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home : features : features February 5, 2016

3/27/2013 9:45:00 AM
Students grow green thumbs in Yavapai College classes
Yavapai College Horticulture teacher Justin Brereton shows some of the hydroponically grown lettuce at the college’s Chino Valley greenhouses.
TribPhoto/Heidi Dahms Foster
Yavapai College Horticulture teacher Justin Brereton shows some of the hydroponically grown lettuce at the college’s Chino Valley greenhouses.
TribPhoto/Heidi Dahms Foster
Rich Peterson grafts apple tree scions onto hardy rootstock in preparation for the Yavapai College Horticulture class’ Spring Plant Sale on May 4.
TribPhoto/Heidi Dahms Foster
Rich Peterson grafts apple tree scions onto hardy rootstock in preparation for the Yavapai College Horticulture class’ Spring Plant Sale on May 4.
TribPhoto/Heidi Dahms Foster

Heidi Dahms-Foster
Special to the Tribune

Anyone who has a penchant for plants can't help but grow excited in a greenhouse, and that's probably why Justin Brereton's horticulture courses at Yavapai College in Chino Valley are so popular.

Entering the Yavapai College greenhouses at the Ag Center at Old Home Manor in Chino Valley is stepping off a plane in Florida from "the snow up north." The warm moist air provides just the right climate for hydroponically-grown, succulent tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, and other vegetables, and for the colorful geraniums, petunias, and more being nurtured in an assortment of growing mediums for the college's plant sale in early May.

Many of Brereton's students are people from the surrounding area who want to add to their gardening knowledge, or who have agriculture businesses of their own and want to improve them.

Rich and Susan Peterson spent a recent Friday at the greenhouses as part of their "lab time." In the summer, they grow and sell vegetables at the Prescott Farmer's Market. Richard said he enjoys learning and trying different things, such as grafting new varieties of apple trees onto hardy rootstock to create apple trees that grow delicious fruit, and can better withstand disease and cold. He hovered over his newly-grafted, spindly trees like a scientist, envisioning the result of his labors.

Students grow pesticide-free crops in the greenhouse, but they use some commercial fertilizer on certain crops. Others are strictly organic.

In various student areas, peppers, tomatoes and herbs, the ingredients for salsa, are evident. That is because, at the end of his classes, students stage a salsa contest using the produce they've grown.

During the fall semester, student groups are given a budget and asked to design their own functioning hyroponics system. Brereton said the results are often so ingenious that he thinks some of them should market their designs.

"Usually, once students see how simple it is and what the different systems are structured like, the sky's the limit," he said.

Brereton said his typical students are adults, but he does get some high school juniors and seniors who are completing the agriculture program at their high schools. The classes run Wednesday evenings, with 15 students in Chino Valley and five in the Verde Valley, where the college runs a smaller greenhouse. Online components and lab hours complete the curriculum.

To complete their lab hours, students punch a time card and tackle a list of greenhouse housekeeping tasks and their own projects. Brereton said the greenhouse tasks are some of the same students would encounter in a commercial greenhouse.

"We go over all the industry basics - plant propagation from seeding, cuttings, cloning and grafting. We try to do a balance between what's done in the industry, what we can do differently, and how we can experiment," he said.

The greenhouse has modern climate and irrigation systems, so students who graduate the courses can move with those skills right into jobs in the horticulture industry.

"Our goal is to train students so they can get higher paying jobs in the industry and do something they love," Brereton said. In fact, some of his former students now work at the Color Spot commercial greenhouses just down the road.

Students also get a taste of what it is to grow and manage crops for sale. They produce hundreds of pounds of tomatoes during a season, along with lettuce and herbs, which they sell to some local restaurants. These restaurants don't count on the greenhouses as their sole provider of produce, because as a teaching area, it's prone to the occasional crop failure. It might take weeks to get a problem of disease or improper growing conditions, but students soon get things back on track and learn from their mishaps. And while the students can grow a lot of organic produce, Brereton also works with them to think about whether they can effectively market what they grow.

Brereton said the horticulture program is distinctive in that it can help support itself with plant sales. On Saturday, May 4 from 8 a.m. to noon, the students will sell everything from hanging baskets and potted flowers to all the items needed to start your spring garden. These include heirloom tomatoes, peppers, canteloupe, zucchini, grapes, berries and grafted apple trees suitable for Chino Valley's growing conditions. To reach the campus, take Perkinsville Road to Old Home Manor and look for the greenhouses.

Find information on the Horticulture Science 250 and 252 programs at www.yc.edu/ or by calling Yavapai College at 928-445-7300.

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