Hands-on Nursery provides a profitable and educational partnership

What began as an innovative new teaching model nearly 10 years ago has evolved into the Hands-on Nursery, a full-fledged operation run almost entirely by students in Dr. Helen Kraus’ nursery management and nursery production classes in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

On land nestled among the teaching and research gardens of the JC Raulston Arboretum, the Hands-on Nursery occupies several plant production areas and permanent buildings constructed by Kraus’ students.

“The nursery came about because I really wanted to offer hands-on lab experiences to my students, and I was always having to create these artificial situations in a classroom,” says Kraus, CALS assistant professor of horticultural science. “So I thought if I just build a teaching nursery, I’ll never have to worry about creating an issue. The plants will do that for me.”

She and her students starting growing plants at the Hands-on Nursery in 2004, using nursery production systems that are common in North Carolina.

“With containers, you can harvest the plant year round, you can sell the plant year round, and you actually get better survivability transplanting them into the landscape,” Kraus says. “So container garden plants just made sense.”

They first built a simple growing facility for containerized plants, using cuttings propagated in a greenhouse behind the arboretum. Over the years, they’ve added additional growing facilities, as well as a winter protection house, shade structure and a potting and storage shed.

“The class built all of these spaces, and they maintain them as part of their lab experience,” Kraus says. “The students do everything from installing the irrigation to fertilizing to pest management – every aspect of production.”

Horticulture professor Dr. Helen Kraus says her students learn to divide labor and focus on quality in the nursery classes. And thanks to the partnership with Wake Enterprises, they also learn to be teachers.
Horticulture professor Dr. Helen Kraus says her students learn to divide labor and focus on quality in the nursery classes. And thanks to the partnership with Wake Enterprises, they also learn to be teachers.

Kraus divides her students into the typical management teams of a nursery, such as propagation, production, marketing and sales. As a result, her students gain experience in everything from how to write a plant description to interacting with customers.

“The decision-making is of most value to them,” she says. “I set up scenarios and let them problem-solve.”

Each week during lab, Kraus assigns crew leaders who are responsible for managing a group of fellow students. The lab is not complete until the jobs are finished to Kraus’ satisfaction.

“They’re learning to divide labor and focus on quality,” Kraus says. “The process is important.”

The students also are learning to be teachers, thanks to a new partnership with Wake Enterprises, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities achieve their maximum level of independence.

“A couple of years ago, a Wake Enterprises employee came and spoke to the horticulture club to tell us about the program,” Kraus says. “And after that presentation, she and I started talking about ways that their participants could get hands-on experience here. Their program is designed around job skills and training, so it’s a great fit.”

Four Wake Enterprises participants come to the Hands-on Nursery each week to work with Kraus’ students.

“The participants really look forward to coming to work in the nursery.” says Terri Quintero, a paraprofessional with Wake Enterprises. “They especially enjoy working with the students.”

Kraus adds, “They pretty much do everything the students do.

“That first year went so well, Wake Enterprises wanted to continue through the summer, so their participants starting coming one day a week during the summer months to help take care of the nursery.”

The Hands-on Nursery started selling plants online this past August, and the proceeds are split between Kraus’ teaching program and Wake Enterprises. They also donate plants to nonprofit organizations. One of the program’s new goals is to be able to pay a fair wage to the Wake Enterprises participants.

“We will never try to compete with our industry,” Kraus says. “We’re just trying to give an enrichment opportunity to our students and to the Wake Enterprises participants. And anytime we can give something away, we do.”

To purchase plants from the Hands-on Nursery, visit: http://projects.cals.ncsu.edu/hands-on-nursery.

— Suzanne Stanard

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