Around this time in 2017, Kyle Crossland stepped through the doors of the MVRHS horticulture greenhouse and felt transported back about sixteen years to his time in high school. The space felt the same, but Kyle had graduated, gone off to study Ecological Design at UMass Amherst, and returned to the Island to become an integral part of his family’s landscaping company — Crossland Landscaping. After years of working in the trade, he was excited to take on the role of horticulture teacher and bring the zeal of a new chapter to the well-loved program.
Since his first days in the greenhouse, Kyle has maintained an earnest eagerness in sharing principles of organic land care and ecological design practices with his students. He hopes that by engaging them in projects that require them to observe and work with natural systems using natural materials, they can learn to make the land flourish.
On a personal level, Kyle is delighted to have the opportunity to engage with the majority of MVRHS students through both his roles as a teacher and as head baseball coach. “I have a chance to be a mentor to students — I really respect that role,” Kyle said. “Being able to have an impact on the next generation of Vineyarders is important to me. I was born and raised here; I sat in those classrooms, and being able to give them some perspective from the old days is cool, too.”
You can see one of the many projects Kyle’s students have planned and executed at the school’s main entrance, where you’re welcomed by an array of perennials and trellised wisteria vines. The project is both a lovely upgrade from the thirsty grass I remember walking over not too long ago, as well as an extension of the classroom. Kyle will show students how to maintain the perennials, optimize blooms, and train the wisteria in the coming years. He also intends to teach students about hardscaping by building a waterfall out by the Koi pond, as well as exploring permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and aquaponics in upcoming projects — but that’s fodder for future stories.
Perhaps the biggest project Kyle has undertaken thus far has been the construction of a new greenhouse. After the days of outdoor fall projects wane, students move inside to spend the winter months filling the new space with a variety of vegetables, perennials, and annuals. They sprout everything from seed to maturity in time for the annual plant sale in May — a tradition that former horticulture teacher John Wojtkielo began about 25 years ago. Meanwhile, the main greenhouse of Wojtkielo’s time has become a haven for experimental projects like grafting, cutting, and developing new plant propagation techniques.
During our interview, I learned quite a few landscaping concepts from Kyle, one of which is that managing runoff is a major consideration in landscape design. Addressing this concern for the 3,000 square foot greenhouse was second nature to Kyle. Instead of installing gutters to redirect the water, he applied his knowledge of both environmental and ecological design to implement a sustainable rooftop rainwater collection system. Kyle joked that the upperclassmen may have harbored a bit of skepticism initially, but as soon as the first rain fell and the rain barrels filled, the project was an obvious success.
“The students see all the free water that we can use to water the plants through this passive system of letting nature give you the resources you need,” Kyle said. “I think they like seeing how you can design a system like that.”
While installing a rooftop rain collection system might not be the first thing you think of when you consider horticulture projects, Kyle explained, “this field requires a Jack-of-all-trades, because you do irrigation, planting, construction, masonry, and electrical, so you have to know how it all works together.” Finding solutions like this one, which resolved multiple considerations sustainably, is a factor in Kyle’s principal teaching method — observing nature.
“I try to teach all of my students to be keen observers of nature,” he said. “For instance, observing watersheds — where water comes from, how it moves through environments, where is goes and collects. The concept of microclimates, such as the south versus north sides of properties, which determine where to put sun and shade plants. Nature is the best teacher, so observing how nature works through seasons is vitally important. I’m trying to plant this seed so hopefully they can apply these lessons from natural systems to inform how they approach their careers and lives.”
Some of these lessons include the applicability of perennials versus annuals, native versus non-native species, invasive species to stay away from, and the accumulation of nitrogen in ponds. He discusses how septic systems and fertilizers leaching into water bodies leads to high nitrogen concentrations, and how landform design can control erosion and runoff to stop fertilizers from entering ponds.
Kyle often gets calls from Island employers looking to hire students interested in furthering their landscape design skills. He estimates that about half of his upperclassmen are presently working in the Island’s lucrative green industry. He also strives to give students a clear notion of what it takes to become an entrepreneur in the industry. There is certainly no shortage of work in the Island’s green industry, and he wants young Islanders to feel empowered to go big.
“The trade industry on the Vineyard is a major force in the economy,” Kyle said. “There are so many jobs and there is such a demand for it and so many qualified candidates right here on the Island.”