Suggestions for improving college horticulture programs

So it’s been nearly ten years now since I graduated from college, all ready (or not?) to enter the, uh, real world, or something like that. And with all the experiences I have had during that time, I thought it might be fun to reflect on how my college experience might have better prepared me – and anyone in the program, for that matter – for a career in horticulture.

I fully acknowledge that I might have made some better school and work choices along the way, but that is not really what I want to emphasize here. I am just trying to offer some helpful feedback. Additionally, it should be noted that I mostly enjoyed my experience at WSU. If I sound snotty or cantankerous, it is only because of the topic I’m choosing to emphasize in this particular post. I learned many valuable things in each of my courses and feel that it certainly benefited me greatly compared to not going.

As best as I can remember, my course work broke down something like this.
ornamental horticulture (25%)
fruit/vegetable horticulture (20%)
botany/plant physiology (10%)
related sciences (including chemistry, entomology, soils) (15%)
Gen Ed and electives (30%)

As I look back I think two major things are missing from the horticulture program that fail to prepare students for the (ahem) “real world.” I mean if you’re going to pay all this money for a four-year education rather than a community college you might as well get as many relevant industry skills as possible out of it. If you don’t, at best you have an excellent chance of landing a mediocre job with associates’ degree pay; at worst employers will pass you by thinking a four-year degree means you’re simply an over-priced know-it-all who still (usually) lacks the right experience.

The first thing horticulture programs should add would be extensive course work in business management. Of course, it is possible to get a business minor, and many hort students do. But I am thinking something that operates within the hort program might be in order. This is because the hort industry has, I think, many specialized needs differentiating it from most other kinds of businesses. It should be as extensive as possible including everything from the financial management of the business, to managing employees, to marketing, to everything else – but all tailored to the uniqueness of the hort industry. Is that a tall order or what? Most importantly, it should be mandatory. It’s hard to imagine how this could not be relevant even for someone who ends up with an academic or government career. If you’re not into the business end of things you might as well get a botany degree with a horticulture emphasis.

The second would be to offer an emphasis or minor in one of two choices (perhaps we could think of more?), which might be called systems managemen and public relations. A college graduate should either have the ability to plan, construct and develop nursery infrastructure and fix things when they break; or some great public relations skills which might include anything from public speaking (including rhetoric), to volunteer and docent coordination and tours (think botanic gardens), communications, and marketing. For certain jobs, having both sets of skills doesn’t hurt!

So with that in mind, a better mix might be something like
ornamental/environmental hort 20% (5% for a fruit/veg hort major)
business management, including accounting 15%
systems management/maintenance OR public relations 15%
botany/plant phys 10%
landscape design 5%
fruit/vegetable horticulture 5% (20% for a fruit/veg hort major)
related sciences 15%
Gen Ed and electives 15%

The only way I can see justifying bypassing some of the business, systems and public relations courses would be if a student has a decided interest in research only and pursues a career within academia. But I think to do so would only further isolate academia from the real world, something I see quite a bit of and really don’t like.

I would also note that ornamental hort majors have better things to do than spend too much time studying fruit and vegetable horticulture, and vice versa. Perhaps about two courses in the non-emphasized area would be good but there just isn’t a whole lot of overlap in those areas in the real world.

I still consider botany, plant physiology, chemistry, entomology, soils, and related sciences to be very important. Botany in particular I would not change much except perhaps to add a systematics course or two as required (I took one as an elective). It seems a lot of people in the hort. Industry are unaware that plants exist in the wild and have degrees of relation to each other, and these subjects have profound implications throughout the field of horticulture.

Gen Ed courses are great but there was too much redundancy with high school and among the courses themselves. If you were to eliminate all that redundancy it might drop off almost to my 15% from that alone.

But perhaps the most worthless class I had (with apologies to Dr. Hillier – he was a nice professor) was a one-credit course called “Preparing yourself to enter the field of horticulture” or something like that. We had mock job interviews and discussions about how to find a job. The problem was that the course assumed a 1960’s production-based economy which is long gone. I did not recognize that at the time, and if anyone thinks things haven’t changed since the 1960’s perhaps they should ask themselves why so many college graduates can’t find reasonably-paying work. The world has changed. If I had better ideas for how to develop a similar course today, I’d give them to you, but honestly it’s still not easy for me to figure out even now.

