One with nature

From the forests to the trails to the classroom, Phil Allen inspires tomorrow’s leaders to raise the bar for the industry.

Phil Allen describes a moment when he knew he had found his sweet spot as a green industry educator. It happened while he was guiding a group of students from his arboriculture class on a snowshoe hike to the largest white fir tree in the world, which happens to be close to Brigham Young University’s Provo, Utah, campus.

Allen, a rugged outdoorsman who calls wild plants his friends and the rocky-desert of southern Utah his home base, can be found most weekends climbing cliffs, running miles on scenic trails and hiking the region’s extreme landscapes.

“I’m teaching all my classes in rooms without windows this year – I need to have my outdoors time,” says Dr. Allen, program leader for the landscape management degree at BYU.

Allen and the students began this particular hike at dusk, edging up a steep mountain trail in the cold. The conditions weren’t cushy. “But there is always a lot of laughter and camaraderie,” he says.

After ascending the mountain, the group arrived at a large, clear meadow a few hundred yards from the fir tree. It was dark. “The stars were bright and everyone looked up and became silent, even reverent,” Allen says. “As I looked around these students – kids I have really come to love – I knew that I had the most perfect job on Earth.”

During these times, Dr. Allen is Phil, says Charley Schreiber, 29, a senior at BYU. Experiencing Phil in his essence invariably occurs while communing with nature, or taking it on with wild abandon by foot, bike, kayak. And, students get to know Phil during hands-on activities, such as participating in PLANET’s Student Career Days.

“He loves to teach, to help people improve,” Schreiber says. “When you get to see him outside of the classroom doing what he loves, his passion is real. He’s not just talk.”

The stuff Allen does in his spare time (like cycling the French Pyrenees, backpacking the 217-mile John Muir Trail and going on 50-mile trail runs) involves taking the great outdoors to an awesome level. When asked how he spent a day off, he shares that he took a nine-hour hike up a mountain near an ecological restoration plot. “The view from 10,000-plus feet was spectacular,” he says. Now refreshed, he was ready to return to the classroom for winter semester.

Allen brings this passion for the outdoors into the classroom where he helps to raise future leaders of this industry.

“As educators, we have to understand that this is not just about horticulture anymore,” he says. “In the green industry, there is prime opportunity for people who combine horticulture with people skills and business knowledge.”

For Allen, his purpose as an educator comes down to this: “We’re putting as many students as possible into an industry that we love.”

Growing leaders. Before returning to his alma mater to teach, Allen thought about his own teachers, and the handful that had changed his life.

“They were the ones who were super-difficult,” he says. “But at the same time, they combined that challenge and rigor with the belief that I had potential.”

So Allen drives students to dig deeper. “He pushes me to learn more, to understand more and be a better person when it comes to the career I’ll have when I leave BYU,” Schreiber says. “He wants us to be prepared.”

This desire to prepare – to really give students an industry edge before they don the cap and gown – is exactly what compelled Allen to take a serious look at the BYU landscape management program and retool it. Allen draws parallels between remodeling the program to meet today’s green industry demands and the book “Good to Great.”

“In our own program, those were the same steps we took: determining what we could be the best at, and shedding the rest,” he says. “We focused on that (accreditation) and we’re passionate about the industry.”

PLANET’s accreditation is the only nationally recognized endorsement for universities with landscape/horticulture curricula. Only a handful of nation’s schools have earned the recognition.

The designation comes as much from the school’s students as its professors and administrators.

“They want to see what your (student landscape) club is like, they want to see what your students are involved in,” Allen says.

What they found at BYU was a group of engaged students who get their hands dirty, work alongside campus grounds crews and learn how to succeed in the field.

Phil Allen shares his passion for the outdoors with students.

That’s because Allen focuses on giving students experiences that will help them make choices about their career and learn from the best. For example, Allen’s arboriculture students can join the campus tree crew, led by a world-class arborist who was the International Society of Arboriculture’s man of the year. “The kids become qualified to pass the ISA’s certification exam, and we have 100-percent passing rate on that exam,” Allen says, proud.

BYU also has the only program where students complete PLANET’s landscape industry certified manager exam before graduation. “We did that as a capstone exit exam to measure their progress in the different sections of that exam,” Allen says, noting that he’s working to improve the passing rate each year.

Meanwhile, at BYU’s business school, there is a dedicated faculty position for landscape management. They graduate with a business minor. “That is what industry professionals have told us they would like to see in kids if they are going to have a lifetime career in the landscape industry – they need a business backing,” he says.

Allen’s “kids” leave the university ready to work. “Even in a down economy, every one of our students who has pursued employment has found it,” Allen says. In a way, this is Allen’s grade. And it’s outstanding.

