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Caitlyn Jones/DRC

UNT graduate student researches the relationship between plants and humans

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By Caitlyn Jones

The old adage “April showers bring May flowers” might have been uttered too soon as Denton County was pelted with floods this spring. But the flora that survived the rain could help one UNT graduate student get her master’s degree.

Andrea Cloutier is researching the personal urban gardening practices of many Denton residents as she completes her thesis in UNT’s geography department. She has partnered with volunteers from Keep Denton Beautiful, Native Plant Society of Texas, Denton County Master Gardener Association and Texas Master Naturalists in the hopes of providing more horticultural knowledge to those interested in gardening.

“Humans are now responsible for the composition of our natural world,” she said. “We plant so many things and change so many environments that we control what our ecosystem looks like. I wanted to see what we’re doing in Denton.”

Cloutier’s initial research began in fall 2014 after trying to help her father find ways to become a more natural gardener.

“What I found was that there was so much information out there that even I, as a researcher, was overwhelmed,” she said. “I thought there had to be an easier way to find this information.”

After taking nine months to plan the project, Cloutier began interviews with gardeners in June and has looked at 15 gardens so far.

She said she has two more interviews planned but would like to have more volunteers before her study ends in March or April.

Keep Denton Beautiful put an advertisement for the study in its July newsletter.

“We work with many university students on their research as it pertains to our mission,” said Keep Denton Beautiful program manager Lauren Barker, who conducted similar research during her time in college.

“Andrea’s research is geared toward what people are currently doing, so if she can find something that many people like or dislike, we can help spread awareness,” she said. “You have to know where people are to know where you need to go.”

Cloutier received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UNT and said her research in geography aligns with her previous major.

“What I’m studying in the geography department is the relationship people and the environment,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to look at gardens because that’s a primary way people connect with nature.”

The types of gardens in Cloutier’s study can vary dramatically, she said. Anything from a small patch of wildflowers to large landscapes teeming with trees and shrubbery may be considered.

“Some people call it a yard, some call it landscaping,” she said. “For my purposes, I’m looking at that area around your house that you physically tend, where you put plants in and help them grow.”

All the gardeners Cloutier has spoken with said it has been an odd year with the influx of rain the county received in May.

“People have had insects they don’t usually have. They’ve had plants die that don’t usually die,” she said.

Local nurseries have also seen gardens falter this season as planters begin preparing the ground for the fall.

“It was a rough start for some people,” said Elliot Flint, assistant manager at Calloway’s Nursery on Dallas Drive. “A lot of customers were buying drought-resistant plants and losing those. Some even lost mature trees.”

As the ground recovers, Cloutier continues her research. The goal, she said, is to gather gems of information from people who are actually gardening in the area and condense it for people who are just starting out.

Cloutier said she discovered that while no two gardens are the same, most gardeners adapt to failure in the same way.

“They’re OK with stuff dying,” she said. “I think they feel like that’s part of the process. They don’t see it as a reason to stop but rather, a challenge.”

For more information or to participate in the study, send an email to andreacloutier@my.unt.edu.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6845 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.