Rant Interview: Educator Gene Sumi


Q:  Anything exciting happening in horticulture that you can tell us about?

A: A new horticultural product is very
exciting – Messenger, a new
product which is a protein found in species of plant-attacking bacteria. Strangely enough, this protein (called Harpin)
triggers a response that unlocks the plant’s own internal defenses, to
successfully fight off diseases and insect predators. The protein also stimulates vigor in the
plant, producing stronger, healthier new green growth and higher quality blooms
and fruit. Finally, this effect is produced in all plants. Quite a revolutionary garden product.

Q: What frustrations are people in the nursery business experiencing today?

A: One of our most frustrating problems is to
find people with the educational background and the experience to fill
positions in the nursery industry. Horticulture is not considered a glamourous or a high-paying career for
today’s bright young workers. The
attraction to this field is working with plants, in the environments in which
they grow. Plants are important,
interesting, exciting, beautiful and essential components of our environment.

Q:  Any ideas about how garden centers can help to educate gardeners?  And what do you think of our suggestion that all plants carry both common and Latin names? 

A: Garden centers need to provide programs that
educate gardeners in all aspects of good gardening practices. This can be done at the garden centers
through seminars and classes. This can
also be done at a garden center’s help desk or, as we call it at Homestead Gardens, a Diagnostics Center. Here expert
advice on plant problems is dispensed to individual customers, as well as
solutions based on those diagnoses. Besides advice, plant problems are explained in a way that the customer
understands and is likely to retain. Education at its best.

As far as using both common and botanical names, I am all for it. Common names have not always been the most reliable way to identify a plant. For example, some customers call all conifers “pines” or “cedars”. Some common names are strictly regional in origin or made up within a person’s family, and are likely not to be recognized by others. Botanical names specifically identify a plant right down to is
species, to everyone’s understanding.

Q:  What do you think of all this press lately about the decline of gardening in the U.S.? 

A:  The older generations of Americans that grew
up with gardening as a part of their everyday life are gardening less these
days. They now live in retirement communities or nursing homes where there is
likely no access to a garden. Baby
Boomers are affluent enough to pay others to maintain their gardens. Finally, there seems to be no developing
gardening tradition among Generations X and Y to fill the dwindling gardening


  1. Your second distinguised interview subject also mentions the major disconnect many people have with the fundamentals of nature and plants and the fact that they are Living Things. I am glad to know that I am not alone in this observation.

    It can actually be quite frustrating to work for people whose expectations of the landscape are so far removed from the idea that these plants are living things with life cycles and actual lives that interact with the environment and their neighbors.

    Every May/June Delonix regia, Royal Poinciana and Samanea saman, Monkeypod among other tropical trees shed their leaves before blooming. Every year the same people ask me “Is the tree dying?”

    My standard response has become “In other parts of the world it is called Fall.”

  2. I once visited Atlanta in the winter (from California) where I’d never seen so many deciduous, dormant trees. I actually asked my host if Atlanta had a bad problem with acid rain.

    How embarrassing to think of it now.

  3. I’ve written about this disconnect that people have with nature and the lack of basic understanding of plants. People would ask me in April-May if it was too late to plant tulips bulbs. Someone else coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’. People just aren’t outside enough, or paying attention in school!

  4. Regarding the above comment from Carol: I think moments in education that deal with the lifecylces of pants, and practical biology in general are seen by students as just some more of those “and when are we ever going to use this in real life?” moments. At least, it felt that way to me, although I was always interested because of the perceived novelty of the lessons. I thought we were getting out of learning “useful” lessons by spending time on the parts of a flower.
    I know when I decided to pick up the trowel a few years ago it still felt very novel. My friends were intrigued but confused. Why would I spend my time on what they saw as a messy, fruitless (ha! irony) pursuit, quaint at best. When I received a collection of assorted Miracle Gro products for my birthday this year, they were offended when I didn’t use them. Each of these college educated women were surprised to learn that there are actually organisms in the soil that benefit my veggies, and that I was actually trying to foster my earthworm population, not decimate it.
    When we spend all -ALL- our time indoors (driving counts!), surrounded by the non-living, non-changing, plastic, deathless interface of modern convenience, eating out-of-season foods that don’t resemble in the slightest the organism from which they were produced and that have travelled thousands of miles across sea and land to our plate, we lose touch with the natural rhythyms and conditions of life. No wonder we’re suprised to learn that this lifestyle gives us cancers.

    /my garden rant

  5. “A: Garden center customers need to understand plants and their environment. I am always surprised to find out that so many customers do not know the first thing about plants. … Many have forgotten that plants are living things, that they have a life span and are susceptible to damage and disease.”

    I know people who routinely kill houseplants because they insist on putting the plant somewhere in the middle of a room 15 or 20 feet away from the nearest window.

    The plant is part of the “decor” to them, when it actually should be regarded as more of a pet with daily needs.

  6. Firefly wrote: >The plant is part of the “decor” to them, when it actually should be regarded as more of a pet with daily needs.< Good analogy, except some people also treat their pets as home decor or fashion accessories.

Comments are closed.