Perhaps that’s because Allen dives right into the trenches with students as they learn. “He is a master motivator,” says Greg Jolley, a landscape architect professor who has watched Allen interact with students for the nine years they have worked together at BYU. “He is not afraid to go out and get his hands dirty with the students and help them learn.”

At PLANET’s Student Career Days, the BYU team usually places, and in 2011 the students took first place. “Our No. 1 priority at Career Days is to network,” Allen says. “We would share every bit of study material with any other school that wants it. In fact, we are working with PLANET to put that on their website. We are successful, and we have a system that works – and we are willing to share that with anyone.”

Meanwhile, Allen puts his own industry knowledge to the test, challenging himself to constantly learn and grow as a professor. He took and passed the landscape contractor industry certified exam (LCIM). “Even though he has his Ph.D., he has learned the business of this industry,” Jolley says, adding that he is a tireless advocate for students.

He tries to show them what the world can offer. “Most weekends, Phil is probably on a hike with a student or group of students, usually in the mountains somewhere around Utah,” Jolley says.

Allen shares this same enthusiasm for nature with members of the industry. The people in this industry are what make teaching its future leaders, and working alongside its professionals, so exhilarating for Allen.

Horticulture is about plants and people. “Take the people out of it and you have botany,” Allen says.

Balancing nature. At Rock Canyon, an ecological restoration with a trailhead next to campus, Allen has been working to re-introduce the region’s natural habitat. It’s a 64-acre expanse with rugged rock-climbing cliffs. Allen brings in volunteers to plant wildflowers.

“A lot of people have powerful changes in their lives by working in nature,” he says, sharing that individuals serving court-ordered volunteer hours have found inspiration in the work. They are, in every sense, planting new seeds. “Just seeing that there is something (to do) other than what got them into trouble is a great experience,” Allen says.

Phil Allen retooled BYU’s landscape management program to better prepare students for life after school.

The Rock Canyon project was born out of some demonstration gardens Allen and colleagues at his local chapter of the Native Plant Society created. The city of Provo contacted the society and Allen suggested that a trailhead next to campus needed restoration. Eventually, an agreement formed between the city, BYU and forestry services.

It’s a work in progress, always will be. “It’s exciting watching the transition – it will never be completed,” Allen says, noting how the support of volunteers is keeping the project in perpetual motion.

A similar ongoing pursuit takes place at home, in Allen’s yard. It’s about one-fifth of an acre in size, but 150 trees grow there among countless wildflowers. It’s a canyon landscape that thrives on the little rain the region receives, and a little help from a run-off system he engineered for the roof. There is only one plant in Allen’s front yard that requires watering.

“I never have to mow it,” he says of the property. “I can prune it when I have time and tidy it up as needed.” Allen’s setting an example, but he keeps his preference to a show-and-tell level. “I am not a fanatic about saying this is the only way to landscape,” he says, adding that his goal is to find ways to balance natural resources with natural spaces.

“We need to develop approaches (to make) our landscapes really part of us, just more natural.”

Because when man works against nature, as Allen can prove, the result is an environment off balance.

For instance, when Allen was hiking through a forest of old spruce trees – the nine-hour excursion that preceded the semester start – he came to the end of the forest. “There was a sharp delineation of where you had forest, and then no vegetation at all,” he says. “I’m sure there was at one time, so something changed dramatically at that intersection that was beyond the limits of nature.”

Allen draws a lesson from this: Plants tell you their limits. We just have to listen – and show respect.

Planting a seed. Allen takes these philosophies back to the laboratory as a working seed scientist. His research focuses on seed performance in adverse conditions and he’s prolific in his reporting. He has published 58 scientific articles (so far).

“Every time you see a majestic oak tree ... they start with a tiny acorn,” he says. “I have a passion for understanding these miraculous little entities.”

Seeds have to survive in Utah and persevere through an irreversible transition from organism to growing plant. Timing is everything.

And “good” seeds can help control invasive populations that cause environmental detriment. In particular, Allen and his team have garnered a couple million dollars in funding to develop a biological control that can be applied to landscapes to control cheatgrass, which takes over semi-desert regions where wildfires are prevalent.

“We have a fungus that basically eats the cheatgrass and we call it the ‘Black Fingers of Death,’” Allen says. “It consumes seeds by putting up these fingers – fruiting structures that are black fingers and indicate the seed (of the invasive cheatgrass) has been killed.”

Allen hopes to reintroduce this native plant through ecological restoration.

This desire to preserve and appreciate the world around him is a driving force for Allen. And his ability to express at BYU his spiritual relationship with the living environment is incredibly fulfilling, he says. “There is a connection there,” he says, relating how the pure awe one can experience in nature suggests there is something more to all of this.

That connection is all part of the balance Allen finds when he is hiking, biking, just silently soaking in the great outdoors.

“When you are creating and managing beautiful landscapes,” Allen says, “I think you are contributing to the glory of God.”


The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.

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