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Rhizomatic Fine, But What About Transplanting?

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

Probably my most rewarding activity since returning to my home in Arizona late last year has been tending to my landscape. Just for the record, while I live in Arizona, my house is on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, and I am fairly sure the 6000 foot elevation contour line runs through my driveway. This is still an arid environment, but its a Ponderosa Pine forest system, with abundant Juniper and scrub Oak. The grand sum of my estate is 1/3 of an acre.

Part of my strategy, in line with my reducing waste, is making as much use of materials present (a lot of rock), using the slope for cascading drainage, encouraging wild flowers and natural growing specimens like manzanita, but also experimenting with planting other things– for example Aspen, which naturally grows at higher elevations, but can succeed here if watered sufficiently.

I have no in depth horticulture knowledge; what I do is experiment, observe, and make a lot of guesses and mistakes. I’ve done pretty well with my irises:

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

In these efforts, I’ve been thinking a bit about Dave Cormier’s analogies of networked plants (rhizomes) and learning.

Rhizomatic learning is a metaphor that always feels familiar to me, though I must admit not being too sure what I do with it, since it feels like my normal mode of being. Now metaphors can be tricky if you fall too deep in with them, but here I go with my garden tools.

The thing is those thriving rhizomatic plants do well when they are connected, and can support each other. Especially in some of those lush growing climates that get regular doses of water falling from the sky. That’s the beauty of it on the plant and metaphoric levels. But in learning networks, we don;t always stay in that proximity, sometimes we are physically transplanted, and while we can have our virtual/online networks in tact, there is (I think) something to be considered about that transplanting process.

So I present some examples from my own yard, with likely some over reaching metaphoric leaps. And not all my examples are rhizomes per see (e.g. my Pine trees) but there are some lessons. I think. Dave will let me know, right? Dave?

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

Transplanting aspen has been most tricky. The aspens we planted here maybe 7-8 years ago spread amazingly well. There were maybe 6 different aspens trees planted, each perhaos 5-6 feet at the time. The reach of the shoots are amazing, and I wonder if sometimes the extended growth stresses out the connected trees when water is lacking (I’ve lost about 4 this past year, many turn brown in the heat of July). But the ones that succeed? I have two that are at least 30 feet tall. I’m happy to let them spread where they will, but have tried a few times to dig and separate them out, with some bad results:

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

(that is technically a poplar, very similar to aspen, and similar to results I have had before. They don’t always have super extensive roots, and getting a good root out is a real challenge in the hard rocky soil. I have one great success, one I moved to the front yard:

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

A second one adjacent died last winter. The thing that surprised me is that this one made it even through the 2 summers I was gone- we get stretches of months in the hot summer here without rain. This one gets a lot of attention.

So here we go, a successful rhizome growing plant/learner might have slim odds on their own- without some attention. You cannot just stick them in the ground and leave.

Here is another lesson I was surprised by- when my expectations turned out to wrong, and ho something I did not expect to grow rhizomatically actually did. The photo does not really show it clearly, but…

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

On the left and farther to the left are 3 taller aspens, and I assumed all the growth extending in a line to the left and back were off of the aspen. You see, I knew they were rhizomes, so that fed my assumptions. The darker tree on the right is a plum, and darned if watching the plum tree blossom white flowers this spring, did I see that 3 of the shoots I had assumed to be aspen were in fact, rhizomes growing off of the plum! They are in fact growing towards each other, different species, doing the rhizome thing in the same space.

Perhaps I will leave the lesson, metaphor for the one reader who might make it this far. For me, it is insightful to be wrong, and then to accept and grow from how wrong I was.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

Now I did say that I am going to include Pine tree saplings, which are totally to rhizomatic. But there is a lesson in transplanting- sometimes you just have to leave things where they naturally are, a forced move can be harmful. The first 2 or 3 times I found a tiny pine sapling, I felt like I had a better idea where it would do well- and each time I moved one, I killed it. Even doing all I thought was right to care for it.

So now I have three of these growing… right where they landed. I build some rock enclosures to hold water and mulch, but I do not touch them with a shovel. The one above is 3 years old, so you can see they take a long time to be the stately trees that define this area.

