Tweed Jackets: The Answer to Horticulture’s Waning Reputation?

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The Problem of Looking Stupid

Shovel, soil, sweat, is digging a hole as mindless as it looks?

Here’s how to look stupid: start digging a hole. Einstein, himself, would look like an idiot while digging a hole. All through history, people have needed holes, and no one has ever looked smart digging one. And no one has ever stood near a digging person, eagerly observing and taking notes, in order to better themselves. Unfortunately for horticulturists, we dig holes, often in full view of people dwelling in their homes or driving in their cars, and, lo and behold, the average American thinks we’re dumb. As such, many of them feel superior to us, awkward in our presence, and, determined to keep their children from entering the vocation. To this end, they also make damned sure to surround their homes with the blandest landscape they can afford. Nope. Nothing to be inspired about here. Suzie, put down that flower and learn to type code. That there is a real career.

Ironically enough, the reason that WE horticulturists are thought to be stupid is because of EVERYONE ELSE’S ignorance. Sure, they see us digging holes, looking dumb, but do they know we have anywhere from a 2-year degree to a doctorate? Do they know that we need to stay current with our certifications? Have they thought it through enough to know that to be good at this crazy passion one must have a solid grasp of both science and art? Of course they haven’t. They just see us lifting dirt out of the ground, and, if they’re paying for it, dollars flying like monarchs out of their wallets as it happens.

Maybe We’re Not As Dumb As We Look

Meanwhile, it must be said that digging a hole isn’t mindless—not for someone with smarts and training. A good horticulturist Bad landscaping and tree careis making all kinds of observations throughout the process, things that all add up to a successful planting. Even before starting, the horticulturist has probably gotten a soil test from a lab and evaluated the results. They’ve probably performed a perc test to determine drainage. This and a lot of experience informs, among other things, appropriate plant selection, which is an art and science all by itself. While digging a hole, a horticulturist is making note of the soil profile, its texture, and roots from valuable nearby plants. They are looking for signs of pests and diseases and evidence of problem weeds. All this and much more bounces around the bright, inquisitive, and invariably ADDHD minds of good horticulturists as they are doing something that casual observers might assume is bone-crushingly mind-numbing.

The Competition and The Consequences

Let’s take a step back. Sad reality: most people digging holes to make gardens these days are not trained horticulturists and are remarkably free of any thought beyond repeatedly wondering where their next 12-pack is coming from. Their qualifications? Their parole officer is friends with the owner of a landscape company. Why? Because a good horticulturist is hard to find. Why else? Because people don’t want to pay any more than alcoholic, ex-convict wages for a good horticulturist. As might be expected, this is lowering the bar on the work.

Underwhelming landscape
Uninspired and underwhelming? A multi-million dollar home, a two hundred dollar landscape.

This situation is having a terrible impact on the state of our yards, businesses, and communities. Look at what serves as horticulture out there around us–dismal designs, poor plant choices from the same old/same old limited palette, inexcusably unnecessary chemical applications, invasive plants, topped trees, plants planted too deep, and mulch piled too high.

This last one, to say the least, is ubiquitously chronic. And here’s a telling truth about that. No vocational school, no university, no accredited professional associations, no extension service, no horticultural magazine, or book, or reference of any sort has EVER recommended mulching trees to the point where they look like toilet plungers. Not one of them even one time! In fact, all of them have assailed the practice. And what does this mean? It means that any company doing this work—and there are tons of them—has NEVER been to school, has NEVER belonged to a professional association, has NEVER taken advantage of expertise from extension offices, and has NEVER so much as read a book or magazine or even a credible blog. And this is how the dumbest, most basic job any green industry company can do—mulching trees—gets screwed up in every community, every day, all across the nation.

volcano mulching
The most basic job a person can do, mulching, done wrong over and over and over. Making this scene especially ironic is that these trees are ash that the community paid to save with expensive EAB treatments. At the same time, they also paid for the toilet plunger mulch job which will ultimately kill them.

Digging Our Way Out

If we’re looking for someone else to fix this, which of course is everyone’s dream, we’re not going to find them. This is horticulture’s problem. The typical American neither has the time nor the interest to learn the difference between the wheat and chaff in our industry, and, dammit, we’re not helping them any. As a rule, we drive the same beat-up trucks as the riffraff, and we use the same tools. That much we can’t much control. Yet, how often do we explain our certifications and credentials? Who takes the time to really excite our customers with our work by teaching them about the plants and the reasons for the design? Because of this, we are losing business to people who know nothing about our craft, our customers assume we’re all dumb, nary a kid in American wants any part of our vocation, and horticulture programs at universities are closing.

transformational horticulture
Transformational horticulture – The High Line. Drawing millions of visitors a year and inspiring neighbors to do better.

