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Don Kinzler, Published January 24 2014

Growing Together: Defying the notion that horticulture is a dying art

Because I enjoy promoting all things horticultural, I was taken aback when a national news story claimed the walls are caving in on my life’s vocation. But I dispute the report that horticulture is on its deathbed, and I will use McDonald’s French fries to explain why.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Virginia Smith wrote an article titled “Is horticulture a withering field?”

“Horticulture – once a priority, if not an obsession, for generations of Americans, is in trouble. If something isn’t done soon to boost the ranks of plant scientists, breeders, students, and others in the field, horticulture could become a lost art and a forgotten science,” Smith writes.

Smith quotes University of Minnesota horticultural science professor Mary H. Meyer, who says that in the public’s mind, horticulture is “a guy with a pickup truck and a lawn mower, a low-paying job requiring manual labor and no college degree.”

The sources’ negativity is well-intentioned but misguided. I don’t think “the public” views horticulture quite so narrowly. I use the term “horticulture” only sparingly in my column because it sounds like something for which you need a college degree.

Webster’s Dictionary defines horticulture as the science of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers or ornamental plants. If each of us enjoys growing something in our yard or apartment, we’re involved in horticulture.

Apparently the nation’s “official” horticulturists are alarmed by the lack of young people entering “the field.” I suppose they are concerned that more youth are not pursuing official college degrees in their footsteps. But our country’s gardening roots go deeper than the peaks and valleys of student enrollment in university horticulture programs. There is gardening life outside traditional university education.

Let me prove my point. Luther Burbank is historically one of our country’s greatest plantsmen, living from 1849 until 1926. Raised in a family with a tradition of gardening and flowers, he noticed a seedball on a potato plant in their garden. He planted the seeds, observed the offspring, and selected a variety that eventually led to the Russet Burbank potato. One hundred thirty years later it remains the No. 1 processing potato in the United States, and McDonald’s favors them for their French fries.

Burbank also developed the Shasta daisy, Santa Rosa plum, Elberta peach, flaming gold nectarines, and 800 other plant introductions. And he accomplished this with no formal education in horticulture. His love of nature and desire to improve plants prompted his 55-year career of genetics and plant selection. He read, studied and self-taught his way to becoming a leader in horticulture.

As proven by Burbank, successful horticulture is not limited to knowledge that is transmitted only through an official pipeline. Each of us can have complete fulfillment with our gardening endeavors. Sometimes we might even hit it big. The famous red delicious apple was accidentally discovered in 1880 as a seedling by an Iowa farmer in an orchard.

Gardening and horticulture will survive because humans have an inner attraction toward plants, nature and wholesome food.

Consider our heritage. The Upper Midwest was settled by large groups of Scandinavians and Germans who farmed the land. Horticulture is in our genes. We don’t need to go “into the field” of horticulture because we’re already there. It’s part of us. Recall the large gardens and flowerbeds of our parents and grandparents.

I’m not downplaying the need for formal horticultural education. I wouldn’t trade my North Dakota State University horticulture degree for anything. And today’s college students with degrees can enter careers of plant breeding, greenhouse and food production, cut flower raising, landscape and nursery industries, public garden and parks design and maintenance, sports turf, research into climate change, plant pests, food safety, and psychological and physical benefits of plants.

When I was an NDSU student in the mid-1970s, there were between 80 and 100 fellow horticulture majors. Last semester there were 39. Although numbers have changed, I’ve observed a vibrant program with enthusiastic students.

Declining enrollment in university horticulture programs does not automatically mean that horticulture is becoming a “lost art and a forgotten science.” It’s important that we continue supporting one another as we pass along our knowledge and example to the next generation of horticulturists. All of us who enjoy plants are an army, and I see no sign of retreat.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com.