordered like $60 worth of seeds from Burpee. A lot of what we grew last year came from seeds.

That might be the most Jenne thing I've ever heard. 

Yes! I bought seeds and a 20-pack of Play Doh. Everyone else was being much more practical about buying things for living, but I was trying to occupy my children and make sure we have plants in our garden.

Take us on a little tour of your plants. What are some of your favorites? 

It was very important to me to have our vegetable garden in the front yard. We have raised bed planters where everyone who's walking around the neighborhood can see them, because I feel that gardens shouldn't be hidden away behind gates and where people can't see them. It should be more normalized so that people can see this is where food comes from; it doesn't just magically appear at the grocery store. So when you walk up to our house, the very first thing you see is these rows of planters.

We have beans, tomatoes, and a lot of lettuce. We have some peppers and I just put in a pumpkin. We've been growing our jack-o-lantern pumpkins for the past few years. We are also growing zucchini, eggplant, and cucumber. In the winter we do more leafy greens and peas and stuff like that.

Jenny's baby avocado

Jenne's baby avocado

Right now in the very front of our house, there's a full line of shrubs, which are a native California plant called carpenteria californica. It always reminds me of Russ because his last name is Carpenter and he's from California. They look like simple roses and are a white mass of blooms right now. Going into our gates and what I can see out my window right now, we have an avocado tree that hasn't made any avocados yet, but it's got little baby avocados on it about a millimeter long. I’m so excited! There are also peach and orange trees, and a planting area that is really natural. It has long grasses and flowers like a prairie.

Along the back of our fence we have a bunch of bamboo that screens the fence; anyone who sees me in Program Meetings has probably seen it. Then on the other side we have some grass and a huge loquat tree. I’m really sad that I haven’t been able to bring loquats to share at work!

Our yard is mostly pretty drought-tolerant, which was also something that was really important to me. Anything that I'm going to put water on has to earn its teeth. So the vegetables get water because we get vegetables from them. The fruit trees get water because we get fruit from them. The grass gets a little bit of water. It does not look pristine, like a green lawn. It's not like Stanford, where there's lovely green grass. I’m letting it grow really tall to see how that looks and how it works. 

I've also been trying to do more California natives, which is good for pollinators. There is research that shows that having plants that are adapted to a specific area is good because they have relationships with certain bees, insects, and other pollinators. For example, I picked up milkweed that's native to California for the monarchs.

It's confession time. Do you ever kill your plants? 

All the time. Yes! That's what's getting me to bring more native plants in. As other plants die, I've been swapping them out for more California natives. Stephen Jay Gould, who is a famous evolutionary biologist, has this whole paper about the rhetoric around native plants and how glorifying the native plant is actually kind of xenophobic, but about plants. It has been a long time since I read it, but I always think about that whenever I’m talking about native plants. It's not that other plants are bad, but I just want to make sure that in addition to other drought tolerant plants that we have from South Africa and Australia that we also have some California native plants.

Does gardening ever make its way into your teaching? 

Yes, actually - my PWR 1 course is on the rhetoric of plants. In Fall quarter one of my students wrote about community gardens and how that can be a way of connecting people to nature. I’ve also had several students write about the history behind why we like big grass lawns, or how they can be a status symbol. 

Earlier you were talking about how you felt so fortunate to have your outdoor spaces. Of course, land is really hard to come by in the Bay Area. Do people need outdoor spaces to have successful gardens? 

That's a great question. I mean, it obviously helps to have something close to you that you're going to use, but it's not an absolute requirement. I have houseplants, for example. You can definitely garden with small amounts of plants inside. The other thing I would recommend, once we're allowed back on campus to a greater extent, is the Stanford Educational Farm. It’s on the opposite side of campus from where we are. You can volunteer there with things they need, and it’s an actual, proper farm with massive amounts of space and chickens - all sorts of stuff. It’s a lot of fun and you can get your fill without having to have your own little patch of land. They also host educational events like “Rooted Words” that PWR colleagues are involved in each year.

Do you believe some people have green thumbs and others have black thumbs? 

I’m going to make a tortured metaphor here. It's just like writing in that some people might have like a natural gift and are good writers from the get-go, but that doesn't mean that people can't be taught and trained to be better at it. I would say it's the same thing as gardening in that some people seem to have a natural instinct for what a plant might need. But if you don't feel like you have that instinct - and I definitely do not innately know how to keep a plant alive - it's really accessible and easy to learn. If you feel like you have a black thumb, don't be intimidated and think you can't grow things. Just seek out help and you can learn. 

Final question: What tips would you give to new gardeners? 

I would say plant something that you like - something that you're going to enjoy seeing all the time. Also, make sure whatever you choose is the right plant for the space. So if you have a really bright window, a succulent might be great. If you have a shady window, then maybe there's a different type of plant that might be a better choice. Thinking about what that plant needs will help you. And yeah, if something dies, then just get a new one! It's sad when a plant doesn’t make it, but don’t stress out too much. It's a hard life to be a plant - they are very responsive to their environment and the environment not being quite right affects their growth. You just need to find a different plant that works better for that environment. So don't lose hope!

If you would like to hear more about Dr. Stonaker and her work with plants, you can listen to this interview I did with her for my children’s podcast Curiosity Engine, where she talks about being a “plant detective.” You can also listen to this episode of the PWR podcast Rhetorically Speaking in which Dr. Stonaker visits the Stanford Educational Farm (go directly to the segment here).


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