Before the term “plant blindness” was coined in 1998 by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler, the majority of people in the U.S. had lost their collective ability to notice the plants around them. What was common knowledge to our ancestors has become an obliviousness about where our food comes from, the importance of plants to the health of humans and animals, and a failure to appreciate the role of plants in the very survival of our planet. Seed Your Future has been working tirelessly to turn things around and inspire more people — especially youth — to appreciate the role of plants in our world and perhaps explore a career working with plants. Modest gains were being made.
Then the world changed. A global pandemic altered every facet of life for humans including how we live, work, eat, play and socialize. Fear of going outside, fear of connecting with others and fear of an unknown plague forced us not only to isolate from one another, but from the natural world. Even though decades of solid research affirms the ability of plants and nature to heal, cure, soothe and inspire, access to outdoor spaces was restricted. Even enjoying one’s own backyard or balcony was seen by many as a risk too perilous to take.
As media coverage exploded about the spread of the pandemic, the Seed Your Future movement searched for the voice we would take to help provide respite from a growing panic. While the pandemic was, and still is, a dangerous issue, we chose to spread messages about the power of plants to support our mental and physical health — especially in times of crisis. Our #NatureNeverCloses and #YearOfThePlant campaigns provide inspiration about plants and nature. We were trying to change the vernacular. It’s about physical distancing, not social isolation. Being around plants, growing plants and even just looking at flowers and plants has been proven by study after study to improve our mood, provide hope and nourish us from both hunger and despair.
While we can never say that there is a “silver lining” to the pandemic, the fact is there are more people expressing interest in plants, growing their own food and flowers, purchasing houseplants, seeds, garden supplies and spending their time improving the world around them with plants. A “green lining,” as it were.
As people who have plant-passion, this truly is the defining moment we’ve been working for. Economists report that garden and plant retailers experienced one of the best sales seasons ever in 2020, which has continued into 2021. Families are choosing to spend their precious funds on growing their own food, enhancing their surroundings and buying houseplants to cheer their isolation.
But people can be fickle, attention spans short, and if we don’t capitalize on this moment, time will pass and interest in gardening and plants may wane again. So, what can we do about it?
I believe the answer is straightforward. It’s you, and me, and other educators, and plant-enthusiasts, and frankly, everyone who already knows that the fate of our world lies in the next generation embracing the importance of plants not only to humans, but to animals, and to Earth.
Call to action
Our job is to show others the way. So, how do we do it? I suggest that the focus should be on kids. Families are hungry for meaningful, enjoyable activities for their children.
Here are just a few ideas of what you can do today to make a difference:
1. Show kids the power of plants and the rewards of careers working with plants. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a youth program leader, a horticulturist or someone simply passionate about plants — you can open kids’ eyes to the wonders of the plant world.
Seed Your Future’s BLOOM! Campaign has sample lesson plans, activities, an online learning module and more. Use the activities with your family, your students and your youth programs.
Make it fun! We recently created three DIY videos of fun projects to do with plants. Check them out and do them with the kids in your life. These include: Grow Your Own Plants with Hydroponics, Make Your Own Fun Light Maze for Plants and Use Plants to Dye Your Own Clothes.
Check out one of Seed Your Future’s partner’s resources for gardening with kids. KidsGardening.org has many projects and activities. Pick a few and have some fun.
2. Encourage families to get involved in one of the cool plant-based citizen scientist projects they can do in and around their homes and communities. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s national BudBurst project is one of our favorites.
3. Use the excellent #PlantsDoThat free resources and infographics from the National Initiative for Consumer Horticulture. They tell the story of how plants make a positive difference in our lives.
If kids don’t notice the plants in the world around them, how can they develop a life-long appreciation for plants, and why would they ever have an interest in a career working with plants? We must show them how plants impact our lives every day, and the diversity of careers across the art, science, technology and business of plants.
But we cannot serve these ideas up to kids “the old way.” Through Seed Your Future’s focus group research with kids across the country, kids gave us some sage advice: stop using “weird” words like “horticulture,” show them through video and social media content how plants can change the world, and have “cool” young people tell them about their rewarding (#ILoveMyPlantJob) careers. They coined the term “plantologist” instead of “horticulturist” and urged us to connect plants to what they are already interested in such as sports, fashion, medicine, technology, art and more.
We’ve created a few dozen videos already. Check them out on our YouTube channel (search for “We Are BLOOM!”). But there’s more you can do today. Create and share your own fun videos. If you don’t have the expertise to make an informal video, you likely know a young person who does. Ask them to help you make a fun video about your passion for plants. If you are a green-collar pro, talk about your career and tell them why #ILoveMyPlantJob.
And check out our free online Career Exploration Tool (www.seedyourfuture.org/careers). With more than a hundred careers highlighted, you and the kids in your life can explore the diverse careers, the education needed, where to study, professional groups to help, and links to scholarships and internships.
Making lifelong plant enthusiasts
Our mission to grow awareness of the power of plants and the rewards of careers working with plants seemed to be poised right where we wanted it to be. After all, with the growing interest in plants, if we do our job well, we can turn that into more interest in careers working with plants, right? We were riding high with enthusiasm and declared 2021 the Year of Plant Power.
With our awareness campaigns and projects with partners such as Scholastic launched in full force, and our movement’s volunteers full of optimism and drive, I found myself caught unprepared when a phone call challenged my thinking.
In talking with a seasoned horticulture professional, he expressed pessimism that the “green-lining” would have any long-term impact on appreciation for plants and interest in careers working with plants. He surprised me, and I admit my first reaction was one of exasperation (who wants to listen to Cassandra when you are Pollyanna?). I refrained from jumping through the phone to tell him how wrong he was. Instead, I asked questions about his perspective. He noted other times in history when he thought renewed interest in plants (e.g., Victory Gardens of the 1940s) did not translate into long-term plant-passion and plant-career interest.
I heard him. I understood his points. And I questioned, will this “green-lining” indeed be different?
By a coincidence of timing, that same week we were judging the Scholastic BLOOM! Plant Mash-Up contest submissions from students across the country. Almost 5,000 middle-schoolers identified challenges in their own community, then imagined a plant-based solution founded on the qualities of two plants they “mashed-up.” What an incredible inspiration! The students were so thoughtful and creative. Our judges had a challenging time selecting the winners. It renewed my optimism. These students get it. They are our future. But will that be enough?
Alone, it won’t be enough. But together, we can be more than enough.
We can change the trajectory. We can eliminate plant apathy. We can inspire more young people to pursue the “green-collar” careers that will make a difference in our world.
If each of us can inspire even one person to pursue a green-collar career, we can ensure a strong pipeline of future talent — talent that will take the reins and provide the technology, science, art, education and business acumen to ensure the future of our people and our planet. Together, we can turn this green-lining into a world with a bounty of green-collar professionals.
Together, we can ensure that the next generation emerges from this pandemic with a lifelong interest in plants, gardens and gardening. Let’s not miss this opportunity to share the “green-lining” and teach people how plants can indeed cure, heal, soothe and inspire.