Curing Plant Blindness | Interview with Dr. Charlie Hall

If economics is the dismal science, then Dr. Charlie Hall is the most optimistic dismal scientist we’ve ever met — and according to him, it’s all thanks to plants. We interviewed this acclaimed horticultural genius and Gardenuity Advisor to understand his incredible journey through plants and to get his views on plants, compassion, and Gardenuity.

Dr. Charlie Hall and Gardenuity

Dr. Hall has spent nearly 30 years honed in on his specific field which is the interface between horticulture and economics. As he explained it, he grew up in the nursery business and is an economist by training. He received his undergraduate degree in economics and embarked on his research as a masters student, studying the cost of growing nursery and greenhouse crops. After encouragement from a professor, he embarked on his Ph.D. at Mississippi State.

Upon graduation, he came to Texas A&M. After a short stint away, he has returned to the Aggie university as endowed chair of international horticulture. This time, instead of being within the economics department, he’s in the horticulture department — and happier for it.

So that’s my mission — to eliminate plant blindness. If I can do that — if I can play a small role in doing that — I will consider myself successful.Dr. Charlie Hall

Dr. Charlie Hall

What exactly do you study within your field?

I look at the entire industry, from all the way from the allied trade to manufacturers and distributors, to growers, to landscape service providers, to retailers — so on and so forth. I basically look at the industry, its competitive dynamics, and try to help people make more money within this field.

Where did this passion for growing come from?

It basically came from working in the industry as a kid. First, we ran a tobacco business for a while — that’s a nasty crop to work with. Then, we were in the strawberry business and then in the tomato business…When we finally we got into the nursery business, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven after all those other crops.

At the time, it was the least of several evils. Little did I know that it was getting into my blood, and I actually really enjoyed it.

As someone who’s been around it your whole life, why do you think that getting people to grow is important?

A lot of people haven’t had any experience with gardening — they don’t recognize all the benefits. In fact, a lot of people say “Wow, that’s a lot of work. I’d rather just go to the store and buy herbs and produce.” They don’t recognize the functional benefits that plants offer in addition to their aesthetic and nutritional benefits.

One passion I have is conveying the power of plants to as many people as possible — because it’s immense. A lot of people walk around with ‘plant blindness.’ We go through life every single day and we take these plants for granted on the way to our homes and offices and playgrounds and schools. I have crepe myrtle trees right outside my window and they’re absolutely gorgeous, but if I had plant blindness, I wouldn’t think twice about them. I wouldn’t recognize the true benefits I’m deriving from them.

So that’s my mission — to eliminate plant blindness. If I can do that — if I can play a small role in doing that — I will consider myself successful.

What are the functional benefits of plants?

There are a lot of psychological benefits to gardening, particularly in terms of stress levels. The cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body are dramatically reduced whenever people are engaging in gardening and landscaping. So to me, that’s a huge benefit.

Additionally, if kids with ADHD take a 20-minute stroll through landscape, their recovery from attention deficit is much faster than it would be otherwise. It literally enhances memory retention. Students that have school gardens and opportunities to be outside in nature actually perform better on standardized tests. Research has shown that it helps their academic performance.

I put a lot of emphasis on why people should grow. I teach a course here at A&M called socio-horticulture. It’s all about people-plants interactions. By far, the type of benefits that really resonate with kids today is the health and well-being benefits. We as a society need to capitalize on some of these lesser known benefits. We need to talk more than about plants being just pretty and nutritious.

Speaking of teaching, you’ve received quite a few accolades for this…tell me about those!

I’ve been very blessed to be recognized for a lot of those things. There are 2-3 dozen of those awards that I’ve received, but if you come into my office, those awards aren’t on my wall. I don’t generally hold onto those things.

Now there’s two or three that I still have. But by and large, the awards are a product of what you do and being passionate about what you do. It’s not your identity. It’s not a reflection of who you are. It’s just a fact that you’re pretty good at what you love to do.

Which ones did you keep?

There’s a couple I kept in the teaching area. I have a 3-way appointment here at A&M — it’s research, teaching, and extension/outreach. A couple of those awards are for my teaching, and that’s perhaps the most meaningful. But what’s more meaningful than the awards for teaching are the cards I get from students who’ve already graduated.

Under my email line, there’s a quote by Cavett Robert that says, ”People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” When I walk into the classroom…yes, I want to bestow some knowledge. But I really want to make an impact on other people’s lives. I just pursue that goal and everything else falls into place.

I saw this quote! Do you see any overlap between caring and growing? If so, what?

Absolutely — 100% without a doubt. In fact, there’s research that proves people are more compassionate when they’re engaged in gardening. Plants have this ability to enhance compassion within us. Even simply giving and receiving flowers has an effect.

Students tell me, “We will forever look at plants differently because of this class.” It’s going to benefit them, and also all the people around them.

Dr. Charlie Hall with Gardenuity Team

This is a huge part of what we believe at Gardenuity. What are your thoughts on what we’re doing?

One of the things that I see of consumers today is that they are time-starved and that a lot of consumers — particularly younger consumers — don’t have the same experience base as old people like me. They didn’t grow up gardening with their parents or grandparents like I did.

Gardening and landscaping used to be the #1 leisure activity in America. So we have to provide opportunities for consumers to interact with plants in which A, they can be successful, B. it’s as easy as following a recipe, and then C. they can be successful! (Okay, I said that twice, but it’s that important!)

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.Cavett Robert

Gardenuity has a model that makes it easy for consumers — they don’t have to do a lot of research about plants or fertilizer, because it’s provided for them. It’s really the proverbial easy button. To me, that’s one of the things that makes Gardenuity successful.

Dr. Charlie Hall is an inspiration to us and to the field. He has is currently a leader on the Gardenuity advisory board and plays a key role in bridging our data with our customer experience. For other interviews with extraordinary leaders in the field, click here.