Now is not an obvious time to go plunging into the often troubled waters of horticultural research. But Northampton's Moulton College reckons it can make applied science pay, while boosting teaching at the same time.
According to horticulture subject area manager Steve Crane: "We see other colleges cutting back on horticulture, but we can buck that trend." Key to this has been the recruitment of a research coordinator, Dr Russell Sharp - a plant researcher who once taught himself Chinese in order to recruit locals on his plant hunts in rural China and who aims to bring the same can-do spirit to the Northampton college.
"It's new for horticulture here," he explains. "No-one is aware of our research team yet - we don't get invited onto consortia. We're basically starting from scratch."
Explaining the college's new focus, he says: "It promotes the use of the best technology and it helps the college become better known in areas like nursery production, an area we want to specialise in."
Research is carried out by a small team including Sharp, senior horticulture lecturer Adrian Stockdale, newly-appointed associate lecturer Julia Lock and PhD student Rhydian Beynon-Davies. The latter two live on campus in their role as wardens. Additional student interns are taken on over summer.
"We have full discretion on what we research, though it still has to go through management," says Sharp. "As yet we have no proven track record, but the Horticultural Development Company has shown faith with us. It wants research done where growers require it. It has also provided contacts and data even when we've not been seeking funding."
Stronger links with the nearby University of Northampton, which accredits the college degrees, will boost research capacity, he adds. "They are keen to forge research relationships with us, and have facilities like electron microscopes."
But keeping research and funding going requires a good deal of lateral thinking, he says. "We take pure plant science and modern technology and apply them to production horticulture. The dynamic glasshouse project for example, which started here last month, is an application of modern engineering and electronics."
Funding for this project, which will run through 2011, came from the soon to be culled East Midlands Development Agency, though Sharp is confident its demise will not hamper the project. While details are still a guarded secret, the project is understood to apply novel technologies to horticulture for the first time.
"We also go into nurseries such as James Coles and ask what the problems are - they are far more interested that way," says Sharp. "That gave rise to a research project on replant diseases that will start next month. And we are also supported by companies that want to produce supplies for the industry such as compost and lighting."
The Government-backed Knowledge Transfer Partnerships provide another funding avenue by helping companies take on a college graduate as an associate. "It's a good way to do near-market research, and good for the nurseries too," he says, adding that companies are kept in the picture via the college's quarterly newsletter.
He maintains that there are ample practical topics for a small research team to undertake. "Most pest and disease work is done by well established specialists like ADAS. But I am always trawling for any kind of information that could feed into work on plant propagation, growth or stress. There are even aspects of human medicine that can be applied to a plant production scenario. It won't be an overnight thing. We may not get massive grants, but as long as we come up with ideas for research, we will get better known."
Sharp gained his own PhD from the University of Lancashire, where he focused on the relationship between water stress and flowering in Rhododendron. "There are few stable jobs in research," he says. "You have to be inventive and search out new ideas, otherwise things can become stale."
He now also coordinates research in other curriculum areas, such as animal care. "I make people aware of grants and other funding opportunities," he says. "But a lot of my time is spent on horticulture because that's where my interest is."
Combining research with lecturing gives both flexibility and security, he says. "Other research establishments have got too big or relied too much on genetic modification. East Malling and Wellesbourne will always be there, but perhaps not so big. Whereas here, if I don't get research grants, I can teach and my job is still secure."
Explaining the basis for his employment, he says: "It's expensive to hire a scientist to do research. But if I can bring in funding, I can buy my time out with the college, which will take on someone else to deliver the teaching. That way, we can even increase the expertise on offer here."
This is broadened further with staff giving public lectures and talks to plant societies. "We don't ask for payment, but in return we get a lecture drawing on their specialist knowledge, such as on cactus propagation," he says.
Horticulture teaching at the college "runs the gamut from special educational needs to PhDs", explains Sharp, "and every department is linked to a commercial venture on-site. The garden centre, for example, has to make a profit. We also grow herbs and some trees that are sold there."
The college has taken on 30 horticulture foundation degree students this year. "Even with cuts in spending, the Government wants to encourage HE in FE," he says. "The red-bricks and the Russell Group are having to fight, but we should be okay - we haven't had to cut numbers."
On his experience of teaching so far, he says: "Some students already have their own businesses - they are a pleasure to teach. But some students have issues with learning in a classroom. You always have to relate it back to the work outside. You say: 'This will make you stand out as an arboriculturist.'"
Garden design is also a specialism, which gave rise to one student, Emma Hall, winning a Best in Show at Gardeners' World Live in Birmingham earlier this year. "We will enter a bigger garden next year," says Sharp. Among more research-minded students, "the quality is good but the quantity is a worry," he admits. Future plans for the department include taking on a yet-to-be-announced National Collection of trees.
One production glasshouse and adjacent planting-out area are currently being renovated in readiness for the next academic year. "Investment in facilities that are purely for research purposes is something new," says Sharp. "It will be retro-fitted with components from industries that want to fund - lighting, glazing, irrigation, environmental controllers. We will also use it as a demonstration facility for visiting companies and for the press."
Not content with the joint challenges of teaching, researching, upgrading facilities and drumming up funding, Sharp is also writing a book on the application of modern plant science to everyday horticulture. "There isn't much research into gardening, so you have to concentrate on more commercial work," he says. "But why shouldn't Gardeners' World explain how tomatoes are grown professionally?"
Dr Russell Sharp is keen to build on the college's connection with early 20th century plantsman Theodore Payne, a Northamptonshire native who apprenticed in horticulture locally before going on to become a leading proponent of the preservation and horticultural use of California's flora.
"Payne popularised western US natives like the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) in the garden," says Sharp. "We hope to produce a Theodore Payne collection here in the grounds."
Payne already gives his name to a conservation foundation in California, which runs a nursery and conservation garden in the San Fernando Valley. "I want to get a study group together to visit California - it will be expensive but we are exploring funding," says Sharp.