Adam Bearson, Philosopher-Gardener

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

As I got out of my car, a strong smell of curry greeted me from the front yard of Adam Bearson, philosopher-gardener extraordinaire. I traced the aroma to a busy, silver-leafed plant in the daisy family, one of the many herbs, native plants and fruit trees that comprise, in Bearson’s words,  “a horticultural work that is perpetually in progress.
“When we moved here in 1992,” Bearson said,  “all we had was a lawn with some camellias growing against the front of the house. It looked pretty much like every other house on the block,” he explained, directing my gaze down his street in west Toluca Lake. I saw the usual row of lawns with foundation plants shoved up against house facades and, occasionally, a straight line of annuals or a hedge on one or both sides of a driveway or front walk.
“A garden for me is a place for learning, a laboratory for research and experimentation,” Bearson said.   “I am not interested in creating a picture postcard of a garden, where everything is kept in a state of sterile perfection. I move plants around continuously. I not only want to observe under what conditions different species grow best, but also see what they look like in different combinations. For me, gardening is an interactive experience. I am building a relationship with the land around me and with the plants that grow on it.”
By now, Bearson and I are seated in two Adirondack-type chairs that, together with an interconnecting table, form a single unit. It is here, where the camellias once grew, that Bearson will often sit with his wife, Karen, and take turns looking at their garden through binoculars.
Before you jump to conclusions that his is a huge estate – for why else would a gardener need binoculars? – let me assure you that Bearson’s front yard is no bigger than average. He uses his binoculars to leisurely focus in on the plethora of insects that thrive within the flowers of his plants, especially the California natives among them.
“In the spring, the congregation of insects is truly amazing,” Bearson enthused.   “The California poppies are inundated by every kind of bee, wasp and hoverfly. We also see a large variety of birds.” As he spoke, a blue jay flew in and picked away at seeds ripening atop 7-foot sunflowers.
Bearson has just finished his first year as a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He teaches English and ESL at Verdugo Hills High School, and draws parallels between teaching and tending a garden.
“Lots of teachers are afraid of chaos,” he said.   “Yet out of chaos comes learning. Besides, when you have a class of 40 kids, the noise and distractions will either drive you crazy, or else become a source of energy.
“The same principle applies in my garden. I like to put a lot of different plants together and, to an outsider, it probably looks like hopeless chaos. Yet from this seeming hodgepodge of plants, beauty will suddenly become strikingly visible.
“It also helps, I might add, if you have neighbors like mine, who are tolerant of horticultural experimentation in their midst.
“At the same time,” Bearson continued,  “a teacher cannot Let a class run wild any more than a gardener can let plants grow every which way and permit weeds to take over.
“The longer a teacher lets a class go without discipline, the more distant the relationship becomes between teacher and students. In the same way, the longer a gardener neglects his garden, the more distant his plants become, and the more reluctant he is to care for them.
“Eventually, distance from students – or plants, for that matter – means that what were once objects of attention and affection come to be avoided. The classroom/garden experience will be more of a nuisance, even a source of dread, than a joy.
“To prevent this from happening, as a teacher, you must be in close communication with your students at all times; as a gardener, you must be out there with your plants on a very regular basis.
“The point to be remembered is that you are not going to create a perfect class of students any more than you are going to create a perfect garden. It is the process of learning and the effort expended, in the class or in the garden, that is important – not the final result.”
Bearson maintains that  “the highest purpose of learning is to gain knowledge for its own sake, just as the ultimate purpose of gardening is to create beauty for its own sake. The moment you start measuring results in dollars and cents, or start to evaluate good learning or good gardening by some practical yardstick, inspiration and creativity are lost.”
In the opinion of Bearson,  “Bottom-line thinking, which emphasizes results rather than process or honest effort, may be appropriate for the corporate boardroom but has no place in the classroom or in the garden.”
Tip of the week: As we chatted on a hot July afternoon, a branch from a eucalyptus tree across the street suddenly broke and crashed to the ground.  “Never park your car under a eucalyptus tree on a hot day,” Bearson advised.  “Eucalyptus leaves take up so much water on hot days that eucalyptus branches become extremely heavy and are highly prone to breakage.”

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