Owens Community College students and other volunteers show what PLANET Day of Service is all about

There’s nothing easy about clearing buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) from a long-neglected property. It’s hot, dirty work that’s best done by young, strong adults. And that’s exactly who tore into a badly overgrown section of the W.W. Knight Nature Preserve, Perrysburg, Ohio, this past April 20.

By afternoon’s end, this small group of volunteers had cleared this nasty patch of buckthorn at the W.W. Knight Nature Preserve in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Seven students from the Owens Community College Landscape and Turfgrass Management Program and three college instructors put in a day’s work clearing about a 7,500-square-foot section of the property. Three young volunteers from the Lucas County (Toledo) SITE program and several other adults sweated along with the Owens group on this unusually warm Friday.

This wasn’t your typical landscape project, if there is such a thing. It was one of hundreds of projects of various sizes and complexities across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico undertaken by green industry volunteers as part of the Fourth Annual PLANET Day of Service.

Tough day’s work

This particular group of volunteers was put together by Owens Community College instructors Chris Foley and Matt Ross in cooperation with Wood County (Ohio) Parks District. Equipped with hand tools, such as brush cutters, pruners and handsaws, the volunteers slashed and sawed their way through a tangled growth of ugly, thorny buckthorn shrubs. Some had trunks 4 inches in diameter and stood 20 feet tall.

For liability reasons the volunteers did not use chain saws.

“Using chain saws would have made the job a lot easier, but we did fine with what we had,” said Foley, associate professor of science, who heads the school’s three green industry programs. A month or so after the clearing, the property will be sprayed with an herbicide to make sure all of the invasive trees and weeds have been killed. The site can then be replanted with native plants more typical of the area. Faculty member Ross started teaching at Owens in 2008 and became a full-time faculty member in 2010 to direct the new Urban Agriculture Program.

The ultimate goal of the team’s April 20 exertions was to make the area behind the modern nature/education center at the W.W. Knight Nature Preserve more attractive and accessible to visitors.

“It was basically a grub out session,” said Foley in describing his team’s efforts. “There was a lot of buckthorn on the property. I’m guessing that more than 90 percent of what we removed was buckthorn.”

Polly Peterson, an adjunct faculty member who teaches math at Owens, helped out, too.

The other 10 percent? At least some of that was poison ivy. In fact, the group found one specimen measuring more than 2 inches in diameter climbing up a tree.

“So far we haven’t had any reports of anybody having a problem there,” said Foley several days after the event.

These students were part of the 16-student contingent that Foley and Ross oversaw at the March PLANET Student Career Days event at Kansas State University. They had a great experience, said Ross.

The Owens’ team won the “Spirit” award at the Manhattan, Kan., competition, which earned it a $1,000 prize toward next March’s Student Career Days at Auburn University.

“The students started cheering soon after they got there and they didn’t stop,” said Ross. “It was the most energetic, fun-loving group we’ve ever taken to Student Career Days. For the entire four days they were so busy that they were basically running around like crazy, like all of the other students there.”

A great experience

The educators were especially proud that their team finished with the third-highest score among the two-year educational institutions at the Kansas State event. Students from more than 60 schools competed there.

“What we’ve come to realize is that the more times a student goes to the event, they better they can compete,” said Ross. “The first time they go they don’t really know what to expect. When they get there some of them get that deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces. The event is that busy and exciting. It can be overwhelming if you’ve never attended one before.”

Owens Community College offers curricula that lead to associates degrees in landscape and turfgrass management, as well as golf course/athletic field management. The landscape program began in 1989 and Foley came aboard in 1990. The golf program started in 2008. The Urban Agriculture Certificate program began in the fall of 2011. The three programs are providing instruction to about 75 students this year.

Owens started as a technical institute in 1965 with about 200 students. Chartered by the Ohio Board of Regents in 1967, it has since grown to three locations offering education and training to approximately 19,000 students. About 40 percent are full-time students.

The college is named after Michael J. Owens (1859-1923), who, while working in a glass factory in Toledo, Ohio, invented machines that automated the production of glass bottles. This is the same Owens in Owens-Illinois, Owens Corning, Libby-Owens-Ford. To this day Toledo is often referred to as The Glass City.

Curtis Bechtel is graduating this semester from the Owens Landscape & Turf Management program.

The Owens’ students, their instructors and the SITE participants were among the approximately 2,600 volunteers overall that shared their expertise and efforts during the Day of Service.

This is a significant contribution for almost all of the participants. To students it means a day in the field, sweating and getting their hands dirty. For contractors, the annual event comes during their busiest time of the year. To them every hour lost in spring means lost revenue, much of which cannot be recovered.

The Professional Landcare Network, which schedules the volunteer effort as close as possible to April 22 Earth Day observances, estimates that this year’s Day of Service participants contributed almost $700,000 in materials and services during April 20.

Volunteer projects this year included landscaping elementary schools, city parks, monuments, playgrounds, group homes and senior citizen homes, as well as educating children on the benefits of the green industry.

Not every project was as ambitious or involved as many volunteers as the one at the W.W. Knight Nature Preserve. Eight miles northwest of that property, Julie David, OCNT, and two employees manhandled a large earth augur to plant about 30 small trees (including several native buckeye trees) at the Wolf Creek YMCA.

Earthwear owner Julie David, OCNT, (pink shirt) with employee/volunteers Chola Bertram, left, and Jodi Smith, center, at the Wolf Creek YMCA.

David, 31, is owner of Earthwear, the Toledo-based bed maintenance company she founded after earning her associate’s degree at Owens. She and her employees work on some of the most beautiful properties in northwest Ohio. Because of the early spring they have been incredibly busy with spring cleanups, she said.

David and her two employees teamed with naturalist Karen Soubeyrand and Katie Mantel of the Toledo Area Metroparks to plant the trees bordering what’s being developed as a nature walk on the YMCA property. They will later add assorted native plants grown by Ross’ Greenhouse Management class. The goal is to eventually use the trail to educate visitors, including the youngsters at the day care center located adjacent to the YMCA building, to nature and especially native plants.

For further information about any of the programs offered at Owens, Contact Chris Foley at [email protected] or Matt Ross at [email protected].

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 28 years. Contact him at [email protected].