The Unlikely Gardener: Working with the ground is what grounds NWU English professor

The unlikely gardener sat one block from campus on his front porch, nearly hidden behind an unruly row of uninhibited spirea swaying on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon. He looked the way a professor on sabbatical ought to look: introspective and relaxed to the point of drowsiness in a T-shirt and shorts, his feet up on the rail, a yawning cat by his chair.

Ask him where he’s from, and Associate Professor of English Larry McClain will admit, “I never know what to say to that.” The shortest answer: He was born in New Jersey, spent much of his childhood in Connecticut, and lived for 14 years in Texas. He came to Nebraska Wesleyan and bought this comfortable front porch on Walker Avenue (and the big house and yard that came with it) in 1995.

And in that sunny yard, he accidentally became a gardener.

“It was not an intellectual decision,” McClain said. Nor was gardening some long-held wish. “As a kid, the idea of gardening would have made me roll my eyes. That’s what old people in funny hats do.”

Nor was it connected to his childhood relationship to food. “Growing up, I loved Tang and Pringles. The less natural it looked, the more my sisters and I liked it.” Had you asked him then where green beans come from, he’d have likely answered, “A can, stupid.”

McClain said when he and his wife, Professor of English Gerise Herndon, lived near Austin, Texas, they loved camping in the cedars, hiking in the hills and swimming in the lakes. That was how they connected with nature. When they arrived in Lincoln, they struggled to find similar opportunities here.

He remembered visiting a nearby lake that first summer and not being impressed. “It looked like somebody accidentally left a hose on and everybody decided to call it a lake.” And somehow, hiking between soybean fields didn’t resonate in the same way as hikes in those cedar-filled hills near Austin had. So he asked Barbara Straus, wife of Professor of English Scott Stanfield, “What do Nebraskans do to connect with nature?”

Her answer: “We garden.”

That resonated with McClain. A connection to nature that didn’t involve a car-ride to someplace else. A connection to nature that you grew yourself, right outside your door. A first time homeowner, McClain also liked the idea of digging something up without having to ask a landlord for permission. “That’s how it started. A lark. A project. It was more like, ‘I bought this shovel and wheelbarrow. Let’s use them.’”

Herndon and McClain established their own division of labor. Herndon was in charge of flowers. And McClain focused on fruits and vegetables.

Their yard adventures quickly coincided with another in the kitchen. Coming from Austin, the couple missed good Mexican food. “In Lincoln in the mid-’90s, there was Tico’s, La Paz and not much else,” McClain said. So they began cooking the kind of food they missed, using the ingredients they grew.

“It’s so much better in Lincoln today,” he said. “You can get really great Vietnamese, African and Middle Eastern food. All of that’s happened here fairly recently.” But that access hasn’t blunted McClain’s desire to grow, experiment with and cook his own produce. He rose from the porch and walked to his well-tended plots. He pointed to his cool weather plants, which were coming along nicely in late April. “I’m growing chard for the first time this year. Before that, it was arugula. It makes great salads. It’s just exciting to try new things. And potatoes, picking potatoes is like a grown-up Easter egg hunt—it’s so much fun to dig and search for them.”

When asked how his work as a gardener related to his work as a professor, he wasn’t immediately convinced there was much of a connection. He contended that gardening is a science, and, for him, its mystery centers mostly on the science he doesn’t know. “But the older I get, the more I’m convinced that teaching is an art,” he said. “Students aren’t products on an assembly line.” Nor are they produce on a vine. “They’re not standardized. With humans, there’s just too much variation.”

When he picked a young arugula leaf and chewed it, a parallel did present itself to him. “When I first started teaching, I thought the best way to have a good relationship with students was to be friendly and likeable and nice,” he said. “I graded their first papers, and I remember thinking, ‘Well, they’re not that bad. I understand what they’re trying to say.’ And I gave them all As and Bs. They were happy and they all seemed to like me. Then I got their second papers and they were no better. And I realized I’d already given them the expectation that this was good enough.

“You can be too nurturing,” he said. “You can nurture students into not growing.

“It can be the same with plants. A young plant wants nothing more than for you to water it every day. But if you do that, it has no motivation to put roots down. The roots stay shallow and the plant becomes more vulnerable to drought, disease and heat.”

He offered an arugula leaf. It tasted peppery, almost mustardy and alive. He said, “Students and plants both have to feel just a little bit abandoned sometimes. It helps them to grow more deeply and to become more prepared for the challenges ahead.”

McClain’s patient thoughtfulness during this, his sabbatical year, might just exemplify another parallel between growing plants and teaching students. Fields allowed to go fallow every decade or so come back more fertile than before.

Good to grow

Use some of Larry McClain’s tips in your garden this summer and next spring.

  • Plant cool weather plants, like chard, spinach, lettuce, arugula and broccoli far enough apart that you can come back and plant warm weather plants, like tomatoes and peppers, between them.
  • Grow what you like to cook and cook what you like to grow.
  • A chicken wire fence can keep out rabbits, but you’ll need to add a chicken wire roof to keep the early birds off your strawberries.
  • Don’t let a spring warm snap tempt you into planting tomatoes too early. If the soil’s too cool, they’ll just idle for a few weeks and become vulnerable not just to frost, but also to disease.