As March Madness carried on March 22, landscaping and horticulture students from colleges across the country participated in another type of madness entirely, the National Collegiate Landscape Competition’s (NCLC) competition day.
Competition day is a collection of 29 different green industry events designed to test students’ knowledge and skills on everything from plant problem diagnosis to tractor loader backhoe operation.
There were 844 students from a mixture of two-year and four-year schools spread across Colorado State University’s campus in Fort Collins, Colorado, for their first events of the day.
Outside the classroom for the annual and perennial identification, students clutched their clipboards and No. 2 pencils as they listened to volunteer John Hoffman, president of Hoffman Nursery, give them a rundown of how to move from station to station.
This year marked a notable jump in students competing in this event with 104 participants. One of the students who competed in this event was Bethany Bennett, a freshman landscape design and management major from Columbus State Community College. Her employer, Environmental Management based in Plain City, Ohio, is paying for her education.
“They’re a great company and I want to do well for myself and for them,” she says.
While she isn’t new to the industry – she’s been with her company for six years – she does say NCLC is more intense than she expected. The annual and perennial identification event has 50 plants that students must identify and list both their common and scientific name, spelled correctly. However, the list of potential plants competitors have to study prior to the event is much larger than this.
Meanwhile, in another space across campus, other students put their arboriculture skills to the test. Arboriculture techniques is a team event that has students climbing and practicing tree care work and using throw lines to set a climbing line.
Prepping for these events requires a lot of individual studying, according to Cait Carlson, a junior landscape horticulture major with Kansas State University, who competed in the arboriculture event.
“Our classes definitely prepare us, but we don’t focus on it in class,” Carlson says. “They’re more focused on preparing us for our career, which it does prepare us for these events, but to really do well, you have to spend your own time out of class practicing and preparing and studying.”
The University of Tennessee – Knoxville, one of the schools attending NCLC for the first time, focused on the arboriculture techniques event.
“Basically, we wanted to make a connection because a lot of the conferences that we go to are based off of mostly just arboriculture, so my teacher really enjoys looking at everything in a holistic view,” says Korey Kinsler, a junior urban forestry major with the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. “So, she wanted to get us here to get more of a landscaper’s perspective on the community of arborists and landscapers as a whole.”
He says it’s been nice meeting students with different majors and learning how their majors relate to his own.
On the intramural fields, both landscape maintenance operation and irrigation assembly events were being carried out by teams of students. The landscape maintenance operation event tested students on their knowledge of safety, preventative maintenance, job site assessment and their hands-on operation of both stand-on and ride-on zero-turn mowers through an obstacle course.
Robby McKeeman, a sophomore landscape and turf management major from Hawkeye Community College, was one of the students who competed in the landscape maintenance operation event. He says that NCLC is a great opportunity to get new students into the field and give them experience in a number of different events.
“It’s pretty cooperative,” McKeeman says. “The main things you learn are the number of opportunities going in all geographical areas and how much industry sponsors push people to get out in the field.”
The irrigation assembly event required teams to assemble, adjust and operate an irrigation system with the provided plan. For the students participating in the irrigation assembly event, lack of experience did not discourage students. Despite it being the first NCLC for both teammates on the Owens Community College team, both were interested and willing to get outside their comfort zone.
Ethan Breeden, a freshman turfgrass management major from Owens Community College, says that he learned there is a lot of studying and preparing for your event in order to do well.
“Irrigation assembly was tough,” says Cody Brown, a senior horticulture major from Auburn University, who also competed in the irrigation assembly event. “If we had about five more minutes, we definitely could have finished, but it was fun.”
Brown says he heard about NCLC after joining Auburn’s horticulture club and hearing from his peers how much fun they had at the event.
“I knew I wanted to come to it this year,” he says. “I’ve learned how to communicate and keep in touch with other people in the industry.”
Another event that had a significant jump in participation was Bobcat’s mini track loader operation, which debuted last year. A total of 38 tried their hand at the machine last year, and this year, 53 signed up. Bobcat says that they will probably have to add a second course next year so everyone can have a chance to compete.
“Well, with last year being our first year in it, I’m guessing just word of mouth got out and the course is a fun course,” says Jason Boerger, marketing manager for Bobcat. “It’s been a 50/50 mix here of people who have never used a mini track loader before versus those who have. For those who have used it before, they want to try it again and come back, and then I think the people who haven’t ever done the event probably thought it looked like fun, so they wanted to give it a try.”
The mini track loader event consists of students maneuvering various pallets with multiple balls on top of it and placing the pallets at different drop points. This year’s course was on dirt, versus the sloped parking lot from last year, so Boerger says it’s a little more forgiving for novice operators. He says that this event helps provide confidence for students.
“It’s kind of a confidence builder and lets them know this is a helpful tool and it’s not as scary as it looks,” he says. “I always try to tell everybody once you start to feel comfortable, bump up the throttle a little bit more so you go a little bit faster, and you can see about halfway through the course they’ll start to get a little bit more confident. You can hear the RPMs a little bit more as there’s a little bit more confidence.”
Fifty teams of two participated in this year’s hardscape installation event, including one freshman who says she signed up for it on accident.
“I thought it was something totally different and when I learned what it was, I was like, ‘Well, here we go,’” says Alyssa Koyce, a freshman with Sandhills Community College. “I just watched a bunch of videos and was trying to well verse myself in it. The workshop that they had for it was really helpful. I learned a lot there and then they literally came out and showed us the way they wanted it done. I had a really great teammate who is in the industry who actually does hardscaping, so he was my mentor, and we just came up with a plan and just rocked it out and I think successfully executed it.”
Koyce says she is still currently undecided but is enrolled in the landscape gardening program at Sandhills. While she isn’t certain what she wants to do when she graduates, Koyce says there are many avenues in the green industry that she is considering.
“You should definitely participate even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, like me and hardscape,” she says. “I learned a lot. It opened up a new door that I didn’t expect to open. Just put yourself out there. You’re here with students. We’re all in the same boat and they’re providing this resource here for us to learn and network and it’s really cool.”
What started as a cold, overcast morning with the possible threat of rain transformed into a sunny, breezy day later in the afternoon for the start of the final event: landscape plant installation.
Teammates discussed game plans prior to being allowed to start on their plots and everyone worked at varying speeds. Employees from landscaping companies circled the event, critiqued techniques and speculated on which college would ultimately win the event.
When the judges called time, students began to trek back to their various modes of transportation, tired but confident that they had given it their all to prove their green industry skills.
“NCLC’s the best time of year,” says Alyssa Brown, a senior landscape management major from Brigham Young University – Provo. “It’s like Christmas, honestly. It’s so fun. You just get this atmosphere where you get a real feel for the industry. You get to network with all these different people. There’s students, faculty and industry professionals that I see here every year and I go out of my way to make contact with them since it’s kind of like a big family reunion, but you get all the education and you get the fun competitions.”