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March landscape madness, baby!

April 23, 2019 -  By
Photo: Seth Jones

Seth Jones

College basketball is my favorite sport, and the Kansas Jayhawks are my team. It’s rare for me to miss a game — I’ll even record games when I’m traveling for business. When March Madness rolls around, my TV watching increases exponentially. It doesn’t matter what teams are playing — I’m taking it all in.

For the last several years, I’ve taken vacation days for the first two days of March Madness. I open the garage doors (I convert my garage into a man cave every spring) and watch hoops from 10:45 a.m. until the last game ends around midnight. I revel in having multiple games on multiple channels.

But this year, I broke my streak of taking a March Madness staycation. I tried to forewarn my friends who come over, but I can still imagine someone pulled up to my house with a six-pack in the passenger seat, then quietly cussed and drove off when they saw the garage doors were closed. Instead I joined LM Publisher Bill Roddy, and we went and saw a different kind of March Madness — the landscape industry’s version — the National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC), hosted by the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

The event was in Fort Collins, Colo., a fantastic college town, and Bill promised it would be a fruitful trip. The NCLC delivered on that promise. I went in not knowing what to expect. I walked away charged up about the landscape industry, invigorated by the energy of all the young college students so excited to join this great industry.

It got off to a fun start when all the attendees packed the Lincoln Center on Colorado State University’s campus. Some 800-plus students from 60-plus universities and colleges filled the auditorium, and the vibe was legit. Each college took turns doing a chant showing off their school spirit, giving the opening ceremony the feeling of pregame tipoff at the NCAA tournament. March (landscape) madness, baby!

From there, students were challenged in all the various intricacies of the landscaping profession, including business management, plant problem diagnosis, computer-aided landscape design, tractor loader backhoe operation and more. The moment that drove it home for me that this was like college finals mixed with job interviews was when Bill and I rolled back into the hotel after a few postevent meetings at the various breweries that Fort Collins is well known for. At our hotel were six drowsy college students from Eastern Kentucky University, paperwork strewn about the table, quizzing each other as they sipped coffee.

I talked to Lee Ivy, senior lecturer, horticultural science, at North Carolina State University, about the importance of the event to his students. Ivy was a participant in NCLC as a student in 1997-98, and now he’s the one bringing students and training them on how to succeed there.

“The exposure to the industry — you’ve got all these industry people here committed to helping these students advance and take the next step — for that, it’s worth it,” Ivy told me. “There’s so many jobs out there right now, and they’re building relationships. While they’re here, they’re getting a supporter, a cheerleader, a mentor, on their side.”

I spoke with one of those supporters, Roger Phelps, corporate communications manager for Stihl, as the 800 students filed out of the Lincoln Center. Stihl serves as the platinum sponsor for the event, and the reason why was clear for Phelps.

“The future of the industry was sitting right here in this room,” Phelps said. “As an industry, we need to show these young people that not only is there a career for them, not only can they take whatever their skill set is and apply it, but that the industry is going to stand behind them.”

John Janes of Caterpillar reaffirmed that as we were watching the students navigate the skid-steer challenge course together.

“We were talking to a young woman yesterday — she graduates this year,” Janes said. “We talked to her about what her career aspirations are. She said the first decision she has to make is which of 10 job offers she wants to select.”

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