Cactus can grow like crazy if you just stick them in the ground… and sometimes not.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

These are descendants of two pads of cactus I brought up from Phoenix, one a prickly pear and the other a beaver tail. This particular spot was a place I had planted two different trees bought at the nursery– and they both died. I decided to give the cactus a try, and you can see how well they thrive here. The prickly pear has had a run of glorious yellow flowers:

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

and I missed the lovely pink ones on the beavertail. But they seem to grow and root just by flopping on the ground. But it is no guarantee- over on the side of my driveway, the same cacti, in a lot more full sun, are, well, not so grand.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

Perhaps all too obvious, the local environment matters a great deal. The same species (learner) in a different environment can have drastically different outcomes. And we cannot always pinpoint an exact reason.

Manzanita present another transplant failure story. They are prolific to the forest here, with magnificent shiny twisted hard wood, sometimes growing to be 10- 12 feet high. I have many clumps, and they pretty much throve on their own. Sometimes they just drie up and die without any seemingly real reason, right next to ones doing ok.

What I have noticed lately is the way they spread laterally, literally lower branchies drop ti the ground, or get a little buried by debris, and start rooting

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

I began putting more dirt on these lower branches to encourage them too root. I really want the one above to spread more laterally across the front of my yard to make a nice shrub barrier from the street. In the spring, I had the (I thought) bright idea to dig up ones that had developed moderate roots in this manner. I dug them, broke their main plant connection, planted them carefully in ne spots, watered them consistently in the spring… and all 8 of the ones I transplante died.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

This technique is proving, well horrible. But now I know. In this case, you can try and do everything right, but cannot force someone to be successful on their own, transplanted.

But they have their own ways. I started seeing this spring 4 different places where very small ones had seeded on their own, completely out of range of the mother plant root systems! As young plants they barely look like manzanita, but rather then pulling them, I let new growth get a start before I assume I know what it is.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

My guess is the plants flower and send out seeds. Its interesting that they have two mechanisms for spreading.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

No secret that I adore the irises. They were here in two spots on the margin of the property. I’ve learned to cut them back in the fall, so the bulbs can focus on over the winter growth, and I treat them to regular watering in the spring. I’ve also moved them around quite a bit. The pretty much spread and grow via the roots, pretty darn rhizomatically, though I find a few seed pods every year.

That patch above was previously a mound of dirt with some bushes on top. I cleared it, made a border from rocks around my property, and filled in the dirt with mulch from my compost pile and leaves, etc elsewhere. The irises thrive here (they get more water when I am here). I have a feeling they do better when they are a bit crowded, I could even stretch wildly and suggest they are social, but there is a powerful growth force in the proximity of others. I have other spots where they are not quite as big and bold, maybe it is soil, light, different amounts of attention with water.

For me, the attention I give in care pays back in heaps when thy go on display.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

The lesson here might be the importance of attention, that flowers don’t do this when you just treat them like a giant assembly line too big to pay attention too. Attention and individual attention matters. A lot. We sure like it when we receive it…

I don’t know if this metaphor bit with learning matters if it fits or not. It might just eb stuff to think about as I am futzing around in the yard. But it does remind me that like plants, learning happens in a complex ecosystem, and reducing explanations for success/failure to single causes is over-reaching at a minimum.

And for anyone, any plant, the process if transplanting is a huge challenge. But it is one overcome with some experience, awareness, experimentation, and a lot of attention (or water).

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Alan,
    Great extended metaphor, and I enjoyed seeing Arizona pictures. Not that your compost and garbage pictures weren’t charming, but not to compete with irises and aspen.

    I know I would love to find an automatic watering system for my online freshman comp students, but the reality is, online is such an alien rooting medium for most of them that the sunshine and water of my constant regard is the only was to keep my retention rate up.

    Artists think in metaphors, and your blog topics this year have more than ever expanded metaphors, enriching your virtual soil.

  2. Great metaphors for learning and growing! As a teacher of first graders, I often think of the children as young plants and it is up to me to water them with knowledge! It also shows that you have a lot of dad in you! He loved working in the yard and planting things. There were many plantings, moving of plants and trying to grow trees! You may not remember the many dogwood trees planted in front of the house that did not grow! I have my black-eyed susans, native Maryland flowers that have spread all over and began with one plant!

  3. There’s a lot to be said or gleaned or harvested from tending plants, Deb. There are guidelines we can follow, but it’s no guarantee of success. And we are often surprised, as your Spanish plant shows. That unpredictability is what makes it interesting.

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