Brian Oleksak, chair of the Landscape and Horticultural Technology program at County College of Morris, grew up getting his hands dirty in the family garden. “I think I knew at a very young age that I would go into this field,” he says.
Today, as a professional horticulturalist, his greatest environmental concern is the introduction of invasive species – both plants and insects – into North America. Some culprits include Japanese stilt grass, the now-familiar Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, the Emerald Ash Borer and the Asian Longhorn Beetle.
Horticultural professionals stand at the forefront of fighting these invaders through education and coordination with government agencies.
“These species come in shipping wood or packing materials,” says Oleksak. “Once shipped into the country, they can gain a foothold in the landscape. New Jersey has a large volume of international shipping entering through its ports. We’re ground zero for many invasive species.”
It’s not hopeless, however. When Asian Longhorn beetles came into the country a few years back, government agencies and private horticulturalists banded together in an educational campaign to eradicate them. “We had landscapers and homeowners look for the beetles,” says Oleksak. “The New Jersey Department of Agriculture took the lead and quarantined them. Scientists were sent in to triage the area. Trees were removed where the beetle was positively identified, then chipped and incinerated. Field agents monitored areas to ensure that the beetle didn’t spread. It was a great success story for New Jersey.”
Education is important in horticulture, not only for preserving but also for appreciating the environment. “The most rewarding aspect of teaching is the number of people who tell me that their studies here provided a life-changing moment for them,” says Oleksak. He notes that those who are typically drawn to the field have a concern for the environment, so they’re working with like-minded people.
“We have natural resources that are potentially being threatened at various levels including water, topsoil and native species. I challenge students to look in the newspaper every day to find ecologically relevant stories,” he says “The population is increasing and areas are being developed that will be challenged environmentally. Horticulturalists will play an important role on the front lines of defending and maintaining our environment.”