First of all, who we are and what we do. All of the Garden Professors are in the business of the science of Horticulture. What’s Horticulture? The standard definition of Horticulture is the art and science of tending a garden. Horticulture is clearly more than science but science is the foundation and underpinning. For anyone that needs convincing that Horticulture is an art as much as a science I suggest the following exercise. Go to a major research university and wander through their Botany or Plant Biology greenhouses. Observe the plants. They look like crap. The people working there are on the cutting edge of plant science; they sequence genes, they elucidate biochemical pathways but they can’t grow a plant to save their lives. Now wander through the Horticulture greenhouse; plants are thriving, flowers are blooming. What’s the difference? The horticulturalists not only have the science, they have the art. There is no denying that art and intuition play a role in growing plants, especially in ornamental horticulture where we deal with hundreds of species and cultivars, each with its own subtleties and nuances. But as educators, especially public funded educators, how do we teach intuition? It’s very difficult. What we teach are principles developed through systematic scientific inquiry. How do we know there are 17 essential elements needed for plant growth? Repeated experiments over the years. And our knowledge continues to evolve based on the scientific method. I’m old enough that I learned 16 essential elements as an undergrad; the need for nickel by some plants had not yet been established. As extension educators our role is to disseminate science-based information. For some of us that phrase is even in our job description. We can try to impart our experience and intuition but it’s a difficult thing.
It can be especially difficult when we deal with alternative systems for which a long-term knowledge base may be lacking. Despite perceptions to the contrary, we are not apologists for the status quo. Overuse and misuse of pesticides and fertilizers are rampant, especially in ornamental horticulture. A lot of our current research and extension programming deals with reducing water and nutrient usage to reduce run-off and to reduce leaching. I spend a lot of time telling growers things they don’t really want to hear. How do we know growers are potentially impacting water resources? Because we and others have done the scientific research. We’ve set out plots, we’ve fertilized, we’ve sampled leachate, we’ve measured run-off. And we’ve conducted extension programs teaching growers that they can back off fertilization and irrigation rates without reducing crop growth.
Where we get concerned is that some assume or take on faith that because a nutrient source is ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ it’s automatically better or safer for the environment. Is the nitrate from Chilean nitrate less likely to cause blue baby syndrome then nitrate from ammonium nitrate? Dr. Corey Reams developed his principles as revealed to him through divine revelation. Unfortunately most of us are not blessed with such experiences. Instead we rely on systematic scientific investigation to develop knowledge that we share with our clients. Personally I do not believe that faith and science are mutually exclusive. Some of the most brilliant scientists I have met in my career have been people of deep and abiding faith. But we need to keep each in its context. Science is knowledge gained through systematic inquiry. Faith is a belief system. The central tenets of most Christian denominations are stated in the Nicene Creed which begins, “We believe in one God…” Note it doesn’t start “We know…” or “We can prove…” In their liturgy Catholics, “proclaim the mystery of faith; Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Not only can they not prove these things they celebrate the fact that it’s a mystery. Faith does not demand proof. Science does.