Top-Notch: NC State hosts national “Olympics of landscaping”

Like a Madagascar lemur, NC State University student Alex Burnette nimbly maneuvered to the far end of a spindly treetop branch, seemingly oblivious of about 40 feet of space between him and the ground, focused only on where the tree’s branches could take him. He was not in Madagascar, of course, but at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, where his saddle-harness rigging and ropes kept him secure in the tall oak as he prepared for an arboriculture competition. It was all part of the 39th annual PLANET Professional Landcare Network’s Collegiate Landscape Competition and Student Career Days.

PLANET is the national trade association representing landscape professionals. Arborists and landscapers are part of a green industry that has an $8.6 billion economic impact in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

NC State students show their colors at the PLANET event roll call.
NC State students show their colors at the PLANET event roll call.

NC State’s Horticultural Science Department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences hosted this year’s renewal of the annual competitive training and career recruitment event that has been characterized as the “Olympics of landscaping.” More than 850 college students from 65 of the nation’s top horticulture and landscape programs, including four from North Carolina, came to Raleigh to compete in 28 competitive events and workshops March 12-15 at the fairgrounds and on the NC State campus.

Student Career Days also included a career fair where students could network with industry representatives from the nation’s major landscape companies and interview for jobs after graduation.

Among the hands-on skills in practice were landscape design, irrigation techniques, plant identification, and skid-steer, back-hoe and truck and trailer field use, as well as the arboriculture workshop where Burnette practiced his tree-scaling.

Burnette adjusts his ropes as he scales the tree.
Burnette adjusts his ropes as he scales the tree.

Burnette competed in the arboriculture climbing event, scored according to the climber’s form shown in accomplishing tasks and time getting to the treetop bell. Meanwhile, fellow CALS horticultural science major Max Alff competed in the event’s throwing portion, which measures a climber’s proficiency in hoisting a ball (sandbag) attached to a line that carries the rope up and over a crotch in the tree, where branches meet the trunk, and allows the climber to attach rigging to the saddle (belt and leg harnesses) that will secure his ascent. (The roping skills are important as aborists do not use spikes in climbing for tree care and maintenance.) The pair ultimately finished seventh overall in the arboriculture trials.

Burnette, a sophomore from Oxford, and Alff, a junior from Jefferson, are both also graduates of the CALS Agricultural Institute (AGI), where they learned tree-scaling in Lee Ivy’s landscape management course.

“These students are emerging professionals who will go to employers with extensive practical skills,” said Ivy. “When students exit college with a degree in horticulture or landscaping, as well as a certification from PLANET, and the skill sets needed for the real world, it’s a winning combination. They arrive at an employer ready to work.”

Max Alff throws the ropes to the high limbs to secure the rigging for climbing.
Max Alff throws the ropes to the high limbs to secure the rigging for climbing.

Ivy, lecturer in the CALS Department of Horticultural Science and AGI coordinator of the associate’s degree in applied science, and Horticultural Science colleagues Lis Meyer and Dr. Barbara Fair worked with PLANET to plan NC State’s hosting of the event.

The annual activities began in 1977 at Mississippi State University, Ivy explained. “NC State became involved in 1991 and has competed since,” he said. “The last time the event was hosted by NC State was 1998.”

That’s the year Ivy competed as a senior at the University of Tennessee. By fall, he was back in Raleigh as a CALS graduate student. Upon receiving his master’s degree in horticultural science, he taught horticulture at Sandhills Community College, where he advised and led that school’s student landscape team for nine years. He returned to NC State as a faculty member in 2011 and began advising and leading the CALS team. All told, he competed for two years and has led a team for 12 years, including this year.

“For me, it is very personal, and hosting is a way to give back to an organization and event that has been such a part of my life for so long,” Ivy said. “Seeing students get excited as they realize that the industry and profession they have chosen has so many opportunities for them to advance and enjoy makes me proud just to be a small part of the event and their educational and career advancement.”

Moreover, he said, “Our Horticultural Science Department is uniquely equipped to host such an event. Our faculty has heard about our competition team for so long that, when asked to help, they didn’t hesitate. In addition, the students will be proud of their education and involvement during and after the event.”

CALS Horticultural Science Department Head Dr. John Dole (right) joins student Alex Burnette (left) and event volunteers at the career fair.
CALS Horticultural Science Department Head Dr. John Dole (right) joins student Alex Burnette (left) and event volunteers at the career fair.

Meyer is also grateful for the “tons of support” from within the department, including faculty, staff and students. “We have 25 undergraduate students from both the Ag Institute and the 4-year degree program in Horticultural Science competing on the team, and four graduate students who have been assisting in planning the event,” she said, as she also applauded the participation of the local green industry, including the NCNLA (North Carolina Nursery & Landscape Association) and  Bland Landscaping,

“In addition,” she said, “faculty from Alamance Community College and students from its team have been involved in co-hosting one of the biggest competitive events of the week, the plant installation event.”

