Cathie Lavis’s classroom is outside.
Lavis, a horticulture professor at K-State, spends much of her time working with plants in the great outdoors, and her students get hands on lessons in caring for nature.
“They’re very much out in the field, getting dirty,” Lavis said.
Lavis, who also helps advise the Horticulture Club and heads up the Tree Campus USA initiative, has made it one of her goals to educate people on the importance of trees and other plants to the ecosystem.
Lavis fell into horticulture almost by coincidence. Lavis had studied at K-State but received a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Oklahoma State University and was living in Texas when she saw a sign that pointed her to the next step of her career.
“It was very serendipitous,” she said. “I saw a garden center sign. I went home and opened the yellow pages and sent resumes to every garden center in Bryan-College Station, Texas.”
She managed a garden center there and got a crash course in horticulture until she moved back to Manhattan in the early 90s. She worked as a graduate assistant and then as an instructor. She earned her doctorate from K-State in 2005 and is now a professor. She teaches arboriculture (the study of the cultivation of trees) and landscape irrigation among other classes in the horticulture department.
Hands-on lessons are key to an area like horticulture, and Lavis’s students maintain gardens outside of Throckmorton Hall. Students plant bulbs and shrubs and learn to operate various pieces of equipment.
Lavis has her students install a residential irrigation system every semester but will not do that this fall in case the university needs to send students home again in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Lavis said she thinks the pandemic highlighted the importance of having outdoor spaces for people to walk and spend time. While most businesses were closed, people increasingly turned to the parks to get out of the house.
“There was not enough green space in our urban environments,” she said.
Aside from teaching, Lavis also cares for residential gardens and landscapes in the area. She said she enjoys the process of “pruning, plucking and primping,” she doesn’t mind pulling weeds and especially enjoys pruning shrubs.
She said she feels this gives her some credibility with students because they can see that she has a practical knowledge of the subject she’s teaching.
“The students know I walk my talk,” she said.
Lavis also helps prepare students for the annual National Collegiate Landscape Competition, where they can show off their knowledge and connect with professionals in the industry.
One of Lavis’s biggest projects has been Tree Campus USA. The Arbor Day Foundation program encourages colleges to promote trees and conservation.
Lavis spearheaded the effort to earn the Tree Campus USA designation, which K-State first received in 2013. The program asks schools to form a tree advisory committee and a plan for caring for the campus trees, in addition to conducting educational programs. Lavis and students have installed educational signs near trees on campus and have made a plan to prepare and respond any potential emerald ash borer infestations.
The beetles can destroy ash trees.
Lavis, 65, said promoting education, replanting and care is valuable because of the important role trees play in the ecosystem. Trees provide oxygen but also filter pollutants, help maintain proper soil moisture and prevent soil erosion, and give a home to wildlife.
“Without our trees, we’re in trouble,” she said.
On a more personal level, Lavis said being in nature is a relaxing experience and a pleasant way to steps away from the stresses of life.
“It’s very therapeutic,” she said. “Ten minutes after you’re outside, you think, ‘Wait, what was I worried about?’”