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Mowing and Trimming Their Way to Gold

57 Collegiate Teams Compete at U-Md. in National Landscaper Olympics

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B03

Eric Crist and Joshua Miller had just two hours, 13 pieces of wood and a box of tools to build a planter box. With 20 minutes left to go, it seemed the two were on track for a fast finish.

That is until Crist slashed into the cord of his electric saw while cutting a piece of wood.

Rebecca Maynard of North Metro Technical College in Atlanta finishes an event that involved climbing safely to bells scattered on limbs throughout a tree. (Photos Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)

Crist and Miller, aspiring landscapers who were representing the University of Maryland's College park, weren't ready to concede defeat to the 49 other pairs of students competing. So they spliced the wires, then wrapped the cord with a plastic sandwich bag until the saw started buzzing again. Still, the damage was done. When the judge turned off the generators to signal the end of the competition, Crist and Miller had several more pieces of wood to nail into the box. They dropped their tools, looking dejected.

"Man, that three or four minutes nailed them. They would have been done," said one observer. "Good rebound, though," said another.

"It was frustrating," said Crist, a 22-year-old senior and landscape management major. "It was kind of a morale buster. I thought we could have finished otherwise."

Such was the intensity of the 29th annual National College Landscaping Competition -- dubbed the Landscaper Olympics by organizers -- which started on Saturday and ends today . Held for the first time at the U-Md., the event drew 850 students from 57 colleges and universities throughout the country to climb trees, mow lawns, design irrigation systems, and install pavement, among other things. The winners of individual contests will be announced today , and one school will take the grand prize -- $5,000.

But the students aren't just competing for titles. They are also competing for jobs. Or, to be more exact, the more than 60 landscaping companies that sponsored the event are competing for the students. That's because landscaping is a booming business these days, particularly in the Washington region, where the building of planned communities and office complexes has driven the need for tidy lawns and sturdy patios and porches. The rise of dual-income families has also sparked a need for landscapers as more and more people hire professionals to take care of their lawns rather than spend their free time doing it themselves.

"For the design world, this area is hot," said Steven M. Cohan, a U-Md. landscape management professor. "There is constant building going on, commercial and residential."

Gone are the days when landscapers ran small businesses from their pickup trucks. Landscaping is now done by multi-million dollar corporations.

"The landscaping business is in a double-digit growth period right now," said John Keeler, national training manager for STIHL, a Virginia Beach-based company that sponsored the competition. "Green is good these days."

What is not good is that the nation's universities have not been able to graduate enough landscaping students to keep up with the demand, making events such as this week's competition particularly important for the industry.

Professional Landcare Network, one of the sponsors of the event, said it is conducting a study to get a better handle on just how fast the industry is growing.

Dozens of recruiters peppered the crowds of people watching events such as the tree climbing competition, or as the organizers called it, the arboriculture technique event.

While Eric Katzer, a 22-year-old Kansas State University student, stood at the base of a willow oak, his 26-year-old classmate Josh Murray climbed 40-feet to one of its limbs, with a yellow rope made of polyester and nylon wrapped around his waist. Within 12 minutes, he had to climb onto two other limbs without cracking them, show that he could use such equipment as a handsaw, them climb back down. The pair did it in just over 9 minutes.

"It's intimidating," Murray said. "It doesn't feel natural. You just have to learn to trust the rope and the tree."

But the two said they love doing it anyway. Someday, they said, they hope to be pruning trees and removing dead wood for a living. "Get up in a tree and you'll see why," Katzer said. "It's addicting."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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