One last idea would be to strongly encourage or reward multiple internships during or even after college. I was only required one summer’s worth of “interning” which was actually a job at a nursery I didn’t particularly like, and didn’t really do much for me. To push this a little harder might improve students ability to make better career choices having discovered what kinds of things they like and are good at, as well as providing the experience they need to make themselves more marketable. (Here I should mention that at the Desert Northwest we are very open to providing internships for seriously aspiring horticulture students. We hope you like it, but if you find out you don’t; well, you don’t have to come back, and you will have learned something.)

I know a college education is something where you get out of it pretty much what you put in. Some of my fellow graduates are employed with companies that sell soil or other products I can’t imagine getting excited about. I recognize that the difficulty of creating a helpful and focused college horticulture program reflects the fragmentation of the horticulture business in general. Combine that with the vastly differing goals and interests of students and a very small program overall, and you can see why it would be difficult for a college horticulture program to please everyone. But those are my thoughts: what are yours?

In other news…

I have produced yet another plant hunting trip report. This one is loaded with pictures of our native manzanitas, and will be my last such expedition for 2011. Check it out!

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Loree / danger garden
    Nov 24, 2011 @ 20:04:12

    Sorry I can’t enter the discussion about College Hort programs (as me about the Interior Design program at WSU though…). Anyway, great travelogue and Arcto-geekism pictures, perfect reading for the post Thanksgiving mealtime.

    Hope you had a good holiday!


  2. Ian
    Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:40:36

    Hey Loree – isn’t it amazing what interesting plants we can find in our own backyard? I can’t wait to see what those glaucous Penstemons do. Thanks for looking!


  3. Desert Dweller / David C.
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 19:49:43

    Man, do I like your infrequent, but deep blog posts! Thanks for sharing all that, including your plant expeditions…simply amazing. More later on this one. I will definitely look you up next time I am going to Cascadia!

    Back to this post – I agree with how you suggest changing a hort curriculum. Most landscape architecture curriculums need to better bounce from esoteric / metaphorical design to literal real-world / ecoregional design, and back and forth. All is needed in more balance!

    As to academia – they should have to be immerced in the world of real practitioners. They mean well, but…


  4. Ian
    Nov 30, 2011 @ 14:04:03

    I’m glad you liked it. Come on by anytime!

    I studied Landscape Architecture for a year before switching to horticulture. It was interesting but I was rather disappointed that almost no one in the class really cared at all about plants or their needs. That should be a much bigger part of the LA program than it is! I guess I can’t comment on the metaphorical vs. literal part since I didn’t finish the program or pursue LA professionally. But I hear ya.


  5. Jody
    Dec 30, 2011 @ 08:24:40

    Now that I’m catching up on your blog about a month later….(-: I think you have some good points! I feel like only a handful of classes (and usually only a small chunk of that class) really helped to prepare me for greenhouse growing (Plant ID, Plt Phys, Soils, Entomology, Plt Prop, Arboiculture, and Bot – and Plt Path…even though I hated the class (-: ). However, the most helpful aspect of my 3.5 yrs at WSU was Jamie’s constant mentoring through Hort Club and working around the WSU greenhouses under his guidence. Without his teaching I would have been in big trouble. I would also say that the Honors college classes were much better than the Gen Ed classes I took and actually challenged me to think hard, which is always a skill worth developing. (-: Adding the business aspect would have been super helpful – as would have a few courses in Spanish.


  6. Ian
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 09:59:37

    Jody, you bring up a good point, and the reason I did not join hort club was that I just did not get all that excited about bedding plants vs. woody plants and some of the rare and unusual stuff we grow now. However I know I may be in the minority as far as that goes. What to do about that? I’m not sure. Yeah, Spanish would be a good idea for about anyone at this point, but especially in hort. I’m ashamed to say I still don’t know a whole lot!


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