The Last Child in the Garden

Today, I’d like you to consider why you became a horticulturist; to consider why the ranks of our profession are thinning; and to issue a call to action to ensure that the generations represented in this room are not the last to know the joys and wonders of horticulture.

In 1893, Turner and the U.S. Census Bureau declared the end of the classic American frontier. One hundred years later, the death of a second American frontier was noted—the Federal government dropped its annual survey of farm residents. Farm population had dwindled so much—from 40% of U.S. households in 1900 to just 1.9% in 1990—that the farm resident survey was irrelevant. This second demarcation line suggests that baby boomers may constitute the last generation of Americans to share an intimate familiarity with the land. Many boomers knew farmland or forests at the suburban rim and had farm-family relatives. Even those in the inner cities likely had grandparents or other older relatives with direct connections to farming. I am a perfect example. I grew up on a 50’ × 100’ lot in a suburban community about 50 miles northeast of New York City. However, my maternal grandfather lived less than 3 miles away, and he was a retired horticulturist—his profession had been to serve as an estate groundskeeper. He had about a half-acre of land that included all kinds of wonderful gardens. Thus I grew up learning the Latin names of plants at the same time I was building my “regular” vocabulary in elementary school! Moreover, on the way to his house, I literally bicycled through the fields of a truck farm, which later became the site of my first internship during my college years. The farmer was a friend of my father, and I had permission to stop and pick a vegetable or two whenever I wanted. Thus, I have had a lifelong connection to horticulture.

For today’s young people, that familial and cultural linkage to farming and to horticulture is disappearing. About 80% of Americans now live in metropolitan areas, and many of those areas are severely lacking in green space. The truck farm where I picked cauliflower was converted into a subdivision while I was in graduate school. This cultural shift has created at least two disturbing trends for horticulture: 1) a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins and 2) tightly planned and controlled developments featuring minimal yards, where covenants sometimes actually prevent families from altering their landscapes or planting gardens.

There are some hopeful signs that people are becoming aware of the negative effects of the disconnect from our agrarian roots. One is green urbanism. Elements of green urbanism like lawns, orchards, gardens, trees, landscapes of all kinds, atriums, window boxes, green walls, and green roofs all involve horticulture. We are also beginning to see a resurgence of dooryard fruit trees and backyard vegetable gardens, and there is a strong consumer movement calling for more fresh, locally produced food.

Unfortunately there is another disturbing trend, at least in the United States, and that is that children are spending less time in creative outdoor play. Our children have become watchers rather than doers. When we baby boomers were young, we were always outdoors. Today’s children are more likely to seek electronic entertainment. From 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50% in the proportion of children aged 9 to 12 who spent time in such outdoor activities as hiking, fishing—and gardening, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland. North Carolina State University professor Robin Moore wrote that primary experience of nature in childhood play is being replaced “by the secondary, vicarious, often distorted, dual sensory (vision and sound only), one-way experience of television and other electronic media.” Richard Louv cites a comment by a fourth-grader from San Diego named Paul: “I like to play indoors better, ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Paul may have horticultural elements around him, like lawns, trees, and indoor plants, but they aren’t on his radar.

One counter to the lack of nature in children’s lives has been termed “environment-based education.” Research done at the University of Illinois has shown that green outdoor spaces foster creative play, improve children’s access to positive adult interaction, and relieve the symptoms of attention-deficit disorders. The researchers advocated that children experience recess in green schoolyards, and advised parents and other adults to encourage children to plant and care for horticultural plants in the home landscape and in the community. Gardening is now included in some school curricula, and there is a national program for Agriculture in the Classroom. In countries such as Norway, farms and ranches have become the new schoolyards, offering lessons and hands-on experience in topics that include horticulture. Government actions that would encourage American farmers to participate in such programs might include reform of liability laws and economic incentives. Professional organizations, including our own American Society for Horticultural Science, could be encouraged to do more outreach to schools in an effort to build stronger, more significant, relationships.

There are many resources available to help parents encourage youthful enthusiasm for horticulture. Horticultural activities can be used to strengthen family bonds, as they did for me. If land is available, a home flower or vegetable garden or a personal plot in a community garden is a good way to begin. Families can go harvesting together, either on pick-your-own farms or as part of a community-supported agriculture operation. Even an urban child can be encouraged to watch three different types of trees as they progress through a seasonal cycle, and to observe and question. Formal activities are available through organizations like 4-H and the FFA. Clearly all these activities can foster an appreciation for horticulture, but there are even broader values to be learned, such as intellectual curiosity, the appreciation of beauty, and the care of other living things.

An expansion of horticultural knowledge in our primary and secondary schools needs to be accompanied by changes in higher education. In the current environment of higher education, where generating financial resources and returns is emphasized, natural sciences like horticulture are often pushed aside in favor of more theoretical and remunerative basic sciences. Even within horticulture programs, plant identification is becoming a lost art as higher educational institutions focus on molecular biology and genomics. Biologist Elaine Brooks has said, “Humans seldom value what they cannot name.” My colleague who teaches landscape plant materials has a sign on his door with a quote from Paul Hawken: “That an average citizen can recognize one thousand brand names and logos but fewer than ten local plants is not a good sign.” Some of today’s horticulture graduates cannot tell a radish from a turnip, much less expound upon the traits that distinguish cultivars and make them useful.

Even if more academic institutions commit to teaching in these areas, finding professors with enough knowledge to teach such classes will be difficult. Those of us with that knowledge need to make a conscious effort to mentor eager young faculty members so as to better equip them to teach the next generation about horticultural plant identification and use. However, this presupposes that there will BE a new class of young horticultural faculty members! There have recently been popular articles and blog postings describing horticulture as “a lackluster degree” and one of the five most “worthless” college degrees. We need to counter this negative publicity by appealing to the sense of wonder and the desire to preserve, protect, and beautify the environment that has hopefully been awakened before students begin to settle on a career path. We also must take care to preserve a whole-plant approach in our classes that showcases the beauty and uniqueness of horticulture. A sense of wonder and joy in nature should be at the heart of horticultural education. This needs to carry over into graduate study and the world of research. In an article in the journal Scientia Marina, Dayton and Sala noted that research support for ecology has shifted from “individualized small science to very large integrated research programs where the players have small roles well defined by the group,” rewarding “group mentalities more than individual creativity.” The exact same thing could be said of horticultural research today. We cannot expect to develop a new generation of horticultural scientists if we ignite a passion for plants in the child, but later on, the young adult sees no place for joy, wonder, and creativity in a scientific or academic career in horticulture.

Most of us began our careers as children, with direct experience in growing and caring for plants, and feeling a sense of awe and wonder in the presence of nature. I suspect that, like me, most of us in the room today can tell about a family member who took us into a garden as a child and modeled appreciative attention to the plants and other natural wonders to be found there. When children sense genuine adult enthusiasm, they’ll want to emulate that interest. If these experiences are becoming increasingly rare, how will our future scientists and practitioners learn about horticulture? We must take care not to so intellectualize and “technologize” our children that they are deprived of the true joy and wonder that comes from being outdoors and from cultivating horticultural plants. To paraphrase Louv*: If we are going to save the environment in general and horticulture in particular, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in the garden.


The inspiration for this address was Richard Louv’s landmark book, Last Child in the Woods. The citation is:

  • Louv, Richard. 2008. Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. 2nd ed. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Source: ashs – The Last Child in the Garden