May 22, 2008

By Victoria County Master Gardener Monica Pilat

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener

Since childhood in her grandmother’s garden, Master Gardener Monica Pilat has loved messing with plants…so much so that she obtained a degree in science in the field of horticulture.   Shown here are her various textbooks used for classes at Texas A&M University.
Those of us in the gardening and horticulture world know there is much more to being a true horticulturist than just being a plant lover – or even one with a green thumb.   It entails varying degrees of plant science.
Horticulture Defined

While the home gardener practices the art and science of horticulture, this does not make him or her a horticulturalist. 
Wikipedia.com states that,  "Horticulturists work and conduct research in the fields of plant propagation and cultivation, crop production, plant breeding and genetic engineering, plant biochemistry, and plant physiology.  The work particularly involves fruits, berries, nuts, vegetables, flowers, trees, shrubs, and turf.  Horticulturalists work to improve crop yield, quality, nutritional value, and resistance to insects, diseases, and environmental stresses”. There is so much more to being a horticulturalist than just having knowledge of plants and flowers.

Most folks who become horticulturalists start off with a great love of plants, and they usually possess the always coveted “green thumb”.  When I started college, I planned on going into nursing, but after my first year, I knew nursing wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. As I continued taking my basics, I racked my brain trying to figure out what it was that I loved and could make a career out of.  Ever since I was a little girl, I loved messing with plants and could spend hours walking around my grandmother’s yard looking at the flowers. So while watering potted plants on my apartment balcony one day, it dawned on me that I could pursue a degree of science in the field of horticulture.  I now hold a degree of science in Agriculture Business & Management with an emphasis on Horticulture.

Gardening Becomes a Science

When you consider all the elements that need to be considered before planting, for the horticulturalist, gardening becomes a science.  In the field of horticulture, different areas of specialty include greenhouse management, fruit & vegetable production, landscape design, landscape management, floriculture, floral design, irrigation, plant propagation and turf management.  In school, learning specific plants and flowers is a brief part of our horticultural studies.  Some of the classes I have taken include soil science, agronomy, landscape design, irrigation, plant propagation, herbaceous plants, woody plants and field biology.  In addition, I took some business classes in hopes of one day having my own horticultural operation.
Anyone might be able to tell you that a rose is a rose, but not everyone will be able to tell you that it should be pruned around mid-February, or the specific fertilization requirements of roses, either.  Just with this one specific type of plant, a true horticulturalist must know and understand several different things including seasonal patterns of roses, when they begin new growth and when they bloom.  He or she would also possess knowledge of proper pruning techniques, whether it is for roses or any type of tree or shrub.  Roses also have specific nutrient requirements, which requires knowledge of different types and proper use of fertilizers.  There are different practices associated with fertilizer usage which includes organic gardening.  A horticulturalist should know and understand the differences between organic and chemical fertilizing. For any type of plant, including roses, there are specific light and water requirements, specific planting requirements, growth habits, etc.  Horticulturalists must be familiar with all these aspects.

Familiar with Plants and Planting Conditions

With over 250,000 plant species in the world and 6,000 in Texas alone, that doesn’t mean that a horticulturalist will or should know all plants, but being familiar with the most common ones to his or her region or planting zone is a good start.  A horticulturalist in Texas should also be familiar with the planting/climate zones of Texas because it determines how and if a plant will grow in a particular location. 

During studies in horticulture, the horticulturalist might also become an amateur soil scientist because a plant is only as healthy as the soil it grows in.  There are sandy soils, clay soils, silty soils and soils that are a mix of the three.  The mix of a soil will determine the nutrients available to a plant and drainage of the particular area, which will ultimately direct the usage of any soil amendments in the garden.  Horticulturalists will have an understanding of all these aspects.

Horticulturalists are plant scientists.

John Fossati, a local horticulturalist and nursery owner, uses his yard as a test garden.  He often experiments with new plants first in his own yard to see if they will do well in our area before introducing them for sale at his nursery. 

Companies that sell lawn fertilizers employ horticulturalists whose job is to try new products on turf grass test plots before being introduced on the market.  Some horticulturalists specialize in the area of plant genetics and work in laboratories to create pest resistant crops such as VFN resistant tomatoes, which are resistant to verticilum, fusarium and nematodes.  At Texas A& M University, they have used these techniques to create maroon bluebonnets and carrots not only for the color but for their high antioxidant values. 

Horticulturalists can work in local nurseries to provide expert advice for customers, oversee the grounds maintenance of golf courses or oversee the propagation of new plants at a wholesale nursery.
Consider It A Career Choice

There are many colleges in Texas that offer studies in the horticultural sciences.  One familiar horticulturist is Dr. Jerry Parsons, now retired Texas AgriLife Extension Horticulturist from San Antonio.  Dr. Parsons is the father of CEMAP, a plant introduction and trial program that produced the Texas SuperStar plants.  He, like many other horticulturists, has crossed, bred and developed dozens of vegetables as well as many of our favorite landscape plants.  See http://www.plantanswers.com/ about.htm for more information of what a horticulturist can do.
If you have a passion for plants and love to experiment, then perhaps this would be the career choice for you!
Renowned Texas AgriLife Extension Horticulturist Dr. Jerry Parsons is known not only for introducing dozens of vegetables and Texas SuperStar landscape plants, but also lavender, pink and maroon and white bluebonnets not just for their varying color but for their antioxidant qualities.


New and Exotic Tropicals
Plant Grower Lon Smith
Devereux Gardens – Victoria
Tropicals Plants Suited for Victoria

Cooking with Your Garden Produce

Chef Molly Fowler
Cooking Depot of Cuero
Cooking Demonstration & Lunch

From the Garden to the Table
Texas Master Florist David Simpson
Benz School of Floral Design
Floral Design Workshop

WHEN:  Friday, June 6
9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
(Registration begins 8:30 a.m.)

WHERE: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
4102 North Ben Jordan

$40/person payable to VCMGA
Mail to Victoria County Master Gardener Association
P.O. Box 1723, Victoria, TX 77902
Limited to first 100

Call Victoria County Extension – 361- 575-4581