It was a hands-on day in the nursery for IGIA H.O.P.E. program participants hosted by Spring Grove Nursery and and we're going to walk you through it!

H.O.P.E. stands for Horticulture Occupational and Professional Experience and the mission of this program is to share real-life industry knowledge and experience with high school and college students who are currently enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year horticulture or green industry related area of study. During the program, students are introduced to different professional aspects of the Illinois Green Industry and potential career opportunities.

“Literally this is the BEST time to be an aspiring hort professional. There is a huge shortage of qualified employees in this industry. I do not see many challenges or hurdles actually, only limitless possibilities!” says Becky Thomas of Spring Grove Nursery. For this reason alone it’s crucial for the future of the green industry that students with a background or an active interest in horticulture get involved and excited about real-life learning opportunities like the H.O.P.E. program. According to the IGIA website, there is a short list of student participant requirements which currently include free registration/participation with the stipulation of committing to attending the program and making an honest effort to engage in the day’s activities.

As event hosts this year, Spring Grove Nursery and took this educational opportunity very seriously, dedicating their resources and an entire workday to introduce students to nursery planting and growing productions, retail sales and website operations, and the tree delivery and installation processes.

When asked why this program was important to and Spring Grove Nursery, Marlee Harford said, “I believe it gives a great opportunity for students who are interested in the green industry to see first-hand this side of the industry is about. I also think it has the opportunity to become a more popular program and in the end, benefits the industry as a whole.” Becky Thomas replied, “In every industry, it is important to inspire & educate the next generation of employees. At Spring Grove Nursery we were very proud to be able to show and teach young students about what it takes to grow a tree from start to finish. It was a great opportunity for our employees to take a day off from their normal work and share what they do to grow quality trees. They were able to take pride in their job and hopefully inspire others to join this great green industry.”

Becky & Jamie Thomas of Spring Grove Nursery and their crew along with Chris and Marlee Harford of and their staff welcomed students early on a very chilly and windy Wednesday morning. Students gathered in the nursery and the hosts made their introductions. The students were joined by IGIA Executive Director, Kellie Schmidt and J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. nursery partner and friend, Roger Purcell.


Prior to the event, students were advised that this event would be entirely outdoors and to dress appropriately for the weather. This is all part of working in the horticulture industry, dealing with and anticipating inclement weather conditions.

The students, all bundled in hats, gloves, scarves and winter coats were lead on a hayride to the Northside of the 90 + acre nursery where this year’s fresh crop of trees are planted. The students broke up into two groups and headed to their workstations. One group would be staking and the other would be pruning before they swapping stations.

Hay Ride

At the tree staking workstation rows of young Bald Cypress that were planted in March of this year were accessorized by tree stakes laying on the ground near the trees throughout several rows which caught the student’s attention. Soon they would be getting hands-on experience with the tree staking process. Before handing over the staking tape, Becky went over the importance of no-till farming and the grass strips in between nursery rows as to how it affects soil conservation in the nursery and her experienced crew demonstrated and explained the staking process.


Nearby at the pruning workstation students were led by Jamie and Roger. Students were handed pruners and were guided along in rows of River BirchMaples and Chokecherry treesJamie and Roger explained the importance of pruning in the nursery, removing dead branches and more importantly shaping and structuring the trees so that as they mature the trees will take on an architecturally sound form, important not only for aesthetics but also for the health of the trees.


After a few working hours in the field, the students were undoubtedly thrilled for their lunch break! The unique lunch location was hosted by Doug and Deb Harford, parents of Becky Thomas and Chris Harford, in Doug’s airplane hangar. The students were welcomed by the perfectly selected menu for this crisp fall day, steaming chicken noodle soup, deli sandwiches, salad and a dessert tray catered by R-Placea local favorite. Kellie with the IGIA took this opportunity to thank the hosts and gave an encouraging talk about the H.O.P.E. program.


Spring Grove Nursery and introduced the students to their websites. The internet and technological accessibility are taking on a critical role in how businesses in the green industry operate. is a leader in the green industry with more than a decade of experience as an E-Commerce business. Becky Thomas gave a brief explanation of how retail customers and wholesale clientele can utilize and navigate both websites.

Roger Purcell opened up discourse during lunch about his experience at J. Frank Schmidt and how what he does integrates with Spring Grove Nursery on a personal and professional level. Students were engaged and asked questions about the nursery and’s business operations.

After lunch students met on the Southside of the nursery and were introduced to the tedious process of taking inventory and the stages of harvesting. Again, they broke off into two workstations. Students were handed their very own calipers, donated by Dayton Bag & Burlap that they would soon be using and could later take home for keeps. Becky and Roger educated the students on proper caliper measuring and tree size labeling. Students teamed up and measured and tagged rows of beautiful Red Maples, just starting to get their notable fall color.

Caliper Tagging

Meanwhile, just across the field Jamie and crew demonstrated the digging process. Students got up close and personal, helping to guide the Kentucky Coffee trees into the burlap and wire baskets.


From there the students took another hayride around the nursery where Becky and Jamie discussed the trees in the nursery including some inventory loss due to the uncontrollable winter elements Illinois experienced last year.

Students hopped off of the hay rack and walked rows of Eastern Redbud trees, Oak trees, Sweetgum trees, just to name a few, having conversations about tree identification, commenting on tree characteristics and then eventually ended up at the and Spring Grove Nursery Holding-Yard.

At the last stop for the day, students learned about tree maintenance and retail sales. Chris and Marlee Harford gave detailed explanations of the retail side of things regarding getting the trees ready and loaded for shipment. The students helped to load and tarp the truck as the crew showed and explained the equipment used for loading and unloading the trees on and off of the truck.

As the day came to an end, the H.O.P.E. students wrapped it up with a tree planting demonstration of a River Birch tree by Students observed the process from start to finish, they were handed shovels and helped to backfill and plant the tree. Chris Harford discussed the importance of executing proper tree planting techniques, keeping a clean workspace and cleaning up well after the crew is done planting while Marlee talked about the customer service side of the business. 

"Our goal is to leave the homeowners yard exactly the same as when we arrived only with a new tree there," said Chris Harford, founder of Chris and Marlee emphasized that as an E-Commerce business, tree planting knowledge and quality customer service is the key to their success.  

Loading the Truck

The takeaway, both, and Spring Grove Nursery are full of great “HOPE” for the future of the Illinois Green Industry!

“I hope that more students will see the benefits of job shadowing and see that there are careers in the green industry; It seems like more and more colleges are getting away from offering horticulture as a program and I hope that with this program it will bring to light the need for horticulture and labor issue within the industry.” – Marlee Harford

“The students really reacted with enthusiasm to the hands-on activities. Seeing how the equipment worked and then being able to jump in and try it for themselves was definitely a highlight of their day; I hope the program continues to build momentum and result in more students participating. At our event, there were only students from 2 community colleges and 1 high school. There is certainly room for more schools around the state to be represented.” – Becky Thomas

Check out our Video to see more photos from H.O.P.E. Day!

For students interested in learning more about the H.O.P.E. Program and how they can register for future events, click here.

Be sure to follow us on social media!

facebook Instagram Twitter Pinterest Linkedin YouTube Blog widget