How The Greenhouse Industry Can Propagate Gardeners The Same Way It Propagates Plants

Jared Barnes, North Carolina State University
Jared Barnes, North Carolina State University

In 1765, John and William Bartram were exploring the Southeast, when they discovered a never-before-seen white-flowering plant. On a later expedition, William collected seed and shared Franklinia alatamaha (Franklin Tree) with the world. It’s a good thing he did. Within approximately 40 years, most report that Franklinia was never seen in the wild again. Many theories exist on why the species went extinct in the wild, but the important thing is that its survival is safe due to the actions of a few.

Fast forward 250 years and we are faced with the loss of another organism from its natural environment — the gardener. We don’t know exactly why numbers are dwindling (changing generations, competition from other hobbies, and green blindness may play a part), but we know gardeners have been disappearing. And, we know that we need to do something.

But, what can we horticulturists do? We are experts at propagating plants but may lack a strong background in youth education, marketing, or human behavior. One day I asked myself, “What if propagating gardeners was like propagating plants?” Perhaps the horticulture concepts we understand could simplify this complex problem.

Germinate Passion

For seeds to germinate, they must imbibe water. Young gardeners, too, must absorb something before sparking their passion, and that something is wonder. Wonder is the seed of passion. I’m sure you remember the horticultural wonders you experienced in your youth, like the mucilage forming within minutes after sowing basil seed or watching a moonflower open during a twilight game of hide-and-seek. Horticulture is full of wonder, but it may not always be easily visible.

I had this revelation after reading “Pearls Before Breakfast,” a 2007 piece in The Washington Post by Gene Weingarten that asked a simple question: How much money would one of the best musicians of our time (Joshua Bell, who can earn $1,000 per minute playing) make if he played classical pieces on one of the most expensive violins in the world during 43 minutes of Washington, D.C., rush hour? After 1,097 people passed him, 27 people gave $32.17. Only one person actually recognized him, and that’s where he got $20 of his meager earnings.

Wonder isn’t always intrinsic. Sometimes it takes those of us who are wonder-full to share it with beginners.

Amateur Cuttings Take Root

Amateur gardeners are just like cuttings; both need the right conditions to help them take root. Something as simple as the plant names that roll off our tongues can overwhelm those who don’t yet have a good foundation with horticulture.

That’s where stories can help. I know many quarrel over trademarks and branding, but what we need to fight for are plant stories. Knowing how a plant came to the market, where it originated, and the breeder or finder’s story helps amateur (and experienced) gardeners feel more connected to their plants. Stories are what connect and unite us as a culture. Without stories, plants are just hollow names.

One of the best stories behind plant names and namers is that Linnaeus danced. Yeah, the boring, old guy that came up with that awful binomial nomenclature system; he was the Justin Timberlake (or Michael Jackson) of his time. In “The Plant Hunters” by Tyler Whittle, you’ll read the story where hundreds of students scoured the countryside with Linnaeus looking for new species in the 1700s. After class, they would return to town, celebrating their new finds, and often the night would end with Linnaeus out-dancing his students to a Polish jig! Think of how many more people would love (okay, appreciate) Linnaeus and the binomial system if they knew that he could cut a rug.

A More Perfect Union

Grafting is a technique used where two different plant parts (scion and rootstock) are brought in close proximity to form a beneficial union. We can also graft hobbies and interests with horticulture to form beneficial unions.

An Edible Evening At Stephen F Austin
Held in the Sprout garden at Stephen F. Austin State University, the event “An Edible Evening” drew more than 100 visitors for a night of edible gardening, cooking, and education, and most important of all — fun.

At Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX, where I am a professor, my students in Fruit and Vegetable Production and I grafted concepts together during an event titled “An Edible Evening.” It took place in the Sprout garden on campus, a garden that I steward, which is designed with food in mind.

Onto gardening, a venerable rootstock, we grafted food and cooking. We had a local chef come and provide cooking demonstrations with some of the produce from the garden. We also grafted education. Students divided into groups and focused on teaching different steps in the fall edible gardening process: seed starting, transplanting, cultivating, and harvesting. And, we grafted fun. We had pumpkin bowling and face painting for families that came to the event.

In all, about 100 people from the community came. The following week when my class had a reflective brainstorming session, a comment that surprised me was attendees told my students they didn’t even know fall edible gardening was possible!

This concept of grafting, of course, was for an event. However, in many cases what you are trying to graft is another branch in a person’s already full life. Finding an interest someone has that coincides with gardening is important so the graft will take. People who have never gardened before are interested in home brewing, technology, cooking, making their own dyes, crafts, and so much more. Our challenge is to find the right scion that will connect to these rootstocks of life.

Some may scoff at comparing people to plants, but I believe that using this propagation language can help horticulturists visualize an answer to the question of how to do better at getting people to engage with plants. It’s going to take all of us in the end. Remember, those Franklinia seeds didn’t just jump into William Bartram’s pocket. He had to reach out for them.

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