In horticulture, relating course material to broader cultural and social issues is sometimes neglected. In short, students want to know how to successfully grow plants so they can get a job. Yet, according to the ideals of critical pedagogy defined by Paulo Freire, I, as a teacher am responsible for raising awareness of issues that go beyond the dimensions of my “horticulture box.”

But what does horticulture have to do with social justice?

While linking ornamental crop production to issues such as social inequality may be a stretch, relating plant production to state- or country-wide environmental issues does seem achievable.  I admit, I don’t often do this when teaching horticulture courses. Nonetheless, the following would be my attempt at leading horticulture students to discover how knowledge of a large-scale environmental issue and the solution to this issue can help them circumvent future obstacles.

This is what I might say to a classroom of horticulture students studying ornamental plant production.

Environmental Issue:

“As some of you may know, most of Virginia is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in which agricultural runoff (namely nitrogen and phosphorus) is the leading non-point source of surface-water pollution. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay have led to wide-spread fish kills which have, in turn, negatively impacted the fishing industry. If we don’t find a solution soon, Virginia seafood prices will likely skyrocket.”

My attempt to engage horticulture students in this issue:

“How many of you plan on owning your own nursery some day? Given what we know about fertilizing ornamental plants, why may ornamental crop production be a substantial contributor to the aforementioned agricultural nutrient runoff?  What potential environmental regulations might ornamental plant nursery have to deal with in the near future? For those of you who hope to own your own nursery, what could you do to avoid having to deal with these tedious regulations?”

Now, I want you to put yourself in my students’ shoes. If you were given the above information and were planning to start your own nursery in Virginia (just pretend), would you seriously consider diving deeper for a solution to this problem? Let’s say that these impending regulations would be a serious headache and will almost certainly be implemented if something isn’t done soon.