Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - Floral competition sounds gentle, but as students at New Mexico State University can attest, it's not for pansies.
Over spring break, diehard members of NMSU's floral design and judging teams squeezed in extra practices to prepare for the pressure of national competition April 2-4 when the university hosts 100 horticultural hotshots from 11 universities for the National Intercollegiate Floral Crop Quality Evaluation and Design Competition.
Behind the scenes, students and staff juggled orders for thousands of fresh flowers, rounded up hundreds of donated potted plants and double-checked logistics before the opening reception April 2. NMSU last hosted the event 15 years ago.
Featured events include floral judging, amateur and professional design contests, tours of local greenhouses and networking opportunities for students seeking jobs.
Tours on April 3 will showcase Sorensen's Geothermal Cactus Greenhouse, campus agricultural facilities and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, all in Las Cruces.
"We have students coming from across the country, so we want to show them some of the novel desert plants we have here," said Geno Picchioni, the horticulture faculty member overseeing the event. Participating universities include California Polytechnic, Colorado State, Illinois, NMSU, Oklahoma State, Pennsylvania State, South Dakota State, Texas A&M, Utah State, Wisconsin-Platteville and Wisconsin-River Falls.
At 1 p.m. on April 3, rigorous team judging competition begins at the Mesilla Valley Inn and Conference Center.
NMSU students have practiced weekly to prepare for a two-hour marathon in which they will rank 30 classes of flowers. "It's very strenuous," said Sabine Whitley, NMSU floral coach and conference coordinator. "It's complete silence during the entire competition."
At a contest proctor's cue, NMSU team members Erica Aguilar, Roger Hagman, Jessica Lucero and Andrea Chavez, alternate, will whirl to confront a class of four potted or cut flower specimens. They have just three minutes to complete their rankings of each class, based on freshness, color, size and overall ideal look.
"The contest is valuable for students because it uses industry quality standards that determine the prices growers get for their crops," Picchioni said.
Floral design contests on April 4 will mimic the feel of a retail floral shop. Amateur contestants are given one hour to create and price designs made with preselected materials. Kathy Burcham, a horticulture major from Juarez, Mexico, will represent NMSU in the asymmetrical one-sided design contest. Amy Newton, a horticulture major from Roswell, will create a water vase arrangement, which poses the challenge of working without standard floral foam to keep stems firmly in place.
Students who have had paying jobs as floral designers or have used up their one-time eligibility in both amateur contests compete at the professional level, where they use a combination of preselected flowers and optional materials such as moss or twigs.
This year, Eva Winans, an NMSU alumna and nontraditional student, will take on the large-scale challenge of creating a tablescape in the professional division. Participants are given an event scenario and place settings as a starting point for their design.
"Tablescape includes decorating around and under the plates, making napkin holders with fresh flowers and creating a tall design that you can see through to talk to the people on the other side of the table," Whitley explained. "This one is probably the most sought-after prize in the design competitions."
NMSU's Bryna Wilson, who placed second nationally in tablescape last year, will compete in the professional European hand-tied bouquet contest this year. The petite, labor-intensive bouquet is a modern-day favorite of brides and their attendants.
Contest results will be kept secret until the 7 p.m. awards banquet at the Holiday Inn de Las Cruces.
After the design competition, students will tour Aldershot's Greenhouse in Las Cruces to learn about greenhouse production and network in the floral industry.
That evening, winning floral designs will decorate the tables at the awards banquet. As they enter, students will pick up fresh flowers left over from the event. "They can make corsages, boutonnieres, headbands, belts or whatever else they want to wear," Whitley said. "It's a tradition that's a lot of fun."
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