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Dr. Dirt
March-April 2018

The Bitter End of the Landscape Story, 1957-2017: Part 5 - Education

Dr. Dirt’s Final Perspective on Landscapes Past, Present and Future

Last month I almost finished my history of the landscape, past/present/future. To my profound disappointment, I realized I still wasn’t done here. Now I feel an urgent need to bury this column deeply and finally into the ground. I imagine my students felt much the same toward the end of some of my classes, and perhaps it’s something of a practice run for my own life, now beginning its eighth decade. It’s also appropriate that I mention classes, since the topic here is landscape education. I’m thinking of post-high-school learning and in the broad context of our field which includes design, construction, and maintenance. Landscaping education also involves the areas of art, drafting, engineering, architecture, natural resources and ecology, horticulture, business management, and a bit of law and psychology. Workers in the landscape are Jacks and Jills of many trades, and hopefully masters of one.

To start with a long-term historical overview, the Ur-beginning of landscape education began immediately after expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This happened around 5000 BCE by Biblical records, or ten to twenty thousand years ago if your belief system includes archeology. In the Garden, all was sustainable, resilient, ecologically attuned, but, as it turned out, just one notch too delicious. Yes, the Delicious apple originated here, along with original sin. Frankly this has always baffled me, since Delicious apples are mealy and tasteless; but they do look good, which just goes to show you the slithery power of marketing.

Anyway, banished to the Land of Nod, a thankless place where you had to work to make a living, the first couple (Donald and Melania, in revisionist texts) had to learn to cultivate fruits and grains and animals, manage drainage and water use, recycle and compost, and do any number of other mundane tasks. Learning was hands-on and trial-and-error. Fortunately, people back then lived to nine hundred years, so they had plenty of time to learn from their mistakes. Some landscapers today take the same approach; this has mixed results, since we no longer live for nine hundred years. In my experience, it usually turns out better if they sign up for college or manage to find a knowledgeable mentor and/or an organization like NHLA or the Ecological Landscape Alliance with frequent educational programs.

Land of Nod Landscaping LLC eventually morphed into the guild system of progressive expertise in the field, from graduate student to peon to apprentice to journeyman gardener to head gardener of the estate/manor/castle/realm/kingdom. This system coupled a rise in learning and experience with a rise in rank, and it mostly worked for all involved. Being a human-based enterprise, this stairway to success embodied some minor flaws such as bribery, back-stabbing by pitchfork, the usual nepotism, elimination of rivals by various means, and general lying/cheating/skullduggery. The apprenticeship system continued for millennia, and to a fair extent continues today.

The prime directive in the landscape field – in the Stone, Bronze, Iron, and Industrial Ages, and today – is that any new employee must pay the dues. A memorable example in my own work life was spending a day loading a twelve-yard dump truck with topsoil using a shovel – all the heavy equipment was tied up elsewhere and labor was cheap. At the time I had a Master’s degree in forest ecology, but I was a new hire. But with this degree as a certificate of competence, within the year I was Deputy Director of Horticulture in Central Park. As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote, “He polished all the handles so carefully that now he was the ruler of the Queen’s navy.” Experience and related work ethic mean more than educational background, though formal education is a huge boost in getting hired, doing the work, advancing, and in countless studies, making more money.

Today, higher education is the coin of the realm, whether a two-year or four-year degree. It’s a huge leg up as you enter the field, and that boost typically follows you throughout your career. As noted, it’s not the only way, but it’s been proven to work well for a lot of people. There are several institutions in New England offering courses and degrees in horticulture/landscape. In New Hampshire both UNH’s Thompson School and NHTI in Concord offer studies leading to a two-year degree in landscape construction/design. These can be extended at UNH into a bachelor’s program. The Stockbridge School at U-Mass and Ratcliffe Hicks at U-Conn have similar offerings. UVM in Burlington has a four-year degree, as does U-Maine. Related fields, with many crossover employment opportunities, include environmental science, forestry, natural resources, botany, wildlife, ecology, and others.

