Students in the horticulture and turfgrass management technology programs on the UCity Cato campus of Central Piedmont Community College are getting an education professors say is comparable to or better than some national four-year universities offering similar instruction. They’re also leaving their mark throughout the college, the city and beyond, getting their hands dirty while they learn to create landscapes, restore dilapidated ball fields and simply beautify the area.
Two graduates of the turf program have become assistant superintendents at Quail Hollow, a Charlotte golf course that has been the site of an annual PGA tournament since 2003. One has become a superintendent at TPC Piper Glen, a legendary Arnold Palmer-designed golf course also in Charlotte. And one works part-time at Bank of America Stadium.
A major project turf students started last fall is the ongoing renovation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Northridge Middle School’s football, baseball and softball fields. The school lacks resources to maintain the areas, so CPCC students offered to do the work and learn in the process. The before and after results speak volumes about student talent and drive. “They were in really bad shape,” says John Royals, instructor of turfgrass management technologies for nearly a decade. “So what we did was create another outdoor lab space for students to learn the industry. It’s a big plus for our students. They get some on-the-job training and an underlying aspect is they create safer playing conditions for students.”
CPCC student Crystal Titus, 24, is from South Carolina but moved to the area specifically for the programs at CPCC. She recently finished her horticultural degree and expects to graduate with a turfgrass management degree in December. After, she hopes to start her own greenhouse and nursery business. “One of our best projects was taking on the challenge of turning Northridge Middle School’s football field from a dirt mess to an awesome playing field,” she says. “All the students took pride in working on the field. We worked on the field for a month during classesand when we finished there wasn’t a single dirt spot on the playing surface.”
Students in the horticulture program recently were involved in two major projects. They designed and built a “green wall” for a parking deck on CPCC’s central campus. The living wall, about 100 feet long and 60 feet tall, is filled with drought-tolerant plants and serves as an alternative to a standard brick wall. (The evergreen and deciduous plants are still too small to be seen.) Complete with irrigation, it’s more aesthetically pleasing but equally as functional when it comes to blocking sound. Dozens of students started work on it in August 2010, and finished last semester.
“Great things are happening here with our programs. The whole premise of our programs is to train people for the industry and we’re succeeding there,” says John Holmes, the program chair who has been with the college since 1990 and has a bachelors in horticulture and a masters in entomology from the University of Maryland. “(The wall) is pretty high-tech actually. It’s a demonstration of what can be done.”
At the Historic Rosedale Plantation on North Tryon Street in Charlotte, students assisted with the re-design of the gardens with a goal of restoring them with healthier period plant materials such as boxwoods, Hydrangeas and Camellias. The space also is meant to be functional for weddings, fundraisers and other events. At least a half dozen students and three faculty members were involved.
Building a reputationBeing a part of such projects not only helps solidify the programs’ credibility but also increases awareness of the college on a national level. “These projects have greatly improved our exposure and image among the industry and also local gardening clubs, other community colleges and universities like UNC Charlotte,” says Holmes. “While horticulture has been stagnant in a lot of state and community colleges, we’ve been growing steady. We concentrate on job placement and on staying current with industry trends, both of which prepare our students for the work force. Ultimately, it elevates our quality and the credibility of our school.”
Royals has a masters in plant pathology from Clemson University and has worked on various golf courses, including the hummingbird golf course at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach. About the projects he adds, “I like to see our students doing this kind of stuff and it helps get our name out there. We’ve practically gone from unknown to known, kind of like there’s a new sheriff in town. We’re trying to come into our own and have people recognize us in the state and region. We’re trying to build the program and graduate good students. The more we do that, the more graduates we’ll have in the field. When I came here 10 years ago, one of my goals was to make this the best turf school in the country and that’s what I’ve been working on. If we’ve done this much in 10 years, think of what we’ll do in another five.”
