Is horticulture a withering field?

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PHILADELPHIA -- Coming from image-conscious professionals who prefer to gush about the beauty of flowers and the joys of growing vegetables, the words were downright shocking: "Horticulture is under siege."

They jumped off a three-page letter penned by a half-dozen of the country's most prominent plant people sent in December to 800 schools and universities, government agencies, industry associations, and growers of everything from almonds to onions.

Clearly, horticulture -- once a priority, if not an obsession, for generations of Americans -- is in trouble.

The letter warns that 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.

"Think of all the careers horticulture is competing against. We need to make it sexier and more relevant in a highly competitive market," said Paul B. Redman, director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square and a strong supporter of a four-year remedial campaign outlined in the letter.

That campaign calls for:

• A scientific study of the problem to support with numbers what backers believe to be true.

• An education plan outlining how horticulture can be integrated into K-12 curriculums and promoted on college campuses.

• An advocacy and marketing strategy to raise public awareness of horticulture's importance and of career options.

"We have to come up with a game plan. Period," said Mr. Redman, who has been in horticulture for three decades and who still has to define for people what that means.

By the book, horticulture is the art and science of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers and ornamental plants.

More often, in the public mind, "it's a guy with a pickup truck and a lawn mower, a low-paying job requiring manual labor and no college degree," said Mary H. Meyer, horticultural science professor at the University of Minnesota and, as president of the American Society for Horticultural Science, a critical force in the campaign.

Ms. Meyer cites other career opportunities: plant breeding; greenhouse and food production; the cut-flower, landscape, and nursery industries; public gardens, parks, and sports turf; research into global climate change, plant pests, and diseases, water quality, biofuels, and food safety and security; and the psychological and physiological benefits of plants.

Horticulturists say the crisis has been building for decades, greatly influenced by the globalization of the food and flower trades, the population shift from farm to city, and the loss of personal connection to the land.

"When do most people get interested in plants now?" asked Richard Marini, head of Penn State University's plant science department. "Usually, when they buy a house, and by then, they're out of college."

In another sign of the times, 18 months ago at Penn State, the agronomic and turf scientists merged with the horticulturists to form the plant sciences department.

Pauline Hurley-Kurtz, chair of the landscape architecture and horticulture program at Temple University, Ambler, says student interest in traditional horticulture -- ornamental shrubs, trees, and plants -- is holding steady, and practical courses on growing food, stormwater mitigation, native plants, landscape restoration, urban arboriculture, even beekeeping, have become extremely popular.

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