High School Students Learn Horticulture at Northeast

Published on: February 8, 2019

Outside freezing drizzle is glazing streets, sidewalks and windshields. Inside it’s a balmy 73 degrees as students propagate tiny lettuce seeds.

The setting is the greenhouse on the Northeast Community College campus in Norfolk. Following a classroom lecture, the students moved to the greenhouse for completion of that day’s Fridays @ Northeast horticulture class open to high school students.

Instructor Paige Shuler worked with the students in manually propagating lettuce seeds into individual cells within a plastic planting flat for a controlled germination study.

That day’s curriculum also included learning about propagation of ferns from spores and starting a research project involving the spores. Last fall, Shuler said the class topics included investigating and classifying various soil and subsoil types, as well as irrigation methods for greenhouses and large production fields.

She came to Nebraska three years ago from her native North Carolina when she accepted the agricultural education/FFA adviser position at Chambers High School. Last fall, after two years at Chambers High, Shuler accepted an adjunct horticulture instructor position at Northeast Community College.

Horticulture instructor Paige Shuler (background) assists students Katie Bathke (foreground), of Dixon, and Maddie Wolfe, of Norfolk, in propagating lettuce seeds in the Northeast Community College greenhouse in Norfolk. (Courtesy Northeast Community College)

Student Katie Bathke said seniors at the Allen Consolidated Schools can take a class at Northeast for dual credit or complete a local internship. Katie, who plans a career as a plant pathologist, said she opted to take the Fridays @ Northeast horticulture class.

“I thought it would be a good introduction to know more about plants and how they’re used throughout the industry,” said Katie, who travels from her rural Dixon home to Norfolk on Fridays.

She said she is involved in a three-year research project to create a seed inoculant for bacterial leaf streak in corn for an FFA project. The disease, first diagnosed in August 2016, is native to Nebraska and cuts yields.

Taking the Northeast class, Katie said, “definitely helps out with my research project and understanding plants and how they work with diseases.”

A fellow horticulture class student, Norfolk High School senior Maddie Wolfe, said she was unsure of what her college major would be until enrollment in the class.

“I’m going into horticulture,” she said. “I enjoy biology and plant genetics.”

The Northeast class, Maddie said, is “one of the classes I’m really excited to come to. It’s really helped me figure out what I want to do in life.”

The Fridays @ Northeast two-semester horticulture class, now in its first academic year, is part of Northeast’s longtime Horticulture & Golf Course Management program.

Kurt Pytleski is the program’s full-time instructor. Classes also are taught by Shuler and three other adjunct instructors.

Pytleski, a native of northwest Iowa, previously was a landscape gardener at the Des Moines (IA) Golf & Country Club.

“While there, I fell in love with the game of golf,” he said.

He then became the first manager/superintendent at the Highland Oaks Golf Course near Ponca when it opened in 1995. His resume also includes work at Wakefield and Norfolk golf courses.

Pytleski first joined the Northeast Community College staff as an adjunct turfgrass management instructor, later becoming a full-time instructor.

Local golf courses offer his students real-life maintenance scenarios, as well as summer internships.

Pytleski and Corinne Morris, dean of agriculture, math & science at Northeast, said they are hopeful that enrollment in the Horticulture & Golf Course Management program will continue to increase.

The classes, they said, are not only valuable for the students pursuing horticulture-related careers, but for the general public in tending their lawns, landscapes and even houseplants.

Pytleski said an associate degree in horticulture and golf course management can lead to a variety of careers from managerial and maintenance roles at greenhouses, arboretums, sports fields and nurseries to parks and recreation to floriculture.

Taking horticulture classes also can benefit the do-it-yourselfers

“Knowing the basics of tree, shrub, lawn and landscape work can mean saving the cost of hiring professionals” Pytleski said.

Morris said, “We are able to provide students with excellent hands-on experiences and prepare them for success. Our greenhouse is small, and we often need to go off campus to augment the curriculum. We look forward to updating our facilities to meet the needs of the future. There are many ties to agriculture, food and plant production where this program can expand to advance the level of expertise for our students and their future employers.”

Dawson Sundsted, of Spearfish, S.D., is one of the students currently pursuing an associate degree in Horticulture & Golf Course Management from Northeast.

While in high school, Sundsted said he was scanning the internet looking for potential colleges.

“Northeast Community College popped up. I saw it was ranked as a Top 10 finalist for the national Aspen Prize (for Community College Excellence in 2017), and it had my planned degree and a golf team.”

He then emailed Pytleski, who invited him to visit the campus.

“I fell in love with the college and the faculty,” Sundsted said.

Sundsted, who has been involved in golf course management in his hometown for the past five years, said he began playing golf at age 12.

“I liked it better than baseball, so I decided to pursue a career in it.”

The freshman is a member of Northeast’s golf team coached by Pytleski.

“I love it here at Northeast,” said Sunsted whose hometown is a seven-hour drive away from Norfolk. “I’m happy here and ready to come back in the fall.”

This summer, Sundsted said he will do his required internship at the Spearfish golf course where he will be involved in the remodel of the course’s front nine holes – from propagating grass from scratch to weed control.