Green jobsWith a near-perfect track record of job placement within weeks after graduation and experienced professors armed with masters degrees and industry contacts, students come to the college for hands-on learning and trend-setting teaching methods that help make them highly competitive in their respective fields. The turfgrass management technology prepares students to maintain golf courses and sports fields or enter professions such as commercial lawn care, irrigation design and sod production. Graduates of the horticulture program often go on to work in nurseries, garden centers, greenhouses, gardens or governmental agencies. CPCC’s horticulture and turfgrass students are making a name for themselves, especially when it comes to designing and producing innovative and lasting projects on campus and throughout the city.
Royals and his students also have designed, constructed and maintained three putting greens on campus for use as outdoor labs, where they learn about cool and warm season grasses commonly used at golf courses and athletic fields throughout the nation. Without the student labor and the college’s tools and equipment, the greens would have cost about $40,000 each to be professionally installed. By incorporating this applied learning, the actual price tag of each green was about $5,000. Students have built one spec green per year the last three years, during which time they’ve learned about three types of grasses: bent-grass, Bermuda grass and seashore paspalum, a new type of grass typically found along the coast and the south that can be watered with ocean water or treated sewer water, which generally has higher salt content. In times of drought and increased or mandatory water restrictions, this grass could become in high demand.
“The education students receive here is easily on par with national universities. My students are competing for the same jobs with four-year university graduates and we have to be as good or better as those guys. These are United States Golf Association spec greens and that’s how we constructed them,” says Royals. “We planted the (paspalum) to see if it could survive Charlotte winters and, so far, it has. So, in the future, it might be used as an alternative for Charlotte courses.”
The hands-on experience and access to current technology are main draws for CPCC turf students, who compete along side N.C. State and Clemson universities in the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association’s annual conference and trade show held in Myrtle Beach, S.C. In 2008, one of CPCC’s teams won. In 2010, one of its teams came in second and another placed third.
About the horticulture technology program Titus says, “The program is a perfect foundation for students who have a passion for plants. We learn from a lot of hands-on activities in the greenhouse and on the campus grounds. The program has taught me all the things I need to know to one day own my own plant nursery. It has allowed me to stick my foot in the door of the horticulture industry and make contacts that I will keep for years to come.”
Holmes and Royals agree that the best part of their jobs is helping students succeed and getting good jobs in the industry. When it comes to creating lasting projects, they also share similar views. “It keeps us sharp with our skills and we can look back and say we’ve accomplished a lot and made things better for people. So, it’s always good to be a part of that,” says Royals. Holmes adds, “Usually the details, the new technology and techniques are the most interesting to me and students, but we all feel a sense of pride after the fact that we accomplished something concrete and worthwhile.”The CPCC Cato Campus is at 8120 Grier Road, Charlotte.
All hands on deckStudents in the horticulture program, around for 35 years, and the turfgrass program, started in 2001, have their hands in projects all around town. Here’s a look at some:Landscape Design classes have:Designed the entryway to McGinnis Village community on Eastfield Road.Designed areas around the Nature Center at Reedy Creek Park
Plant Production classes are:Growing starter vegetables for middle school classes at Sedgefield Middle school and Winterfield Elementary schoolsGrowing summer vegetables for the Earth Day celebration for the Town of MatthewsGrowing annual flowers and herbs for Wing Haven Gardens spring and fall plant sales.Growing vegetables for children’s hands-on experience at Charlotte’s Clean & Green CelebrationCollaborating with the community garden on Rocky River Road
Horticulture Club has: Hosted Sedgefield middle school in the campus greenhouse to grow lettuce which they took back to their school.
Turfgrass Students are:Working at Charlotte Country Day school on the athletic fieldsWorking at Quail Hollow Golf club. They’re also involved with the golf tournament
Future plans include:Installing a rain garden on the Cato campus. At least five classes and more than 75 students will help install a 2,000-square-foot rain garden designed to capture over an acre of parking lot runoff.