PHOTO COURTESY OF HALEY PETERSON

The one class that changed Haley Peterson’s life was a last-minute addition to her schedule. Had she chosen differently, it’s largely possible she would be studying to become a teacher, not a landscape designer. When she was a senior at Pekin Community High School in Illinois, Peterson figured “What the heck?” and squeezed a hands-on landscaping class into her schedule. She had no idea it would spark an interest that grew strong enough for her to change from education into her current major of horticulture landscape management at Illinois Community College (ICC).

Now approaching her final semester at the two-year school located less than a half hour from her home, Peterson is thankful for that high school class. She fell in love with the project she and a classmate spearheaded, which was a plan to beautify a dirt patch on school property. The class assignment involved budgeting, drawing plans and executing their landscape design. They created a 3-D model and a computer-assisted drawing sketch, then pitched the idea for eventual approval to the school board. Once that was completed, Peterson and her partner even implemented the designs on the school campus, where it still stands today.

The project was Peterson’s first experience working in landscaping, let alone planning and completing an entire project.

“It meant a lot because I was shocked [my teacher] put so much trust in me and my classmate, who was my partner in it,” Peterson says. “He kind of let us run the show. We just approved everything through him. He guided us through and made us do all the work, so it just got my foot in the door.”

Even today, Peterson prefers hands-on experiences outside a classroom, which includes her maintenance job with the greenhouse on campus and various laboratories, and trips and seminars the horticulture club attends. Though she completed her final season this fall, Peterson even balanced her classwork and related activities with a spot on the ICC volleyball team. This proved to be difficult when she’d be away for tournaments on most weekends, plus the practices and weekday games cut into how much time she had to work on post-class activities.

Still, Peterson says she’s glad she learned to handle a stressful, busy schedule because it will help her after graduation. “Some days were long days, but I got through it and there’s nothing I regret,” Peterson says. “It was the greatest time of my life.”

Peterson says she intends to take at least a year off school to work professionally, or she’ll transfer from ICC to a larger school to obtain a bachelor’s degree. She’s interested in Southern Illinois University, roughly four hours south of ICC.

For students who are interested in horticulture, Peterson recommends they extensively research the career path and consider all the different possibilities. ICC alone offers two variations of a horticulture degree, including Peterson’s choice that focuses on landscape management. The other is turfgrass management, which deals more with the lawn and golf industries.

Options are out there, Peterson says, but it was only a few years ago that she didn’t know they existed in horticulture.

“You should have a general idea of what this field’s about and what you’ll be asked to do,” Peterson says. “If they’re not up for that calling, then maybe they can do a different field within (horticulture), but there’s specifics they’ve got to figure out. You’ve just got to figure out what you like.”

Jimmy is assistant editor of sister publication Lawn & Landscape magazine.