Published on 04/09/04

UGA helps create course for garden center workers

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

The demand for well-trained people at nurseries and home garden centers has grown greatly in recent years. And the world's largest home improvement retailer has turned to the University of Georgia for its horticulture training needs.

Home Depot partnered with 17 professors, extension specialists and extension agents from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Together, they developed an interactive, computer-based lawn and garden training for store employees that meets or exceeds most state-level nursery certification programs.

The course includes eight 2-hour classes of interactive education. Exams cover topics from horticulture fundamentals to landscaping design.

"One aspect of this that's unique is that it's interactive. It's not just studying a manual and taking a test," said David Berle, a UGA horticulture professor who worked on the project.

"This program serves Home Depot nationwide," said Bob Jacobson, senior director of live goods for Home Depot, who also worked on the project.

More than 1,700 Home Depot workers have completed the course. Another 4,000 are taking it.

"We still support and use state programs," he said. "But we didn't have those opportunities available across the board. And we wanted experts to make sure we were doing the right thing. In terms of ornamental horticulture, UGA is probably the best school in the world."

Horticultural training demands have grown so much, Berle said, partly because the green industry itself (greenhouse, nursery and turf growers, landscapers, retail garden centers and others) has grown so much.

"This is my 18th year with the Georgia Green Industry Association and I've seen it grow from a seasonal to an all- year, hard-as-you-can-work operation," GGIA president Sherry Loudermilk said.

"Nurseries exploded in the 1970s," she said. "And landscaping really took off in the 1980s. Plant palettes have gone from 25 to 30 plants to 3,000 to 4,000 plants."

The green industry has an estimated $4.2 billion yearly impact in Georgia alone, according to the UGA Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture. The National Gardening Association reports U.S. lawn and garden sales at $38.4 billion in 2003.

The demand for qualified workers has grown with the industry.

"It used to be that if you had a pickup truck and called yourself a landscaper, folks would do what you said," said Wayne P. Juers, vice president of Pike Family Nurseries in Atlanta.

"But the public has gotten so savvy about gardening and landscaping, they want horticulturists," Juers said.

(Cat Holmes is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.