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MCCC’s Award-Winning Horticulture Exhibit Draws Huge Crowds at Philadelphia Flower Show


West Windsor, N.J. – It was a true growth experience -- one that yielded multiple rewards for Mercer County Community College (MCCC) Horticulture students, as well as thousands of visitors who flocked to the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show. The show, held March 1-9 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, is the country's largest indoor exhibition to usher in Spring. 

Mercer's “Back Yard Battle” exhibit delighted crowds with its seven giant insect topiaries and a friendly family of beetles. The display's "stars" included a 6-foot praying mantis, a 13-foot spider, an enormous caterpillar, grasshopper and hornet, and a brown stink bug gorging on a peach.

The esteemed show’s judges gave the display top grades in creativity, awarding it “Best Achievement in Imagination.”

The creative process began in the fall with the design of the topiary frames by sculptor Carl Hagerty and program alumnus Chris McCarron, landscape manager at Sesame Place.  Then a dedicated group of approximately a dozen students led by Horticulture Program Coordinator Amy Ricco spent much of their spare time over several months bringing the bugs to life, transporting them to downtown Philadelphia, and installing the awe-inspiring display.

MCCC volunteers say they had a constant stream of visitors during the eight-day show. Recalling the reaction to the exhibit, student Diane Shonyo says, “You should have seen their faces.  Kids lit up.  Adults lit up.  People raved about it.  There was a delightful clamoring to get photos, with people posing by different insects.  I’ve always gone to the show, but I never thought I’d be able to participate.  It was a wonderful experience.”  Shonyo, already a Master Gardener, commutes to Mercer from Camden County and calls the college’s Horticulture program “the best in the state.”

Student Mike Gerheiser says MCCC's display clearly had widespread appeal. "It seemed like the most photographed. Some of the other displays were more serious and elaborate, but ours was fun and playful and very accessible.”

A volunteer at past Philadelphia Flower shows, Gerheiser says he jumped at the chance to be part of MCCC’s exhibit, which marked the first time Mercer has participated in the show since the 1970s.  He estimates he easily spent more than 100 hours between helping to create the topiaries and then working at the show almost every day.

“It was a great opportunity.  I met people in the field.  A lot may come from it,” says Gerheiser, who currently works part-time as a groundskeeper for a native forest in Stockton and will seek full-time employment after he completes the Ornamental Horticulture certificate program this summer. (He previously earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of West Virginia.)

Shonyo describes herself as one of the project’s worker bees and says that part of the group's success came from the terrific people involved in the project.  “We worked as a team and we worked really hard,” she said.

Another volunteer was Christina Gutch, a 2012 alumna who is now running her own full-service gardening business, Here She Grows.  When Gutch heard about the Flower Show project, she hopped on board and spent many weekends at the Mercer Greenhouse.  She also served as a greeter at the exhibit, answering questions and passing out information on plants and insects.

Pictured with a few of the exhibit's stars, currently on display at
the West Windsor campus Student Center are, from left,
Horticulture Program Coordinator Amy Ricco and
student volunteers Mike Gerheiser and Diane Shonyo.

Volunteers at the Flower Show, from left, students Zach Sullivan,
Nilson Torres, Robert Sokol, Gabrielle Ritzer, Associate Professor
Amy Ricco, Diane Shonyo and Mike Gerheiser.
A black tie event on February 28 officially opened the show.
Pictured in front of the MCCC display are Carl Hagerty,
the designer of the topiary frames, Associate Professor
Amy Ricco and and student Mike Gerheiser.

One of a five beetles that populated the exhibit.

“Kids loved the bugs and adults wanted to know how to get rid of pests, especially stink bugs. We were able to dispense a lot of information,” Gutch says. She notes that the exhibit appealed to all ages.  "People even wanted my photo as one of the designers.  I think it was great for students to experience this whole other aspect of horticulture and to give back as volunteers.”

Gutch originally started at Mercer to study Nursing, but switched to Horticulture, where, she says, she found her calling.  “The education I received was above and beyond.  I was able to really focus in the greenhouse.  It has become a way of life.”

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