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Horticulture students learn through PLANET

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Chris Hart participated in PLANET for four years as an N.C. State student.Natalie Hampton photoChris Hart participated in PLANET for four years as an N.C. State student.

For 20 years, N.C. State University horticultural science students have made a strong showing at a national landscape industry competition – PLANET student competitions — and along the way they’ve raised nearly half a million dollars to support their travels.

But Horticulture Club Adviser and Undergraduate Coordinator Bryce Lane says there’s more to the competition than winning. Developing students’ horticultural and teamwork skills is what makes for a successful overall experience, he says.

“Our primary goal is to develop students’ professional skills,” Lane said. “We do not go to win, but we do go to compete.”

Lane said that the N.C. Nursery and Landscape Association hosted a statewide student competition in 1990 at Sandhills Community College. Five North Carolina schools sent students to compete in what was called, “horticulture Olympics.” As a result of this state event, N.C. State horticulture students decided to participate in the national event the following spring.

The Association of Landscape Contractors of America, now PLANET — Professional Landcare Network’s Student Career Days — began its competition about 35 years ago. In 1991, 23 schools competed in this national event at the University of Kentucky.  N.C. State’s team placed 14th of the 23 teams that year, but since then they’ve finished among the top 10 teams in 18 of 20 years, placing third twice and second once, Lane said.

This year’s competition attracted 70 teams to Atlanta’s Chattahoochee Technical College. In addition to the competitions, students attend workshops and met with some of the top landscape companies during the Student Career Days event.  “It’s a great place for students to go to interview,” said former PLANET participant Chris Hart.

The competition has become a real motivator for students in N.C. State’s Horticulture Club. In the 20 years they’ve traveled to compete, they’ve raised $450,000 – largely from the state’s landscape industry. Students participate in a variety of fund-raising activities – assisting with North Carolina’s Green and Growing landscape industry shows, assisting with landscape installation and maintenance projects and even providing baked goods to purchase in the faculty lounge of Kilgore Hall.

This year, Hoffman’s Nursery in Rougemont hired students to install an arboretum, at the rate of $10 per student per hour. All money raised went into funding the trip.

PLANET has become a pivotal experience for many horticulture students. Four years ago, when Chris Hart set foot on N.C. State’s campus as a freshman, he was planning to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.  But involvement with the Horticulture Club – and four trips to PLANET – changed his mind. After graduating in May, Hart began graduate school this summer. He was hired in July by Chatham Central High School as a horticulture teacher and FFA horticulture competition coach.

Hart said he learned a lot from his experiences with PLANET competitions in annual and perennial identification and sales – how to set goals and work toward them and how to build relationships with faculty. In addition, Lane said that N.C. State’s club tries to visit outstanding gardens in the area of the competitions, experiences that Hart said were also a chance to learn.

The competitions cover a variety of landscape industry skills. Lane said that students chosen to compete are responsible for their own preparation, but faculty members are always willing to help. Some competition categories include: plant identification, patio construction, and pricing and bidding. Last year, two N.C. State students who came from families in the nursery industry took first place in the truck and trailer competition, which required the competitors to maneuver and unload a trailer of landscape equipment.

Though the truck and trailer competition doesn’t reflect a skill area that students learn in the horticultural science curriculum, students were able to use their own experience to nail the competition. Lane said it’s not unusual for preparation to take place on the flight to the competition.

“We rely on the strength of our students and our curriculum,” Lane said. “Our focus is not necessarily to win. To place fourth out of 70 teams really reflects the quality of our horticulture program, and our students’ level of preparation.”

Each year, a different school or institution hosts the competition. N.C. State hosted the event in 1998, with events at Raleigh’s Civic Center and on campus.

-Natalie Hampton

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