Thursday, October 9, 2014

Paradise in Full Bloom at Horticulture Building

Written By: Christopher Williamson

      As a student at TTC, I’ve always felt a sense of pride when the start of the fall semester comes and the campus is filled with a flush of new students eager to learn and begin their college careers, a deep sense of excitement with the development of our new nursing building, and a deep respect for the faculty and staff that are always willing to share their knowledge and experience. But as any new student walking the campus for the first time or a curious visitor can tell you, there is always one building that stands out, a building that seems to capture the imagination and gives the viewer insight into the artistic brilliance of its creator.
If you didn’t bother to read the title or just haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the horticulture building; a building that begs to be recognized by the senses with its year round appeal of color that is sure to delight your eyes, the sound of chirping birds that are sure to bring a sense of calm and satisfaction streaming through your ears and delicious edible fruit from figs to peaches which guarantee a pure taste of pleasure for any taste bud.
But as anyone knows, even the most established trees start out as little saplings that are eager to root themselves in a firm foundation, so I became curious and decided to ask the question “How did this building and the program get its start?”
Mack Fleming, founder of the horticulture program in 1966, has a long list of accomplishments ranging from a Master’s Degree in horticulture from Clemson to co-founding the only tea plantation in the United States and going on to start his own brand of tea called Carolina Select tea remarked “I have a long history; I came here for the first time in December, 1966 before you were born. I was here for eleven years as the founder of the horticulture program; we had a faculty of three people then, and the program was built up sufficiently well where we had about 150 students.” Fleming eventually left the program to join Lipton tea as their director of research, ultimately leaving to start the American Classic brand of tea.
But like the scattering roots of a ravenous tree searching for water, I decided to continue my search for information by interviewing Sharon Coke, an instructor who has been with the program since 1994 and is a graduate of North Carolina University with a degree in horticulture and years of experience in greenhouse production. Since her arrival 20 years ago, she has seen the addition of new plant material every year; she informed me that while most plants are bought primarily from local garden centers, there have been exceptions like the palm trees (that still continue to stand) donated by local business Palm Trees LTD. Another three-hundred and fifty trees and shrubs were donated by Clemson University, all of which seem to give a perfect example of the sharp contrast in plant material in the rolling hills of the upstate and the flat, even terrain of the Lowcountry.
When asked about the selection of plant material, she stated, “We plant as needed or design something as a class.” From the view point of a casual observer, it adds a sense of randomness that begs them to look around every corner and be absorbed by the ever changing addition of new plants, ponds and even a golf green. She’s even added a straw bale garden which she noted has brought considerably more attention to the island, saying “People walk right next to it wanting to know what we are doing” and “[People] typically walk past the island and come ask about it”.
As I dug deeper, I found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by the island and deepened in my resolve to find out how there could exist a place that within the confines of an acre seemed to have an orderly yet chaotic style, a random feel that existed in sharp contrast to the structured, organized atmosphere of the college which surrounded it. To continue in my search for answers I decided to ask Tony Bertauski.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Bertauski got his dream job teaching students at TTC, something he envisioned doing as he spent four years learning the art of horticulture working on a golf course. As I talked with Bertauski, I began to realize that the students not only have a wealth of knowledge in the faculty of the horticulture program but they also are extremely luckily in the way they are able to learn their profession.
Bertauski explains, “The one thing we are fortunate to have here is that we have a workable budget with enough money so that we can buy what we need. What a lot of people don’t realize is that we have a lot of freedom. When I was at a university [as a student and as a teacher], the labor union did not want anyone doing their job. We weren’t even allowed to dig a hole. Our entire class was just theory and watching. That was not nearly as effective, so having the money and the freedom to build what we wanted,“ he went on to say, “is one of the better learning  environments to do so. It’s primarily because we have the opportunity to do so”.
As we continued to talk about the opportunities at this unique facility. Bertauski went on to explain his own personal philosophy in education. “The more senses you can engage, the better you learn something. If you can see it, hear it, feel it, even smell it…all of those senses integrate that as learning a lot more effectively”.  
     As I had now gained insight into the construction and history of the island from the perspective of the teachers, I decided to speak to the people whose lives and careers have been shaped by the time they have spent and experiences they have gained on the island: the students.
The first student I was able to talk with was Jessy Harper, who gained an interest in horticulture while he was a member of the FAA (Future Farmers of America) in a public high school in North Carolina. He not only attends TTC, but also has gained employment through TTC with a local golf course and plans to pursue a career in turf grass management once he graduates.
As our conversation progressed, I got to not only learn about Jessy’s personality as a free-spirited and outgoing personality that kept me on the edge of my seat as he played with his pet caterpillar nicknamed “Gary”. I also learned  about one of his favorite classes, Plant Pests. “You get to go out and look for bugs,” he said, “and even when you’re not in class, you’re still out looking for bugs. Out of the corner of your eye you’ll see a bug and say ‘Oh, I wonder what that is’ and look it up.”
He even went on to say “ It intrigues me to find the pest while in class, but even outside of class I want to know what they are and what they do”.
After I finished my conversation with Jessy, I talked to a good friend I’ve come to know in the program named William Barickman, who as we talked, played and passed around Gary the caterpillar with Jessy as he told me about how the program has not only helped his career as a landscaper by allowing him to receive a raise but also how the knowledge he has gained has given him the confidence to one day have his own company. I continued to talk to William; my thoughts went back to Gary the caterpillar who started to symbolize the path William and Jessy were on, a path that would take them through many trials and hardships that would shape and mold their character, eventually transforming them into men with the knowledge and confidence to spread their wings and take on new roles in their careers, a metamorphosis similar to the one of Gary the caterpillar would soon be taking. This opportunity  would give them the ability to transcend the limitations that were set upon them.
With one more interview to do, I decided to talk to Caroline Cox, who seemed to embody characteristics common to all the students of the program: drive, determination, persistence, and optimism. She explained that she planned to take over the administrative duties of her husband’s construction business once she graduates and to use her understanding of plants and landscape design to facilitate the development of plant installations their company plans to do in their future projects.
As I finished up my interviews, I began to see the island as something more than brick and mortar. I started to see it for what it really is, not what someone would see as they casually glanced at it on the way to class, or what the nonchalant observer would see as they walked the paved path and viewed Sharon’s straw bale garden or Tony’s golf green calmly listening to the majestic sounds of the song bird. I was finally able to see what many before me saw: that this island was all a dream, a dream that started with Mack and his first few students and continues to be passed down year after year with every new student that wishes to grow in their understanding of horticulture or pursue their career goals.
Yes, this island is a dream, a dream fulfilled by each individual who through their persistence and hard work continue to grow like our little island, a dream that is spread through the hearts and minds of everyone who has come in contact with it, a dream that with the start of each new season like our own individual potential, grows; a dream that will never die, a dream that in the horticulture building is in full bloom!
Dream on, I say.
And don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.


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