COLLEGE STATION — If what today’s college kids need is some solid experiences with concrete examples, at least one group of horticulture students have a firm foundation, literally.
Students in the lab for HORT 425 undergraduate landscape maintenance and construction course recently poured, smoothed and finished concrete for a new plant media mixing pad at the Texas A&M University area at the Nursery/Floral Crops Research and Education Center in College Station. It’s the latest in a series of student- managed projects over the past five years that have turned a scrubby field into a park-like landscape opened to the community, according to Dr. Michael Arnold, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station horticulturist and the course’s professor.
“Renovation of the greenhouses that had been abandoned for about 10 years began in 1993, and there was no landscaping at all,” Arnold recalled. “We didn’t have so much as a hammer when we got started.”
The sheds now contain not only a hammer but a host of garden tools from hand trowels to a tractor that was retrieved from a surplus warehouse. Arnold and other horticulture professors, along with agricultural engineers and turf researchers, have taught students and conducted experiments on the site in ways that have turned it into an inviting setting with community appeal.
Arnold noted that the site gives students the opportunity to learn about the careers they are choosing while providing the community with a location to enjoy and learn about various plants and landscapes suitable to South Central Texas.
“The first project was the greenhouse landscape and driveway,” Arnold said of HORT 425, which is taught each fall. “Initially we were heavy on the construction side of horticulture (in the years when renovation began), so we are now attempting to work in more of the maintenance side of the landscape at the center.”
One extensive garden, he noted, was a shade garden with a small deck, raised beds and stone edging. Numerous other beds and desks and occasional benches have been constructed at the center to accommodate people who visit and stroll among the plantings. There are some 300 species growing in the gardens, most of which are identified with labeled stakes.
In teaching the students current landscape construction and maintenance techniques, Arnold noted, environmental concerns are a major emphasis.
“We have about 18,000 square feet of nursery and all of it has fertilizer injected irrigation and a capture and recycle system to save water,” he said. “We teach water management and ways of reducing water requirements while raising healthy plants.”
An example of using minimal amounts of water can be seen in the West Texas Garden, designed and installed by Geoff Denney, a undergraduate horticulture major from El Paso. As a part of a special problems course, Denney’s goal was to reproduce a landscape similar to that of the Franklin Mountains, a 16,108-acre wilderness area east of El Paso.
More than 25 desert species were planted in a 3-foot-tall mound filled with soil and crushed granite. The chopped limestone retaining walls give the look of natural rock outcroppings, stabilize the mound and allow small planting spaces for succulents and cacti.
On the opposite extreme is a water garden designed by a previous HORT 425 class with a limestone spring and wooden footbridge. It also serves as a secondary treatment system for nursery and greenhouse run- off, Arnold explained, as well as overflow from heavy rainfall. Visitors and students are able to stroll along the limestone edging that supports planting beds and over the pond to nearby gardens. Gardens with different environmental niches are used to broaden the instructional tools available for teaching landscape architecture and horticulture students in the plant materials courses, Arnold said.
“Our goal has been to integrate our research, extension, and teaching activities at the field lab in ways that allow the students and the public an opportunity for hands-on learning. Cooperative efforts with faculty and students from other disciplines and encouragement from university administration have been critical to development of the facilities,” Arnold said.