After 40 years, Walt Bubelis is leaving the horticulture program he grew almost single-handedly at Edmonds Community College. The program, now the largest of its kind in the Northwest, draws on local experts and international talent to educate people of all ages in plant identification, propagation, garden design and more.

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WALT BUBELIS recalls the day his mentor, University of Washington professor Art Kruckeberg, told him there was a new college up north that needed a horticulture teacher. More than 40 years later, Bubelis recently retired from Edmonds Community College after developing the largest horticultural-education program in the Northwest.

A botanist by education, Bubelis was working in a nursery when the community college beckoned. He remembers when the fledgling program finally grew enough that he could hire a second teacher to join him. The recruit drove out from Michigan, but when he saw the raw state of the little college, with its first greenhouse barely under way, he turned right around and drove back across the country.

He should have stayed. EDCC now enrolls 250 students a year in garden design, soils, pruning, plant identification and propagation. The program is distinguished by its practical, hands-on approach, offering classes from concrete construction to green roofs. Evening, summer and Saturday classes suit busy schedules. While many students graduate with a one-year certificate or two-year degree, others take a class here or there depending on their interests.

“The students were a younger crowd in the early years, with more men and lots of veterans,” says Bubelis. Now the students are 60 percent female, mostly embarking on a second career at the average age of 38. “Recently we had a college president taking classes,” Bubelis says.

How to deal with the challenge of students ranging from Ph.Ds to those who have just received their GEDs? “I told lots of stories to catch their interest and tap into their memory banks . . . I even came up with skits,” he says. Bubelis spoke in foreign accents, donned wigs and even, for one memorable class on insects, put on a bumblebee suit. Over the decades, Bubelis taught every class on the roster except garden design.

Bubelis took full advantage of local and international talent, coaxing experts to lecture and teach. Famed British horticulturists Christopher Lloyd and Allan Bloom spoke at the college. Steve Lorton, former regional editor of Sunset magazine, teaches garden writing. Bubelis suggested to Dan Hinkley that he might want to apply for an upcoming faculty opening. Hinkley taught plant identification and greenhouse propagation for six years during the early years of Heronswood Nursery. Bubelis laughs to remember one quarter when the renowned plantsman taught the turf class.

No wonder students flock to the plant-identification classes: Bubelis took his students on field trips to some of the best gardens in the region. He didn’t teach just names; instead, he emphasized the value of each plant, from fragrance to drought tolerance. Students are expected to learn 900 plants, and that’s in just the first year.

Career paths are nearly as varied as backgrounds; students end up managing gardens and nurseries, and working for public agencies or maintenance and landscaping firms. Some become designers, others put their plant expertise to good use in landscape-architecture firms.

How has horticultural education changed over the past 40 years?

“The classes are more technical,” says Bubelis, citing computer-aided design and electronic irrigation systems. He believes that horticultural therapy will only be more important in the future, along with restoration, green roofs and culinary classes.

And how about his own future? “I plan to decompress,” says Bubelis. Travel to Turkey, a remodel of his North Seattle house and garden, plans to learn watercolor painting and woodworking — all will keep him busy.

The thousands of students Bubelis taught and mentored over the years have fanned out over the region to enrich our gardens and public spaces with their green training and talents. He remains part of the lively network of EDCC hort grads. “I still know the first people who graduated from the program,” he says. “I keep up with all my students.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.