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.


Anonymous July 6, 2013 at 12:19 AM  

Very interesting topic...plant science degrees are closing in the rest of Europe in the same way as they do in the UK.
Many young people (and career changers too) seem to long for nature and conservation, and throw themselves into becoming ecologists, reserve rangers, animal carers etc...yet good botany skills are difficult to find, and that's because studying cute otters, fluffy dormice and mysterious bats will always be more exciting than studying glandular hair on calyces!

In this country, which has such a tradition of gardening and plant science, we need more than anywhere else to show that plants can be cool, and I think that can only be done by joining forces, and stop considering gardening a daydreaming hobby for grannies or as a trendy art form for wealthy people.
You are right, young people won't be satisfied with a *pretty* plant, they will want to know about unusual, exotic plants, how plants work and how they can be useful...and that curiosity needs to be answered by talented and energetic plantsmen. It does not need to be dissociated from gardening, surely there is plenty of excitment in initiatives like the Guerilla gardening or TV programmes such as "Grow Your Own Drugs"?

If I wasn't already a plant nerd, listening to someone like James Wong would definitely push me into botany!

Thomas July 6, 2013 at 8:21 AM  

Wonder if zoos (by analogy) are hampering/promoting the recruitment to of animal science?
And btw., is 'botany' included in your definition of 'plant science'?

eve.emshwiller July 6, 2013 at 2:56 PM  

I am both a plant scientist and a gardener. If my mom hadn't had me sowing radishes in her tiny vegetable garden as a child, I don't know whether I would have eventually found my calling as a plant person. Maybe calling gardening "exciting" is a bit much, but it is certainly FUN. I can state from my own experience that it can eventually inspire new plant scientists, too.

Eoin Lettice July 8, 2013 at 11:40 AM  

Yes, Botany and Plant Science are both included. Same thing, just a new name. Unfortunately, the term 'Botany' is even less attractive than 'Plant Science' to some people. July 8, 2013 at 12:28 PM  

I think the resurgence in the grown-your-own culture might help to get kids excited and interested in plants.

I know of a good few schools that have poly-tunnels as well. Which is a great idea. It can be used by science teachers, construction teachers and even business teachers if they work at selling their produce.

TrĂ­ona July 9, 2013 at 4:34 PM  

I'm not sure gardening is what's keeping people from signing up to plant sci courses. I had no feelings about gardening (for or against) until my late twenties (now I love it, but get frustrated a lot).

When doing my CAO ten years ago, I don't recall plant science as being something I considered or saw many options for. Plant science for the leaving cert wasn't very interesting, learn off the parts of a flower, learn about Fucus vesiculosa, learn about moss, promptly forget it all.

In the various institutes I've studied in, plant science isn't something I've encountered, plenty of human science but little or no plant (or vetinary for that matter). Having spoken to people who work with plants, they use a lot of the same techniques as I do (molecular biology is pretty consistent) although getting drugs/DNA into plant cells sounds harder than animal cells, and they have a pretty awful selection of useful antibodies to order.

Now, plant science is something that I'll read with great interest in the media and enjoy (doesn't mean I'd like to do it, there's a lot of sci I feel this way about). I like being able to compare this with human bio (which I'm familiar with), or with plants in my small collection. Also, David Attenborough shows with time lapse plant action can't be beaten.

At a recent open day in DCU, there was a range of carnivourous plants on display, on loan from the botanic gardens to support a recently introduced horticulture programme. To many, this is probably the sexier side of plant sci, rather than sensible agricultural end of things. I was fascinated with them, and was very jealous (our pitcher plant succumbed to flies, but our venus fly trap is doing wonderfully), but pretty sure the unsuspecting CAO students wouldn't get to study or play with them.

I'm not sure people associate plant science with gardening, apart from the fly trap and books on poison plants, I don't make much of a connection. To me gardening is about the fight against dockleaves and greenfly and whatever science goes with it isn't going to help me defeat them. In the same way, owning my own human body doesn't make me any more interested in the human biology I do, I don't see a connection with my work and me.

Pocket Hose July 23, 2013 at 3:25 PM  

An interesting debate. Being told how to feel while gardening seems a little off.

Peter Donegan August 12, 2013 at 5:25 PM  

The subject that is botany/ horticulture or gardening has only the people who profess it to thank/ blame.

Gone off to play some Led Zep and throw a telly out my hotel bedroom.


Lawn Care Calgary August 21, 2013 at 4:39 PM  

There is no debate on the fact that gardening affects the mind, spirit and soul of the gardener...for the better, it is why we do it

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