Excerpted from Dr. Peter's 2005 Keynote Address: What's Gardening Good For?, New York State Master Gardener Conference, Ithaca, NY, June 1, 2005
Up against the big pressing problems of our time, problems like the loss of decent jobs, increasing disparities of wealth, a shrinking tax base and rising taxes, terrorism and war (just to name a few), gardening seems, well, trivial.
It’s not going to turn the economy around. It’s not going to provide us with thousands of good jobs. It’s not going to transform our political and economic systems. It’s not going to bring peace and security.
Given this, we might well ask: What’s gardening good for?
And here are a few more questions we might ask, given the tremendous squeeze on taxpayers these days, and on the resources that government has to spend on public services and programs:
Why should educational organizations like Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension, organizations that are funded in large part with people’s hard-earned tax dollars, be involved in gardening? Can gardening be a medium for meaningful education—that is, for education that really matters? If so, what kind of education, and what is it good for?
There are, it turns out, some very good answers to these questions.
Rick Burstell was a diesel mechanic for twenty years until he caught the extension spirit and got a job in Green County coordinating the Master Gardener program. A student in one of my classes interviewed him about his work. In his interview, Rick said this:
We just had our big staff meeting the other day. It was all about our extension mission and all the things that Cornell Cooperative Extension is going to be involved in here in Greene County. It was so impressive to me; it was all positive stuff.
When I was involved with private industry, we always had a graph on the wall with the numbers, and that was what it was all about. The only thing that mattered was the numbers. If the numbers were going up, everything was fine. It didn’t matter if everybody in the place was suffering or not; it was all about the numbers.
Here, we want to improve this community. We want to make the people in this community more informed. We want to help them to make the right decisions in their life. We want to teach them to have a healthier attitude, to eat healthier, to be healthier towards their neighbors, and to embrace and protect the beautiful natural environment that they have around them.
In between the television and the movies, we get taken in by all these horrible images and horrible versions of reality. Most of our realities are made up of all these phony situations; made up by Hollywood. We have so much of that in our consciousness.
We need to have some other good information in there too, that people cooperate with each other and do good things, and where people are more are concerned about helping their community than they are about building their bank account. Relationships with each other in the community are more important than having a huge amount of money and buying a huge house and big cars.
When I first read what Rick said, I was immediately reminded of something Liberty Hyde Bailey, the founding leader of Cornell’s extension work in New York State, wrote almost a hundred years ago when the extension idea was new. Bailey wrote:
The ultimate welfare of the community does not depend on the balance-sheets of a few industries, but on the character of the people, the moral issues, the nature of home life, the community pride, the public spirit, the readiness of responses to calls for aid, the opportunities of education and recreation and entertainment and cooperative activity as well as of increased daily work and better wages.1
The spirit of extension is really nothing more—and nothing less—than the human spirit, dedicated and directed to the pursuit of the "ultimate welfare of the community." We see this spirit in Rick Burstell’s comments.
I have not forgotten what is perhaps the toughest question I posed...: that is, why should educational organizations like Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension, organizations that are funded in large part with people’s hard-earned tax dollars, be involved in gardening? I want to let Liberty Hyde Bailey answer this question. In his delightful book, The Garden Lover, published in 1928, Bailey wrote:
Any enterprise closely associated with homes and that hopefully employs the leisure of multitudes of people is worthy of investigations and researches conducted at public expense. It is a sad attitude of legislators and others that predicates the need of such investigations on the probable money earnings of the enterprises, as if there were no other measure of human life. (pp.151-152)
Thank goodness there are, indeed, other measures of human life.