Friday, July 5, 2013

Is "gardening" killing plant science?

Gardening Gnome by pareerica (Creative Commons)
James Wong - the ethnobotanist, author and BBC science presenter- came in for some criticism in recent days for being over-excited about gardening.

The writer Helen Gazeley wrote in her blog:

"Gardening isn't exciting. Gardening is the epitome of delayed gratification. We wait; we nurture. People who need excitement in the quantities that gardening marketing departments would like to serve up go sky-diving, bungie-jumping, or throw all their savings into a once-in-lifetime venture. Those of us who garden find it has exciting moments, but we do not do it for excitement."

Fair comment, I suppose, but Wong was not about to take the criticism lying down and tweeted:

So, are plants exciting? Is gardening exciting? Should we strive to make the study and use of plants exciting for a younger audience?

I'm a plant scientist. I'm not really a gardener. The sum total of my personal gardening efforts (i.e. growing plants at home, for non-research purposes) are a few tomatoes, some sunflowers and a small pot of herbs outside the kitchen window. So, credentials out of the way, I'm proposing a question: Is "gardening" killing plant science?

In Ireland, we still have a very strong network of plant science researchers and teachers along with a good selection of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in plant science/botany/plant biology, etc., along with horticulture degrees and MSc programmes. My own university runs a successful degree programme in Applied Plant Biology and a new MSc in Organic Horticulture at a newly established Centre for Organic Research in West Cork.

That being said, we still have to work hard to excite school-leavers to consider the option of studying plants rather than get swept away by the thrill of studying animals and other more "exciting" life forms.

In the UK, things are not so rosy in the garden (if you'll embrace the pun!). Plant science degrees (and even whole departments) are being closed by universities unwilling, it seems, to look at the bigger picture of a world increasingly reliant on plants and their products. Just ten universities in the UK continue to offer undergraduate degrees in plant science. The figures are shocking to anyone with even a cursory interest in issues like global warming, food security and biodiversity loss.

Although it might be unpopular to say it, could it be that school leavers are being turned off plants and the study of plant science because they associate it too closely with gardening? "Gardening" (and I use the inverted commas deliberately to denote the public perception of same) is something their grandparents do. It's something their parents do at the weekend. Are our prospective plant scientists of the future mentally scarred by having been dragged around boring garden centres every weekend of their childhood?

Perhaps gardening has an image problem. Perhaps making gardening, and also the study of plants "exciting" is just what we need.Gazeley's notion of relying on "delayed gratification" to attract people to plants clearly isn't working in the UK.

Whilst gardening is an extremely interesting, and yes, exciting pastime; "gardening" is perhaps in need of an image overhaul. While many gardeners do get excited about plants and how these amazing organisms work, there is no doubt that some are purely interested in the aesthetic quality of plants. That is not necessarily exciting to a younger audience.

The Aberystwyth-based plant ecologist Dr. John Warren, writing in 2010, sums it up nicely when he says students are often lured away from studying plants by the promise of animals which are "majestic, beautiful, cute and dynamic".

"I'm not arguing that zoologists are villainous Dr. Evils determined to destroy the Earth," writes Warren, "but that many of them are plant scientists that we have failed to inspire".

If James Wong gets excited about plants, good luck to him. We need more of that, not less. He's inspiring people.

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