David Sotire taking soil moisture readings

David Sotire (’15) taking soil moisture readings.

The Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture has unified two of its undergraduate programs with the creation of the new Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems major. By combining the Horticulture major, which included a Sustainable Agriculture concentration, with the Turfgrass and Soil Science major, the realignment acknowledges the common attributes these fields share and offers students a versatile career path.

For the new major, students complete a set of required courses and then choose a concentration in Turfgrass Science, Environmental Horticulture or Sustainable Agriculture. These concentrations offer further options for students to specialize their education to align with their interests and career goals.

Turfgrass Science focuses on the management of golf courses, athletic fields and residential, commercial and municipal grounds. Environmental Horticulture involves the commercial production of ornamental plants, as in nurseries and greenhouses, and the landscape use and maintenance for both aesthetics and the essential ecosystem services they provide. The Sustainable Agriculture concentration focuses on the use of ecologically-sound production practices for the production of food crops.

“The department consolidated the old Horticulture major with the Turfgrass and Soil Science major because we recognized these programs shared the common goal of promoting sustainable practices within managed systems, whether those managed systems involve a farm, an athletic field or a residential community,” says Richard McAvoy, professor and head of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. “The Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems major is all about producing crops and managing plant systems for human use. Students in the Sustainable Agriculture, Turfgrass Management or Environmental Horticulture concentrations all need a basic knowledge of biology, chemistry, plant science and soil science. Whether you’re on a farm, on a golf course or in a commercial plant nursery, you need to know the same basic information and this major reflects that understanding. These areas also overlap in concern for maintaining essential elements of the ecosystem, such as ensuring soil health, responsibly managing fertilizers, runoff and water usage, controlling invasive plants and managing pests.”

While the new major provides students the required general science background and emphasizes reducing environmental impacts, promoting best management practices and developing productive and profitable cropping systems, the courses in the concentrations help students refine their knowledge and skills. One of the required courses for the Turfgrass Science and Sustainable Agriculture concentrations is a field study internship.

Matthew Harrison Rolling Greens

Matthew Harrison (’15) at Rolling Greens in Rocky Hill, CT.

“An internship was not previously required in the Horticulture major but was highly recommended. However, the internship was required in the old Turfgrass and Soil Science major and had been extremely successful as most student landed full-time jobs immediately after graduation. We felt it was important to expand this requirement to the Sustainable Agriculture concentration because of the proven value they have been to our students,” says McAvoy.

Steven Rackliffe, associate extension professor, oversees the internships for students in the Turfgrass Science concentration.

“We have ten students in internships right now, but I get hundreds of requests a year from people throughout the industry,” says Rackliffe. “We don’t have anywhere near enough students to fill them. It really means that students get to pick what they want to do and where they want to be.”

The turfgrass program has placed over 200 students in a variety of venues, including professional athletic fields and golf courses. Students have completed internships at the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park, as well as for minor league teams, including at the Pawtucket Red Sox’s McCoy Stadium and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.

Brandon Coe - Interned at Whistling Straits (Wisconsin) for the 2015 PGA Championship, Brandon is standing right of winner Jason Day and the PGA Championship Trophy

Brandon Coe (’16) interned at the Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, Wisconsin during the 2015 PGA Championship. He is standing to the right of winner Jason Day, next to the trophy.

The majority of turfgrass students choose to intern at golf courses. Students have conducted internships at courses like Shinnecock Hills, Whistling Straits and Turnberry.

“We’ve had students working at courses that host the US Open, the Walker Cup and PGA tours. These internships put students at incredible sites where they can learn from the best,” says Rackliffe.

The department sets guidelines for the internships and requires a substantial report at the conclusion. The reports are lengthy for an undergraduate, usually twenty-five to thirty pages. Students are also expected to interview their internship supervisors. Internships are typically completed over the summer with the reports due in the fall.

Rackliffe monitors students’ progress through the internship.

“I try to get out there and visit all of them. Sometimes students accept positions far away, but anything within driving distance, I usually get to. I have the students take me around and tell me what they’re doing and what they’ve learned. I suggest they keep a daily diary of everything since they get a lot of information and experience in that short period of time. I encourage their supervisors to let them sit in on meetings and interact with customers in order to get a true sense of the work. These internships are a lot more than just mowing lawns. Students learn the business and that includes management duties and making decisions concerning inputs. We’ve had students hired to care for athletic fields at universities like Penn State and Wake Forest. We have to prepare them for all aspects of these careers and these internships help do that. I also make it a point to sit down with the supervisors when I’m there to get feedback on ways we can improve our programs,” says Rackliffe.

Andrew Richiger at the Yellowstone club MT

Andrew Richiger, a current student, at the Yellowstone Club in Madison County, Montana.

Nearly all of the internships are paid and some offers cover housing, meals or even airfare.

“We try to adjust the internship to meet the educational needs and career goals of each individual student. One student was interested in irrigation systems so we set him up with a company in Simsbury. We’ve also had students work extensively on the UConn grounds and the department’s research farm. Currently, we have a student doing landscaping for a company in Cromwell and another working with the Parks & Recreation Department in Hebron,” says Rackliffe.

“We’re willing to reach out anywhere on any student’s behalf and with [Career Consultant] Paul Gagnon and all the connections the department has, we can usually figure something out. The industry loves it and so do the students,” says Rackliffe.

Students are required to complete only one three-credit internship but often complete a second because of the academic and employment experience they gain.

In the plant science programs last year, students completed thirty internships, but industry demand far outpaces the number of students available in the department.

“We have good internships in environmental horticulture as well. We’re in the process of formalizing an internship program with Monrovia, a national nursery company with a location in Connecticut. It’s going to be a career training program with the intention of hiring students directly,” says McAvoy.

The department’s programs feature extensive facilities, including a 153-acre research farm, several research and teaching greenhouse ranges, a compost facility, a soil and tissue analytical lab and a collaborative student farm, that all enhance classroom and experiential learning for students.

The department also offers a Landscape Architecture major, five minors and, through the Ratcliffe Hicks School of Agriculture, a two-year associate degree.

By Jason M. Sheldon