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Studying the science of plants

Students with an interest in plants, flowers, trees and everything green come to TCC to study horticulture and prepare for a variety of careers from landscape design to greenhouse management.

The roots of the horticulture program at Tidewater Community College are in science, technology and business, as students learn about intensive plant cultivation for human use. “Students who come with a passing interest in plants don’t really know what they are getting into,” notes Ken Spencer, Horticulture program head since the program’s inception in the early 1980s. “We learn the science of how plants work first and go from there.”

The horticulture curriculum ranges from Principles of Horticulture to Greenhouse Crop Production to Chemicals in Horticulture to Arboriculture to Landscape Construction and Maintenance. Students can earn an associate degree or certificate with specialties in plant production, landscape design or landscape management.

Courses and labs are held at the “green” Chesapeake Campus. “We started by planting in the corn fields adjacent to campus while working out of an old trailer and using homemade greenhouses,” recalls Spencer, “And now we have four state-of-the-art greenhouses and an outdoor laboratory.”

In addition to lectures, labs and working in the greenhouses, students expand their learning by touring local nurseries, listening to guest speakers and participating in study abroad opportunities. “Every other year we visit Central American hot spots like Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras. While there, tour marketplaces, coffee plantations and flower farms, and learn that horticulture is a global industry.” Most recently, while in Guatemala, students toured the 100 acre Paul Ecke poinsettia greenhouses in the shadow of the Fuego Volcano. Most of the poinsettias grown in the United States come from this facility.

Taking learning to another level, horticulture students put soils and seeds together to grow poinsettias for the winter holidays, as well as fall and spring selections including hanging baskets, vegetables, herbs and bedding plants. “It’s important to work with real plants,” adds Spencer. “From the start, students get their hands dirty and work in all weather conditions.”

Putting classroom knowledge to work, students in Planting Design I are landscaping the modular buildings on the Chesapeake Campus. “It’s been an exciting project,” says Kristina Bezanson, the horticulture professor leading the project. “Students have been involved planning and designing, and we will soon put plants in the ground.”

Karyn Smith, a second-year student who plans to graduate with an associate degree next year, says she is well prepared for the work ahead. “It’s been a tough program. They teach you everything you could possibly need to know to hit the ground running.” An avid gardener, Smith plans to move to Charlottesville to work at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She is currently a work-study student, caring for plants in the TCC greenhouses.

Passionate about plants, Spencer says, “Our work connects people and the natural world. It helps students and the community understand and appreciate plants, trees and even the foods we eat.”