A Garden Professor is most severely vexed

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff’s recent post on “What happens to the horticulturist.” It’s true – universities rely more and more on faculty-generated grants for funding, so new hires tend to be in “hot” areas of research.  Fewer horticultural generalists are hired in teaching/research positions, and the same is true for Extension – the educational outreach arm of land-grant universities.

Many of you might not even know what Extension really is.  In my opinion, that’s because Extension as a whole has done a pretty poor job of evolving with the times.  When small farms were the mainstay of life for many people, farmers relied on practical, science-based information provided by university Extension services.  We’ve become an increasingly urbanized society, but Extension just hasn’t kept up.  The bulk of the research and information coming from plant and soil science departments is still geared towards production agriculture.  It’s of little immediate use for the majority of us living in urban areas.

So we have an imbalance:  there are increasing numbers of people living in urban areas who want good information on home gardens and landscaping, and decreasing university resources to fill those gaps.  Nature hates a vacuum, and this information gap is quickly filled with all kinds of stuff: some good, some bad, some dangerous, some illegal.  The very worst offenders, in my opinion, are the fear mongererss with most definite agendas but no solid evidence to support their claims.  For instance: I’m always skeptical when I hear about an article in an “obscure journal” being the only source of new information. If there was something new out there on an important topic, the researchers would not be publishing in an “obscure” journal. It would be in a highly visible and highly regarded scientific journal.  In any case, the information would be easy to find and discuss, not hidden away in a secret location.

I don’t have a good way to end this post, because I don’t have an easy answer to the problems that both Jeff and I see in horticulture departments and in Extension.  Do you?

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

17 thoughts on “A Garden Professor is most severely vexed”

  1. My extension in Putnam County NY does an excellent job of recruiting homeowners into their services with the master gardening program and throwing lots of community events such as farm tours and plant sales. I expect you are aware of these kinds of efforts.

    What I think the cooperative extension needs is a program that certifies professional landscapers and irrigation specialists similar to their master gardener program. Even if a certification wasn’t required to practice business it might become a way the public could assess professionalism which would inspire people to go through such a program.

    As things stand now, it amazes me how many hacks there are in the landscaping field and how hard it is for a homeowner to know whether their contractor has any idea what they are doing.

    In my county there are thousands of professional landscapers who primarily take care of lawns and perennial beds and almost none of them use their cooperative extensions for guidance. They get their info only from the people who sell them supplies and it shows. Soil pH is generally ignored. Irrigation systems turn on when it’s been raining for weeks and almost never are
    adjusted to shade and need. The list could go on and on.

  2. Advertise our services and availability to the public! I live in a very large suburban county which has a wonderful mix of land use, lots of subdivisions and lots of open land still left. The majority of people in the developed ares don’t know such a thing as the Cooperative Extension exists. When we hold classes we always request the attendees fill out an evaluation form. The check list of things the Extension does (Did you know Extension provides these services?) is consistently full of “No” answers. The more people interested in the services we provide, the more likely the program will become something other than the step-child of the universities.

  3. A simple name change would help. “Extension” must mean an arm of the university or something, but it isn’t intuitively connected to gardening and sounds like an umbrella research program, not a source specific to horticulture. You have to know about the history of land grant universities and their services to farmers to understand the term “Extension” could help the home gardener too, and most urban / suburban homeowners don’t know that!

    I completely agree with Alan’s comments above about certifying lawn landscape guys. Completely.

  4. I agree that focusing on large scale pro
    duction no longer makes sense for the Extension. Programs for small scale market farmers and even smaller scale hobby growers would be more helpful, as those groups tend to be under-served as far as actual scientific information is concerned.

    I think that another huge problem with the current extension programs for individuals (such as the MG program) is that they tend to be geared more toward older demographics. There are thousands of people in the 18-35 group that would love to participate in extension programs, if only the right programs existed. Instead, that gap is being filled by alternative schools and individuals who may or may not have accurate science to back up their teachings.