The NC State team acquitted itself well in the competition, finishing 15th overall, while noteworthy individual competition results included: Avery Blevins, first place in tractor loader backhoe operation; Nathan Gantt, third in small engine repair and fifth, along with Max Alff, in landscape maintenance operations; Avery Bartlett-Golden, third in maintenance cost estimating;  Tracy Thomasson, seventh, plant problems diagnosis; Max Alff and Alex Burnette, seventh in arboriculture; Will Edwards, seventh in 3-D exterior design; Stormie Holish, eighth in sales presentation; and Justin Morgan, ninth in exterior landscape design.

Lane (far left), Dole (sixth from right) and Ivy (ninth from right) join the students at the Grandstand area, after the plant installation competition, one of the biggest events of the PLANET activities.
Lane (far left), Dole (sixth from right) and Ivy (ninth from right) join the students at the Grandstand area, after the plant installation competition, one of the biggest events of the PLANET activities.

“Our philosophy is to do what you can to add to the team score,” said Bryce Lane, the retired CALS Alumni Distinguished Professor of horticultural science. Before his retirement, Lane served as undergraduate coordinator and Horticulture Club adviser. He and colleague Dr. Stu Warren were co-advisers of the student team and took the first N.C. State team to the 1991 competition at the University of Kentucky. This year, he is working as a highly qualified volunteer with the event.

“In the last 25 years, in each year but three, NC State has placed in the top 10 as a school. Two years we placed third, and one year we placed second,” he said.

But those placements are far less important than what the students take away, said Lane:  “We don’t teach to the test. We let students prepare the way they want to prepare, according to their interests. There is competition and there is the spirit of competition – networking and learning something!”

At the arboriculture practice, he watched Burnette scale the oak and talked about how the student has already garnered experience as an arborist through summer internships and doing part-time pruning.

“Alex is every bit a good horticulturist, too,” Lane said. “Arboriculture is often called urban forestry, but it’s really based in horticultural principles.”

At NC State, arboriculture lessons are taught not only in Ivy’s AGI class, but also in horticultural science courses taught by Fair.

Participants must demonstrate safety compliance and then confront a number of obstacles on the skid-steer course.
Participants must demonstrate safety compliance and then confront a number of obstacles on the skid-steer course.

When it comes to skid-steer, backhoe or truck-trailer experience, there is no course here that teaches that, but students can learn at field trips to companies like Caterpillar or Gregory Poole, Lane said.

Student participants are tested on their ability to navigate those vehicles on courses set up with obstacles, such as pylons and tennis balls. Among other feats, the competitors must operate a skid steer vehicle with a forklift picking up a pallet atop which sits a five-gallon bucket of water. The object is, in the least amount of time, to maneuver the vehicle through the course, around pylons without knocking off tennis balls atop the cones and, at the same time, spilling as little water as possible.

But before the students even turn a motor on, they must show judges that they have fulfilled all safety compliance requirements. “Every event that deals with equipment and vehicles, the No. 1 emphasis is safety,” Lane said. “It counts as 25 percent of the scoring in this (skid-steer) event.”

Students attend a workshop in 3-D exterior landscape design.
Students attend a workshop in 3-D exterior landscape design.

The four days included workshops and competitions devoted to various categories of plant identification (interior, woody and weed), plant problem diagnosis and environmental sustainability. Students also had opportunities to learn about and demonstrate their proficiency in areas such as 3-D exterior landscape design, computer-aided landscape design, pest management, sales, personnel management, small engine repair, compact excavator operation, irrigation, and landscape lighting, maintenance and plant installation There was also a bench-construction competition.

Even the opening day roll call was competitive, as John Deere, a Gold sponsor, gave a check for $1,000 to the school team who offered up the best cheer (the winner was Sandhills).

Materials and plot sites are at the ready for plant installation competitors to assemble in the Grandstand event.
Materials and plot sites are at the ready for plant installation competitors to assemble in the Grandstand event.

Lane praised the N.C. State Fairgrounds as a fitting location for the competitions, which took place in the lots behind the Scott Building, the woods next to the Harrill Center and the Grandstand area; the workshops, held in the Holshouser Building, Scott building and Kilgore (on the nearby NC State campus); and the career day/industry showcase, held centrally in the Exposition Building.

“It’s good, because it’s in a contained area, so we’re not having to shuttle around the city,” he said, adding that the costs of using the fairgrounds were supported by registration fees, career expo booth rental fees and sponsorships from companies such as Platinum sponsor Stihl and John Deere.

(Other major PLANET sponsors include Caterpillar Inc., New Holland Construction, Anchor Wall Systems Inc., Belgard Hardscapes, BRICKMAN, the Toro Company and ValleyCrest Landscape Companies.)

Ivy said that many lead sponsors commented favorably on the location, agreeing that “using the N.C. State Fairgrounds allowed us to have all events in close proximity. Some even said this was the best location.”

Tracy Thomasson (left) and Max Alff, student leaders of the NC State team, prepare to present the best cheer award to the team from Sandhills Community College.
Tracy Thomasson (left) and Max Alff, student leaders of the NC State team, prepare to present the best cheer award to the team from Sandhills Community College.

After the four-day event wound up, Dr. John Dole, head of the CALS Horticultural Science Department, relayed praise for a great job to the NC State planners and volunteers: “I received many compliments for the event, including ‘best ever’ and ‘they seemed to know what we needed before we even asked,’” Dole said. “I hope you are very proud of your work, as I certainly am.” — Terri Leith

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