Tweed Jackets and A Little Perspective

We can change this situation. Our arguments are rock solid if we just make them and play the game. So understand the crisis and care enough to actually market our life’s pursuit, and its remarkable history, and the transformational environmental, social, and economic benefits more and better horticulture provides. And here’s an idea – a good first step almost any horticulturist can start doing right away. Go to a thrift store and buy a tweed jacket and maybe a cap. Then learn how to fake an English accent. Suddenly, you’re not just another dumb American horticulturist, you’re an English Gardener. Boom, your stock just went up. Instant street cred! And you can double your prices.

Yes, you’ll still look pretty dumb digging a hole, but, hey, every profession has its moment of looking stupid. How intelligent does a proctologist, a highly trained and respected physician, look while examining his 15th butthole of the day…just before lunch? And how smart does a lawyer look on cable news, having been exposed paying a porn star money borrowed against his house to protect a politician? And, for that matter, how brilliant does that politician look, sitting on the can, misspelling yet another impulsive tweet? Fact is, they really don’t look any smarter than we do digging a hole. And when these people finish their day, have they made a garden?

dead trees, bad plant choices
The consequences of dumb plant choices, lost time and money.
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Scott Beuerlein

Scott Beuerlein is the Manager of Botanical Garden Outreach at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Scott is Chair of the Boone County Arboretum Collections Committee, past Chairman of Taking Root, past President of the Cincinnati Flower Growers Association, and Past Chairman of the Northern Kentucky Urban and Community Forestry Council.

He has published over 90 magazine articles, including in Ohio Gardener, Horticulture Magazine, and American Nurseryman. He currently writes the “Only in Ohio” column for Ohio Gardener.

Scott is an ONLA Certified Landscape Technician and an ISA Certified Arborist, and is somehow living in domestic bliss with a loving wife, a plotting cat, and an over-sized garden.

Contact Scott:  scott.beuerlein@cincinnatizoo.org

Visit Scott’s website: www.scottbeuerlein.com

21 COMMENTS

  1. The tone of this article is just unpleasant. It shows such a distain for all mentioned. Yes most new gardeners lack many tools for their efforts. I hope some kind gardener will give them encouragement to learn how to be successful and enjoy the results. The political comments by many Hort. people is so off putting. Was there any value to such mockery, I don’t see any.

    • Those of us who have been blessed as Master Gardeners per the expert tutoring of the horticultural staff of The University of Tennessee, as well as the thousands of Mid-Southerners who have been fortunate to attend their lectures KNOW that this article is total on target. Unfortunately, those who desecrate the landscapes of the earth with their unfortunate refusal to accept what is correct and compatible with nature take offense.

  2. Although I agree with a number of the points made in this article, I also agree with Nancy, the tone is very unpleasant and unnecessary. I find friends and new acquaintances gained from gardening very eager to learn and applaud my efforts, including digging in the dirt. Maybe we “hort.” people need to do a better job explaining how important dirt is to the whole process.

  3. Ouch! Intended to be funny, I suspect, (to give the author the benefit of the doubt). Not funny. Important though it is to teach the value of horticulture, this doesn’t do it.
    And what really offends me, though, is the description of the wages of landscape workers as “alcoholic, ex-convict”.
    Landscaping is hard work, and often only the job ex-offenders (and the undocumented, for that matter, can get). It’s difficult enough to turn your life around without this kind of stereotypical stigma.

  4. Such a turn off. While some of the authors opinions have validity, the snarky tone and negativity makes them all irrelevant. It’s funny to me as well, because when ever I see someone digging a hole I don’t think they look dumb, I think they are hard working and maybe they will find some hidden treasure!

  5. You spoke at our Growing Great Gardens event 2 years ago. You were great and the audience loved you. You sound angry, but I understand how you feel. Dumb people do dumb things. Hang in there…your expertise is appreciated by those of us who know better.

  6. My take on this article is the underlying message of how little respect a trained, educated, certified and experienced professional of the Green Industry receives for their knowledge of and expertise in the art and science of horticulture. Just how many of those “mow and blow” companies are interested in learning the BMPs and correct techniques of their trade? How many homeowners realize and understand the value of proper landscape design?

