Great Gardening: Much to share after gathering of garden writers - The Buffalo News
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Great Gardening: Much to share after gathering of garden writers

Imagine four days surrounded by book authors, news columnists, magazine writers and photographers, talking day and night about plants, gardens, gardening and horticulture careers.

That was my experience in Pittsburgh last week at the Garden Writers Association conference – with 420 writers from Quebec, Florida, California, Texas and all regions of the country. We honed communication skills, looked at new products and explored some hefty horticulture topics. Then we toured gardens. We also talked about you – our readers, fellow gardeners and the generation we hope will dig in the trenches behind us. I came home stimulated, inspired and ready to share these morsels with you.

Science illiteracy and plant blindness

Horticulture education is more important than ever before, according to keynote speaker Paul Redman, executive director of Longwood Gardens. We face jarring world crises as ecological systems collapse, natural habitats disappear, water becomes the challenge of the decades ahead and farms struggle to survive. Many urban populations dwell in “food deserts,” with little access to fresh produce.

We need scientists and science writers desperately, yet science illiteracy is the trend. Evidence of adult ignorance about science is rampant. Most children study plant science only in kindergarten through grade five. No wonder the flow of students through the horticultural science pipeline is weak and undergraduate enrollment in four-year horticulture programs is decreasing.

Meanwhile, the connection to nature is increasingly absent in most lives. America’s population is now categorized as just 17 percent rural. Ever fewer people grow up with farm, woodland or meadow experiences. Children today spend half as much time outside as kids just 20 years ago. The result? Fewer kids who are interested in living things means fewer botanists or entomologists or foresters unless someone intervenes.

Other consequences are also likely. In his powerful book “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” and connected a variety of behavioral problems with the lack of unstructured, creative play outdoors in natural settings.

Redman stressed the crucial role of botanical gardens in exposing youth to plants and the environment – a commitment of our own Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens – and implored gardeners and garden writers to become plant mentors for youth.

Did you ever have a guest or worker come to your house and step right on a plant in your garden? Did you wonder how they could possibly not see the plant? The term is “plant blindness,” another aspect of the lack of connection to nature. If you have planted or nurtured something, you do not step on it.

Plant blindness is also evident in the common abuse of trees. In many a park experience I have seen kids rip branches off trees, scratch or dig into bark and do significant damage in simple, careless play – with nearby adults failing to stop them.

I also believe (and this is my opinion, not that of any speakers mentioned) that the lack of childhood exposure to nature – watching baby birds in the nest, seedlings push up from the soil, ants marching in the grass – contributes to a lack of compassion and empathy for other living things, from the insect to the kindergartner on the school bus. We need to get those kids into the woods!

Pollinators, trees and more plants

Entomologist Bill Johnson from Clemson University went beyond the honey bee, encouraging garden writers to tell you how many other pollinators are making food and flowers possible. How many pollinators can you name? Johnson guesses it’s fewer than 10. Now add these to your list:

• Wasps: cuckoo wasp, scolid wasp, cicada killer, sand wasp, baldfaced hornet, golden digger wasp, thread-waisted wasp.

• Bees: mining bee, digger bee, wool carder bee, cuckoo bee, sweat bee, bumble bee.

• Flies: narcissus bulb fly, wasp mimic, dance fly, green bottle fly, golden dung fly, soldier fly, parasitic bee fly, feather-leg fly, thick-headed fly.

• Beetles: locust borer, soldier beetle, flower longhorns, weevils and – you get the drift. And I haven’t even mentioned hummingbirds, bats and butterflies.

Knowing this, won’t most people be slower to whack them?

Trees received attention in this learning forum as well as on tour. I saw the biggest Aralia spinosa (Devil’s walkingstick, Spikenard, a northeast native) ever and ancient beeches. We used the National Tree Benefit Calculator, developed by Casey Trees and Davey Tree Expert Co., to monetize the benefits of any tree in any location. While trees offer intangible values – community and mental health, wildlife benefits – some values are measurable: stormwater runoff prevention, electricity and fuel savings (trees cool homes in summer and block wind in winter), property value, oxygen and more.

A certified arborist also reminded us of the other reality of trees: Faulty trees can kill and do damage. Let’s all go directly outside and inspect the large trees surrounding our homes or spanning our sidewalks. Look for vertical cracks in any tight V-shaped trunk juncture, bark wounds and cavities, fungal outcroppings on trunks, growths at the base of the tree, girdling or rotting at the base from excessive mulch pile-up, dead branches or decreasing foliage in the canopy and leaning trunks. If these are present, or if you have a large tree deserving of protection, call a certified arborist – a firm with true expertise and insurance. Tree care is not a job for your brother-in-law or Uncle Joe the DIY guy. For information, visit: or

Beautiful Pittsburgh

I know nothing about the Steelers, but I won’t forget the cheers going up as I strolled along the river during a full moon last Saturday night – brightly lighted boats bobbing to my right and the massive stadium on my left. Pittsburgh has achieved a level of urban renewal to be admired, from the waterfront to its parks and the Phipps Conservatory. Garden writers left with a new image of a once downtrodden city.

More good news: We have won the bid to hold the Garden Writers Conference in Buffalo in 2017, when we will also dazzle them with our gardens, gardeners, horticultural educators and great, flowering region.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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