Fostering Gen Y Growers

Part of being a "plant nerd" includes outdoor learning.

For kids who consider themselves “plant nerds,” a high school horticulture program can provide a much-needed escape from the daily grind of traditional learning. The sad truth, however, is that many of these programs lack adequate funding, equipment and instruction to encourage high schoolers enough to make horticulture a career.

In his December editorial on GreenhouseGrower.com, Ryan Knauer, a grower for Gro’n Sell, addressed the value of fostering the next generation’s passion for plants through better high school programming. Knauer argued that investing in future growers should be a priority, and donating resources and offering support empowers kids to view a career in the horticulture industry as an attractive choice.

Today’s High School Programs

Young plant and garden aficionados have a few options if they choose to explore a career in horticulture. Knauer’s high school program was part of the vocational tech school or career center. The program, which was available to juniors and seniors, allowed students to attend the specialized classes for half a day every other day (juniors) or every day (seniors). Learning was divided between book work, lectures and various hands-on activities such as designing and illustrating landscapes, outdoor plant identification and working in the greenhouse.

Another option for budding plant fanatics is a technical high school with a specialized program. At Cape Cod Tech, the ornamental horticulture track gives students the opportunity to focus on alternating two-week periods of academics and shop work says Nancy Knight, the program’s floriculture instructor. Because much of the program focuses on floriculture, horticulture and landscaping, the school has an on-campus retail flower shop called Roots & Roses, a greenhouse and a golf green.

School work involves everything from using the equipment to clean up the golf green and propagating plants by seed in the greenhouse to plant identification and nomenclature studies. A special project might consist of working with a local garden club to design and implement a garden at a local senior center.

As with the special projects, much of the curriculum encourages students to participate in community outreach. One example is the opportunity to complete 400 hours of field work out in the real world.

Although many schools have technical programs, some young horticulture enthusiasts do not have that option.

Enter the Longwood Gardens high school summer internship program. In this eight-week, five-times-a-week, intensive study, high school students in their junior and senior years can apply to learn and work alongside Longwood Gardens staff. In the past, the internship was only for kids enrolled in horticultural programs, but the conditions for acceptance have since become more lenient, says Brian Trader, Longwood’s domestic and international studies coordinator.

“While some of the students are in these types of programs, some simply
expressed a sincere passion and interest but do not have a program,” Trader says.

Of the five to 10 students accepted, Trader says the program attracts a good mix of kids who are “blazing that path to become our next generation of horticulturists,” and those who are seeing if they want to make a career of their green thumb hobbies.

With that in mind, the summer internship allows students to rotate through many aspects of horticulture. One day might consist of climbing trees in an arbor session whereas a marketing session introduces students to designing a new pamphlet. Working in the water lily pools is a highly anticipated activity year after year.

How You Can Get Involved

High school students who graduate having been exposed to a horticulture program will undoubtedly possess the skills to identify varieties, explain basic botanical processes and propagate plants from seed and cuttings. The thing missing from most programs, however, is the exposure to the industry outside of textbooks. Such exposure has the ability to turn horticultural hobbyists like Knauer into professional greenhouse growers.

“Meeting successful people in the horticulture industry and hearing stories about people who had achieved their dreams got me thinking about the horticulturalist I wanted to become,” Knauer says. “It also made my career dreams seem obtainable.”

In Knauer’s case, he did not realize his dream until college, when he took a job with [Clemson University] researcher Jim Faust and majored in horticulture simply because it was the path of least resistance.  

“I was an avid gardener,” Knauer says, “but I had no clear direction going into Clemson. Working with Jim gave me the exposure to research, internships and industry people that helped lock me into a career path and clear my concerns.”

And addressing the students’ concerns can make a difference. Nowadays, the long work shifts and perception of a minimal yearly salary turn many would-be horticulturalists off. To ensure students receive a realistic impression of the job, Knight agrees face time with real industry professionals delivers the greatest impact.

“Growers and retailers need to be willing to come in and share their experiences, as well as the trials and tribulations,” she says. “They need to be willing to let our students into their businesses for internships, jobs or co-op experiences. This can really make or break the students. They are apt to learn more when they are out there doing hands-on activities outside as opposed to in the schools.”

Other Recruiting Approaches

One grower who has taken this idea to heart is Mark Sellew, the owner of Prides Corner Farms in Lebanon, Conn. For the second year in a row, Prides Corner Farms’ foreperson trainee and grower intern programs give college students the opportunity to mature into a horticultural management position at the business.

“When you are out there trying to convince a young person to come work for you, it is imperative that they can come in, learn and experience the different types of work and people they will work with,” Sellew says. “What young people don’t want is to be thrown into one thing and stay there. The idea is that they are learning all the time.”

Although Sellew’s attempt to recruit at the high school level was less successful, he is always looking to bring in new people, including high school graduates, to learn the business.

As a grower himself, Knauer says he can do his part to access the younger generation simply by reaching out.

“I can share knowledge of and enthusiasm for plants with the students in my world,” he says. “If any of them have a passion for plants, I should be fueling their passion by hooking them up with free plants, when I can, and being a resource for providing them opportunities. I can also reach out to the teachers in my area and be a resource for them to use in the classroom or on a field trip.”

Sharing passion with high schoolers is something Trader can relate to as well.

“We need to remind the next generation that our passion is providing a way of life – food, air, beauty. The profession is tied to quality of life. The industry is going to thrive because it has to thrive.”

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