Think of the word "research" and images of labcoat-clad technicians busy in a spotless laboratory might come to mind. To be sure, much scientific research is performed in just such an environment, but that doesn't have to be the only place where discoveries are made. You may be surprised to learn that very important discoveries have been made by individuals working in their gardens. Read on to see how you, too, can be one of them . . .
I've borrowed a term often used in development of software for the Linux platform. In the Linux community, the coding and development of software are not kept secret or "proprietary" as is the norm with the Windows platform. In this article, though, I'm not referring to computer software, but to scientific progress in gardening. You see, most of us growing our plants for fun and food might not think that we could contribute anything significant to science, as we are just gardeners and not academically trained scientific investigators. However, a keen eye and inquiring mind is all that you need to find what others might have overlooked. These personal discoveries can help you in your own gardening, at the very least. In some cases, they can become the beginning of major discoveries in science.
I call this "open-source research" because the benefits are not restricted to laboratories with limited access, nor is the information gathered going to be limited in availability to academic professionals with scientific journal subscriptions. At Dave's Garden every day, for example, people are sharing their experiences on a diversity of forums. A gardening tip posted by one enterprising gardener can become the basis for a personal research project that could solve a pesky problem in the garden. Your results can provide the missing key that enables someone else to discover new ways to sprout seeds, grow better vegetables, or keep pests away. All it takes is the desire to know more, and the drive to try new things out in your garden.
By contrast, some common examples of people who made significant discoveries in their back yard or garage are not necessarily as they seem. For example, Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, grew peas in the monastery garden, and through diligent study, learned enough about genetics to be considered the father of modern genetics. However, was Mendel really an amateur gardener who made his discoveries quietly in his garden at the monastery? Well, not exactly, because Mendel was a college-educated teacher who was encouraged to undertake the pea plant studies by his professors at university as well as by colleagues at the monastery. Even so, his published research results were not recognized as significant until some years after his death. See Gregor Mendel for more information.
Another example is that of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the founders of computer giant Hewlett-Packard.. They are sometimes reputed to have started their company by cobbling together a computer in a garage from spare parts, which is only slightly true. While they did start in a garage, this was not work done by two part-time tinkerers! What most people do not realize is that both were graduate electrical engineers who started their little venture in 1939, long before computers were even thought of. The product they cobbled together was an oscillator, the HP200A, not a computer. The company did not produce a computer until 1966, about 27 years after Bill and Dave started their company. By that time, they had over 11,000 employees and annual revenue of $203 million, hardly the equivalent of building a computer in a garage! An interesting aside is that this first computer, the HP2116A, had a whopping 4K (that's right, 4K) of memory (expandable to 32K) and cost $25,000 to $50,000, depending upon options chosen! See the HP website for more details.
Real discoveries in your back yard
In spite of the myth-busting examples I provided above, you can actually make discoveries in your back yard. My favorite example of observation trumping laboratory work and graduate training was brought home to me while in college. In my childhood, I had seen routinely how fallen pine cones closed during wet weather and opened during dry weather. When in a botany class where pine trees and cones were being discussed, I mentioned casually that I had observed this phenomenon many times. To my chagrin, the professor asserted that this could not be so. I reiterated that it was, indeed, factual. On seeing that the professor remained unconvinced, I offered to take some of his sample dry pine cones and soak them in a container of water to demonstrate the fact. Perhaps this professor would have known what I knew, had he spent a little more time in the field and a little less time in the lab!
You, too, can make observations in your garden, then do a little research to see what, if anything, is known about what you have observed. If you find that little or no information concerning your observation is available publicly, you might be onto something new. Put on your thinking cap and design some simple experiments to demonstrate whether what you've seen is a fluke or a repeatable phenomenon. That's how research is done.
My concluding example of back yard observations as potential research material is a case where a squirrel helped me discover a possible solution to difficulty in growing certain Alocasia plants. It seems that this particular squirrel decided to bury a raw peanut in one of my pots, one with a couple of small Alocasias that had been languishing for some time. This peanut sprouted into a plant and, since I sometimes let things go to see what happens, the peanut plant continued growing. But to my surprise, the Alocasia began growing much better, throwing some new and sturdy, healthy leaves. Before the arrival of the peanut, this same plant was teetering on the brink of dying. Does this mean I should start using peanuts as companion plants for my difficult Alocasias? More back yard research is called for, but you don't have to wait! If you also have a problem Alocasia or other plant that has eluded all attempts to revive it, you can try this yourself and see what happens.
LariAnn has been gardening and working with plants since her teenage years growing up in Maryland. Her intense interest in plants led her to college at the University of Florida, where she obtained her Bachelor's degree in Botany and Master of Agriculture in Plant Physiology. In the late 1970s she began hybridizing Alocasias, and that work has expanded to Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Caladiums as well. She lives in south Florida with her partner and son and is research director at Aroidia Research, her privately funded organization devoted to the study and breeding of new, hardier, and more interesting aroid plants.