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This Maryland group is paying students to go into landscaping — and showing them it’s more than just cutting lawns

Nina Turnbaugh used to work in finance, but she realized in 2014 that she couldn’t take being holed up in a cubicle any longer.

So the single mom quit her job and got a gig in landscaping, hauling wheelbarrows of mulch and installing plants as a stopgap while she mulled over what she wanted to do next.

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Six years later, with her graduation from the American Landscape Institute at the Community College of Baltimore County on the horizon, the 34-year-old still is planting trees and flowers but now helps design where they go — and is set to make thousands more dollars than in her cubicle job while graduating with no student loan debt.

Turnbaugh benefited from a unique program designed to fill a shortage of skilled workers in the horticultural industry by getting Baltimore-area businesses to subsidize students’ education and show them that landscaping is so much more than just mowing lawns.

“They’re teaching us more than just how to create a pretty yard,” Turnbaugh said. “It’s all about sustainability, reducing our footprint on the earth and creating a great future for my son.”

Program leaders say it is among the first of its kind in the nation. While its footprint is still small — about 25 students have been brought into the industry within the past four years — organizers are optimistic the institute can grow and succeed.

Students who apply and are accepted to the American Landscape Institute enter a two-year “earn and learn” program at CCBC, getting 39 college credits while earning a paycheck from local horticultural businesses, said Martha Pindale, the institute’s executive secretary.

The businesses front about $6,750, paying 80% of student tuition and the program’s administrative costs. That doesn’t include money students earn for working while taking classes. Twelve businesses are currently supporting students, Pindale said.

When the classes are completed, graduates receive a certificate and a check from the American Landscape Institute for about $1,300, reimbursing them for the remaining 20% cost of the tuition.

“In some ways our program is too good to be true,” Pindale said.

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The horticultural industry accounts for more than 2 million jobs nationwide, nearly 51,000 in Maryland, according to data from AmericanHort. The field includes such jobs as landscape architect, plant grower and installation specialist.

But the industry struggles to recruit and combat the stigma that the industry only offers trade jobs. Just 61% of available jobs in the U.S. are filled, said Susan Yoder, executive director of Seed Your Future, a group that aims to promote horticulture.

“There is a need across the horticultural industries for qualified employees,” Yoder said.

Within the past several years, Yoder said, there’s been a push to get the industry to offer more educational opportunities and apprenticeship-type programs to bridge the gap. She said programs like the American Landscape Institute are rare but beginning to grow across the country.

“We’re most concerned about, who are these up-and-coming people that are going to be solving plant problems in the future?” Yoder said. “But we are finally starting to break barriers with programs like this.”

Growing up in Germany, American Landscape Institute founder Andreas Grothe said it was common for people to apprentice for several years to learn a craft. But when he came to the United States in 1988, Grothe found people associating trade work as “failure.”

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“I was surprised that there wasn’t a system in place that has a flow of employees,” Grothe said. “It’s the nut we haven’t cracked yet. [Horticulture is] a great industry, we just need new people. So I created something other programs don’t offer.”

Although Grothe owned a Parkton horticultural business, New World Gardens, he found himself wanting to do more to recruit new people for the profession.

As Grothe started researching what he could do, he discovered CCBC offered horticultural classes. After talking with college leaders, they formed a partnership offering some students the opportunity to take classes on campus and work at local businesses while receiving tuition assistance.

There were barely enough people to justify teaching horticultural classes before the American Landscape Institute partnership, said Bradley W. Thompson, the sustainable horticulture coordinator at CCBC. But now the college has been able to almost double its class size.

At the end of two years of class, the students receive a certificate for landscape installation, maintenance and design. Students could continue at CCBC for another year to earn their associate’s degree, though students will have to pay out of pocket.

The 14 required classes range from landscape graphics and pest management to soil and fertilizers.

Alex Wiitala works as the garden manager at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, responsible for more than 3,000 plants, flowers and trees. The 26-year-old orders new plants for the gardens every season and is tasked with day-to-day upkeep as well as installation.

During the warmer months, Wiitala weeds almost daily. And it’s through the classes she’s learned the right way to do it. Sometimes, a weed can’t just be pulled — it might need to be ripped from the ground with a special piece of equipment or sprayed with a chemical first.

“When I started the program I didn’t know any plant names," the Forest Hill native said. “Now I can name every single plant and tree at the mansion.”

When Grothe was first looking for local businesses to get involved it took almost no time to convince Roland Harvey, the owner of Natural Concerns, a landscape contractor in Glencoe.

This year, Harvey is supporting three students and has invested more than $50,000 with the American Landscape Institute program. He believes if he gives back to those in horticulture who want to learn more, it will help not just his industry but the Baltimore area as a whole.

“My mission is job opportunities, educational opportunities and environmental enhancements,” Harvey said. “By using ALI we are not only increasing job opportunities but increasing salaries so people are able to buy houses and support families.”

One of those people Harvey has helped is Kyle Mitchell, who dropped out of Virginia Tech after a year of studying engineering.

The now 24-year-old bounced from community college to community college trying to find his calling. A guidance counselor urged Mitchell to take a skills test to help narrow potential fields of work. That’s when landscape architecture popped onto his radar.

The Lutherville native connected with Harvey at Natural Concerns, learned about the American Landscape Institute and jumped at the opportunity to enroll. Now, it’s the first time in years he’s ever looked forward to an academic class.

“I never knew what I wanted in my life,” Mitchell said. “And the first year here, I finally knew this was for me.”

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Turnbaugh, the former finance worker, used to feel like she was “flying by the seat of her pants.”

Just a few months away from graduation, she confidently presented a final design for a mock client on the last day of the winter semester.

“For my shade plantings, I went with ferns because they’re low-maintenance,” Turnbaugh told her class. “And then hydrangeas on the side because then they have something to look at year-round.”

Local business owners, including her boss, peppered her with questions, wondering how the plants would hold up to rainfall or what kind of stone she planned to use for the new pathway. Turnbaugh answered them with ease.

“I finally found my niche,” she said. “This could be the rest of my life.”

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