  5. Linda – Part of my curriculum in the Public Horticulture program at UT-Knoxville included teaching on the history and basis for Extension! I came away with the greatest admiration for it. With the nonprofit and community garden that I run, I constantly hold out Extension of THE bellweather; THE best source of scientific data and facts. My community gardeners frequently refer me to random websites that have blitzed them with email advertising. i say, fine, but in terms of what I’ll put on my nonprofit website for educational resources, Extension materials are at the top of the list.
    BTW, I am in the state of Georgia.
    Sorry budgets are being cut at UGA and elsewhere. I think the growing organic farming sector here in Georgia and elsewhere needs Extension more than ever! The UGA CAES publication “Commercial Organic Vegetable Production” is excellent, but this cadre of mostly young, enthusiastic and eager organic farmers need people, aka extension agents, to help them!

  6. I noticed this also with our Master Gardener program. Although it is called Master “Gardener,” a lot of the lessons were specific to large-scale agriculture, not home-scale gardens.

  7. Sorry, I didn’t pose any potential answers to your question in my post above. In my own state of GA I have found it interesting that a somewhat “grass roots” organization like Georgia Organics and UGA CAES have partnered on a few publications and events in recent years with the trend toward organic farms and local foods. Partnerships like this go a long way toward making Extension invaluable. In terms of state legislatures, well, it has to translate into dollars and sense (and cents). I’m telling you, local farming on a small scale with an emphasis toward natural and organics, not to mention potential for urban hydroponics, is a trend that is going to gain momentum. Where it will all settle out is yet to be seen, but, this WILL matter to state legislators as it fuels local economies. Food and the growing of it, is the “cause du jour’ and venture capitalists are getting in on it as well. Do a search through Yahoo Finance Recent News and see for yourself. I’m worried that Extension and local land grants can’t see the forest for the trees…..do you see all the myriad ways you are needed?

  8. Julie, while I agree that it is perfectly reasonable for the cooperative extension to follow trends in an effort to serve the needs of their community the idea of embracing not-science based orthodoxy to fit in to the fad of the moment seems a poor way to keep the cooperative extension relevent. IPM should be the language of cooperative extensions IMO. Organic Gardening is unlikely to maintain its prominent cultural position because of its faulty premise. Man-made molecules needn’t be excluded to practice environmentally sound gardening. That isn’t to say that the cooperative extension can’t supply information about “organic” methods that have proven affective, but I don’t think they should take a position on the debate about the validity of organic orthodoxy one way or the other.

  9. I don’t think they should take a position on a debate either. What a waste of time. However, I new cadre of farmers who are very concerned with “organic” ‘Natural” and “sustainable” have arisen in my own state and this is translating to dollars at cents are farmers markets and through CSA’s. This is real and they need the very science based premises of Extension. Ultimately, I think the “man-made molecules” you mention (I assume you mean in fertilizers) are not really the issue. Indeed, most of these small farmers are more concerned about the pesticides than the ferts. They also are concerned about using sustainable methods such as conservation tillage, onsite composting and in general, lessening the need for off-site inputs into gardening operations. These is not debate-based information, rather is indeed, science based information that is provided already to some extent through UGA Extension and UT Extension and others I refer to all the time. I was making the case this is all justified. Farmers need this info and have to turn somewhere to get it. I hold out Extension as the best science based information so I send them there all the time. I too have had some skepticism over whether “organic” farming is going to grow and be a major force. Only about 1000 acres in the state of Georgia are devoted to organic farms. That is small compared to our larger, conventional operations. However, I do think that some form of the present “organic movement” is here to stay….perhaps as a hybrid of organic practices with conventional but with an emphasis on local. A recent cooking magazine I picked up at the grocery store had a fascinating article in which it said that chefs, ironically, seem to be driving the farm to table craze. In any case, Jeff Gillman’s book is listed as recommended reading on my website with the idea being that people are quite interested in knowing how to grow with fewer chemical inputs. Again, this relates to a LOCAL audience. It does not translate easily to large, conventional farming. But, I thought Extension WAS for local, small farmers and gardeners.

  10. As we say in Ga. “Dang!” – Sorry for the bad syntax and grammar above! I type fast and it’s hard to check it in this little bitty comment box!

  11. Personally, I think the extensions need to advertise a bit more. I hear them mentioned in gardening books all the time, but that’s about it. Yes, I’m sure I could find the contact info somewhere, but it just isn’t in the forefront of my mind when I have a question.