  7. You must have been really fed up when you wrote this post because it comes through — a little too loudly. I get your point, believe me. I’m a trained and degree’d graphic designer and illustrator and way too often I’ve encountered untrained people who think they can provide these services just because they have the software. But a softer approach at educating novices might go much further than a big stick.

  8. Even though some may think this article has too harsh of a tone, as someone in the industry, I can definitely relate and even got a sad chuckle or two out of it. Sometimes you just have to get it off your chest (this is Garden Rant, right?), and the author is correct: we need to keep trying to elevate the field. Let’s all keep on working on it!

  9. I loved this article and the style is very much of the ‘rant’ that is part of the site name surely? After if you can’t rant here where is there?
    The problem the author identifies (and to be honest it’s little different here in the home of the tweed jacket) is that people don’t appear to value hard learned ‘invisible’ skills that taught the guy where and when and how deep to dig the hole.
    People know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I blame Amazon and Google for playing a big part in this. A serious piece about how we rescue ourselves from this would make a good follow up. Maybe the tweed jacket and fake accent is a start but it demands further work.

  10. I’m thinking I should have run this blog past my wife before publishing. The intended tone of over-the-top snark, which I thought would be funny appears to have failed. I thought I had embedded enough clues within to suggest it all was to be taken with a grain of salt. Apparently not done well enough. My wife would have caught that.

    Kindly encouraging more people to gardening and gardening better is the focus of my life. I’m truly a nice guy, and new gardeners were by no means an intended target. That would be people who are charging money for horticultural services when they have no qualifications and no interest in even learning, which in other endeavors could be considered malpractice and possibly fraud. This does much to harm the forward motion of more and better landscapes and all the inherent benefits.

    As for the ex-cons and alcoholics line, definitely intended as a grossly unfair and stereotypic description, which, again, I thought would be recognized as humor. In no way was it intended to suggest that such people (who resemble most of my friends) are beyond redemption, especially if they seriously take up a career in horticulture. In fact, I’ve been in conversations to begin a gardening program at a local prison and I fervently hope this comes to fruition.

    Thanks to those who gave me the benefit of the doubt, got it, and/or sent encouraging comments. Much appreciated. Sometimes, one swings for the fences and only manages a pop up. The fans that cheer the player anyway are the truest of them all. Finally, as for the political snark, come on. Those jokes were funny!

    • In the current social climate especially, it is worthwhile remembering that “there is a fine line between sarcasm and ridicule.” (attr. Mark Twain) But your larger point is right on and well taken. I have an MS in Hort., and I still remember my major professor, Dr. Richard Harris, teaching us in 1971 how to properly stake and plant trees. Girdling roots were a revelation at that time. He said the Extension people had found it takes more than 11 years for a new scientific recommendation to be put into general usage. A number way underestimated in our field! I too cringed at your tone but your points are so right on and the abuse of plant material is criminal. I still work in the industry and try to educate people every single day. PS, it isn’t just private concerns that build tree volcanos. Most municipalities, even those in university towns with Hort departments, and Extension agents galore, do the same thing. Ug.

  11. Folks, it’s a RANT! The issues are very real! Uninformed people hire untrained, ignorant amateurs who pose as professionals, and they get unsuitable plants, an overload of chemicals, and ecologically inappropriate practices. Then they either come to like their pathetic plantings and scalped lawns, or feel dissatisfied and condemn all practitioners of landscaping and horticulture. It’s a disaster! Scott– I share your concerns!

  12. Scott is truly one of the nicest AND funniest people on the planet. I love Garden Rant for its edgy writing to make solid points. That’s its shtick! Scott, they read it, and I bet to the very picturesque end. I was laughing and reading parts aloud to my fella who was annoyed only because he was glued to some arcane commentary on the hockey playoffs.
    I will say that a tweed jacket and cap are not likely to be a go for females in the hort world. I’ll be deliberating what we should wear, preferably something that covers our butt when we are bending over that hole.

  13. scott
    loved it. got it. look forward to sharing.
    hope everyone got whatever reaction s/he had to it out of his/her system.
    i’ll be back
    cheers

  14. Soil damnit. Dirt is on the floor and under your fingernails. Real horticulturists don’t insult soil that feeds the world.

    • Lol! I cringed a little typing the word dirt, but in it’s context I wanted it to infer a view from a non-horticulturist.

Comments are closed.