Taking it to the trees

June 25, 2013

Norfolk Aggie intern

Taking it to the trees

Norfolk Aggie intern

A Norfolk Aggie intern learns tree climbing techniques.

Every spring after classes end at Norfolk County Agricultural High School (NCAHS), ten juniors join the crew of the Arnold Arboretum as interns to learn how public gardens and arboreta care for their important plant collections. The students spend a month at the Arboretum working in the landscape and attending specialized classes. Marc Mertz, arboriculture instructor at NCAHS, and Arboretum living collections staff guide students through a hands-on exploration of the vocation of public horticulture.

This year students got their hands dirty working much of their time with Horticultural Technologist Jen Kettell in the Bussey Brook conifer collection. Jen demonstrated some of the rough and tough requirements of landscape maintenance while developing students’ knowledge of current horticultural practice. Working together, the team improved the health and appearance of many plants in the collection by mulching and edging beds, removing invasive species, and taking soil samples for cultural analysis. Jen also coached interns on the families and individual species of conifers, using branch and cone samples from the collection. Then, following a class on best planting practices with Kit Ganshaw and Jen, students transplanted hollies from the Arboretum’s nursery to the hickory collection along Valley Road.

Interns also spent a week in the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, where Horticultural Technologists Brendan McCarthy and Rachel Brinkman mentored them each day on a different aspect of public garden maintenance. Arboretum arborists taught a class on pruning techniques for woody plants, helping interns to prune shrubs and vines and maintain planting beds in the garden. Since approximately 40 million acres of lawn cover the United States and thus play an important role in horticulture, students learned about turf care using a variety of professional landscaping mowers, string trimmers, and blowers. The critical importance of good soil and soil maintenance was explored over two days, and included the use of a compressed air spade to loosen soils in compacted beds and to excavate buried trunk collars to check for girdling roots and monitor plant health.

Between workdays in Bussey Brook and the Leventritt Garden, interns rounded out their experience through interactions with Arboretum staff. Director William (Ned) Friedman shared his own vocational path in plant science, stressing the importance of pursuing work that is meaningful. Librarians Liz Francis and Lisa Pearson shared the Arboretum’s extensive collections of books and images in the Horticultural Library, and Kyle Port and Kathryn Richardson tutored students on collecting and maintaining plant records. Near the end of their internship, a day was also spent with arborists working on larger trees, including instruction in tree climbing and bucket truck operation.

The interns’ determination and enthusiasm showed in the quality of their work at the Arboretum, and all remarked favorably on their experience. Abby, a floral design and horticulture major, called it an “eye-opening, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Gabe, a landscape operations major, was excited about how much he had learned—especially about digging and drumlacing nursery plants. Caitlin, an urban forestry major, summed up the feelings of many of her companions: “I love being outside and doing the real hard work of a horticulturist. I just love it.”

—Rachel Brinkman and Jen Kettell

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