The recent newsletter of the American Society of Landscape Architecture (http://dirt.asla.org/) provided a link to a sorry story in the Philadelphia dot com paper.
The substance of the article by Virginia A. Smith is that horticultural sciences are not even close to being at the top of fields of study that will survive in the next 25 years. How to make growing food and flowers appealing to generations of Tweeters and Instagrammers?
"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.
I don't know about making it sexier but there is a general lack of interest in growing food, herbs and flowers among those who see the need for wealth and fame. Getting your hands dirty doesn't even touch the problem. Kids don't even go outside is their point so how will we get them to care about plants, plant science and plant breeding?
"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.
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.
This crisis is not unique to the United States, as Meyer discovered during a teaching stint in England over the summer: England, the world's horticultural powerhouse, faces the same problems.
In a report in May, the Royal Horticultural Society decried "an alarming shortage of skilled professionals" in horticulture jobs, posing "a threat to Britain's economy, environment, and food security."
"When do most people get interested in plants now?" asked Richard Marini, head of Pennsylvania 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.)
Matthew Bond, 21, a plant sciences major at Cornell University, found his future the old-fashioned way: He grew up in farm country in Ogdensburg, N.Y., where his father and grandmother were enthusiastic gardeners.
Bond, an officer of the National Junior Horticultural Association since 2009, is worried. The group's membership has plummeted from 1,000 in the '60s to half that number 15 years ago to 300 today. He suggests today's heavily scheduled kids have no time for hobbies like gardening. "They don't even go outside," he said.
Pauline Hurley-Kurtz, chair of the landscape architecture and horticulture program at Temple University, Ambler, says that though student interest in traditional horticulture - ornamental shrubs, trees, and plants - is holding steady, practical courses on growing food, storm-water mitigation, native plants, landscape restoration, urban arboriculture, even beekeeping, had become extremely popular over the last two or three years.
"We're doing much more environmental horticulture here," Hurley-Kurtz said. "It's the way of the future, but we still need professionals who have a background in horticultural science."
There's the challenge.
"There's nothing sexy about plant science until you make it so for kids. Once you do, they're hooked," said Jessica McAtamney, who teaches environmental science and urban gardening at W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough.
Hydeia Brown, 17, from Germantown, could be the poster child for an idealized horticultural future, one that includes not just more practitioners, but more diversity, too. An environmental science major in Saul's horticulture program, Brown wants to make a career out of plants.
"I love science," she said in a phone interview from Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, where her class is photographing and cataloging the Latin botanical names of pitch pine, American holly, and other trees.
Brown, whose family left their South Carolina farm to move north before she was born, wishes "other kids would come out and experience this. Not a lot of them know about the outdoors. They like electronics and stuff like that."