Silver Lake’s Ryan Sterling grew gardening ardour in class lessons

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Rafael Garcia

| Topeka Capital Journal

Ryan Sterling and his family had always had a garden next to their home in the Silver Lake area, but in middle school he saw lemon trees in the grocery store and he knew he had to pester his mother to buy and rent one he was trying to find to grow it in the backyard too.

It was a big job – Sterling knew he had to take special care of the citrus tree in the unforgiving Kansas weather. The tree eventually died, but not before Sterling was able to grow lemons worth a few limeades, and not before Sterling realized he had found a passion.

It is that green thumb and willingness to accept failure that has made Sterling, a senior at Silver Lake High School, so indispensable in the school’s greenhouse and horticulture program.

It was around Sterling’s eighth grade when the combined middle school got a brand new greenhouse, and Nick Hamilton, who coached Sterling middle school football and taught industrial arts in high school, recruited Sterling to help get the greenhouse off the ground. Hamilton had a lot of experience with typical plants, but Sterling had much more extensive experience with ornamental plants.

At home, Sterling and his dad quickly outgrew your simple garden. The two have grown blackberries and raspberries on the family’s eight hectares and have set up grids for growing grapes, and a kind of “food forest” is being created in the apple, pear and pecan trees they have planted.

When Sterling took anything out of its horticultural experience, it developed an attention to detail.

“When a plant has a problem, you can’t wait until the next day to deal with it,” Sterling said. “You have to try to find out what’s going on.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t do that with my lemon and linden trees,” he joked, “but you really learn to keep track of things.”

It may even be challenging to grow certain items that Sterling enjoys the most. He said he also learned how to take avocado pits and grow trees from them.

“My friends and family said, ‘Ryan, you can’t just grow these seeds into trees,’ and I tell them to just watch,” he said. “You’re surprised when it actually turns into a small tree.”

At school, staff practically had to set up classes for Sterling to keep up with his voracious appetite for learning all things horticulture. Sterling took a horticultural course as a freshman in his junior years, and while planning made it so that a horticultural course didn’t work last year, he still spends time outside of class helping Hamilton maintain the greenhouse.

“Ryan has always been one of our leading students, and his interest (in horticulture) blossomed from a young age,” said school counselor Sandra Liggatt.

For his part, Hamilton said Sterling had practically given some of the horticultural classes.

“He’s a good boy who will always do what you ask,” said Hamilton. “It only grows on you.”

After high school, Sterling plans to attend K-State Polytechnic in Salina to study aviation with the hope of one day becoming a pilot. He is a member of Aviation Explorer Post 8 at Philip Billiards Municipal Airport, where he and other youngsters practice aviation fundamentals.

But in the meantime, he’s especially looking forward to spring, when he and his family will replant the garden and check which trees have survived the winter.

“He just has a curiosity and wants to learn,” said Hamilton. “He accepts failure, but still takes the chance. He understands that he can learn from his mistakes and he has great attention to detail. “

Nominate an exceptional student

Do you know an extraordinary student from Shawnee County? Let us know! Submit your nominations for our weekly student feature to Capital Journal Education Reporter Rafael Garcia at rgarcia2@gannett.com.