's highly regarded Environmental Horticulture Program will be in full, kaleidoscopic bloom beginning Friday during its popular Spring Plant Sale.
Over the years, the annual event has blossomed into more than just a plant sale. The sale also serves as the yearly celebration of the horticulture program’s success, very popular among the public, but important as well to current and former students and even the local industry.
“This is the culmination of probably a year’s worth of work,” says Don Marshall, head of the program for 33 years and the green thumb behind its success. “We only sell what we grow here. We don’t bring in more stock. People love the sale. We have a strong following. They come looking for the fun stuff.”
Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWIT) is a state-supported public school of higher education founded in 1949 to provide affordable professional and technical training. Its annual Spring Plant Sale is the living manifestation of the Horticulture Program's mission to be operated just like a business, so students get hands-on experience from planting seed to tending the plants to actually selling them.
The program "changed my life,” says David Martinez of Bonney Lake, an LWIT graduate and operator of a successful business, Artisanal Landscaping. “It taught me all the things I ever thought about, wondered about and dreamed about. It brought me full circle.”
Martinez showed up to help out at the sale, which opened Wednesday for LWIT employees. “Anything I can do to help Don,” he explains, “from being here to bringing materials.”
The sale is open to the public Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and again the same hours next Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5.
The LWIT greenhouses are jammed with colorful geraniums, daisies, asters, violets and fuchsias, and warm-weather herbs and vegetables such as basil and tomatoes. Outside are more hardy ornamentals and vegetables, such as marigolds, spinach, lettuce, onions and artichokes.
The roots of the LWIT Horticulture Program are set in sustainability, environmentally sound practices, innovation along with time-proven concepts, and strong connections with industry.
“Our whole philosophy is, if the industry is doing it, we’re doing it here,” Marshall explains. “For example, in spring, just like the industry, we can’t just shut the lights off on Friday and say, ‘Have a good weekend.’ We’re here on weekends taking care of the plants. We run this as a real-life business. There is a focus in the industry on sustainability, so we experiment with things like rainwater catchments. There is a real focus on using less chemicals and growing organically, and we’ve done that starting when I came here in 1979.”
LWIT annually grows hundreds of pounds of produce for food banks. Northwest Nurseries, just down 132nd Avenue from LWIT, shows up at the sale every spring and sells plants, with all proceeds going to full horticulture scholarships.
The sale, along with another in the fall, raises more than $90,000, and all proceeds go directly back into the program, paying for 1.5 full-time equivalent technical aide positions, supplies and equipment. “So it lowers the student/teacher ratio, which is important with the budget cuts public education now faces,” says Jen Boardman, one of those technical aides.
Also just like the industry does, LWIT experiments with new plant varieties. A new fuchsia available this year is a spectacular variety with striking red and black, bell-shaped blossoms called the Blackie. “They’re just gorgeous,” says Marshall.
Student Sonia Moore of Redmond, a native of Chile, says the fuchsias are grown from cuttings and tended lovingly. Beginning as seedlings, she explained, every two nodes are pinched repeatedly, resulting in a fuller plant resplendent with colorful blossoms.
“It’s very labor intensive,” she says. “Most nurseries don’t do that, they pinch once or twice. We are famous for the fuchsia baskets, for more than 30 years.”
Moore enrolled in the LWIT’s horticulture program to earn an Associate of Applied Science degree when she decided to change careers, and says people in the industry directed her to the school.
“I went to Molbaks and the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association, and they pointed out LWIT,” she says. “I feel so comfortable here. We grow all of our own plants. I get up every day at 5:30 and I’m happy. Don is a great mentor, he’s just fantastic.”
LWIT’s horticulture program is on the southwest corner of the campus in Kirkland, at 11605 132nd Avenue NE. For more about the plant sale, see the LWIT web pages by clicking here.