Plants have always had a place in Harley Combs’s life. You could even say they’ve acted as a constant throughline that connects his formative years to his time in the military to a stint as a professional, and now, through his tenure at Colorado State University. When he walks across the Commencement stage to collect his bachelor’s in horticulture, it will be the culmination of a long-felt passion about the quiet life around us.
“I’ve always had an interest in plants, whether spending time in the woods or in gardens,” says the first-generation college student, originally from Conowingo, Maryland. “Even if it’s just seeing how grasslands and prairies benefit people.”
Combs’s appreciation for plants turned professional after seven years of active military duty, which took him to places like Fort Lewis in Washington, Italy and Iraq. As his career in the military ended, Combs was drawn to agronomy because of the mental benefits of working with plants.
“The appreciation of seeing greenery does something to the psyche, I’ve always found,” he notes.
Working with plants
Eventually, he found his place in Texas, working jobs as a field agronomist and a plant health care tech – anything that helped him gain experience with plants and agriculture. It was during this time that his interest in horticulture evolved beyond just the therapeutic: With a looming global food crisis, Combs discovered his new passion was getting more calories into the hands of more people – a passion that directed him to enroll in the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences.
“During his time here, Harley has become an active leader in our undergraduate Horticulture Club as president,” says Steven Newman, professor in the horticulture program. “He’s looked up to by many of our younger students through his poise and positive attitude, and has quickly been accepted by faculty and is assisting with laboratory sections of plant propagation.”
Modest, Combs shies away from directly calling himself a leader, but the sharp student picks up on it from those around him, potentially attributing it to his time in the military and his experience as a non-traditional student who spent time in the industry.
He does have some advice for students who want to succeed at CSU: “The number one way to improve your grades is to go to class. Also, get involved with everything. Good or bad, it will come in handy later. Those are two really important ones.”
As for what’s next? Combs was debating whether to head straight into work with controlled environment agriculture or staying at CSU to pursue a graduate degree. A recent bit of good news helped make that decision: Combs will be returning to CSU in the fall, joining Newman’s team as a graduate student.