Last month, Terry Lautzenheiser’s students could barely meet the community demand for their impressive line of holiday products. One late December afternoon, shortly before the students left for the holiday break, as students were preparing holly and evergreen candle centerpieces and potted poinsettias for sale, two teachers from the Tech Center popped in the door and asked if it was too late to buy holiday arrangements. It was, but Lautzenheiser had a couple extras stowed aside for just such an emergency.

By their holiday deadline, her students grew some 1,000 poinsettias for sale to county schools and customers from the public, in addition to hundreds of mailbox covers and tabletop centerpieces. Proceeds from the holiday sales and a big spring greenhouse sale every April fund field trips and other student activities.

Lautzenheiser is entering her 19th year teaching horticulture in Chesterfield.

“I love to teach this,” she says. For some students, “it’s kind of horticultural therapy. You get a lot of students who might be a little lost at their home school.” Instead of sitting at a desk all day, “they like to be up and doing things, and I do, too, so I understand them.”

Students in the Tech Center’s horticultural programs come from all county high schools. Lautzenheiser teaches greenhouse and floral design classes on even-numbered days and landscaping on odd days.

Award plaques creep across the cinderblock wall in the hall outside Lautzenheiser’s office like ivy, attesting to her students’ collective talent and ability over the years. There are a fair number from the State Fair of Virginia, where the students usually show their work annually, as well as Best in Show and People’s Choice awards from the Maymont Flower & Garden Show.

This past June, a team of her students placed first in the state at the National FFA organization’s nursery and landscape competition, held at Virginia Tech. That team won an all-expenses paid trip to Indianapolis to compete in the National FFA Nursery and Landscape Career Development Event, held in October.

Sponsored by chainsaw and garden-tool manufacturer Stihl, the national competition drew 43 state teams from across the nation, with more than 55,000 people in attendance. Lautzenheiser’s students, the Virginia team, placed ninth in the nation, earning gold emblems for placing in the top 10.

One of the team members, Jason Foster, a 2008 graduate who works at Hudgins Garden Center in Moseley, Va., came in fourth in the nation in individual competition.

Surprisingly, aside from a small plant-potting component and a mock customer-service exercise, most of the competition consisted of written tests.

“They have to be able to read a landscape plan and do identification of 50 plants and do a lot of math associated with landscaping,” Lautzenheiser explains.

On a December school day, two of the winning Virginia team members were in one of the Tech Center’s three greenhouses, preparing Pink Fountain perennials for the Tech Center’s big spring sale in April. Sporting his gold FFA pin on his camouflage hunting cap, James River High School senior Tony Hines, 18, plunged his hands in a muddy mixture of soil and fertilizer in an oversized sink, potting shoots in small square green plastic planting cups.

The Indianapolis competition was awesome, said Hines, who worked part-time at Chesterfield Berry Farm helping harvest Christmas trees. He hopes to one day run his own tree farm.

Fellow team member Cory Wilson, 18, a senior at Monacan High School, said he knew the national competition “was going to be hard, but I was well prepared.”

Wilson is planning on attending the horticulture program at Virginia Tech, a popular destination for many of Lautzenheiser’s college-bound students. He wants to be a golf course superintendent after he graduates.

Does he play golf?

“No, I just like grass,” he says. “I’m more into turf.”

Clearly, Lautzenheiser’s students are both passionate and serious about horticulture. Many graduates of the Tech Center program have gone into careers in the industry, and several own their own landscaping or gardening businesses.

Former student David Durning, a 2001 graduate, runs Chester-based Landscape Solutions, which mostly services high-end residential lawns and gardens. His work at the Tech Center prepared him to start his own business, he says.

“I learned all the plants and fundamentals to landscape design and installation,” Durning says. “I got a good start on all the measuring and a good idea for estimating for materials.”

Durning keeps in touch with Lautzenheiser, helping her students prepare for horticultural careers, too. He visits her classes annually, walking students through the business side of a real-world landscaping business, from creating designs and proposals to discussing the process of bidding on a project.

In her classes, Lautzenheiser says, “Students can get a whole picture of the business, from the growing aspect to selling.”

Matoaca High School senior Jennifer Elmore, 17, works for her family business, J.E. Purdue Landscaping. Wearing a hooded Virginia Tech sweatshirt, she sat at a counter one day last December, making holiday mailbox covers and table centerpieces decorated with little Christmas ornaments and fresh sprigs of holly and arborvitae, an evergreen. She hopes to go into the family business as a career, though “hopefully not in the state of Virginia,” she added. “Too many taxes.”

Looking over as Elmore puts together an artful centerpiece with candles that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Martha Stewart Living, Lautzenheiser notes, “These are good skills to have - even if you don’t go into the business.”