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Gardens on the Go - Organic Horticulture

The Value of a Horticultural Education

After working with the Malaspina University College Horticulture Department for over 20 years first as a student, and later as faculty I have discovered that there many different reasons for undertaking an Education in Horticulture. My students have had varied interests. Some come to us as I did, after discovering the joy and wonder of growing one’s own food. Others are fascinated by flowers, whose colour and form sometimes hide the facts that have played an intricate role in evolution. Some students are interested in reforestation, and in habitat restoration, and the plants that make that possible. Some want to grow useful or medicinal herbs. Some do lawns. The one thing that most have in common is some kind of respect for nature and connection with the natural world. They tend to be people that have an understanding of the marriage of art and science that displays itself in a garden. As a group they have a tendency to be curious, adventurous, and open minded. Enthusiasm is generally pretty high. They come from all walks of life and are a variety of ages. We have had pilots, fishermen, loggers, tree planters, nurses, business managers, accountants, farmers, secretaries, janitors, teachers, waitresses, chefs, electricians, carpenters, TV journalists, artists, veterinary technicians, writers and microbiologists take the Horticulture Program as a second career option. We have had people right out of high school, people still in high school, and people who are retired from teaching high school take our program. What these students take away from the program is just as varied. Some move on to work in retail shops, others in wholesale nurseries. There are landscaper graduates, and golf course worker graduates. Many start their own businesses. Some just go back to their day jobs, but have fabulous gardens. A job, however, is only part of what a person is. The value of a Horticulture education goes far beyond what a person does to put bread on their table, or what they do with their spare time. 

The value of education in general, my opinion is to learn that you will never know it all. Being exposed to the wealth of knowledge that is present in today’s world is a humbling affair, and in horticulture, as in most sciences, there are new discoveries daily. The harder and longer one studies, the more they learn that there is so much more to know. A common suspicion among horticulturalists is that there is much more to plant energy systems then we have discovered, much more then we can measure, much more then we are ready to understand. There tends to be no scientific explanation of why one crop of poinsettias will out-perform another crop of poinsettias even after the long list variables is taken into account. Even with computers that measure the amount of light, amount of water, the ambient temperature, and the amount of fertilizer and deem them to be very nearly equal a crop can turn out different then its predecessor. I have often noticed how groups of students who have followed the same directions turn out vastly different results in the greenhouse. Some are reluctant greenhouse workers. They want to be outside landscaping. Others want to make a career of greenhouse growing. Even though they follow the same directions the crops seem to turn out differently in the years where I have more landscapers then greenhouse growers. Can the plants sense the reluctance of the landscapers, and do they feed off the enthusiasm of the grower group? Even in classes where the students are most meticulous and sincere in their efforts I have observed differences. What is the crucial factor, the crucial ingredient? Why do plants in experiments respond positively to some types of music, and negatively to others? Why do plants register alarm to a person who has inflicted damage on one of their group as they did in the book “The Secret Life of Plants”? There is something mysterious going on, something in their intricate energy systems that we do not have the equipment to measure. We do not speak, nor understand their form of language well. 

To deal with plants on a day to day basis one merely gets hints of the wondrous systems that make them the backbone of the planet. Plants can reproduce themselves in entirety from a single cell in a characteristic known as totipotency. They have energetic and chemical systems that inform them where light is coming from (phototropism) and which way is down (geotropism). They also can tell when to turn a tendril around a trellis (thigmatropism). Plants produce seeds that will remain dormant until the ideal germination time has arrived (dormancy). All this is accomplished without eyes, without a nervous system, and without clocks, calendars or the weather station.   

As gardeners we cannot help but be in awe of the way certain plants handle the changing seasons, or even sun and drought. A good gardener is aware that every handful of soil is a wealth of life, some visible, and some not so visible. Every gardener has marvelled at the miracle of a seed coming to life, the sleeping embryo finally stretching its embryonic leaves from where they have lived inside the seed since pollination into the light. We watch the interplay of the flowers, birds and bees in the dance that is the basis for all life on earth. As trained Horticulturalists who attempt to duplicate environmental conditions to control plant growth the mystery and wonder is even more evident.  

Students of Horticulture are witness to these mysteries at a deeper level then many gardeners. They study plant tissues and transport systems in great detail. They study basic genetics, and how genes can combine in our favour to produce glorious new flower forms or dangerous virus replications. They begin to learn how delicate the balance of plant growth variables is for optimum growth. The majority of our students cannot help but feel a kind of privilege to be witness to these types of daily miracles. They tend to come away with a new respect for nature and a new respect for life. They learn the value of nurturing, the response to caring, the consequences of neglect. Whether they actually continue on to pursue a Horticultural Career or whether they choose to further their education, to raise a family, to go back to their old jobs, or to finally retire, they cannot help but take these lessons with them and apply them to the rest of their lives. Awareness of natural systems is something that cannot leave us untouched or unchanged. We cannot ever again be quite as unaware or insensitive about our effects on the natural world. We cannot deny our responsibilities to protect these intricate systems as best we can, using the best knowledge we have. We may continue to make mistakes, but we can no longer be unaware of them and their effects. As in any kind of education we become more aware of the dangers of what we don’t know about our actions. Life in general is a school, and one cannot deny the lessons learned by those resourceful humans who have happily succeeded without formal education of any kind. Those who have been able to access that privilege of digging a little deeper into life’s mysteries through formal education may have a much more serious responsibility that coincides with that privilege.  

The Gardens of the GR Paine Horticultural Centre offer our students the hands on exposure to the theories that they are exposed to in class. They give the students an opportunity to witness the interactions that have been crucial to life on our planet since the beginning of time on earth. The gardens stimulate questions that may not have come up in class. Our gardens are not always the picture perfect gardens that one can expect from a formal destination garden. These are gardens where students are given an opportunity to test their knowledge. Sometimes they do not pass their tests with the highest marks; however they may have learned what it takes to do that in the process. It is important that they get to test their knowledge in this real and meaningful way. Lessons come alive in the gardens; words turn into pictures that become animated with the changing seasons, and with the results of correct, or not so correct Horticultural skills and practices.

As members of the Central Vancouver Island Botanical Garden Society we share in this unique privilege. Our Society has supported the Horticulture Department’s efforts to build real living laboratories of gardening methodology. The funding of the society has made it possible for our students to participate in the design and construction of a Habitat garden that demonstrates the benefit and use of BC Coastal Native Plants, and a Waterwise Garden that demonstrates plants that can be used by the home gardener to reduce water use in the garden. Through continued financial support of the society we hope they will be able to build even more gardens. We also hope that the CVIBGS contributions on days of community weeding and feeding that help our students maintain the gardens will nurture every gardeners awareness and awe of the miraculous systems of plants. Thank you to everyone who has helped with the annual garden show, helped weed the garden, or maintained their current membership interest. You have been a participant in a celebration of life.