Saving the World One Plant at a Time

By Greg Grant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

I’ve kept quiet (imagine that) as long as I can. The entire world needs to adopt the same New Year’s resolution to educate every person on earth about plants.

I’m quite sure it’s too late for the old folks, but certainly not for the youngsters (I’m a member of AARP, by the way). I don’t mean a one-time lecture or class either. I mean a much-needed lifetime educational program. We can call it “Plant It Earth.”

It’s really never bothered me that we plant-lovers are marginalized as artistic, do-it-yourself, nature lovers. Heck, I love hoeing my own row and wandering my lone path. The beat of my own drum is the only beat I’ve ever known. But if you look at the big picture and consider how society thinks of us, I’d best sum it up as inconsequential.

We can do much better

Saving the world one plant at a time | Vego Garden

Think about it. Listen to what you hear in movies, television shows and general conversation: “flower child,” “nature boy,” “garden clubber,” “yardman,” “tree hugger,” “butterfly chaser” and more. And then there’s the dreaded label “environmentalist,” a hanging offense in Texas.

Folks, we have a problem. And I don’t mean a small one.

As horticulturists, Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, garden clubbers and nurserymen/women, we do a pretty fair job of promoting beautification, tree planting and even the plight of pollinators.

But from a lifetime of experience being surrounded by non-gardeners, I know for a fact that we are the equivalent of a beauty contest. Think about it… “In lieu of flowers, send…”

This has to stop. As much as I love art, we have very much painted the wrong picture. We have to start over with each and every child on earth.

Appreciate the necessity of plants

I deal with the public every day. Plants are considered expendable, a luxury for those with too much money, too much time on their hands or too much passion for Mother Earth.

Yes, I’m biased. Yes, I’m a flower-loving, butterfly-chasing, tree-hugging environmentalist. And no, I’m not a great scientist. I’m a storyteller.

But none of that matters. Drop the name calling, drop the politics, drop the calcified feuding. We are all too close to the trees to see the forest. We all need to be on the same page (a page made out of forest by the way). We need a bird’s-eye view, or even better, an astronaut’s view.

The only reason our planet is habitable is because of plants. This is what we need to teach our children. Plants aren’t the least important thing on earth; they are the most important thing on earth. And as my mentor Dr. Jerry Parsons used to say, “If you don’t love them, you better learn to love them.”

Imagine life without plants

We’ve all heard the following benefits of plants, but we think of them individually instead of collectively. Put them all together and realize that without them, we are not only starved and naked, we are dead.

First of all, in the process of photosynthesis, plants release oxygen. I don’t know how many of you have breathed lately, but it’s pretty important. I used to ask visiting schoolchildren at the SFA Pineywoods Native Plant Center to hold their breath to realize how long they’d live on a planet without plants.

Saving the world one plant at a time | Vego Garden

If there’s any magic on earth, photosynthesis is it, as it takes energy from the sun and turns it into energy that we can use. So whether you are a steak-eater or a vegetarian, all your energy to work and play comes from plants. You either eat plants that made that energy useable or you eat animals that ate plants that made that energy useable.

It certainly doesn’t stop there. Even the energy in our gasoline, ethanol and diesel comes from plants. Certainly we are on the right track with solar panels to produce electricity since plant leaves are the original solar panels.

Another extremely important contribution from plants is their ongoing ability to cool the air. They do this in several ways.

Shade for us also cools the world

Shade cools all of us, but also the world | Vego Garden

Trees shade our hot Texas houses and parking lots. It doesn’t take a genius to see which parking places are the most popular during the summer. It didn’t take my Cajun bride long to demand more shade trees in my sunny landscape.

Plants also cool the planet by taking in carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) in the process of creating energy and oxygen. And last but not least, they literally “air-condition” the air through transpiration cooling, while releasing water as a byproduct of photosynthesis.

Plants are also the original evaporative coolers. That’s why natural-grass sports fields are much cooler than those with artificial turf. It’s also why parks and forests are much cooler than concrete- and asphalt-covered cities.

Impervious surfaces and the role of plants

Impervious surfaces allow exponential runoff that collects and deposits pollutants into our surface water, whereas those same surfaces covered with the leaves, stems and roots of plants cleanse the water by filtering and even taking up pollutants. The temperature difference is compounded by these surfaces absorbing heat and creating heat-islands around cities, as well.

Almost everyone these days understands the importance of eating vegetables, but not everybody understand that cows, chickens and pigs eat plants too. And the more plants we directly eat, the longer we live.

We need plants for energy, longer lives and happiness

Saving the world one plant at a time includes pollinators | Vego Garden

Health is certainly an issue. Study after study shows that being around living, breathing plants improves overall health and promotes physical and mental healing.

In addition to pollinating our crops and propagating more plants, there are other reasons we need birds, bees and butterflies. We love them. They make us feel better and they are pretty. A world without beauty would be a drab one indeed.

We also need plants for our clothes, whether it be cotton, linen, silk, rayon or polyester made from petrochemicals produced by ancient plants.

Money (also made from plants) is not the most important thing in our lives. Plants are.

Our planet was made to be covered with plants, not sprinkled with them. Our lives depend on it. Make sure you know this and every child you are responsible for knows it too.

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