Horticulture professor goes back to school

Students at FSC—and, particularly in the Urban Horticulture and Design Department—have always dedicated themselves to community service. Now it’s clear that their commitment is, well, growing.

A contingent of 17 students from the department gathered together to work on a literally get-your-hands-dirty project—helping to create a wildlife habitat at Howitt Middle School in the Village of Farmingdale. The concept was developed by associate professor Michael Veracka, who wanted his students to benefit from a robust applied learning experience. Professor Veracka had a vision. He wanted to create a project that would benefit his students with a robust applied learning experience.


At Farmingdale, applied learning—real-world, hands-on experience that takes place outside the classroom—has become an essential element of the education students receive at the College. In Veracka’s case, applied learning meant gathering 17 students to work on this intriguing project.

The expertise of the FSC volunteers linked nicely with the middle school’s desire to develop a sustainable landscape that would be environmentally friendly, and serve as a creative learning space for the Howitt students. It was supported with funding obtained through a grant Veracka wrote himself, and then required countless hours in prep work invested by him and his team.

“Coming up with a concept for the design was the most challenging part,” says Stephen Montgomery, one of the student volunteers; he graduated with a degree in Landscape Development in Spring 2019, shortly after the project was completed. “I wanted to make the space as appealing to the eye as possible, while keeping it a useable space and incorporating multiple sustainable aspects.”

Work at the school began in Fall 2017, when the FSC group conducted field research and created preliminary designs, which were later consolidated into one grand scheme. Howitt staff and students also were personally involved, helping procure plants and learning proper planting techniques. The project was an ambitious one, turning out better than anyone anticipated—except for maybe the irrepressible Veracka and his diligent students.

Once their vision became reality they were ecstatic with the results and so was the middle school. “Michael Veracka’s extensive knowledge, professional guidance, and dedication to seeing this project to fruition have been inspirational to all involved,” says Luis Pena, Howitt’s principal. “He has been an invaluable resource and a friend to all. We have been so fortunate to know him, and feel a very deep sense of gratitude for all he has done for our school community.”

The habitat is an environmentally safe space for native insects, birds, butterflies, pollinators, and small wildlife. The garden includes paths and beds; a seating area where lessons are conducted and students and staff gather to reflect on nature; dogwoods, birch trees, berry bushes, native grasses, perennials such as milkweed and coneflower, and a butterfly bush. No synthetic herbicides, fertilizers or pesticides are used.

“This project aligns with the mission of Farmingdale State College,” Veracka says. “The idea is to promote beyond-the-classroom scholarship, research activities, and services that provide a stimulating environment that enhances student learning and teaching, and benefits the larger society.”

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