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Q&A with Chris Cerveny, Plant Food Scientist

Walker Evans Walker Evans Q&A with Chris Cerveny, Plant Food Scientist
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One of the most active ongoing discussions on the Columbus Underground Messageboard is entitled “How Does Your Garden Grow?” It’s become a great place for our readers to share stories of their backyard garden adventures and misadventures. Since Columbus Underground is celebrating Gardening Week this week, we thought it would be a great idea to tap into some local expertise and ask a few questions of Chris Cerveny, Senior Plant Food Scientist at Scotts Miracle-Gro in Marysville. Chris has previously worked as a professional flower grower, floral designer and university educator during his 12 years in the horticultural industry.

Our full Q&A can be found below:

Walker Evans: First things first… can you tell us a bit about your great job title and what it is that you do on a day to day basis?

Chris Cerveny: My official title is “Senior Plant Food Scientist”, but what I do involves more than just plant food research. I do research and development on anything you might apply Miracle-Gro to, but I also talk about gardening a lot with a lot of folks and try to get people excited about gardening. I like to say that I picked a hobby for a career, which means that I’m very passionate about what I do and I like to tell as many people as I can how much fun gardening is.

For example, a few weeks ago we were down at Disney World for the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. We spent some time there talking about “fairy gardens”, which is really just a chance to garden and interact with kids. We teach them to think about plants as toys that you can play with and get excited about. Herbs are a great example. The more you touch and feel them, the more you get to smell them. Herbs can electrify the senses. I love smelly plants and plants that have texture.

Last year we participated in an entertainment event in Chicago and got to share information about growing herbs to use for cocktails. One of the things I shared that event is that if you’re just starting out, my recommendation is to just go to the store and buy one of each type of herb plant and see what does best in your growing location. Then, when your friends come over, just show them the ones that doing well… they’ll think you’re a plant genius! That’s what Martha Stewart does! It’s a little industry secret that we end up killing more plants than we grow successfully. It’s part of my job to kill plants to see what works and what doesn’t.

WE: Are there any kinds of trends you’re seeing regionally or nationally between growing functional vegetable gardens versus more traditional ornamental lawns or plants?

CC: I think a lot of people are seeing the value of growing produce at home. There’s an old quote from the WW2 days that says that gardening is like printing your own money. That’s because you can plant a tomato plant and you get all these tomatoes from it and it saves you money. That’s exciting, but people also want to have more control over what they put in their bodies. If you want to grow locally, then there’s nothing more local than your own backyard. You also get to harvest your plants a peak ripeness too, so you get the best possible flavor.

The thing to keep in mind about lawns is that even though some people are thinking about pulling out their entire lawn and planting vegetable gardens, they still are very functional in the landscape. Lawns help prevent runoff and help with pollution problems. If you had no lawn and we get a heavy rain, your soil washes away along with all of the nutrients in the soil. Grass acts as a natural filter and helps other plants pick up those nutrients. So while more and more people should be planting herbs and vegetable gardens, don’t neglect your lawn either. It serves an ecological purpose.

WE: Many of our readers on Columbus Underground living in urban areas and plant container gardens. What sort of challenges and benefits do you see when working small scale?

CC: The hardest thing with container gardens is keeping them watered properly. Knowing how much water and when to water them can be tough. When you garden in the city it tends to be a little hotter, and if you neglect them for too long, they’ll die. You don’t have as much freedom as you would if they were planted in the ground. The other limitation can come from your directional light source. A friend of mine in the Arena District said she had a great south-facing balcony, but the balcony above her ended up provided too much shade to grow in containers properly.

That said, you can pick out some great decorative containers, or use recycled materials like old cans or milk jugs. Just make sure you use a nice well-draining potting mix and punch holes in the bottom of the container. I have a little citrus tree on my desk that I know will not live, but I keep it around for the fun factor.

WE: Having been involved in the horticultural industry for over 12 years now, what would you say keeps you excited and interested?

CC: It’s really a field that gives me unlimited opportunity to learn and grow. No pun intended. I like to learn things and figure things out from year to year. That kind of stuff always gets me fired up. Being in R&D at Scotts, I get to tinker with real world problems and help gardeners solve different challenges. Really, after 12 years, I feel like I’m just getting started.

As far as this year goes, I’m currently really into utilizing herbs for cocktails as I mentioned earlier. I started making fusions at home with vodka and different herbs and seeing what kind of mixed drinks we can make. Even my friends that don’t care as much about plants can still enjoy a drink on the patio on a hot summer day. Mixing those three hobbies together… entertaining, gardening and mixology… that’s what I’m most excited about this year.

WE: Anything final words of advice for our readers growing gardens this year?

CC: The biggest message that I want to remind people about is that this is supposed to be a fun hobby. It’s not supposed to be disappointing or frustrating. Even us professionals make more mistakes than we have successes. So get the right tools from the start and you can have a lot of fun learning and growing for yourself. Gardening is not hard as long as you have the right positive and easy-going attitude, and a little sense of adventure.

From April 15th to April 21st, Columbus Underground is celebrating Gardening Week! Throughout the week, we’ll be taking a look at various backyard gardening and community gardening trends, efforts, businesses and more. Gardening Week 2013 is sponsored by Scotts Miracle-Gro, who provides support to regional community gardens through grant programs and other philanthropic efforts. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter for more information.

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