    As for the other debate, as a strong organic supporter, I have much more problem with non-organic fertilizer than with pesticides (though I haven’t needed to use the latter). All pesticides, whether organic or not, are poisons. You only use them when you absolutely have to. Non-organic fertilizer, on the other hand, actually leaches nutrients from the soil, forcing you to buy it year after year as the soil gets worse. With organic methods, the soil improves with each year. This is what I strive for.

  12. Linda, I apologize for the following as it is not precisely in context with your article, but seeing that commentary has probably already run it’s course, I’m hopeful that the following monologue from my soapbox won’t be too damaging…… Sarah, I agree that getting the same results with less poison is always desirable. It is the organic gardening premise that man-made molecules are inherently more dangerous than natural ones that I consider to be a completely faulty premise and a damaging concept if applied in a grand scale…… Food is becoming increasingly expensive globally and arable land is limited as populations expand and emerging economies inspire less efficient dietary habits (more meat)….. When it is possible to get similar yields with similar inputs with organic methods, wonderful. However, in my own garden I have often found that a slight input of certain synthetic compounds can dramatically increase my yields. A couple of chlorathalinol applications shortly after planting my tomatoes, for example, probably doubles my crop because, as is often the case in humid regions, early blight will cause early death to my tomato plants, drastically reducing yield. The organic methods of controlling this disease have proven inadequate as made clear by the high price of local organic tomatoes.. Productivity always has to be an important consideration when assessing environmental impact. All inputs must be part of the calculation- including human labor (low wage human labor probably creates a culture of large families, for instance)….

    Gardening and agriculture need to be practiced in a sustainable manner, but there is no scientific basis for the idea that this precludes the use of all man-made chemicals. The cooperative extension must, above all, be science driven.

  13. Thanks Alan for that info and your comments. Some excellent points. Every year I wish we could use chlorathalinol at the community garden but being that we bill ourselves an organic garden ….it is a no-no.

  14. Alan and Julie, my family uses Bordeaux mixture (“liquid copper”) to control early blight in tomatoes. It is approved for organic production although I personally try to use it as little as possible to avoid copper build-up in soil.
    I found that cultural methods are very helpful in preventing the disease. I space tomato plants generously and prune them aggressively to help with air circulation. Early blight is a soil-born fungus; it gets on the leaves by backsplash from the soil. I water the base of the plants, mulch my tomato patch with straw and remove lower leaves for a foot or more from the soil. This year I did not use copper at all (upstate New York).

  15. Lu, I’m aware of organic control methods for blight and 45 years ago began about a 2 decade organic religious period in my nursery and gardening career. I eventually moved to the northeast and trying to grow conventional tree fruit organically in the humid region opened my mind to the beauty of modern chemistry…

    I’ve read everything I can about tomato blight, and what it does and what it is supposed to do is not necessarily on the same page. Stopping soil from splashing onto the leaves will not prevent infection in the world I garden in, believe me, or plastic sheeting or hay would be a cure all. The reason it’s easy to control in NY this year is same as last- a dry summer. Your methods probably won’t be so useful next cool wet summer we have and even on a good summer, I bet your plants will have wilted while mine are still robust in Sept. However, sites vary a great deal on the pressure of this disease. A big part is having open eastern exposure but there’s more to it than that. After over 40 years of making my living in the soil I’m still stumped by natures complexity on a daily basis.

    I believe the reason organic methods are a good thing is because of the way we grow our food. When you grow just one plant in a very large area (mono-culture) the level of disease and insect pressure goes through the roof and required chemical inputs can increase to the point creating all kinds of problems. In the scale of small farms and especially small gardens these dangers tend to disappear with the expanding buffer. Of course in large subdivisions the monoculture is of lawns and similar problems arise again. I just would like to see some responsible effort in the media to separate the issues of environmental contamination and dangers to the individual form pesticide exposure. The farmers who breathe and practically bathe in these chemicals are statistically less prone to cancer and generally much healthier than average Americans according to studies I’ve seen.

  16. Hey Alan, Try managing a community garden where everyone, every year, gets early blight. It is our destiny. And, hate to say it, our urban gardening extension agent was less than helpful when he said he’d never seen this in community gardens. I got real down in the mouth over that till I realized how commonplace early blight really is…. There’s much I could say about this that time won’t allow. For now, Bacillus subtillis will have to do, unless I find something “organic” and better that’s allowable per our rules. Thanks for your observations above.

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