by NATHAN KELLY and MARY CATHERINE GASTON
Visit the campus of Fayetteville High School in Talladega County, and what you find may surprise you. Far from the typical public K-12 campus, Fayetteville’s grounds are a real-life wonderland designed to extend learning opportunities outside the school’s doors.
Among the many features of the campus are a boardwalk over a wetland, a tree grove where students learn to identify various species, a rain garden, a human sundial, a bird sanctuary and a sensory garden. More than a dozen other features have transformed the school’s 17 acres into outdoor classrooms for students from primary grades to high school.
All of this was imagined and installed by five students in the first class of a new public horticulture graduate certificate program in Auburn’s Department of Horticulture. Though there are half a dozen public horticulture bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S. and master’s degrees in public gardening, Auburn is home to the only graduate certificate program in the nation.
Public horticulture is the art and science of cultivating plants in spaces for public use and entertainment. Many classic examples of public horticulture exist in theme parks. Teams of public horticulturists beautify the grounds of famous parks like Disneyland, Disney World, Six Flags over Georgia and Busch Gardens.
It’s a profession for people who truly enjoy the art of gardening, says Joe Eakes, professor in Auburn’s Department of Horticulture and director of the graduate program.
“You can find public horticulture almost anywhere if you know what you’re looking for,” Eakes says. “You can drive around Auburn and see museums, monuments, cemeteries and the arboretum, all local examples of public horticulture.”
The public horticulture graduate certificate program at Auburn began as a project funded by Jimmy Pursell, who offered to take care of all expenses related to the program’s first project at Fayetteville High School.
Pursell, now retired, was co-owner of Pursell Farms and founder of the renowned FarmLinks Golf Club in Fayetteville. The 1952 Auburn business graduate is an active philanthropist and supporter of his alma mater.
Approved by Auburn trustees in 2013, the graduate certificate program currently has 13 students enrolled and also boasts four alumni. Ann Fleener, the first to complete the program and the lead student in the Fayetteville school project, is now director of education at Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The curriculum takes at least seven semesters to complete and gives students international experience in places like Japan, Italy and Holland. There is also opportunity for domestic travel to Philadelphia, which Eakes calls “the cradle of public horticulture.”
“This isn’t a program for lab rats,” Eakes says. “It’s more for students who love to garden and share information about gardening. It’s in the field of public outreach, after all.”
Eakes adds that the certificate program is a golden opportunity for students who hope to land jobs in Extension.
“One of the more common complaints I hear from my students is the required experience that Extension jobs are looking for,” he says. “Many students can’t get an Extension job right out of college because the opportunities for experience are limited. This program will give you a head start with that experience.”
Learn more about Auburn University’s graduate certificate in public horticulture here.