This gorgeous display of phalaenopsis is part of a study by a professor I know who researches (among other things) orchids.
How cool is that – right? Don't you wish he had an orchid blog to pass on all sorts of tips on how to get the darn things to rebloom after you buy them?
Well – not really. He actually doesn't know much more about growing orchids at home than anyone else. In fact, I've been to his house: He had one orchid, which was dying, just like the one on your windowsill. He knows and studies commercial orchid production – how to rapidly and efficiently grow baby orchids into the lovely plants in full bloom you can pick up at virtually any grocery store these days. In other words: He's NOT “one of the few scientists interested in talking to gardeners.”
I put that last line in quotes because it is a phrase I've seen often on Garden Rant to describe people like Jeff Gillman – as in “his is one of the few scientists interested in talking to gardeners."
Sadly, this is true: Very few scientists do research that directly relates to home gardeners. I'm a grad student in a horticulture department, and I know faculty who study everything from vegetables to flowers to conifers to turf grass to weeds -- but none of them study these topics in terms of the home gardener. They study breeding, watering and fertilizer at the nursery, light levels in commercial greenhouses, even marketing -- in short, they study everything required to get a plant in your hands walking up to the check-out counter at a garden center – and nothing after that point. This isn't just a quirk of one particular university. The same is true of the school where I got my bachelors degree, and of 99.99% of the research I see presented at academic conferences.
But why? Why are so few scientists interested in talking to home gardeners? The truth is, I think lots of them are interested – they just can't afford it.
As usual, it comes down to money. Before I landed (more or less accidentally) in grad school, I assumed academic research programs were funded by the university. Not true: Professors are more like small business owners than regular employees. When a new professor is hired they get an office, a telephone, and part of a salary (Increasingly faculty are only paid by the university for 9 months of the year). The money for laboratory equipment, staff, salary and fees for graduate students like myself, fees to use university resources like greenhouse space or plots at research farms, and yes, one fourth of their salary, they have to find themselves. To get the money to pay for all this professors spend a huge amount of their time applying for grants from industry groups and governmental organization like the USDA. In other words: They have to come up with research ideas that will convince someone to fork over the money to actually get it done -- and home gardeners don't tend to give out grants. A book for gardeners could bring in some money, but not enough to run a whole research program – certainly nothing compared to the 14 million (yes, million) dollar grant a professor in my department recently landed.
Want more scientists to talk to gardeners? Well, you're going to have to pay for it. Oh wait – you already do. That 14 million dollar grant I mentioned? Your tax dollars by way of the USDA. I'm not running down government funding for basic research – those 14 million are going towards spectacular research. But wouldn't it be nice if a little of that money went to research we could use? Maybe it is time we gardeners spoke up and convinced our government to make research on healthy, environmentally sound home gardening more of a priority – or rather, a priority at all -- so the scientists who are interested in talking to us are able to.