MARBLE FALLS — They were always “that close” to bringing home a first-place team trophy in FFA nursery and landscape competitions. Marble Falls High School students Liz Lane and Avery Marshall routinely finished in the top two or three positions in individual competitions but fell short of team honors.
“They were just missing that third score,” horticulture teacher Grant Cole said. “Over the past eight years, (Marble Falls High School) has kind of danced around the (state FFA) championship, but just didn’t get one.”
The FFA nursery and landscape competition sounds simple. Look at some plants, name them and then design a landscape. But it’s a much more difficult process.
“They have to identify about 120 to 130 plants,” Cole said. “And what’s so tough about it is they might get a twig of a plant, a part of the leaf or piece of bark. I know what a bald cypress looks like, I can identify it, but if you just give me a piece of bark, I don’t think I could. That’s what they do in this competition.”
After the plant identification, it’s on to the landscape practicum during which students receive a list of plants to design a landscape. They are also given a basic design format and must use geometry formulas to determine the layout. Then they have describe which plants they’d use and where they would put them.
“So if you have a south-facing area along the house that has shade, they have to pick plants for that area and even down to the height of the plants,” Cole added. “It’s pretty difficult.”
Marshall and Lane had demonstrated they each were among the best in the state, but what they wanted was a team title.
“So they basically went out and recruited another student,” Cole said.
The two nursery and landscape competition veterans tutored newcomer Holly Atkinson to get her ready for the competitions. Freshman Austin Green completed the four-person team.
While Cole gave the team a few minutes during classes to get ready for competitions, the bulk of the preparation fell outside of school. The team turned to a number of resources collected by former horticulture teacher Mike Chesnut.
“He really built a strong foundation,” Cole said of Chesnut. “The nursery and landscape competition, that was really his baby, I think. He had collected old quizzes, Power Points, anything to help students.”
This year’s team under the guidance of Marshall and Avery went to work. Cole found assistance at Backbone Valley Nursery, located outside of Marble Falls. Three of the staff — Jessica Robertson, Molly Pikarsky and Mary Kay Pope — came to the program’s aid at every turn, even allowing the team to practice at the nursery.
The Marble Falls squad entered several FFA nursery and landscape competitions, including one at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But when it mattered the most — district, area and state — the team flexed their muscles.
They finished first in both district and area competitions.
“In FFA competition at area, you compete against all the schools; they don’t divide you by the size of the school,” Cole said.
This included major schools from the Austin area.
The top five teams at area advanced to the Texas FFA Nursery Landscape Team competition April 29 at Sam Houston University in Huntsville.
While they were confident, the Marble Falls team was facing 49 other squads.
“It was the best of the best,” Cole said.
When the scores rolled in, Marshall and Lane did what was expected: They placed high as individuals. The only surprising thing might was that Marshall finished No. 1 while Lane was No. 4.
“Usually, it’s been Liz has finished in the top spot,” Cole said.
The only thing remaining was a third score from the team. In FFA team competition, officials base the rankings on a team’s top three scores.
On this day, it fell to Atkinson. She finished seventh in state. Her highest of the year.
“Holly has been improving every competition,” Cole said. “But this was big.”
Atkinson’s seventh-place finish secured the FFA Nursery Landscape team state championship for the Marble Falls squad.
“They worked so hard for this,” Cole said. “I’m so proud of them.”
The championship earns the team an invitation to the 2016 National FFA Convention on Oct. 18-22 in Indianapolis. Lane, who is graduating this spring, told Cole she plans to make the trip.
As for next year and the remaining team members repeating at state, it’s not going to happen.
“The FFA has a rule that if you win a state championship in one year, that team can’t compete in that competition the next year,” Cole said. “Prevents dynasties. But it also gives other kids a chance. Plus, if you win a championship in one event, it’s probably good that you try something else the next year.”