Women in Hort Q&A: Dr. Mengmeng Gu

Departments - Hort Truths

Colorado State University’s new Hort Department leader discusses her journey in horticulture and a new path forward.

May 20, 2022

Instead of pontificating on how we do business in the horticulture industry this month, I thought I’d instead let someone else do the talking. I’m using this space to shine a little sunshine on a woman in horticulture who is blazing trails: Dr. Mengmeng Gu.

Dr. Gu has had a rich and productive career, the last decade of it here in Texas. I was thrilled when I heard she’d landed a new position as the department head for the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University. So, I talked her into chatting with me a bit about her career and her new path.

Leslie Halleck: Tell me a little about your history in horticulture and your approach to your career in our industry.

Dr. Mengmeng Gu: I grew up in the city and spent all my time during winter and summer in the Gu village (yes, there is a ‘Gu’ village, where everyone’s last name is ‘Gu’ or is married to one) where my dad grew up. Spending time in the country led to my love for plants. We had our eyes constantly on something we can eat, such as apple, peach, jujube, cucumber, honeydew, ling nut (Trapa sp.) etc. All sorts of horticultural crops. So naturally I picked landscape horticulture as my major, then I got my Ph.D. in plant science/horticulture.

My first job was as an assistant professor/extension specialist at Mississippi State University, working primarily with the Mississippi green industry. In 2012, I came to Texas A&M University as an assistant professor/extension specialist. My primary job responsibility is coordinating the Earth-Kind Environmental Stewardship program in Texas, facilitating the adoption of the program through Cooperative Extension Services nationally and other organizations.

LH: You also teach and do some pretty interesting research as well, yes?

MG: Yes, my extension responsibilities also include development of extension educational materials to support the Earth-Kind program and the green industry. My teaching responsibility includes training graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars, adult education. My research responsibility includes applied research activities, securing extramural support, and addressing green industry technical support needs for landscape contractors, retail and wholesale nurseries, and greenhouse production.

I am also the liaison between Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and TNLA (Texas Nursery and Landscape Association) and serve on TNLA Education Committee and Park & Patio Task Force. I am currently leading the multi-disciplinary, multi-state effort to manage crapemyrtle bark scale and I am also interested in sustainable practices in horticulture production and landscapes, such as container substrate research.

LH: What new or interesting developments are you seeing emerge from your recent research? I’m particularly interested in your research related to sustainability and biochar.

MG: The biochar work is just getting more and more interesting. The last project our graduate student, now Dr. Ping Yu, worked on was looking at how biochar could augment the effects of Trichoderma spp., a type of beneficial soil fungi, on suppressing phytophthora blight caused by P. capsica in pepper plants, and pythium root rot caused by P. aphanidermatum in poinsettia plants. The idea is to replace peat moss with locally produced biochar, which has huge surface area providing “shelter” for the beneficial fungi, Trichoderma in this case, to thrive and out-compete the pathogenic phytophthora and pythium. Our preliminary results are very encouraging. Our next step will be fine-tuning the compositions and rates of biochar and Trichoderma.

LH: I was very excited to hear you were taking a department head position. Describe your new position and role and what you hope to accomplish.

MG: Starting in July, I will be the department head for the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. In the new role, I will focus on programmatic and administrative leadership in scholarship, instruction, extension, and stakeholder engagement. I will represent and advocate for internal and external constituents, including campus and research state faculty, alumni, horticultural and landscape architecture professionals, government agencies, professional organizations, as well as the university.

One uniqueness of the department is that it has both horticulture and landscape architecture. I hope in my role as the department head, I’d like to bring the two separate but very much closely related disciplines and industries closer.

LH: As a woman working in horticulture and science, what advice do you have for other women in our industry?

MG: This may not apply to everyone. What has helped me and my career tremendously is a super supportive partner and our super supportive families.

LH: What do you think is new and exciting on the horizon in horticulture you want to make sure readers know about?

MG: The horticulture industry is an exciting one as we constantly pursue NEW plants. We have witnessed the trend of ornamental edibles for quite some time and there are still a lot of food crops that need more attention. I have been working on jujube as a nursery crop since 2018 and added yangmei (Myrica rubra; retail price $59.99/lb! What’s NOT exciting about that?!) and loquat in 2021.

LH: There is a lot of untapped potential still with edibles, both as ornamentals and as components of small urban food systems. In the world of food and flavor, I think it’s important to bring more culturally relevant crops to market. Hey produce growers, pay attention! To wrap up, are there any thoughts about your new role and impact you hope to make?

MG: The horticulture industry is absolutely essential. We have seen the huge demand for plants and related materials during the pandemic. We need to capitalize that and expand the horticulture research, teaching and extension to support the industry

I couldn’t have said it better. Just as research, teaching and extension help to support our industry, so does the industry need to support such efforts in return. And be sure to give this powerhouse of a woman in horticulture a heartfelt congrats on her new leadership role.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author. lesliehalleck.com