I highly recommend a two-year (more applied) and/or four-year (broader) education for most newbies going into the landscape industry. I’m convinced of the value here. I’ve also had students go on to Master’s degrees in related fields. I believe they have all benefitted from the degree – educationally, career-wise, financially, and personally.
Now to broaden the perspective to higher education in general across the US, at present I’m not feeling optimistic about where it’s heading. Admittedly my baseline tends toward the pessimistic end of the spectrum, but I find several recent developments particularly worrisome:

Full-time professors are artifacts of the past. They are being rapidly replaced by part-time adjunct instructors teaching single courses. While vastly cheaper (low wages, no benefits, easily replaced), adjuncts typically have restricted (or no) office hours and little contact with students outside of class; they may have little commitment to the program or incentive to improve; they rarely participate in program planning and development; they have no serious relationship with the larger college or university. Adjuncts can excel in their work – some at the Thompson School and NHTI come to mind – but even then it’s a different level of involvement.

Overall, higher ed has been highjacked by number-crunchers who focus mainly on the bottom line. College presidents no longer guide education but raise money and schmooze legislators. Education today is Big Business. Dormitories are decidedly upscale and food service approaches late-teenage gourmet; both are huge money-making enterprises. While full-time faculty have fallen, there has been a huge increase in administration and their salaries. The ranks of vice presidents and upper management have swollen. They typically view permanent faculty as weights on the system, resulting in frequent faculty buy-outs with no replacements.

Admittedly colleges and universities are under intense fiscal pressure. The number of high school grads has shrunken, leading to intense competition for freshman enrollment. One result is that admission standards have fallen; another is that many small colleges are failing and closing. Universities now contract with international recruitment corporations to help fill classroom seats by signing up foreign students paying top dollar for an American education. This increases diversity, not a bad thing. In Durham it has also produced a spike in Teslas, Porsches, Maseratis and high-end Bimmers, and an increase in offerings of ESL (English as a Second Language).

Online courses have grown rapidly, reducing the need for the real-world campus and classrooms. Talk about shaking up the system! The theory is that e-students and e-instructors need not be resident, that a single course can potentially enroll thousands of tuition-paying students, and that quality education can take place. I’m sure this is sometimes the case, but anecdotal evidence informs me that few online courses are successful. And it’s hard to run a soils lab or plant ID walk or construction field trip online. Online courses will continue to grow and improve, but in landscaping education, not so much. The most promising area is the “hybrid course,” combining online readings and discussion with face-time discussion periods.

I might add to this overarching national gloom and doom by noting that student enrollment in landscape and horticulture courses across the country has been falling for a couple of decades. This results in a short supply of knowledgeable workers in the field. More than once I’ve had landscape company owners approach me at a conference to ask why I’ve never sent them any graduates. The answer is that there are very few coming through the colleges, and a fair percent of graduates go into business for themselves. My thought on the downturn in landscape students is that when they pick a major today, college students do not get overly excited about hard physical work and $15/hour wages after college. Those landscape dues again…

There are other routes to landscape knowledge beyond the ivied walls of higher-ed. Courses and workshops are offered frequently by NHLA, Cooperative Extension, the Ecological Landscape Alliance, New England Wildflower Society, and Coastal Maine Botanical Garden. New England Grows had a fine set of lectures each year. Landscape products suppliers give day-long or weekend short-courses on using their products (concrete pavers and wall systems, irrigation, lighting, etc.). National landscape organizations offer educational conferences around the country. And a huge piece of these opportunities, beyond the education, is about meeting other practitioners in the field and picking their brains.

No one reads books anymore, but there are tons of tomes on landscape design, construction, maintenance, plant materials, etc. (I admit it, I still buy books. Please don’t tell anyone.) And of course there’s The Google, an infinite source of wisdom on any subject imaginable and available on your smartphone. Lastly, as noted before, there’s seat-of-the-pants, school-of-hard-knocks, on-the-job training. Experience is a great teacher. Schooling is a workplace quick-start, but most of a student’s learning happens after graduation. I’m still at it, like Joni Mitchell trying to get back to the Garden.

— It occurs to Dr. Dirt that knowledge may be leaking out at night into the pillow of John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.



Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart