Homeowners with a growing interest in environmental issues, such as food production and yard waste, are heading back to school.
Interest in topics like organic foods or sustainable landscaping are among the reasons people are taking horticulture classes, said Julia Fitzpatrick-Cooper of the College of DuPage.
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COD in Glen Ellyn has offered horticulture-related certificates and associate degrees for more than 40 years. It is one of a handful of Illinois community colleges that offer such a program.
Once the domain of horticulturists seeking professional development and gardening hobbyists seeking courses, the program has undergone a profound shift over the past five or 10 years, said Fitzpatrick-Cooper, one of the department's two full-time professors.
"Thanks to the strong environmental awareness of traditional college-age students, more have chosen to study horticulture," she said. "We began offering a horticulture elective to our traditional students about five years ago and that brought us students who would have never considered horticulture as a career.
"They discovered that horticulture is truly a science and that it is not easy. That, combined with their interest in sustainable landscape and feeding the world, has compelled many to pursue a certificate or degree with us."
This greater concern for the environment is creating a demand for new skills and driving students to seek or advance horticulture careers.
"Students are interested in the use of native plants and other 'right plant, right place' choices, as well as mitigating water problems and reusing plant debris on-site as opposed to hauling it away," Fitzpatrick-Cooper said. "Rain gardens, bio-swales, careful placement of gardens and use of plant materials also capture their interest."
COD's horticulture department had 357 students enrolled in classes during 2012, 54 percent of whom were female and 46 percent male. Years ago, the program was 70 percent female, Fitzpatrick-Cooper said.
Some are learning the necessary skills to enter the horticulture industry. Others are already working in the field and seek professional growth, while others still are members of the community who simply love gardening.
"Our standards are the same for all of our students," Fitzpatrick-Cooper said. "We are here to serve our students wherever they enter the program. Some have specific professional goals, including working toward an Associate of Applied Sciences degree with a major in horticulture. Others want to explore their options or improve their own gardens. Still others are just taking the courses as an interesting elective."
Seven different certificates are offered through the department -- general horticulture, floral shop management, greenhouse management, landscape and turf maintenance, nursery and garden center management, sustainable landscape, and landscape design and construction.
Course offerings range from introduction to horticulture to plant taxonomy, floral propagation, horticulture math, floral design and even courses about insects and diseases that affect plants. All are taught by experts in their fields, many of whom work in the industry during the day and teach courses at night, she said.
"The department has certainly evolved along with the interest in sustainable landscaping and the environment. When I got here in 1986 we had a vegetable production class. Within five years we had to drop it due to lack of interest," Fitzgerald-Cooper said.
"Now we have brought it back because our students have asked for it. But we are calling it 'organic vegetable production'," she said. "We are also offering dual credit classes that give students simultaneous high school and college credit for basic horticulture classes and we held a floral design competition here for high school students in March. We are also sending teams of our students to compete nationally in contests offered by the Professional Land Care Network (PLANET)."
The department also holds several plant sales each year as fundraisers. Their annual bedding plant sale is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 3 and 4 at the campus greenhouse, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn. All plants sold in these sales were grown by students specifically for the fundraiser.
Other plant sales throughout the year feature house plants, mums (fall), poinsettias (winter) and lilies (spring).
Tours of the greenhouses are also available to school, Scout and senior groups. For more information about any of the horticulture department offerings, visit www.cod.edu/horticulture.