Greenhouse Lessons Beneficial for High School Students

3/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post N.Y. Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — If Cody Ramsey never gets a job related to horticulture, floriculture or landscaping, the valuable skills he’s learning will still last a lifetime.

He’s one of the 30 kids in a career-oriented BOCES program whose greenhouse not only produces beautiful plants and flowers, but students who are learning how to join the workforce, no matter what their career goals might be. (The New York State BOCES — Board of Cooperative Educational Services — program partners with school districts to provide a broad range of career-technical education classes in all different trades.)

“I love this class,” Ramsey said. “There’s nothing where I feel like I’m not going to use it in the future. I’m glad I took it.”

At present, students are selling daffodils at the greenhouse retail shop, which is open to the public from 8:30-10 a.m. and from noon to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. At Christmastime, they sold 350 poinsettias raised from seed, and soon they’ll be starting plants for a big sale in May when merchandise such as hanging baskets, bedding plants and vegetables will become available.

Students also raise and prepare cut-flower bouquets for special occasions, everything from weddings to high school hockey team banquets.

“It’s very authentic when you have a bride and you’re making flowers for her wedding,” instructor Doug Fleischut said. “There’s no room for error. You have to step up and do it. It teaches kids how to perform under pressure.”

That way, the students have a leg up on other kids when it comes time to look for a job. Local businesses — florists and garden centers — help out by providing student internship opportunities. Some kids also work at a community garden, whose fresh-grown produce goes to a local soup kitchen.

“Most of the kids help out, outside of this classroom environment,” said Craig Allyn, Saratoga Springs Community Garden administrator. “I just love working with and watching them. Some kids are really into it.”

This is Ramsey’s second year in the program.

“I hope to get into plant science, genetics,” he said. “This helps me learn how plants grow; their structure. It’s a good introduction to the science behind them.”

Science and math are key elements of the course.

For example, the greenhouse has an aquaponics project where dozens of large goldfish swim lazily about in an aquarium, while tube-fed water from the tank drips onto tomato plants. Fish waste is high in nitrogen, keeping the plants healthy. In turn, the plants provide a natural way of absorbing waste.

“A lot of large-scale production houses are doing this with tilapia and culinary herbs, or tropical flowers and tropical fish,” Fleischut said.

The greenhouse course also incorporates math and business skills. The greenhouse has its own cash register. When customers come in, students must deal with them in the same way they would in a regular store.

“From seed to sale, they’re experiencing every aspect of what it takes to produce plants on a retail scale,” Fleischut said.

In addition, the money raised by plant and flower sales helps offset the cost of greenhouse maintenance, operations and supplies.

Regardless of their career goals, the kids are more employable after they take the class because they get practical workplace experience, Fleischut said.

“They learn what mistakes not to make when they get their first job,” he said. “I’d like to see the state make a half-year of career technical education mandatory for all students. There’s a real mid-level skills gap between unskilled workers and college graduates.”

Learning the basics helps kids start out higher on the career ladder, he said.

“If you know how plants respond to certain conditions, you’re a lot farther along,” Fleischut said. “If you get a job with a landscaping firm, you can do something more than handle a leaf blower.”

The same education principle applies to other industries, such as the culinary arts and automotive industry. Anyone can benefit from that knowledge, whether it’s feeling comfortable in a kitchen or knowing what to look for under the hood of a car, he said.

Students really seem to like the practical “learn-by-doing” opportunities. Justin Ciapetta said that’s his favorite aspect of the class

“It’s hands-on,” he said. “You don’t have to sit behind a desk all day.”

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