The plant scientist and novice gardener


My mini herb garden. From left to right: rosemary, chive and thyme.

Some people think that because I am a plant scientist I should also know a lot about gardening. Think again. The extent of my gardening is tending to some house-plants and a few herbs outside. All of these plants are pretty low maintenance (except the parsley, which needs more regular watering). This suits me because I love having plants around, but I tend to be a bit absent-minded about watering them, so I need plants that can tolerate dry conditions, like Aloe vera or thyme.

So why am I NOT an expert gardener? In short, because I’ve not had the years of training and experience that expert gardeners have. My research in plant science uses mostly molecular and cell biology techniques. I didn’t step foot in the greenhouses at my place of work for the whole of the first year of my PhD because I never needed to grow plants in soil. Instead, I was growing plants in sterile conditions (i.e. without microbes like bacteria and fungi) on a jelly-like substance called agar.

Medicago truncatula seedlings growing on agar containing nutrients.

Medicago truncatula seedlings growing on agar containing nutrients.

Even now I use the glasshouses, it’s mostly to grow plants to produce seed for my sterile experiments. Plus, although I do usually sow the seeds myself, the horticultural staff water the plants and generally look after them for me. I do a few jobs like tying the stems to stakes and bagging the plants to collect the seed they produce, but otherwise I’m a more or less absent.

Instead of learning how to look after plants and how to care for gardens, I have spent the last few years of my life learning the inner workings of plants. While I do know what plants need to grow (light, water, nutrients, etc.) this is hardly a revelation to most people. I know a lot about the processes going on inside plants that require these things, but in-depth biochemical knowledge is not that useful in gardening without the practical skills. Having said that, I’m probably more aware than most “non-gardeners” of the signs of a plant being under stress, which is useful when I’ve forgotten to water my house-plants for a while…oops!

Another misconception I sometimes face is that people assume I can identify lots of plants. I can identify a fair few, but this is because I like walking in the countryside, not because of my research or science education. Plant species identification just doesn’t come up much when you study plant cells.

Despite my obvious lack of skills I am becoming increasingly interested in gardening. I’m very proud of my little house-plant collection and my pot of herbs (I dont have a garden so outside space is limited). Next, I’m going to get a mint plant. One day, when I have a garden, I hope to set up a small vegetable patch.

So, even though I’m working on my gardening skills, if you need gardening advice I’m probably not the right person to ask. That is, unless you want to grow M. truncatula plants on agar, in which case I know rather a lot.



15 thoughts on “The plant scientist and novice gardener

  1. Hello Sarah,

    As a new subscriber and Master Gardener, I can assure you that the world desperately needs both the hands-in-the-dirt type gardeners and the professional scientists who inform our work. Your skills obviously go beyond science and extend to explaining the significance of your work to folks like me who struggled with high-school biology. Never under-estimate the importance of those explanations! I work with a lot of scientists who only speak “geek-inese” and it can be a real challenge to interpret their work so regular folks understand it. Also, looking at the picture above of your pretty little herb garden, I have to say that you obviously have some latent gardening skills. Your rosemary is flowering! I’ve grown rosemary for years and never managed to get it to flower. Best wishes, Rebecca Last in Ottawa, Canada

  2. Thanks for your comments Rebecca. I know my plant science knowledge can be of value to gardeners but it is mostly a different set of knowledge to what expert gardeners generally have.

    I think the rosemary flowering is mostly luck on my part. The only attention it has received since I planted it last year has been some watering and cutting off stems to use in cooking.

  3. My mother gave me a rosemary plant once and it survived for quite a long time in a pot, even under some pretty adverse conditions. She also introduced me to the concept of “benign neglect” — a lot of plants actually don’t want or need a whole lot of messing around with! Sun if the plant wants it; some afternoon shade is usually helpful (especially for potted plants); not too much water, and an occasional repotting to replenish the soil and get rid of built-up fertilizer salts. Your things look nice, and as a busy plant scientist, I’m sure that it’s tough to keep up with things at home sometimes! Even so, is it not still fascinating to watch the entire process of germination unfold in a soilless environment?

    • Thank you for your comments. Yes I love seeing plants grow regardless of whether they are in soil or agar. Plants growing on agar is pretty cool as you get to see the roots growing, which you normally don’t get to see when plants grow in soil.

      • plants are such amazing things and people are not actually aware of that. You atually inspire me to want to know more and I am actually relieved to know that there are people out there who actually love what I also love

  4. Just don’t worry, you don’t have to be a jack of all trades because you are already a master of one! What people fail to understand is the World of specialization. For instance, the difference between a dentist and a neurologist, they are different streams. Also, I second your thought on having dry tolerant plant ( High five, even I am a absent minded gardener). Good luck 🙂

  5. I am a first year studying Plant Pathology and people have also thought that I could identify any plant but now I know that this is what most people think when you are doing a career involving plants.I would also learn more about growing plants on agar. I think its cool because you get to see everything that occurs in the roots during plant growth

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  7. Do plants that grow on agar and those that grow on soil grow at the same rate. Are the any diseases that can affect plants growing on soil only and not affect those growing on agar?

    • Hi, Im not sure about growth rate, but plants do grow differently on agar than in soil. I dont know of any diseases that can only affect plants in soil and not agar but the different growing conditions might alter how vulnerable the plants are to disease. The biggest issue with growing plants on agar instead of soil is that the nutrients in the agar are very appealing to other organisms (e.g. fungi), which can grow faster than the plants. As a result the plants need to be grown in sterile conditions.

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