Early Exposure

A landscape design course for Ohio middle schoolers could open new doors to the profession.

By Jared Brey

Students in an Ohio middle school class learn to plot out their own backyards and how to grow their own food. Photo by Haley Masey.

Scott Mental is a sculptor and middle school teacher from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a southeast suburb of Cleveland. Mental now lives and works about 65 miles due north of Columbus in a place called Bucyrus, which the mayor likes to call “the small city in the middle of everywhere.”

Between Chagrin Falls and Bucyrus, Mental made a few pit stops. In 2007, he earned a bachelor of fine arts in sculpture from Northern Michigan University. He stayed there until 2009 to work on a master’s in public administration, which he finished in 2010. Then he got an MFA in sculpture from the University of South Carolina in 2012 and, finally, a master’s in art education from Case Western Reserve University in 2015. At Bucyrus Middle School, where he has worked since 2015, his range of activities has not narrowed: He teaches art, coaches football and baseball, and advises both the art club and the yearbook committee.

In 2017, after the Bucyrus City Schools administration invited its staff to propose their own curricula for elective courses, Mental began leading a course in landscape design for seventh and eighth graders.
Though he once had a job building trails in North Cascades National Park, in Washington, Mental says the course grew only out of his own interest in gardening, and not from any formal training or education.

“I don’t want to say I reinvented the wheel, but it was starting from scratch,” he says.

The course offers Bucyrus students the basics in plant identification and maintenance, training with garden tools, and rudimentary color theory. Designwise, Mental pulls on his art education. “There are three basic premises,” he says. Students learn to “break the scape” using curvilinear lines in their planting beds. They learn to plant in tiers, to “move the viewer’s eye from the ground up to a house or a wall or a tree.” And they learn to group plants in odd-numbered clusters, because, Mental says, “the human eye will always try to pair things together.”

Mental says he started gardening when he was around five years old, planting flowers and pulling weeds with his grandmother, who died earlier this year. He also spent a summer building trails and designing flower beds at South Chagrin Reservation, in the Cleveland Metroparks system. He didn’t know of any other middle schools with a course in landscape design, so he made up the curriculum on his own and, to make sure he wasn’t missing anything critical, he called up Laura Deeter, a professor of landscape horticulture and horticultural science at the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Deeter says she was impressed, and that his curriculum pretty much had it covered from the get-go.

Ohio ASLA members say exposing younger students to landscape architecture could help the discipline become more diverse. Photo by Scott Mental.

“He’s got them growing plants in greenhouses, and he’s got them outside digging,” Deeter says. “He just wants to get a group of kids that doesn’t get an opportunity to get out a whole lot an opportunity to get outside and do some physical work.” High school horticulture and botany classes are fairly common, but Deeter says she’s never heard of anyone offering such an elective to middle schoolers. “I’m kind of jealous I didn’t get the opportunity to take this class when I was in middle school,” she says.

Mental’s landscape design class doesn’t seem to be in a class entirely of its own. Paul Revere Charter Middle School and Magnet Center in Los Angeles offers an elective in horticulture/floristry/landscape design/environmental studies. Lincoln Middle School in Alameda, California, offers outdoor development, where students manage a nature area on the campus and learn how to plant and maintain a garden. Chippewa Middle School in Okemos, Michigan, offers an introduction to horticulture class, where students care for plant beds around the school campus.

But it does seem rare. Landscape architects find the profession in various ways, but few are exposed to it so young. Chris Laster, ASLA, the president-elect and vice president of communications at the Ohio Chapter of ASLA (OCASLA), remembers sitting in on a high school study hall just so he could hang out with his girlfriend when he came across a passing reference to landscape architecture and decided that’s what he wanted to pursue. Kari Hiatt, ASLA, a land development specialist with the City of Columbus and OCASLA’s vice president of education and membership, says she found landscape architecture “kind of by accident” as well, in the course of researching master’s programs.

“I think that it’s a pretty unknown profession, and because the field is so broad, I think sometimes it’s tricky to teach the younger generations about it,” Hiatt says.

Both Hiatt and Laster say that exposing younger students to landscape architecture would likely serve the profession’s urgent need to diversify in the long run. OCASLA has had discussions about creating education programs geared toward younger students, Hiatt says, but so far, it hasn’t known where to start.

At Bucyrus Middle School, Mental’s students are working on improving the campus, and even designing new flower beds for a war memorial across the street from the school. Mental is also developing a greenhouse, which the school hasn’t had in 20 years, says Mark Burke, the secondary school principal at Bucyrus City Schools. Bucyrus is a “very impoverished area,” Burke says. According to census estimates, the median household income is $38,272, and 18.2 percent of the population lives in poverty. Two-thirds of the district’s elementary school students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

“We definitely have kids that come from a lot of need,” Burke says. “When they come to school, this is where they get their experiences.”

According to the state’s department of education, just 40 percent of 2015 graduates from Bucyrus City Schools entered college within two years of completing high school, and less than 20 percent of 2011 graduates completed college within six years. But at Bucyrus Middle School, the landscape design class is in high demand. So many students signed up in the first year it was offered that it was split into two courses for the second year, Mental says.

“They’re middle school kids,” Mental says. “There’s some that are going to sit there and play video games all day, and there’s other ones that want to use their hands.… Most of our kids are looking at factory jobs or blue-collar work, and there does happen to be a lot of landscaping companies [in the area], so this is another career path opportunity that they can get into.”

Another benefit of the class is that it gives students skills to grow their own fresh food at home, Mental says. In one exercise, students plot out their own backyards to scale, noting which parts have hardscape or softscape and developing a plan for how they would redesign the landscape on a certain budget. Students who take to the practice can follow up with botany and horticulture classes offered at the high school.

Burke says he’s been impressed with the results. “[Mental] is talking not only about the look of the tree and the shape of the tree, but the health of the tree. And I think kids have never had the chance to hear that, and so they buy into it and are really engaged in what he’s talking about.”

Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia. Reach him at jaredbrey@gmail.com.

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