A Thousand Years

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On June 21, I received the Thomas Roland Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. The society was started in 1829. I was the 80th person to receive this award, which Thomas Roland established in 1927. Roland was a well-known breeder of orchids, roses and acacias. He also was president of the Society of American Florists in the early 1920s.

This event gave me time to reflect on what we do as horticulturists and why. One of our most famous colleagues, Luther Burbank (1849-1926), said, "Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul."

I had time to visit the Elm Bank Gardens of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Wellesley, Mass. Over the past 10 years, they have built a great area for teaching and culturing gardens for people to see and become involved in horticulture.

Another place I had always wanted to visit was the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. My friend Mike Conner, who was the head of the Boston Parks Department for many years, put me in touch with Thomas Ward, the manager of the Dana Greenhouses at the Arboretum.

I took my granddaughter and her friend to this great place. I told them we would not see many colorful flowers, but we would see trees, shrubs, vines and bonsai.

Tom Ward is a very knowledgeable person. He knew every plant in the 265-acre arboretum and had the data on when they arrived, from where and who brought them into the collection.

The 4,500 kinds of woody plants cultivated in the arboretum’s collection are grouped by plant family. Each plant has the scientific and common name, its country of origin and an accession number that links the plant to its permanent, computer-stored record.

The arboretum was started in 1883 and was leased from the City of Boston for 1,000 years at a cost of $1.00 per year with the option to renew the lease for another 1,000 years at the same $1.00 per year. It is a National Historic Landmark and an international center for scientific research and education. It is an integral part of a series of parklands known as the Emerald Necklace and is a functioning unit of the Boston Parks Department.

While touring the arboretum, we got a special tour of the bonsai collection. Since my granddaughter and her friend had spent a year in Japan, they were extremely interested in this part of the arboretum. It is a wonderful collection and Tom explained how they manage it.

He said they actually drew pictures of what the plant might look like in five years. If they agree on the concept, the gardener manipulates the stems to the positions that will make the plan a reality. That is what I call long-range planning!

We spent two hours with Tom and every minute was worthwhile. I realized that many plants live longer than people live. The oldest bonsai in their collection is 240 years old. When I asked if that was a record, Tom smiled and said bonsai in Japan and China can be 500 to 600 years old.

This information made me really think about the need to train future horticulturists since it would take eight horticulturists 30 years each to maintain the oldest bonsai in the arboretum’s collection and 20 to 30 horticulturists to maintain those plants in China or Japan.

At the end of our visit, Tom said, "Well, I hope you enjoyed the tour. There is still a lot of work to be done and I only have 13 gardeners, but every night when I go home I can sleep well because I know we have 760 years to make it perfect!" His words put our profession into perspective. We are not the only persons responsible for the plants. In fact, the plants may need 20 to 30 horticulturists in their future in order to survive. 

Enjoy The Ride

Paul Rodgers, another friend who has been very active in the Society and who is also well known in New England for his radio shows and for teaching and consulting, gave me another bit of wisdom.

When I returned home, I sent Mike and Paul copies of my book One To Grow On. I always sign the book with the saying "Know, Sow & Grow." Paul wrote me a thank you note, which said "‘Know, Sow & Grow!’ Words to work by and live by. I’d add ‘Enjoy’ also."

I think many of us in the greenhouse industry have worked long and hard on very tight timeframes in order to make our living. Many times we have done the Know, Sow and Grow, but I believe Paul is right. We need to take the time to enjoy what we do and enjoy our families and communities as well.

When I came home from this trip to Massachusetts, I started looking at the plants in my yard and in my home. I figured out when I got them and how old they are. My oldest plant is 40 years old and the oldest tree in my yard is 60 years old. Then I went to the campus of Michigan State University and looked at the trees that were planted 150 years ago and some that are over 200 years old. I began to realize how many horticulturists it takes to help a tree survive for that period of time. This is what Tom Ward taught me!

Then I realized what Mike Connor meant when he told me to "be humble" when I accepted my award. This meant visualizing all the time he spent working in the park system and his sense of purpose "to provide a beautiful environment for all the people," but realizing that he was only the keeper of the plants. Many others will come after him to keep the Emerald Necklace alive. That’s what Mike taught me.

And then Paul taught me the last part of my lesson. Learn to enjoy the fruits of your labor. He has provided a great deal of information to consumers through his media exposure. He has worked with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and outstanding garden shows and gardens. He can see the results of the work of the commercial side of our profession. His words are well taken in that too often we are so wrapped up in the work that we don’t see the end results, the joy that makes people better, happier and more helpful.

We have to remember that horticulture is the art and science of the cultivation of plants. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society has done a great job of trying to acknowledge both the art and the science.

The Society presented nine awards this year. Two were given to landscape architects and writers; two to directors of botanical gardens and arboretums; one to a garden club president; one to a teacher in a school for students who are blind; two to commercial nurseries; and one to a professor and commercial writer.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to take my granddaughter and her friend to see the whole area of horticulture. There are people with many skills that are involved in its continual growth. It showed me that people are working for plants and our return will be that plants will work for people.

One of my friends said that you can look at horticulture in two ways: 1) it is an easy way to make a hard living; or 2) it is a hard way to make an easy living. A third way might be that it’s a great way to make a great living!

I hope you had a great summer and had time to relax, get recharged and ready to help the plants grow for another year.

Just remember what Tom Ward told me: he has 760 years to get it perfect! That kind of long range planning puts everything into perspective.

Good luck in taking care of next year – and your 1,000 year plan!

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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