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.
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.