Mount Cuba Center in Greenville, Del., the horticultural nonprofit dedicated to native plants in the Appalachian Piedmont, is the first among the public gardens in the Philadelphia region, and possibly beyond, to start a distance-learning program.
Two wholly online, on-demand classes - six hours on native ferns for $40 and three hours on creating a hummingbird garden for $25 - debuted in November. In January and February, two more classes - moss gardening and meadow plants - will be available via computer or mobile device at www.mtcubacenter.org.
This may not sound earthshaking, given that millions of college students and others have been learning online for years. But in the horticultural world, it's big.
"The concept of distance learning isn't new to our industry and there are several gardens in our region who use course-management software to provide handouts, links, and other info to students. It's just that [Mount Cuba] has taken it to the next level," says Casey Sclar, an entomologist at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square and interim president of the American Public Gardens Association, which represents 500 public gardens in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.
The Mount Cuba Center spent 18 months and $50,000 on start-up and hired a full-time videographer and two part-timers, an intern, and a writer.
"And with all the work you have to do, this is not a moneymaker for us. It's about the message," says Eileen Boyle, Mount Cuba's public programs manager, who spends half her time working on Connect, as the new initiative is called.
Boyle did much of the video work for the hummingbird class, filming the action at six bird feeders at her lakeside home in Woodstown, N.J. As teacher, she discusses the biology, physiology, habits, and favorite nectar plants of "one of nature's greatest athletes."
Once students enroll and pay online, they receive a log-in and password; this entitles them to 45 days of access to the class, which also includes printable materials and the opportunity to "ask the horticulturist" - by e-mail, of course.
"To us," Boyle says, "distance learning is all about native plants and the mission. This is a way to reach out not just to people in Delaware, but to people in the world."
Public gardens have been slow to embrace the idea, in part because horticulture has always been - literally - a hands-on discipline. Students learn at least as much outside as they do in a classroom.
"You are actually touching the soil, talking about what you see, crumbling the earth in your hand. All of that is so important," says Maitreyi Roy, senior vice president/programs and planning at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. PHS does "Web training" on urban greening for Keep America Beautiful affiliates across the country.
Mostly, though, the horticultural world's reticence is a practical matter. Distance learning costs money and requires staff, equipment, and technological expertise.
"Funding is 95 percent of it for most botanical gardens," says Longwood's director, Paul Redman.
Gardens have had to "become much more entrepreneurial, so bottom-line driven, that they're finding it more difficult than ever to justify a mission and spend the money on something like distance learning.
"The return isn't the same as people coming through your front door," Redman says.
And it's not just the software and mechanics that are problematic.
"There's the management of the program," Redman says. "Then you have to hire a videographer. Then you have to have someone who will take all of these materials and digitize it, then make it available, then someone to manage the system. . . .
"It requires more resources than people realize," he says.
Longwood now offers a "hybrid experience," instruction that combines online and classroom learning. It has also teamed up with the National Gardening Association to develop online, on-demand classes to help teachers and others set up school gardens; that is expected to begin sometime this year.
And in 2013, Longwood plans to launch a distance-learning program of continuing education for master gardeners throughout North America. This came as a result of a survey to determine what horticultural needs the garden could fulfill online.
Redman believes that those needs will only grow in the future, and that distance learning may become an economic necessity for public gardens.
As more college horticulture programs are cut back or consolidated, "public gardens are actually going to be providing and supplementing the curriculum and course work for horticulture and agriculture programs around the country, if not around the world," he says.
According to Greater Philadelphia Gardens, a promotional organization, the Philadelphia region's more than two dozen public gardens and arboretums, museums, and historic houses and college campuses whose gardens are open to the public draw more than 2 million - actual - visitors a year.
That's a number even the online entrepreneurs at Mount Cuba hope will only grow.
"Our goal is not to stop people from coming to the garden," Boyle says, but "in January, February, and March, when you're sitting with your seed catalog, dreaming and thinking, 'Oh, I can't wait,' we hope - through distance learning - people can be in their virtual garden."
Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/ginny
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.