The AmericanHort Scholars program aims to set students in horticulture on a path to success by exposing them to the breadth of the industry, its opportunities and its leaders at the annual Cultivate convention. Each year, six students are chosen for this special experience, giving them insight and awareness of the industry, its supply chain and where they might find a home for their passion.

In the November issue of Country Folks Grower, we covered the work of three of these scholars. Learn about the research presented by the remaining three below:

  • “Empowering Home Gardens Through Citizen Science: The Opportunity for Industry and Local Food Security Initiatives” – Daniela Perez Lugones, University of Florida, earning a master’s in environmental horticulture

Citizen science is defined as scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur scientists, and in the world of horticulture, that more often than not means backyard gardeners. However, many citizens live in “food deserts” – urban areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.

“Home gardening offers a unique opportunity to fight the issue, but Home Advisor said home gardeners lose 35% of their plants,” Perez Lugones said. “We want to use science to combat this.”

She noted that the horticulture industry can benefit from this somewhat dismaying fact by learning what consumers need and want – compact cultivars, for example.

Perez Lugones also mentioned that there are programs currently in place that partner with local food pantries to provide seeds and support. One such program is Grow Well Missouri, which, according to their website, “partners with food pantries, local organizations and volunteers to establish food gardening programs that reach out to food pantry customers. By offering a selection of seeds, vegetable transplants, educational materials and one-on-one advice, Grow Well Missouri helps those who use food pantries reap the many benefits of gardening.”

By providing would-be gardeners with support and recording their observations, food security for all can increase. “Starting by building confidence is key,” Perez Lugones said – such as beginning with plants that are easy to grow versus testing new cultivars or “what’s best.”

  • “Employee Engagement: How it Impacts the Bottom Line” – Lisa Richards, Gwinnett Technical College, working in the aerospace industry

There is an ongoing issue with “The War for Talent” and “The Great Resignation.” Across many industries, there is a skill shortage among employees and employers are having a hard time retaining employees. One solution to both is employee engagement.

But “engagement is not happiness or satisfaction; it’s built on relationships,” explained Richards. Think of the times someone has left a job because of a bad boss – or stayed at a job they weren’t in love with because of their team.

Richards listed the differences between engaged and disengaged employees. Engaged workers are optimistic, team-oriented, solution-oriented, show a passion for learning and pass along credit but accept blame. On the other hand, disengaged workers are pessimistic, self-centered, have high absenteeism, focus on monetary worth and accept credit but pass along blame.

Both kinds of employees impact businesses, but higher engagement leads to 21% higher profitability, per a Gallup poll, according to Richards.

“What can we do? Change the employee’s experience,” she said. Have them become more integrated in your business strategy. Build psychological safety in a learning environment. Focus on ongoing conversations. Establish a high purpose, driven environment. And, crucially, make them feel valued.

“Accountable and productive employees seek feedback,” Richards said. Business leaders own engagement. It doesn’t just happen. “Engagement is an everyday event,” she added.

The 2022 AmericanHort Scholars. (Back row, L – R) Daniela Perez Lugones, Lisa Richards and Rachel Swicionis. (Front row) Phoebe Austerman, Brian Schulker and Ethan Jenkins. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

  • “Coconut Coir: A Sustainable Alternative to Peat Moss” – Phoebe Austerman, Oklahoma State University, studying public horticulture, plant biology and pest management

Peat moss, a standby of growing media, is good, but not great. It’s a slow-renewing resource being depleted from peat bogs, in large part by the horticulture industry. (The peat regeneration rate is only 1/16-inch per year.) Peatlands are critical because they prevent and mitigate the effects of climate change, preserve biodiversity, minimize flood risk, help protect drinking water and store one-third of the world’s carbon, according to Austerman. “But once peatlands are damaged, they become a major source of greenhouse gases,” she added.

Another soilless medium option is needed. Coconut coir is a sustainable resource which is reclaimed from the coconut fiber industry. Research has found that the quality of containerized plants in coconut coir is equal to or greater than those in peat – with the bonus of higher aeration and increased drainage.

When comparing the two, there are some other important distinctions. Peat moss is often shipped internationally and is therefore at risk for supply chain issues. It has a more acidic pH. It becomes hydrophobic when dry. Coconut coir is shipped in compressed bricks from a wider array of global suppliers. It has higher naturally-occurring phosphorus and potassium, a more neutral pH and is less hydrophobic when dry.

“It performs very well,” Austerman concluded. Growers who haven’t already may want to consider coconut coir.

To learn more about the AmericanHort Scholars program, visit

by Courtney Llewellyn